Tuesday morning seemed like any other day in Havana. One more day in the most recent Havana, still shaken by the Saratoga Hotel tragedy and hit by other more silent and daily pains, by the deadly weight of crisis and shortages that everyone tries to overcome with more or less luck, with more or less dignity.
People mill around the streets, walking slowly or hurriedly, wearing their mask better or worse — except for not a few tourists, unpunished and impudent in the face of the sanitary measures still in force on the island due to the pandemic —, in queues and queue projects, on buses and at bus stops, in commuting to work and the daily “struggle,” apparently on the margin, or at least unaware at that moment, of the new laws approved by the National Assembly and also of the changes in the United States’ policy towards Cuba announced this Monday by the Biden Administration.
“That the Americans did what?” asks a man who I ask about this last issue at a crowded bus stop in El Curita Park, still unaware of the announced resumption of the Family Reunification Program, the elimination of the limit on and the authorization of flights from U.S. airports to the island’s provinces, among other measures reported by the State Department “to increase support for the Cuban people” in line with its known “national security interests.”
“Ah, yes, I heard something about that yesterday,” tells me another, whom I approach near the first one, “but the truth is that I didn’t pay much attention to the news. I was busy doing other things, you know.… But from what I heard, it seems like a good thing, doesn’t it?”
That is, after several attempts at dialogue, the general impression conveyed to me by those who briefly agree to answer me, courteous or uncomfortable at my request, attentive to the arrival of a bus, a van or any other means of transportation that gets them out of there, or those who in the middle of the morning walk, more or less in a hurry, around the central Havana park and its surrounding streets: what was reported this Monday by the U.S. government is, after all, “something good.”
Some practically find out from me, when I tell them about the general aspects of what was announced in search of a possible assessment, but others have already had the opportunity to “know more” about what it is about, and have even searched the internet, like Carlos, “so no one comes to me with the gossip.” For him, who is on his way to work, the Biden administration’s changes are in tune with what the Democratic president had promised during his electoral campaign, and are, without a doubt, “a relief” in the midst of the difficult economic situation the island is experiencing.
“If more remittances can enter, flights from the United States increase and people from there begin to come in exchange groups, that will be good for many Cubans who will be able to improve and, in general, it should also be good for the entire country,” the young man argues. “It is true that not everyone receives money or has businesses that can benefit from these measures, but I think that many people could benefit in one way or another, as happened during the Obama era.”
This is also what Osmany thinks, waiting with his pedicab near the nearby Parque de la Fraternidad for a client who needs his services. “If more money and more people come in from the United States, there must be more movement, more business,” he reflects with “street” wisdom. “Even the dollar could begin to fall, or, at least, stop rising — this very Tuesday the informal exchange rate was around 115 Cuban pesos (CUP) per dollar — which at the rate we are going, nobody knows how far it can go. But for that, the government has to do its part and start accepting it again in the bank, in the freely convertible currency (MLC) accounts, or else all those dollars are going to leave the same way they entered, to Panama or Nicaragua.”
Rolando, for his part, although he appreciates that what was announced by Washington is “still very little” — in line with what the Cuban government said about the measures, which he classified as “positive, but of very limited scope” —, he does consider that, along with the rest of the changes, the U.S. intention is “important,” to provide “support” on issues such as connectivity and training to entrepreneurs and private businesses, whose role he considers “increasingly fundamental” in the economic scenario of the island. And although he acknowledges that there may be “second intentions” in what has been announced, he says that it is “necessary” to assess the proposals “without fear” and “get the most out of it.”
This retired accountant, who works advising self-employed workers, assures that in Cuba “we cannot be naive with the aid that comes from the United States, but we cannot close ourselves to everything that comes from there, just because it is from the United States.” “With Obama many opportunities opened up that we didn’t know how to take full advantage of here, out of suspicion and I think also out of inexperience, and then Trump came along and was able to reverse everything with a stroke of the pen. If some things had been arranged better, without giving in politically, things rooster would have been different. Now we have to see what can happen from now on,” he estimated pragmatically.
With visa and without visa
María del Carmen, who works in a nearby office from which she left “for a moment to do some paperwork,” thinks that the best thing about the announcement is “that many people who have been waiting for years for family reunification will finally be able to be with their loved ones. It’s not easy to spend so much time waiting,” she says and tells me that a friend of hers, who like so many Cubans has had her life on hold since those procedures were stopped, called her “very happy” the night before, after speaking with her relatives who “are out there.” “And like her there must be a lot of people, and I don’t have anyone who can claim me,” she regrets with a certain mischief.
Irene, who is studying medicine and whom I meet in uniform on Calle Reina, also considers that the U.S. government’s reestablishment of the Cuban Family Reunification Parole (CFRP) Program is the “best news” for many Cubans “from here and from there,” because “they are going to be able to fulfill their dream” of reuniting as a family, while also celebrating the increase in the processing of immigrant visas in Havana, which restarted in a limited manner this May 3, after its suspension due to the mysterious health incidents reported by US .d.iplomats, which were initially classified as “attacks” and whose cause has not yet been determined.
In the young woman’s opinion, the fact that the United States allows the entry of a greater number of Cubans by legal means and that the processing of visas in the Cuban capital is being restored “albeit little by little,” can help “less people leave.” However, she is aware that this fact, by itself, will not stop the bleeding of the last six months, in which more than 100,000 Cubans have already entered U.S. territory. Among them, she tells me, are some of her uncles and cousins, who “left together in April and have already arrived,” while some classmates who flew to Nicaragua weeks ago “are still at it, I think they are in Mexico now.”
A street vendor agrees with her. He prefers not give me his name and, however, openly confesses to me that he is collecting his “money” to leave Cuba “as soon as he has a chance.” The man, who rests in the shade with his merchandise a few blocks from the damaged Saratoga Hotel, explains to me that “no matter how many visas the Americans give out,” many Cubans will continue to leave irregularly because “they don’t see how they can move forward in this country,” “how to prosper,” and because they also do not have a legal way to settle outside the island and, in particular, in the United States.
“I’m glad that they’re giving a safe conduct (meaning a visa) to everyone they can, that those who have been waiting for a long time can leave, but many people don’t have a way to legally go there, nor do they want to stay and wait and see if this (Cuba) improves,” he points out, “so buy something to help me, let’s see if I can spend Christmas on the other side this year, brother. Did you see how I know English?”
Nearby, in a crowded queue to buy chicken, a stocky mulatto woman quickly cuts off my attempt at dialogue and brings me back to the reality of many other Cubans. “Oh, boy,” she tells me sincerely and slyly, “stop asking so many questions, people here aren’t here for that now. All that about the U.S. changes, about remittances and visas, sounds very nice, but right now the problem of those of us who are here is different. When I buy the chicken, cook it and eat it, then I’ll see how all that can work for me, if it works for me. For now, everything the same for me.”