Thursday, January 29, 2015

In Havana's outskirts, a less sunny view of U.S.-Cuba ties

In Havana's outskirts, a less sunny view of U.S.-Cuba ties
Rick Jervis, USA TODAY 7:16 p.m. EST January 28, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO DE PAULA, Cuba — Just an hour's drive from downtown
Havana, people in the rural outskirts tend to be more concerned with
crops, church and scraping together their next meal than politics. Yet
many intently followed last week's historic talks in the capital between
U.S. and Cuba to gauge how the diplomatic détente was progressing.

"This should have happened a long time ago," said Felix Pablo, a
musician in this rural neighborhood 10 miles southeast of central
Havana. "Politicians will always be politicians. But the people need to

President Obama has repeatedly stressed that a main objective of the
renewed diplomatic efforts with Cuba is to empower and better the lives
of average Cubans. In central Havana, residents are overwhelmingly in
favor of the new ties. Many rely on tourism dollars and see an influx of
American visitors as a direct path to improved lives.

But in the city's outer stretches, which tend to be poorer and less
reliant on tourism, the reaction was less predictable.

In Santa Fe, 12 miles east of downtown Havana, market stalls recently
sold clumps of cabbage, sweet potato and freshly-butchered hog —
including the head. A woman in one stall sold small cups of guarapo,
fresh sugar-cane juice, for a nickel a glass.

Evangelio Rodriguez, 48, a retired civil worker sipping on guarapo, said
the U.S. embargo against Cuba needs to be removed before Cubans see real

"I'm confident in the direction my government is headed," Rodriguez
said. "But I'd like to wait to see real results, palpable results,
before drawing any conclusions."

In nearby Cotorro, known for its large tire factory, Jordan Ferrer
Conde, 37, had far less trust in his government. He said the situation
in Cuba is so dire that he tried to leave on a makeshift raft six times.
All six times, his raft sprung a leak, and he was forced to return to
the island. He's saving for his seventh attempt.

The average Cuban makes $20 a month, yet a pair of good shoes cost
around $80 and a pound of meat $40, he said. He said he believed the
talks wouldn't lead to much change. He and his friends are most worried
that U.S. officials will change the Cuban Adjustment Act, which offers
immigration benefits to Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil.

"Tell Obama not to change that," he said. "At least not until I get there."

His friend, Yusiel Verdecia, 24, also said he didn't believe increased
ties with the U.S. will do much for the average Cuban. He's left the
island on rafts three times — returned each time by a U.S. Coast Guard
cutter. Cuba fined him the equivalent of $250 for trying to leave, or
about two years' salary.

"This is just going from bad to worse here," Verdecia said.

In Cotorro's main square, Javier Gonzalo Hernandez, 29, said he approved
of the talks and hoped the two countries could someday enjoy more
interaction. But changes to Cuba shouldn't be an objective, he said.

"Our problems are an internal issue," said Hernandez, a computer
programmer. "We'll resolve them ourselves."

A nearby group of men, all friends sitting on a bench, nearly all oppose
the new ties. One man, who gave his name only as Carlos, for fear of
repercussion for speaking out against the government, said the state has
failed to deliver to the Cuban people, regardless of its partners. He
said Obama is making a mistake because the Cuban people will gain nothing.

Precise musical timbres, not politics, was the topic for Grupo Ágape, a
seven-piece traditional Cuban son band, as they practiced in the living
room of a small house in San Francisco de Paula. The house was down the
road from Finca Vigía, the former home of Ernest Hemingway.

Bass guitarist Marcel Fernandez said renewed ties with the U.S. could
have an especially positive impact on Cuban musicians such as himself.
His bandmates would love to play in the U.S. but haven't yet because no
one's invited them. Maybe that'll change now, he said.

"Less restraints, more opportunity," Fernandez said. "Hopefully, this
benefits everyone."

Ocelia Perez, 45, spent a recent afternoon buying knickknacks — colored
plastic garlic cloves, tube socks, plastic buckets — at a market in San
Miguel del Padrón to resell them for a profit from her home in downtown
Havana. She said the diplomatic posturing is a good start, but Americans
need to remove the embargo to truly improve Cuban lives and allow more
Americans on the island.

"This is the most beautiful country in the world," Perez said. "Let the
people come and see it."

But the government recently confiscated $5,000 in clothes that she had
imported from Peru and planned to sell. It was the last straw in a
series of run-ins with the state regarding her legal resale business,
she said. Last month, she turned in her visa application and hopes to
soon migrate to the U.S.

Source: In Havana's outskirts, a less sunny view of U.S.-Cuba ties -

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