Sun, Apr 03, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Cubans wonder how soon change is likely to occur

AP, HAVANA

Rolando Alfonso, right, talks with his father in Miami via the Internet at a public Wi-Fi plaza in Havana on Tuesday.

Photo: AP

In the garage of his home in a rough-and-tumble Havana neighborhood, Rolando Alfonso is fixing up a 1960 Oldsmobile he hopes is to be a ticket to a more profitable future: driving tourists around Cuba.

After US President Barack Obama’s visit to the city last week, he is more optimistic than ever that his vision might become reality.

“The horizon of prosperity is much closer,” said Alfonso, 46, a married father of two. “Before it was a sliver of light in the distance. Now the light is a little closer.”

How long Obama’s trip and detente between Havana and Washington is likely to take to bear fruit is on the minds of millions of Cubans who watched his speech with hopeful anticipation. Many have begun to look at their futures in a slightly different light, anticipating that friendly ties with their neighbor 145km to the north and the growth of an emerging private sector would bring greater economic prosperity.

However, rising expectations also carry a risk: If concrete results are not seen soon, Cubans are likely to continue fleeing the island just as they have been doing in much greater numbers since the two nations moved to restore diplomatic relations.

Even as Alfonso puts a new coat of paint on his Olds, he is also keeping one eye on a possible life in Miami, where his father has a job lined up for him at an antique auto repair shop and hopes to help him immigrate under a family reunification program as soon as he becomes a US citizen.

“This is going to take time, and that time will age me,” Alfonso said of change in Cuba.

Analysts say this month’s Communist Party congress is to be a telling indicator of how quickly the government would respond to meet people’s elevated expectations. In public statements following Obama’s visit, Cuban leaders have been cool to the idea of major or quick changes, expressing skepticism about US motivations for normalizing relations.

Retired Cuban president Fidel Castro on Monday published an essay in official media warning Obama to stay out of Cuban politics, saying: “We do not need the empire to give us any gifts.”

Even admirers of the revolutionary leader said the article felt tone-deaf.

“Fidel is like a father to me but it is a new era. We cannot live in the past,” said Lourdes Perez, 46, a former nurse, who runs a private small business selling coffee and fried snacks.

Many Cubans have said they want to see their government make dramatic changes — primarily in opening the economy. Alfonso, for one, would like small-business owners to be able to import materials directly instead of having to purchase them from the state.

Under Cuban President Raul Castro’s economic reforms, which have allowed certain small businesses to operate for the first time in years, Alfonso got a license to open an auto body repair shop, but he said he could rarely find the supplies he needed in government-run stores. Some months he got no business at all, but still had to pay for the license. In the end, he closed up shop, because he was not earning enough to feed his family.

“It is not an issue of whether socialism or capitalism is better,” Alfonso said. “It is about making basic ends meet.”

In Havana’s Monaco neighborhood, 27-year-old Frank Gomez dreams of becoming a successful artist and exporting his work around the world. He said and his friends watched Obama’s March 22 speech on television and were left with an overwhelmingly positive impression.

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