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    Cuba hopes for Washington’s full embrace

    Cuba hopes for Washington’s full embrace
    By Will Grant BBC News, Havana
    1 January 2015 Last updated at 02:25 GMT

    On 1 January 1959 Fidel Castro’s fighters rolled victoriously into
    Havana having overthrown the Batista regime.

    But 17 December 2014 was as momentous a day as any in the revolution’s
    56-year history, one that many Cubans thought they would never live to
    see: the announcement of a diplomatic thaw with Washington.

    As some broadcasters carried the news, they split the screen in two.
    Raul Castro on one side with President Obama speaking on the other.

    The two leaders – indeed, Havana and Washington – were singing from the
    same song-sheet for the first time in over five decades.

    Diplomatically, it was a bold move.

    The presidents announced that the mutual goodwill had already begun with
    a swap of high-profile prisoners: USAID contractor Alan Gross released
    in return for the remaining members of the Cuban Five in jail in the US.

    Most importantly, though, full diplomatic ties, frozen since January
    1961, would be re-instated. Embassies would be re-opened and ambassadors
    appointed to their respective capitals.

    But now the dust of the initial announcement is beginning to settle,
    ordinary people on both sides of the Florida Straits are trying to work
    out what it means for them and their families.

    Tourism boost
    With travel restrictions being eased, more US citizens will inevitably
    visit the communist island in 2015.

    “If relations normalise with the US, I think people from third countries
    will also feel more comfortable coming to Cuba for travel and work”,
    says Orlando, the owner of a small bed-and-breakfast in Havana’s old town.

    “More tourism will be good for everyone. When the hotels are overbooked,
    people come to private homes.”

    But it is not just Orlando who is looking forward with positivity.

    Everyone you speak to in Cuba’s emerging private sector – restaurant
    owners, taxi drivers, people on the fringes of the state-dominated
    tourism trade – are cautiously optimistic about the next few years.

    “Vamos a ver”, they say, a non-committal Cuban phrase simply meaning
    “we’ll see”.

    Ultimately, though, the new measures feel like change, and for many in
    Cuba, change can only be a good thing.

    President Castro also knew that things could not go on as they had done
    until now.

    Cuba was too dependent on oil-rich Venezuela’s largesse to continue
    along the same path it had throughout the Cold War.

    With the oil price plummeting, he spied a unique window of opportunity
    for detente with the old enemy.

    “I’ve seen an extraordinary degree of political will, it’s surprised
    me”, says Jesus Arboleya, former Cuban consul to Washington. “But that’s
    not to say that the problems have been resolved nor that there won’t be
    bumps in the road ahead.”

    Socialist model
    Almost pre-empting those bumps, Raul Castro was adamant that the
    country’s socialist model was not coming to an end in his final address
    of 2014.

    “There are profound differences between the governments of the US and
    Cuba that include differing concepts about national sovereignty,
    democracy, political models and international relations,” he said as he
    closed parliament for the year.

    “Just as we have never expected them to change their political system,
    we demand respect for ours.”

    “The positions of the two governments are clear”, says Jesus Arboleya.

    “I think Cuba has negotiated an agreement along the lines of which it
    aspired. But the US Government has got what it wanted too, expressing
    its interest for political change in Cuba and its right to continue with
    projects for the promotion of democracy in Cuba,” he adds.

    President Castro did not only temper Cubans’ expectations with his speech.

    He also praised President Obama for the move towards normalisation
    particularly the announcement that the Secretary of State, John Kerry,
    would investigate whether Cuba should be removed from the US
    Government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

    Given Havana’s current role hosting peace talks between the Colombian
    government and Colombia’s largest left-wing rebel group, the Farc, it
    seems likely they will be taken off the list soon.

    Economic embargo
    But Cuba clearly wants President Obama to go further, specifically to
    see the US economic embargo on the island lifted completely.

    Even if he wanted to, and it is clear that he thinks Washington’s
    policies of the last 50 years towards Cuba have been counterproductive,
    that may be almost impossible for the US President to achieve.

    He would need to get it through Congress and there are powerful voices
    lined up against him in the form of key Cuban-American politicians.

    Instead, he seems determined to make the economic embargo all but
    toothless during his next two years in office.

    The potential economic benefits of the thaw are significant for the
    island, particularly for its international finances, says economist
    Ricardo Torres of the Centre for Studies of the Cuban Economy.

    “Hopefully we’ll see an important reduction in lending costs for the
    country,” he says.

    “In establishing normal relations in terms of financial transactions
    between the US and Cuba, probably (Washington) will do less in terms of
    prosecuting foreign banks or other entities related to financial
    transactions with Cuba.”

    Those sanctions and fines have amounted to around $11bn (£7bn) over the
    past few years.

    “It’s been kind of scary for foreign banks to do business with Cuba,” Mr
    Torres says.

    That change alone, if it bolsters the country’s Central Bank and foreign
    currency reserves, puts a hugely different complexion on the economic
    outlook for Cuba in 2015.

    While much has been written and said about the rapprochement, for now,
    the man who brought the revolution to power 56 years ago – Fidel Castro
    – is keeping quiet.

    Cubans are used to seeing his reflections appear in the state-run
    newspaper, Granma, the day after major news breaks on the island.

    Yet despite these being the most significant steps for Cuba since the
    fall of the Berlin Wall, nothing from Fidel Castro has been published so
    far.

    “I can say for sure that none of this was done without Fidel’s express
    approval”, says Mr Arboleya, who served as Cuba’s consul to Washington
    during the 1980s.

    That is almost certainly true.

    As a man who has spent more than five decades of his life
    eyeball-to-eyeball with Washington, he was never likely to blink first.

    Source: BBC News – Cuba hopes for Washington’s full embrace –
    http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-30628215