HAVANA – As Havana and Washington move to restore full ties, Cubans are watching closely. Some hope rapprochement will help them make a small business prosper or keep in touch with relatives in Florida, while others doubt it will do anything to improve their lives.
The Associated Press spoke with islanders in Havana on Wednesday about the two countries' announcement that they will reopen embassies later this summer, more than 50 years after the diplomatic relationship was severed.
Eleven years ago, Elba Gil cried for a week when her daughter left to live in the United States. As her last child remaining on the island now prepares to make the same move soon with her own family, Gil feels more nostalgic than anything.
That's because improved political ties are making it easier for families divided by the Florida Straits to stay in touch. If phone service gets cheaper and the Internet becomes more easily available in Cuba — two things that islanders anticipate will come with the thaw — things could get even better.
"If there are good relations between the two countries I can visit them and she can come here. If there are good communications, it wouldn't be like before when people left and you never heard from them. The sadness is less," Gil said.
She spoke as she waited outside the U.S. Interests Section with her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren, who have been approved for a U.S. family reunification visa to join the other daughter, now a nurse.
Gil plans to visit whenever she can.
"I have my home here and my husband, and I don't want to throw that away."
Joan Gonzalez is a 40-year-old husband and father who hasn't held a job in five years and makes do with "whatever comes along" — odd jobs like painting a house or fixing a patio. He used to work in a soap factory.
He's convinced better ties between Cuba and the United States will do nothing to improve his life, or those of Cubans in general.
"Relations should exist, yes, but benefit me? They don't benefit me at all, because for 56 years it has been demonstrated that there is no respect for the people" by the government, he said.
Gonzalez is a member of a dissident organization called the Republican Popular Party, and he was waiting to enter the U.S. Interests Section to use the free Internet it offers. Opposition groups have no legal recognition in Cuba, and he believes things won't get better until the country's communist leadership is gone.
"What Obama said about empowering the people, that's not going to happen as long as Fidel and Raul are around."
Amarylis Guas hasn't seen her son since his dad took him to the United States 15 years ago. Today he's a man of 27. She hopes looser relations will help them build their relationship further.
A 48-year-old former professor of language and literature, she went through a deep personal crisis when her son left and now works at a small privately owned cafeteria where she arrives every morning at 5 a.m.
She also hopes to see a day when there's no more U.S. embargo choking off commerce to the island and feels that will help Cuba get better economically.
"Having relations between the two countries, I'm sure it will be a very beautiful thing," Guas said. "We are so close. For 50 years we have lived with this anguish."
But she also worries that with change, consumerism and crime could creep in.
"It wouldn't be smart to open the country up too quickly, because we have lived for years with a process of little by little. It wouldn't be good for the country or for us as citizens."
Royde Rojas, 48, was educated as a topographer and used to be the boss of local offices of Geocuba, a state-run surveying company, in his native province of Holguin, on the eastern side of the island.
But four years ago he quit his low-paying job, figuring he could make more as a taxi driver. He's among hundreds of thousands of people now working in Cuba's incipient private sector under the economic reforms of recent years.
Rojas said he's upbeat that better relations with the United States will attract investment and tourism — meaning more clients to drive around in his shabby, gray, Soviet-made Moskvitch sedan.
"It's going to be an improvement for the country," Rojas said. "More American tourists are going to come, which is a boon for us."
Rojas has managed to purchase a house in Havana, something that was illegal for decades until a real estate reform in 2011, and he believes Cuba is on the right track.
"There have been changes. I was able get my taxi license and I bought my home," he said
He sees neighborly relations with Cuba's longtime foe, Washington, as the next step.
"There doesn't have to be bad blood."