After 24 years, I returned to Havana. The State Department invited me to the flag-raising ceremony at the American Embassy and the reception at the ambassador’s residence. At 5:40 p.m. on Aug. 12, I received the visa and left the next day at 2 p.m.
As we approached José Martí International Airport, an overpowering sense of peace came over me.
My cousins picked me up. I met family members who weren’t yet born or hadn’t joined us the last time I was in Cuba. I loved them almost instantly. I have yet to meet another cousin’s son who was in Pinar del Río and couldn’t find quick transport to Havana. I know I’ll also love him straightaway when I go back.
At a little before 9 a.m. on Friday, I entered the embassy courtyard. There were a good many of us, Cuban Americans who had come to support the restoration of diplomatic relations over many years.
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Yes, it was historic, but also healing and not only for us who are Cuban born. The United States and Cuba had finally become neighbors again. A reality that is, in fact, harder for Havana than the 54 years of enmity.
Richard Blanco’s poem, Matters of the Sea said it all: “The sea doesn’t matter. What matters is this — that we all belong to the sea.” Though unmentioned, the tens of thousands of Cubans who never made it to Florida were also present.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke respectfully without mincing words on human rights and democracy. At the ambassador’s residence, he met with members of the opposition and independent civil society. Those I saw at the reception were happy with his assurances that the United States would stand by them.
Human rights are ours, whether we believe that our Creator rendered them inalienable or that our common humanity compels us to treat one another with dignity. Human rights aren’t political favors to be dispensed at will. Violate them for some, and we are all diminished.
Ordinary Cubans favor the ongoing rapprochement. I am, however, concerned that their expectations will not soon be met.
While only Congress can lift the embargo, President Obama has been chipping away at it. The number of Americans visiting Cuba has increased by 35 percent since January 2015. Almost every week, one delegation or another from the business community, universities, professional associations or from all levels of government go to the island to gauge it first-hand.
Full normalization — a two-way street — will happen slowly. Unless the Cuban government steps up the tempo of economic reforms, ordinary men and women will not improve their lives.
Those who are self-employed or host tourists and other foreigners in their homes, for example, have convertible pesos that get them into well-stocked stores.
Most Cubans, however, earn in plain pesos and average about $20 a month. The state cares more about regulating the private sector than about creating equal opportunities for all.
Cuba is in dire need of modernizing its infrastructure, which has long been in disrepair. Attracting foreign investments requires transparency, air-tight property rights and an agile legal framework.
Havana needs access to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. While the Helms-Burton law bars the United States from voting in favor of Cuba joining these institutions, Havana has to ask to join first. If that were the case, the government would have to open its financial books.
That would be an unusual, but welcome, openness.
Cuba is preparing for Pope Francis’ visit September 19-22. Early in his papacy, Francis warned Catholics of “being disciples of ideology.” Ideologies — religious or political — value being correct over being compassionate. Caring about human beings trumps any ideology.
Sounds like good advice to us all!
Marifeli Pérez-Stable is a professor at Florida International University.