HAVANA — IN one of my earliest memories, I am in a schoolyard before a campfire. The kids are screaming and jumping around it while the teacher stokes the flames, where a ridiculous Uncle Sam puppet is burning. This image came to mind on Wednesday, as I listened to the speeches of Raúl Castro and Barack Obama about the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States.
Generations of Cubans have grown up under the barrage of official propaganda against the United States. As the words directed against our neighbor to the north became more aggressive, our curiosity only grew. Overwhelmed by material precariousness, disillusioned because the so-called Raúl reforms have failed to fill their wallets or their plates, Cubans now dream of the material respite that might arrive from the other side of the Florida Straits. Without a fight, David, smiling, walks toward Goliath, who is about to open his bag of coins. The myth of the enemy is over; the difficult reality of coexistence has begun.
Sara is a teacher I know at an elementary school in the Plaza of the Revolution municipality. Without the help sent by her daughter every month she couldn’t survive. “Now everything will be easier, especially because we’ll be able to use American credit and debit cards here and my daughter is thinking of sending me one so I can get a little help whenever I need it,” she said.
Sara has decorated her classroom with a poster that includes images of the “Cuban Five,” spies whom the official propaganda considers heroes. (The Americans released the last three of them as part of a swap for a Cuban who had worked as an agent for American intelligence.) “They are back, so we will have to change the bulletin board,” she said with excitement and relief.
Bonifacio Crespo helps a brother with accounting for their private restaurant in Havana. They already have a new business plan. “We have the contacts to start importing raw materials, spices and many products for the menu, all we need is for them to expand the sending of packages from over there,” he said, his finger pointing toward a cardinal point he believed was north.
José Daniel Ferrer, a dissident, said that Havana had lost its “alibi” for political repression and economic control, and the independent magazine Convivencia (Coexistence) welcomed the news, but other dissidents worry that the government has yet to specify what it will do.
The tension between the two governments lasted so long that now some people don’t know what to do with their slogans, their fists raised against imperialism and their sick tendency to justify everything, from droughts to repression, on the grounds of being so close to “the most powerful country in the world.” The worst off are the most recalcitrant members of the Communist Party, those who would die before chewing a stick of gum, drinking a Coke or setting foot in Disney World. The first secretary of their organization just betrayed them. He made a pact with the adversary, behind the scenes and over 18 long months.
On Thursday, the party newspaper, Granma, was slow to reach the newsstands. Sometimes it is delayed when Fidel Castro publishes one of his delirious articles about the immensity of the galaxy or the memory of Hugo Chávez. In the long minutes of waiting, many speculated that Granma would arrive with some reflection from the comandante, but there was nothing. No evidence that would let us know whether he is for or against the risky step just taken by his brother. Many have read this silence as a sign of his delicate state of health, but by saying nothing, he has confirmed his political death, which is even more revealing and symbolic than his physical death will be.
Representatives of civil society do not want the United States to “extend a blank check” to the longest-standing totalitarian regime in the Western Hemisphere unless four demands are met.
First is the immediate release of political prisoners — there are over 100, Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation estimates. Second is the ratification of United Nations human rights covenants. Third is the dismantling of the apparatus of repression: shameful assaults on so-called counterrevolutionaries, arbitrary arrests, demonization and intimidation of those who think differently and police surveillance of activists.
Finally, the Cuban government must accept the existence of civic structures that have the right to express opinions, decide, question and choose — voices that have not been represented in the current negotiations between the governments of Cuba and the United States. The road map drawn by the higher-ups has been hidden from us.
An opportunity has been offered, despite the valid criticisms of many who question whether Uncle Sam has conceded too much, while his counterpart was too stingy to offer meaningful political gestures. Civil society must take advantage of it, elevate its voice, test the new limits of repression and censorship.
Everyone is experiencing this change in his or her own way: Sara, dreaming of her new debit card; Bonifacio, who speculates about the dishes he’ll be able to include on his menu with new imported ingredients; José Daniel Ferrer, who hopes to increase activism in the eastern part of the country. For everyone, a new era has begun. We cannot confirm that it will be better, but at least it will be different.
Yoani Sánchez, a blogger, is the director of 14ymedio, an independent digital news outlet in Cuba. This essay was translated by Mary Jo Porter from the Spanish.