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
United States. 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
"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
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
"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)