Ivan Garcia, 16 August 2015 — Twenty-three-year-old Liudmila spent the evening of August 13 dancing the guanicheo —Cuba’s latest dance craze — at a discotheque in the quiet neighborhood of Miramar in western Havana with her latest romantic conquest: a tall young man from Kansas with a wispy red beard who came to Cuba to collect information for a documentary on marine species and ended up falling for a lighthearted and cheerful girl from a tough neighborhood in the old part of the city.
“It was great. First we went to the Casa de la Musica in Miramar and then to a jazz set at the La Zorra nightclub on La Rampa. Now we’re here, waiting for the flag raising ceremony and Kerry’s speech,” says Liudmila, seated on a sidewalk along the Malecon. Her American boyfriend, Roger, is trying to take some photos of the crowd gathered here to celebrate the historic event.
Hundreds of Cubans converge on the areas surrounding the US embassy in Havana, a six-story building clad in Cuban limestone and large sheets of green glass. Designed by American architects Max Abramovitz and Wallace K. Harrison, the building began operations in 1953.
Elena — a slender, talkative woman with auburn-tinted hair — is trying to block out the sun with a parasol. A space opens up in the crowd and suddenly she can more clearly see the arrival of the delegation headed by the Secretary of State John Kerry.
“When I came here before to welcome foreign dignitaries, I did it because I was under orders from union officials and party bosses where I worked. Now I’m retired, so I’m here voluntarily,” she says. “It would have seemed impossible back then that Fidel or Raul and the United States would end up ’balancing the books’ (negotiating).”
A little after six in the morning people begin to gather. Everyone wants to witness the official opening of the diplomatic mission. The public has been granted access to Calzada Street, as well as to the thoroughfare bordering the Malecon. Barricades mark off the area and security personnel maintain a low profile.
It is a novelty to see Cuban security officers working with Secret Service agents, who are responsible for protecting the secretary of state.
One of Kerry’s bodyguards, who could pass for a player in the NBA, is wearing a navy blue suit that clearly is too small for him. In spite of the intense heat, he tries to keep up appearances and gamely poses for journalists not accredited by the US government, as is the case with me.
Teresa, the daughter of a former political prisoner, also wants to see the stars and stripes being raised. “My father lives in Miami and he does not agree with the new policy. But we Cubans are fed up. With the (Castro) government, with the blockade (embargo) and with US policy towards Cuba because it affects the average citizen, not the government leaders,” she says, dressed in white and wearing religious bracelets on her right wrist.
A woman who lives nearby arrives, carrying her shopping bag, to watch the historic moment. “After I left the produce market, I came straight here,” she says. “I have faith. I hope relations with the United States improve our quality of life. And that the government lifts the blockade,” she says.
Chat with almost anyone watching events from the sidelines — dissidents, revolutionaries or average citizens — and you will find that, in one way or another, they believe it is Obama’s responsibility to involve himself in Cuba’s future.
However, opposition figures such as Antonio Rodiles, Berta Soler and Jorge Luis Perez Garcia blame the US president for “legitimizing the Castro brothers’ dictatorship and encouraging repression.”
They spent seventeen consecutive Sundays being beaten and insulted while protesting at a park a stone’s throw from Fifth Avenue in Miramar. Another faction of the dissident community — this includes Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Laritza Diversent y Miriam Leiva — support the new accord.
But it is not easy to cut the umbilical cord of fear. Talking with Havana residents such as Josue, a taxi driver, and listening their expectations of future relations between the two countries, one might think Cubans are either naive dreamers or simply misguided.
They live in a world of science fiction. Josue already foresees fast food restaurants on every corner, Apple stores and a rejuvenated Havana filled with skyscrapers.
“Miami will go back to being a country town. Havana was always a cosmopolitan, seductive city,” he says after watching the flag of broad stripes and bright stars being raised.
Many believe that a generous Uncle Sam will open his checkbook and rescue the ruined buildings and third-world infrastructure that now characterize Cuba, a country with a million college graduates but streets like those in Zimbabwe.
Whether you are talking about people phoning relatives in Florida to ask for a hundred dollars or the plethora of dissidents who think nothing of hopping on a plane to Miami to discuss things they cannot talk about openly in Havana, countless Cubans think it is the responsibility of Americans to build a new and better country.
Meanwhile, the quaint perceptions of Americans who visit the Castros’ ideological madhouse have changed little. If Cuba before 1959 was viewed as a giant casino where everyone smiled, played maracas and danced the rumba, the island is now synonymous with vintage American cars and buildings in ruin, a country disconnected from the modern world.
A good example of this symbolism were the three Chevrolets intentionally parked on the Malecon, directly facing the rostrum where Kerry was to deliver his speech.
The intended message was clear: the United States has come to save Cuba. And in one way or another many on the island believe it.