Obama-Castro meeting has Cubans expecting freedom

Hopes are high in Cuba as the presidents meet face-to-face on Friday for first time since historic handshake in 2013.

The Castro brothers have never before been invited to attend the Summit of the Americas [AP]
The Castro brothers have never before been invited to attend the Summit of the Americas [AP]

Havana, Cuba – Yoandy Perez Delgado dreams of a better life – one in which he can someday support a family in his Caribbean homeland. But for the 24-year-old student, that cherished future seems an impossibility at the moment.

“I love my country, it has everything: beautiful weather, fine cigars, good rum. But at this point, I hope I will meet a foreign woman and we get married, and I will go to live in her country instead of here.”

So when US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro meet this week at the Summit of the Americas in Panama – the first time a Cuban leader has appeared at the gathering in its 21-year history – Delgado said he hopes the five-decade-old trade embargo that has strangled his country’s economy will soon be a thing of the past.

That way, he said, he’ll be able to find a decent paying job so he can remain in Cuba – “the greatest nation in the world”, as he put it.

“It’s a historic week and it’s great for my country,” Delgado, who is studying English and Cuban history at the University of Havana, said of Castro and Obama coming together.

Yoandy Perez Delgado, 24, is cautiously optimistic full detente with the US will materialise [Robert Kennedy/Al Jazeera] 

“I only hope this [rapprochement] gets done soon. It’s been 55 years, we’ve suffered long enough. Not a deal in one year or two years, we want our economic freedom now,” said Delgado, his eyes bulging with emotion.

Building embassies

For many Cubans here, the euphoria of the December 17 announcement that Havana and Washington were working on normalising relations has disappeared after months without any apparent progress.

The ultimate goal in negotiations for Havana is the lifting of the decades-old economic embargo imposed during Cold War tensions that has devastated the country – costing an estimated $1 trillion .

As a first step in détente, it was hoped the establishment of embassies in both countries would have taken place ahead of the Summit of the Americas, but that has failed to come to fruition.

Obstacles to an embassy deal are Cuba’s inability to carry out normal banking in the United States because of the economic sanctions , and Havana’s continued inclusion on the US government’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism”.  

Cuba has been on the list since 1982 for allegedly supporting the Basque armed group ETA and FARC rebels in Colombia. Havana has also been accused of granting political asylum to dozens of American fugitives. 

Opening the official missions could be close, however, one representative of the Cuban government told Al Jazeera.

“The embassies are one issue that’s definitely going to happen,” he said, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing talks. “Maybe it will happen a few days after the Summit of the Americas, perhaps by the end of April.”

Grip and grin

Raul Castro has urged Obama to use executive powers to ease the decades-long embargo [Reuters]

Friday’s Obama-Castro face-to-face has been described as the first working meeting involving the two countries since 1959. Launched in 1992, no Cuban leader has ever attended the Summit of the Americas.

Obama and Castro engaged in a historic handshake in December 2013 in South Africa at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. This time observers are wondering what the two leaders will do before the cameras with the world watching.

“Maybe they’ll have a cigar together,” Camilo Condis, a 29-year-old restaurant manager in Havana, told Al Jazeera with a smile. “What we really need here is a strong economy, so hopefully the presidents’ meeting is a sign that we’re moving in that direction.”

In terms of détente, the Cuban government is viewing the process in two stages, said the Cuba representative, with embassies the first priority before going forward.

“Once the embassy issue is resolved, then we can move on to the normalisation of relations – and all the issues that come with that,” he told Al Jazeera.

Roberta Jacobson, US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, said without elaborating last week that ” there will be an interaction ” between Castro and Obama in Panama City.

“It’s useful, obviously, to be able to have that contact and move things along so that we can get things done and open embassies and move ahead with this relationship,” said Jacobson. 

Two worlds divided

Despite optimism over positive steps towards peace and prosperity with the US, many Cubans here remain wary of a perceived slow pace in negotiations.

For President Castro, the situation remains a juggling act, said Professor Ted Henken of Baruch College in New York and co-author of  Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape .

“One of the biggest challenges for Raul going forward is to manage the rising hopes and expectations of the Cuban people,” Henken said in an email. “If they rise faster than he can keep up, he’s going to be under pressure to do more faster, especially if he appears to be the one dragging his feet or scuttling the momentum of talks.”

The US-Cuba rapprochement could also be overshadowed at the summit by the recent flare up in tensions between Havana’s staunch ally Venezuela and the US. Cuban dissident groups have also been invited to Panama for a parallel civil society conference.
“The face-to-face in Panama will be important as a symbol of a new era and help Obama build confidence with other Latin American partners. But the Venezuela crisis threatens the smooth outcome, and the civil society issue is also key to a positive, fruitful outcome as opposed to one filled with acrimony,” Henken said. 

Visa woes

Cubans line up outside the US interests section in Havana [Robert Kennedy/Al Jazeera]

Without an official US embassy in place, life for Cubans wishing to see relatives in the US remains a challenge.

On a hot sunny day last week, dozens of Cubans waited outside the US interests section office, which deals with visa issues but isn’t an official mission. Some had been there for hours waiting for their number to be called.

A visibly upset woman in her 50s with dyed red hair and rimless glasses came out shaking her head, telling waiting relatives she failed to obtain a US visa to visit her US-based daughters and granddaughters. It was the second time she had been rejected, and she doesn’t plan to apply again.

If relations are normalised between Cuba and the US, perhaps she will get to see her family again, she said. “I pray to god that will happen,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified by name.

A man in his late 20s wearing a white golf shirt with red trim was there to pick up his US visa, but was still waiting outside after four hours. After travelling seven hours from Camaguey province, he said he was uncertain a new US embassy in Havana would make things any faster.

“Whatever they do, the number of people applying will still be the same and even more people will come for visas if relations improve,” he said, also requesting anonymity.

With all eyes on the historic Summit of the Americas this week, it is the people of Cuba who are undoubtedly watching the closest.

Source: Al Jazeera


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