HAVANA — An American flag whips in the wind above the reopened U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Tens of thousands of foreign visitors have strolled down the cobblestone streets of Old Havana in recent months, some booking their lodgings through Airbnb.
At the same time, a surge in Cubans seeking to leave the island before their preferential status for U.S. residency ends has flooded Central America with migrants in what could be the biggest exodus since the 1980 Mariel boatlift.
In the year since Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced a rapprochement between bitter the Cold War enemies, Cuba has been transformed, for better or worse. A country that once seemed stuck in time suddenly faces an uncertain future of disruptive change.
Particularly for those with money, property or connections, the frothy optimism is palpable, as are the expectations of greater prosperity and new freedoms. For others — the poor, the old, the vast ranks of bureaucrats who’ve dedicated their lives to the communist system, the dramatic dual presidential announcements of Dec. 17, 2014 and the steps toward normalization have led to feelings of fear.
Cubans with businesses have been buoyed since then by the prospect of better relations. Hotels, private bed-and-breakfasts and elegant restaurants have been packed, with hundreds more expected to open in the coming year.
Pope Francis, who played a critical role in negotiations that led to detente, made a stop in Cuba on his way to the United States in September. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reopened the embassy in person in August.
“It’s a breath of fresh air, knowing that they’re filing away the rough edges between the two peoples and their governments, and that can open a path to a future of brotherhood and mutual aid,” said Fernando Funes, a former government agronomist who runs a 20-acre environmentally friendly farm supplying vegetables such as arugula and chicory to private restaurants in Havana.
Those in favor of the warming in relations are hoping that the anniversary of the presidential announcements will add momentum to negotiations to connect the countries with commercial flights and direct mail, perhaps paving the way for a visit by Obama in the first half of next year.
But for others, the changes are happening much too fast.
Many fear normalization will end the guarantee of legal residency that Cubans receive the moment they touch U.S. soil. Roughly 45,000 Cubans are expected to travel by bus, boat, taxi and on foot from Ecuador and other South and Central American countries to the Texas and California borders with Mexico this year. With thousands more sailing across the Florida Straits, 2015 may witness the biggest outflow of Cubans since 125,000 fled during Mariel.
The exodus has prompted a crackdown by Cuba and its regional allies, with Nicaragua closing its border to Cubans last month, and Ecuador suddenly requiring Cubans to get a visa.
A panicked crowd of visa applicants outside the Ecuadoran Embassy launched a rare street protest on Nov. 27, their ire directed at the government.
“This is all Raul Castro’s fault, no one else’s!” shouted Adriel Acosta, a computer scientist. “He’s the one who caused this problem!”
Cuba declared Dec. 1 that its medical system was in a critical situation because of a U.S. program that offers special treatment for doctors who want to emigrate. Physicians would now need exit permits to leave the country for any reason. It was a dramatic reversal for a government that two years ago eliminated the permits Cubans once needed to leave their own country.
After Fidel Castro took power in 1959, every aspect of Cuban life was infused with a sense of struggle against the United States, from its art to its medical system to its politics. Government critics were tarred as U.S. agents and dissent was considered an attack on the country.
Elaine Diaz tried to stay loyal to the ideals of the socialist revolution after she graduated from journalism school in 2008 and founded a blog that criticized government mismanagement and inefficiency. Government supporters called her a counterrevolutionary. Critics blasted her as too tame.
Diaz sought refuge in a Harvard University fellowship in the U.S. and considered abandoning independent journalism in Cuba.
When Castro and Obama announced that their countries were no longer enemies, “it was such a relief,” she said.
“As a citizen I could feel like I wasn’t in a place under siege anymore,” said Diaz, who returned home to launch an independent online magazine whose just-published second edition is a multimedia profile of a town in eastern Cuba.
Yans Ruiz is also optimistic about improved relations with the U.S.
He spends 10 hours a day in the garage of his grandmother’s house on Havana’s outskirts, using $10,000 in savings to strip paint off a 63-year-old Dodge Kingsway and replace rusty parts. By February, he expects to have an immaculately restored azure-blue convertible he can use to take tourists on rides down the Malecon, Havana’s sweeping seafront promenade, for $30 an hour.
“When you’ve got work, everything else goes OK, and I hope the change with the U.S. makes things even better,” Ruiz said.
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