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A Year After Rapprochement, Cubans Still Waiting for Change

A Year After Rapprochement, Cubans Still Waiting for Change
Alberto Pimienta
Last updated on: December 17, 2015 11:30 AM

WASHINGTON—
A year ago, after months of secret negotiations, the leaders of Cuba and
the U.S. announced in almost simultaneous speeches the two nations were
restoring diplomatic ties after 54 years.

Around noon on national television, President Raul Castro addressed
millions of watching Cubans: “As a result of a dialogue at the highest
level, which included a phone conversation I had yesterday with
President [Barack] Obama, we have been able to make headway in the
solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations.”

Finally, he confirmed it: “We have also agreed to renew diplomatic
relations.”

An announcement many waited a lifetime for was now a reality.

The White House has touted the restoration of ties as a positive step
for Cubans: “Simply put, our new Cuba policy allows us to more
effectively improve the lives of the Cuban people.”

But a year after the historic step, many Cubans say conditions on the
island remain the same.

Issues of concern

According to Cubans interviewed by Voice of America, topics of concern
such as human rights, access to the Internet, political prosecution,
food shortages and low wages remain unchanged.

“People had a perspective that everything was going to be quicker. There
were people who had the hope that in less than two months we would have
McDonald’s on the corners of Havana and that Internet cables would be
connected in less than three or four months,” said Reinaldo Escobar, one
of the leading journalists in Cuba and co-founder and editor of
14yMedio, a renowned digital publication. “But it has not been like that.”

The White House hoped this opening would create a better environment for
human rights on the island. But so far, according to dissidents and
opposition organizations, that has not happened.

“It is about time the Obama administration starts to reevaluate its
attitude if they see that the Cuban government does not fulfill what it
promised,” said Guillermo Fariñas, a Cuban political dissident and
winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the
European Union Parliament. Fariñas is opposed to normalizing relations.

Fariñas argues that in the past year there has been an increase in
temporary arrests by government security forces to 1,200 to 1,500 each
month. He said that in 2014, the numbers were around 700 to 800 a month.

Every Sunday for more than 30 consecutive weeks this year, the Damas de
Blanco, or Ladies in White, an opposition movement formed by wives and
other female relatives of Cuban jailed dissidents, have marched in the
Miramar neighborhood of Havana.

These protesters constantly face the censorship of the Cuban government
and according to people on the island, they have also faced increased
levels of violence.

Human rights

The State Department said it brings up human rights in meetings between
U.S. and Cuban delegations every few months.

The White House said both nations “held a human rights dialogue in
Washington, D.C., in March” and the U.S. will “continue to criticize
violations of human rights and advocate for the respect of freedom of
expression and peaceful assembly.”

Despite the efforts, many Cubans say the repression continues.

“The unresolved matter is yet to be solved … and that is that the Cuban
government restores relations with its people. That the Cuban government
ends, once and for all, the economic and political blockade that it has
imposed against the Cuban people, to allow the Cuban people to invest,
to be entrepreneurs and to express and associate freely,” 14yMedio’s
Escobar said.

Commercial conditions

The U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments announced in January and
September a series of steps to ease commercial and economic limits
imposed on Cuba that among other things make it easier for Americans to
travel to the island.

They also allow more business transactions between the American and
Cuban private sectors.

Regulatory changes permitted U.S. telecommunications and Internet
companies to engage more on the island, which many hoped would translate
into better and faster Internet connectivity for Cubans.

Claudio Fuentes, a Cuban photographer based in Havana, and also a member
of Estado de SATS, a policy and cultural organization, said that before
all these changes, the Castro administration had blamed economic
conditions on the U.S. trade embargo.

And now, the government is digging in its heels.

“With the relaxation, we see that the ones that are really not budging
is them. … What we see is a series of rejections to any kind of
aperture,” Fuentes said.

Obama has stated he wants the embargo to be lifted. This is not likely
to happen anytime soon with a Republican majority in Congress that not
only opposes lifting it, but the entire process of normalization.

If the embargo were lifted, some Cubans believe they would see the
government’s true colors.

“The day that embargo or blockage, or whatever you want to call it,
ends, that is when we will start to see who is really responsible and
the culprit for our difficulties,” Escobar said.

The White House has declared time after time that “change will not
happen overnight.”

The government in Havana has what Cubans call a “no rush but no pause”
approach to the normalization process and the changes that come with it.

Hardliner dissidents, such as Fariñas, who have opposed the
reestablishment of diplomatic ties, say the Obama administration should
reassess its relations with the Castro authorities.

“Tell them if there are no obvious changes, we will simply go back to
the previous status because we made a mistake,” Fariñas said.

The pulse on the island this holiday season is far from positive and
hopeful. Many Cubans think their everyday lives have worsened.

One woman told VOA that malanga, a national food staple, is often hard
to find.

“Nothing has changed at all; everything is the same,” said another
Cuban, who asked for anonymity fearing retaliation from the Cuban
government.

Source: A Year After Rapprochement, Cubans Still Waiting for Change –
www.voanews.com/content/a-year-after-historic-announcement-cubans-still-waiting-for-change/3106664.html

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