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Latin America

In Cuba, Obama's message of reconciliation hits home

Obama tells Cuba it's time "to leave the past behind"
22 Mar 2016 – 07:13 PM EDT
Yohamna Monzón and Edel Feria watched Obama's speech in their modest house in Old Havana Crédito: Almudena Toral, Univision

By David Adams in Havana dadams7308

The tears began to well up in her eyes as President Barack Obama closed his historic speech to the Cuban people on Tuesday with a call for reconciliation and family unity.

“I was thinking of my daughter in Miami,” said Yohamna Monzon, 50, sitting with her husband, their 16-year-old son, and two cats in the family’s ramshackle abode in Old Havana intently watching Obama’s speech on a small television.

“It hit me hard when he (Obama) spoke of our pain and the suffering of our separation,” she said, her eyes still watery.

Obama was speaking only a few blocks away in the grand surroundings of the National Theater where an audience of diplomats, government officials and invited guests sat equally rapt.

Afterwards in the luxury Saratoga Hotel, a group of wealthy Cuban Americans celebrated with Cuban sandwiches and sodas.

“He struck all the right notes, he knocked it out of the park,” said a jubilant Pedro Freyre, a Cuban American lawyer who left Cuba as a young man.

“This fight is over,” he added, referring to more than half a century of enmity that has separated two countries separated by only 90 miles of ocean.

To be sure, Obama’s visit to Cuba, the first by a U.S. president in 88 years, has raised expectations of fundamental change in the lives of Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida.

“The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict; struggle and sacrifice; retribution and, now, reconciliation,” Obama said, closing out his speech.

“It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind. It is time for us to look forward to the future together,” he added.

Obama returned repeatedly to theme of reconciliation, placing great faith in common cultural bonds between Cuba and the United States, such as music and baseball, as well as family ties.

“In many ways, the United States and Cuba are like two brothers who’ve been estranged for many years, even as we share the same blood,” he said.

While recognizing the pain and suffering in Cuba, Obama also noted that Cuban American exiles were also victims.

“For the Cuban American community that I’ve come to know and respect, this is not just about politics. This is about family -- the memory of a home that was lost; the desire to rebuild a broken bond,” he said.

While reconciliation has brought Cubans on both shores closer together, for the time being they remain worlds apart economically.

Monzon and her husband, Edel Ferria, 59, both self-employed car park attendants earning about $20 a week, moved to an abandoned warehouse when their former apartment was condemned after the roof fell in.

Their new home, consisting of three rooms divided by wooden boards and lacking running water, is barely furnished. They cook on a hot plate and sleep on tatty mattresses, relying heavily on subsidized government food rations of sugar, rice, pasta and cooking oil.

But Obama’s visit gave them new hope that one day they can save enough money to fix the place up.

“I liked when Obama said the Cuban people are hard-working and full of innovation,” said Monzon. “It’s true, I don’t know how we survive,” he added.

Most of all, Monzon hopes better relations with the United States means she may one day be able to see her 25-year-old daughter, Zurami and two grandchildren, aged seven and three.

Maybe also two sisters in Florida who left Cuba 20 years ago who she has since lost touch with.

“My daughter cries on the phone when we talk or we see each other on the computer,” she said. “She says she wants to be with me. I raised her. She is my flesh and blood,” I need to see her, feel her next to me, hold my grandchildren, watch them grow,” she added.

In his speech Obama was careful to point out that Cuba and the United States still have deep differences over their political and economic systems.

“Cuba has a one-party system; the United States is a multi-party democracy. Cuba has a socialist economic model; the United States is an open market,” he said.

But, in an emphatic break with past policy Obama said communist-run Cuba had nothing to fear any more from the United States.

“I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba,” he said.
“What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people. We will not impose our political or economic system on you” he added.

Obama said called on the U.S. Congress to lift the five decades-old economic embargo against Cuba, adding that the United States was ready to help Cuba rebuild its economy, putting emphasis on the island’s nascent private sector.

Asked if he thought Cuba was ready to reciprocate, Feria said he was encouraged by recent economic reforms under Cuban president Raul Castro.

“I hope so,” he said “The mind of Raul Castro is more open than his brother,” he said referring to Fidel Castro, Cuba’s ailing former president who stepped down in 2006 due to illness.

At the Saratoga Hotel, the Cuban American delegation echoed Obama’s words of reconciliation, while appreciating his recognition of the pain of exile.

While Obama’s visit marked a historic turning point, fixing Cuba’s economy was a daunting task, said Miami healthcare executive Mike Fernandez, 64, who left Cuba aged 12.

Cuba’s gross domestic product of $80 billion barely surpassed Miami-Dade county, he noted.

This week Cuba announced the signing of agreements with several major U.S. corporations, including a luxury hotel chain.

But Fernandez said Cuba needed to accelerate its private sector reforms to make it more attractive to mid-sized U.S. firms less willing to deal with its restrictive investment laws.

“They have to do it. They are not there yet. But we are ready to help them,” said Fernandez, vice-chair of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council created last year to foster commercial relations with Cuba.

Down the street, Monzon and Feria had another concern.

Like many Cubans they worry that Obama only has a few months left in office and his policy of engagement with Cuba may be undone by the next administration. “What’s going to happen? I hope what Obama has begun can’t be eradicated,” said Monzon.

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