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    Expats flock to Cuba as US reforms spark a party
    The easing of travel and customs restrictions has led to family reunions
    and a mini-consumer boom
    Andres Schipani in Havana
    The Observer, Sunday 31 May 2009

    Student waving US flag, Havana, Cuba A student waves a US flag at
    Revolution Square in Havana May 1, 2009, during the May Day celebration.
    Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images

    At a basic apartment in a creaky old building in central Havana, the
    Ramírez family is enjoying a feast. The women are chatting in the living
    room, catchy dance music is blaring out of an old cassette recorder and
    there are fried bananas and plenty of cheap local rum on the table.

    It is a typical Cuban scene, with one crucial difference. The main
    attraction is a wide-open suitcase in the middle of the room. It belongs
    to Esteban, just in from Miami. Inside, bags of M&Ms mingle with some
    stripy Victoria's Secret G-strings and bras. There are also tubes of
    Crest toothpaste, Colgate toothbrushes and orange bottles of Tide
    detergent. "Capitalism à la carte," says Esteban excitedly, putting his
    right arm around his daughter's shoulders.

    Change, albeit piecemeal and small-scale, is taking place in Cuba,
    following the first tentative signs of a thaw in relations with the
    . Cuban-Americans used to be able to visit only once every
    three years. Last month the Obama administration decided to end that
    restriction and relatives may now travel as often as they wish. And
    where they were once restricted in the amount of money they provide,
    they can now bring meaningful economic assistance to often impoverished

    The controversial economic embargo of the island (described by the Cuban
    government as a "blockade") that was imposed in 1962 is, of course,
    still in place. Nevertheless, in minor but significant ways, things are
    looking up.

    "No Cuban can get any of these things with their libreta," says Esteban,
    referring to the green-grey ration book every adult Cuban citizen holds,
    designed to guarantee a monthly meagre range of products from
    state-owned shops.

    Esteban left Cuba in 1980, leaving two daughters behind. He reached
    America, he says, "the only way I could, almost swimming". This is his
    first visit in four years. "I can now come and see their smiling faces
    whenever I want… For me, as for many other ordinary Cubans, this is
    very significant," he says. In his white trainers and khaki trousers, he
    looks like any average American.

    "The revolution might have been a necessary deed 50 years ago," he adds,
    "but Cuba desperately needs a change, a radical one." His daughter
    Margarita, 22, seems to agree, shyly nodding her head.

    Cuban-Americans are flocking home. "For me this is a real, concrete
    change," said Estefania, hugging her mother at arrivals after two years
    away. "I am studying and working in Miami, and now, with the cash I am
    earning there, not only can I travel as often as I can to visit my
    family, but I can also give them more money and bring more supplies.
    This is real change for many Cubans."

    In another sign of green shoots in the US-Cuban relationship, American
    photographer Melani Lust recently joined forces with Cuban photographer
    Brayan Allonzo for an exhibition in Havana of classic, pre-embargo,
    American-marque cars, under the sponsorship of the Cuban government.
    "The Cuban government was exceptional to me," said Lust. "I have never
    encountered a more friendly and welcoming people. I can only wish that I
    would be treated like this in the US."

    But some old attitudes die hard. Lust said that the office of Thomas
    Shannon, the US assistant secretary of state for Latin America, tried to
    warn her off staging the exhibition the day before its opening. And, in
    early May, Cuban troubadour Silvio Rodríguez was denied a visa to enter
    the US to sing alongside Bruce Springsteen, the Dave Matthews Band and
    Joan Baez in a concert in New York in honour of Pete Seeger's 90th
    birthday. "The ones that do not want the United States and Cuba to be
    together, to sing to each other, to talk to each other, to understand
    each other, were the ones who did not let me arrive," Rodríguez said in
    a letter to Seeger, an old friend.

    The protests against the embargo have not stopped. This month dozens of
    youngsters gathered on Havana's stunning seafront, waving the red, black
    and white flags of the revolutionary "26 July" movement, founded by
    Fidel Castro in 1953. The protest was directed at the grey block of the
    United States Interests Section, the US equivalent to a diplomatic
    mission in Cuba. Other youngsters, schoolchildren dressed in khaki
    trousers or skirts with tags bearing the signature of Che Guevara, used
    white chalk to write the slogan of the day on the pavement: "Down with
    the blockade."

    "We are here for Cuba to demand once again that the United States
    government lift the cruel blockade against us," says Yosmani, 17. Until
    recently a big billboard on this spot pictured an old cartoon
    revolutionary holding an AK47 shouting at Uncle Sam: "Señores
    Imperialists, we have absolutely no fear of you!" One group chants:
    "Bush and Obama sleep in the same bed and eat from the same plate."

    As far as many members of the country's National Assembly of People's
    Power are concerned, Obama still has a lot to prove, National Assembly
    president Ricardo Alarcón told the Observer. "I am not waiting for any
    'real' gesture from the US. What President Obama has done has nothing to
    do with Cuba. What he has done was purely an electoral promise made in

    "So there is nothing Cuba has to do … We have waited for a long time;
    we have no problem with waiting some more. We are waiting for the full
    lifting of the blockade."

    But as far as the Ramírez family is concerned, the signs of the new
    times – contained in that Samsonite case – provide tangible evidence of
    a brighter future.

    Expats flock to Cuba as US reforms spark a party | World news | The
    Observer (31 May 2009)

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