iStock/Thinsktock(HAVANA) — Plying the streets of Havana this past week, most ordinary Cubans like state-employed waitress Yileivi Cruz seemed to support détente with the United States. Taxi drivers, street venders, bar tenders and shoppers expressed delight when asked about the thaw.
“To tell you the truth, I never thought I would see the day and, like everyone else, I am happy about it and hopeful,” Cruz, a 43-year-old single mother and waitress at the state-run Café Madrid here in Havana, said.
“This will help everyone improve their lives and have a better future.”
The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba is generally welcomed by residents on the Caribbean island, nearly 75 percent of whom have lived only under governments headed by Fidel and Raul Castro and U.S. political and economic sanctions imposed more than half a century ago.
Despite market-oriented reforms begun five years ago, some 70 percent of the country’s 5-million-strong labor force, like Cruz, still works for the state.
Cruz works a 12-hour shift every other day, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., earning the equivalent of just under $40 per month, twice the national average, plus tips, which are divided among the employees.
Like most Cubans, Cruz does not own a car and spends up to two hours on buses or in group taxis commuting to and from work.
She said the future of her 13-year-old daughter was uppermost in her mind. “What I hope is that there will be more opportunity for her, without losing what we have, especially free health care and education,” Cruz said.
Despite decades of confrontation, most Cubans have relatives or close friends who live in the United States. They know all about Internet, Home Depot, Walmart, Target and Costco, just 90 miles to the north. Cruz was born well after Fidel Castro’s bearded rebels descended from the mountains in 1959, well after the Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-backed exiles that followed two years later and then the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war with U.S. children practicing evacuations from school or scrambling under their desks.
By the time Cruz was born in the early 1970s, Cuba was a close ally of the now-defunct Soviet Union, just about the entire economy was under state control, and a hefty food ration and free health care and education were in place.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed and with it the Cuban economy, which has been struggling ever since to get back on its feet.
“The past is the past. I think much has changed since 1959 and at this point there are no negatives to improved relations with the United States,” Cruz said, adding she had aunts “living over there and this will give everyone more freedom to come and go, a better chance to interact.”
But it is Cuba’s budding new business class that is clapping the loudest as embassies open Monday in Washington and Havana.
Julio Alvarez, who worked most of his life for the state, has taken advantage of reforms that encourage small businesses.
He opened Nostalgicar four years ago, a company that restores old Chevrolets and then rents them out to tourists. Alvarez, 53, said the establishment of embassies was an important step that he hoped would consolidate liberalization of the economy.
The new entrepreneur could have been speaking for the thousands of Cubans who now rent rooms to tourists, operate hostels and eateries, sell their art and artifacts to visitors from abroad and engage in a myriad of other private economic activities where tourists are the main market.
Arrivals from abroad are up 15.6 percent since Presidents Obama and Raul Castro announced in December they had reached an agreement to resume diplomatic relations and work toward a broader rapprochement, according to the Cuban government. Work and tips are also up, hotel employees, tour bus drivers and guides say.
The surge is due partly to Americans’ taking advantage of somewhat eased U.S. travel restrictions, and partly a rush by others who want to experience Cuba before all U.S. citizens are unleashed by their government to visit.
“If this really facilitates relations, especially commercial ones, it will be really good for me,” Alvarez, who has traveled to the United States to talk about doing business in Cuba and take business classes, said.
A friend of his in Miami orders spare parts for his old cars over the Internet from an outlet in California, then sends them over with travelers, all at a price. “Right now I end up paying two or three times the price for parts,” he said. “I hope it becomes easier and cheaper.”
Asked whether Cuba was ready for improved relations, Alvarez said, “I think we are ready and the government knows what it is doing.
“This is good for the country and supports the new entrepreneurs who want to change Cuba.”
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