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Cuba finds it hard to dampen afterglow of Obama visit

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2016 | 5:00 AM
Actor Vin Diesel waves to the crowd as he drives a vintage American car next to actress Michelle Rodriguez after a session of filming of the latest installment of the ‘Fast and Furious’ movie franchise, on Havana’s Malecón, in Cuba, on Thursday, April 28, 2016. One of the most successful movie franchises in Hollywood, it has grossed billions worldwide with films that pay tribute to souped-up street-racing cars and carefully planned multi-million dollar heists.

Thursday morning was looking bad for Lazaro Martinez, who makes his living playing trombone for tourists on the MalecÛn, the sweeping boulevard overlooking the jewel-clear Florida Straits.

Police shunted everyone on to side streets as a sleek black helicopter filmed scenes for the eighth instalment of Fast and Furious, the multibillion-dollar car-chase and bank-robbery franchise. The promenade was deserted, but Martinez said he didn't mind.

"I never thought I was going to see a Hollywood production passing right in front of my eyes," he said. "This is the start of what Obama said in Cuba. Step by step, we're seeing the change. If Obama hadn't come to Cuba, this never would have happened."

More than a month after ordinary Cubans jubilantly welcomed President Barack Obama to Havana, the communist government is finding it hard to dampen the afterglow.

On the morning of March 22, Obama declared from the stage of the Grand Theatre in Old Havana that "I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas". Calling for freedom of speech and democratic elections, Obama told Cubans live on state television that "it is time for us to look forward to the future together".

The next day, President Ra?l Castro watched a baseball game with Obama and cordially saw him off at the airport. Then after days of official silence, the Cuban government began to take a harder line.

Fidel Castro, who handed power to his brother in 2008, wrote a 1,500-word editorial on the front pages of the state-run press advising the man he sarcastically called 'Brother Obama' to "not try to develop theories about Cuban politics".

"We don't need the empire to give us any charity," he wrote.

DEEP ATTACK

Foreign Minister Bruno RodrÌguez was blunter, telling Communist Party members on April 19 that Obama's visit was "a deep attack on our political ideas, our history, our culture, and our symbols".

Cuba's public sphere appeared to getting chillier.

But few people interviewed around the capital this week showed signs of accepting government arguments that Obama was simply the expertly packaged spokesman for US corporate interests that want to economically recolonise Cuba.

"The response that's been given is the government's, not the people's," said Barbara Ugarte, who runs a small shop selling party supplies in Central Havana.

She watched Obama speak live on March 22 and said she welcomed his words as a sign that things might be changing in a country where entrepreneurs like her find it hair-pullingly frustrating to run a business.

A month of tough government talk has alienated her from Cuba's leaders more than from Obama, she said.

"With this government, I don't think there are going to be big changes," she said. "I don't think they want to open. They want to tighten down. We're still very closed."

"They don't let you sell, they don't let you get a licence to import. We aren't changing."

Other people were more optimistic, saying the government's actions since Obama's visit show that it remains open to normalisation with the United States even as it warns its people that Washington remains a threat. Last Thursday, the government lowered the prices of basic items like chicken and cooking oil denominated in convertible pesos, a currency 25 times stronger that the Cuban peso that the majority of workers earn. The move made some highly priced goods slightly more affordable.

A day later, Cuba dropped a decades-old ban on Cubans travelling by cruise ships, with a prohibition on private boat travel to be dropped at an unspecified future date.

OPTIMISTIC MOOD

For Yolanda Mauri, a 26-year-old computer programmer, it all feeds a mood of post-Obama optimism that has her hoping to start a family and find a well-paying job in Cuba rather than emigrating like so many of her friends.

"Two years ago, one couldn't imagine even 30 per cent of the things that have happened," she said. "There's an optimistic mood. It's obvious."

She said, however, that she disagreed with the government's vision of Obama's visit as an attack.

"That's going against the whole process of normalisation," she said. "I'm not going to try to get closer to you and maintain the perspective that you're still my enemy. That's the traditional discourse of the past."

Events on the ground are making it harder for Cuba's leaders to portray the United States and global capitalism as dire threats to the island's most dearly held values.

On Sunday, May 1, Cuba holds nationwide marches celebrating International Workers' Day. Twenty-four hours later, the first US cruise ship in more than a half-century arrives in Havana, heralding what is expected to become a new era of mass US travel when regularly scheduled flights begin as early as this summer.

On Tuesday, the city's grand Paseo promenade will be shut to local traffic, converted into a giant runway for French luxury goods label Chanel to show its 2017 cruise collection.

For many loyal Cuban communists, it's not a betrayal of the past, but a transformation of Cuba to a nation that draws desperately needed investment and income from the global market while maintaining state control of key industries and guaranteeing its citizens basic rights like health care and education.

"I don't see any contradiction," said Esteban Morales, a Communist Party member, economist, and political scientist. "We're aware that these relationships and links implicitly carry dangers, but they're necessary for the country."

- AP