Cubans see hope, not betrayal, in U.S. relations

Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Washington Bureau

Havana — Mario Oliva no longer wants to “dream” about other people’s lives. He doesn’t want to think about what he could buy if he lived in Miami, or another country.

The 49-year-old father understands concerns about repression. The Cuban government’s human rights record “is not perfect,” he says.

But he’s more focused on improving his economic outlook. He wants a nice car. He wants to travel. He wants a nice house.

“I want better things,” Oliva said. “But with the job opportunities I have, that’s not possible. It’s not as much a human rights problem. It’s an economic problem.”

Cuban-American politicians, such as Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, have upbraided President Barack Obama for visiting the island nation even though the government has arrested more than 8,000 people since the two countries announced they would re-establish relations in December 2014.

“This continued effort to legitimize this regime and its atrocities is appalling,” Ros-Lehtinen said Tuesday from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. “It’s appalling for those people who love freedom. It’s appalling for those who have been political prisoners in Castro’s gulags.”

But for at least some Cubans interviewed here, that’s not the way Obama’s visit is viewed. Cubans lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the man who many hoped would kick-start the island’s troubled economy. Polls find the vast majority of Cubans welcome friendlier relations with the United States.

Taxi driver Jose Manuel Calevo is among those who see rapprochement as opportunity. He’s already benefited as more curious American have arrived with dollars.

“When there are more tourists, there is more work for me,” he said.

Berta Soler, the leader of the Ladies in White dissident group, which was set upon by Cuban police Sunday, understands Calevo’s economic concerns. But she also thinks that neither Cubans nor Americans should ignore the government’s continued use of repression to silence its critics.

“People are worried about their jobs,” she said. “The government is the only real employer.”

The impact of repression is evident. Many refused to speak about human rights for fear of reprisal.

“I love my country. It’s just the system that I don’t like,” said an Afro-Cuban man, who refused to give his name, while watching Obama’s arrival in Cuba on Sunday.

But for Ines Montes, 58, human rights is not a reason to oppose U.S.-Cuba relations. Too many Cubans are struggling to meet their most basic needs, she said.

“People just want to eat,” she said, motioning to her mouth.

Oliva wants a standard of living that’s “a little bit better.” He doesn’t expect to buy a new car or take a European vacation anytime soon. But if changes happen fast enough, maybe his 20-year-old son will.

“Or maybe my grandchildren,” he said.