Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Amid talks, surreal images out of Cuba

Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson, right, is greeted by blogger and dissident Yoani Sanchez in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015.
Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson, right, is greeted by blogger and dissident Yoani Sanchez in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. AP

From this outpost of Cuba — dateline Miami, home to visa-less journalists — the first week of the historic U.S.-Cuba talks began with a surreal quality.

From the comfort of our couches, we saw network anchors opening their breathless newscasts with attention-commanding music blaring in the background of a splendidly lit Havana.

The live view of a place loved from afar sparkled for many Miamians, fueling an initial spirit of cautious optimism — until you remembered the same scene, the same mood during Pope John Paul’s visit in 1998. At the time, you might have even lit a candle to Cachita, patron saint of the island and of treacherous sea crossings — and nada.

The Monica Lewinsky story broke and the American media — there en masse, as they were this week — bailed out of Cuban history on the first flight out. The only thing left on the side of hope and change were the Pope’s words to Cubans — “Don’t be afraid” — and to the world the message that it must “open up” to Cuba.

Seventeen years after that last hopeful undertaking to coax Cuba to change, the stronger and vocal opposition movement to the Castros’ 56-year-old dictatorship insists on its right to a voice in the negotiations to expand trade and travel and resume diplomatic relations.

How will rapprochement play out after days of diplomacy in Havana? Hard to tell.

But perhaps the most encouraging thing about the first round of talks was the U.S. delegation’s decision to meet with dissident leaders in Havana on Friday, the day after official conversations ended, and that Cuba has so far said nothing disparaging about it.

The lead U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, and members of her team are expected in Miami on Saturday — a sensible move that embraces this missing side of the Florida Straits. After all, while Cuba handed out visas like candy to foreign journalists — 200, according to a Granma newspaper account — it snubbed most of Miami’s media.

Judging by media reports, the atmosphere that seemed to reign in Havana was cordial to the American presence — notwithstanding the Russian spy ship docked at the harbor in time for the talks.

Also notable: Granma, the government newspaper, writing unusually straight stories about the talks, using language and techniques that ring almost Associated Press-style, and this headline: “Cuba and the United States, the start of a new chapter.” Missing: the usual dose of anti-imperialist verbiage.

American journalists with visas seemed to have taken to heart the code phrase of the talks: “mutual respect.” As closed-door talks progressed, TV coverage fizzled into a mush of cigar-making stories and features on how those old cars are still running. American journalism as diplomacy — you don’t see that too often.

In Miami, a vigil was held, and opposition to the talks by victims of the regime maintained their mournful rhythm.

“The clichés never die, it seems — on all sides of the issue,” lamented a Cuban-American journalist who has reported from Havana but stayed put this time.

Week One: Surreal images, more diplomatic theater than substance, and American networks off to chase another story. Did the Patriots cheat?

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