‘Optimistic’ Cuban youths prepare to welcome Obama

Dianela Guerra, 18, studying microbiology at the University of Havana
Dianela Guerra, 18, studying microbiology at the University of Havana

When President Barack Obama takes the mound on Tuesday to throw out the first pitch in the historic baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and a Cuban national team, he won’t be the first American emissary to Cuba even this month. On Sunday last week, American DJ Diplo greeted thousands of Cubans, mainly young, at the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Many of the fans singing along at that show, which was reported by the state paper to have drawn 400,000 people, were young and have a fervent appreciation for American music and culture. While President Obama won’t have them dancing in the streets, many young Cubans are aware that his visit means a potential change in the relationship between the two countries. They speak hopefully of more cultural and academic exchange, and express few of the reservations of their grandparents regarding a future of closer ties to the United States. For a biology student, closer economic and cultural ties to the U.S. could mean better equipment and the chance to study there. For Cubans that work in tourism or the growing private sector, it means more money coming into the country, which could break down the biggest barrier to travel and cultural exchange for many Cubans: money.

Dianela Guerra, 18, and Tamara Acosta, 18 are both in their first year studying microbiology at the University of Havana.

“Everyone is talking about the visit,” she said, especially the baseball game between a Cuban team and the Tampa Bay Rays. Students from Cuban universities are being selected to attend, including 35 from their school.

Guerra said that the baseball game is especially important to Cubans because it’s a social exchange, not a diplomatic one. She said a baseball game will be a much more memorable experience for Cubans than a photo op or press conference, and that young people tend to focus more on social and cultural relationships than political ones.

Guerra and Acosta were near the front of the crowd of young Cubans for the DJ Diplo concert. They said there is a generational split in perception of Obama’s visit.

“Our grandparents don’t think the United States has good intentions,” Acosta said, adding that their grandparents’ generation, Fidel Castro’s generation, saw Cuba before the revolution and during the years of hostility with the U.S. But for Guerra and Acosta, “it’s in the past,” she said, motioning backwards with her hands.

“I’d like to go to a microbiology lab in the U.S.,” Guerra said. She suspects there is better technology available in the labs there.

“We have hope that things are different,” she said of the relationship between the countries. Guerra and Acosta will be watching the baseball game on TV.

Humberto Rosabal Viltres, 19, studies tourism at the University of Havana. He said he understands the concerns of older Cubans regarding the history of relations with the U.S.

“This visit doesn’t mean we Cubans are going to deny all the history,” Viltres said. He mentioned Luis Posada Carriles, the anti-Castro militant with ties to the C.I.A. U.S. State Department documents released last June suggest Carriles was responsible for the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people in 1976. Viltres mentioned that bombing and other victims of past conflict between the U.S. and Cuba.

But Viltres also said that welcoming others and openness to exchange is a Cuban value and a revolutionary value, and that both countries have wronged each other, mentioning how the Cuban government seized American property in the revolution. Viltres said he is encouraged that the two countries are no longer stuck in political conflict with each other.

Cindy León Abella, 18, a friend of his from the university, said that most people have high hopes for the change in relationship between the two countries. She also said young people are “more optimistic” than the older generations. She hopes that the change will make it easier for Cubans who left to come back and visit the country. She studies tourism because she enjoys learning languages and communicating with different people and she looks forward to more intercambio, or exchange.

“Why can’t Cuban students go to conferences in the U.S.?” she asked. Cuban students attend some conferences in other countries, but it’s uncommon for them to go to the U.S. She also said that many Cubans are in favor Obama’s policy toward Cuba but know that he has limited power regarding unpopular American policies like the embargo, especially since he is leaving office soon.

Richal Rubal, 22, paints buildings and does private business on the side. He said he needs the private business to live the way he wants.

“A political change is necessary between Cuba and the U.S.,” he said, adding that travel should be made easier between the two countries.

Denisse Cabrera, 21, studies accounting, and her mother, brother and father live in New York City. She was not able to go because of problems with the emigration process. She said the Obama visit brings possibility for change in Cuba.

“I like the U.S. for its economic and social development,” she said.

When asked about the visit while watching while watching a baseball game, José Manuel, 43, immediately brought up what it means for youth, including his two sons. One studies chemical engineering at the University of Havana and the other is doing postgraduate study in information technology. He thinks both will be helped by more exchange with the U.S.

“This is the beginning of a new era of intercambio,” he said. He has bad memories of political hostility, but his children don’t.

He works as a statistician in the hospital in Viñales, two hours outside of Havana, and he said wants his children to have a chance to go to the U.S.

“They have to know what happened, but what passed, passed.”