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For better or for worse — what would an end to the embargo mean for Cuba?

June 15, 2015 at 8:04 PM EDT
As the relationship between Cuba and America improves, what will a potential end to the embargo mean for the two countries? Reporting from Havana, Jeffrey Brown looks at how closer ties to America could change Cuba, and the Cuban way of life. This is part one of the series, "Cuban Evolution."
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HARI SREENIVASAN: More than five decades after the U.S. and Cuba severed ties, Cuba is poised for some big changes in its relations with the United States, and the way business is done there.

In just a matter of weeks, the Obama administration is expected to announce that both countries will open embassies in each other’s capital. Last month, the U.S. removed Cuba from its terrorism list. At the same time, the Cuban government is allowing more private enterprise.

It’s a moment when Cuba is preparing for a very different relationship with its American neighbors.

Jeffrey Brown has the story, the first in a special weeklong series about the Cuban evolution, focusing on significant shifts in its politics, business, arts and culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: A second-floor bed and breakfast on a Caribbean island, home to Tatiana Zuniga her extended family.

From here, you can sit at breakfast?

TATIANA ZUNIGA, Airbnb Host (through translator): Yes. Enjoy your breakfast.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this is the island of Cuba. And Tatiana’s rooms are now available through Airbnb, the San Francisco-based online service, a bit of fledgling capitalism in the home of the hemisphere’s socialist revolution.

TATIANA ZUNIGA (through translator): Airbnb has excellent prestige among travelers. They also have a lot of business experience, and we do not have that. How they work and get things done and reach millions of people around the world, that will help greatly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Help Tatiana and help visitors, for, yes, the Americans are coming, strolling through a colonial square, riding in open air tour buses, taking selfies with Che Guevara in Revolution Plaza.

In fact, we saw more American flags, even if people were wearing them, than portraits of Fidel. And many Cubans we met are saying, come on down.

BERNICE OCHOA, Shopkeeper (through translator): We always love United States people, and this is God’s doing, that he is making possible this union. I’m saying to Obama and to our president to make this possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why not? Music everywhere, world-famous cigars, sparkling beaches, the romance of a time gone by.

So, old cars and all, is Cuba open for American business and tourism? Well, no, tentatively at best. But is moving in that direction? Yes. We saw signs of that everywhere.

This group of American foodies came on a culinary tour of Havana. We joined them on a visit to an organic farm and later at a restaurant. Traveling here is still complicated. Tourism is banned under the U.S. embargo. So visitors must qualify in one of 12 categories of licensed travel, including so-called educational people-to-people trips.

ERIC NORBER, Owner, Cultural Contrast: Suddenly, everybody has Cuba on their radar. Virtually all Americans have never been to Cuba, and the country is 90 miles south of Florida. It’s so close, and it’s interesting because nobody’s been here. And it’s been a — let’s call it a forbidden fruit or an off-limits island.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eric Norber’s company, Cultural Contrast, has been leading these tours for 25 years, and jumped from two to three a year to a booming 20 trips booked in the next 12 months.

In a country where the government still runs pretty much everything, new laws allow more private ownership. And that was enough to lure Alejandro Marcel to return from Venezuela to renovate his mother’s house into a fancy new restaurant.

This is a restaurant that could be in anyplace. You know?

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re laughing. It’s funny that it’s here in Havana.

ALEJANDRO MARCEL, Restaurant Owner: I know. I know. I have been many place. I see — I saw restaurants all over the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: But he also added this.

ALEJANDRO MARCEL (through translator): It is hard, especially when it comes to getting ahold of supplies and keeping a certain standard of quality. It’s very hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s hard. And we saw that, too, a place of need and want. Those cars? Symbols of a country living under an embargo, outside the modern global economy. Cuba hasn’t fully recovered from the crisis brought on after the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose subsidies kept the country financially afloat.

Some Cubans are forced to beg. Others use their ration cards to buy a bit of chicken at a government shop. Disparities are growing, based on who has access to dollars from outside Cuba, mainly from families in the U.S.

Everyone spoke to us of economic hardship, and the desire to have better relations with the U.S. to help overcome it.

Yaniuys Villafana owns a small pizza shop.

YANIUYS VILLAFANA, Pizza Shop Owner (through translator): There are many people who do not have a job and need a better income. In my case, I am pregnant and I’m working here so that I can provide a better life for my son.

JEFFREY BROWN: Remember Tatiana, taking Airbnb bookings? Look at her T-shirt, “No Es Facil, “It’s Not Easy.” And it’s not. Like most Cubans, she has no Internet service and must go to an international hotel or government office, and pay a lot for lousy service.

TATIANA ZUNIGA (through translator): Unfortunately, the speed is very slow. So, you have to be very patient. Sometimes, I feel I get old in front of the machine as I try to access some sites. At the end, it’s not easy, but it is possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: For tourists, there aren’t enough international hotels, no U.S. banks and no American credit card services.

ERIC NORBER: The challenge here is really one of infrastructure. They don’t have the capacity to suddenly have such a high volume of tourists. Hotel space isn’t available, transportation, infrastructure in every regard.

JEFFREY BROWN: We heard other, very different reasons for caution from several Cubans, including 87-year-old Carmen Blanco Boyce, who worked for an American company here, but supported the revolution. She well remembers what she calls the bad old days of Americans in Cuba.

CARMEN BLANCO BOYCE, Cuba: We were nothing, you know? We were nothing. We were nobody. And they could do with Cuba whatever they want.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today, she worries about a new onslaught of American capital and influence.

CARMEN BLANCO BOYCE: I want to be a friend of the United States, because I love your country. But I’m very, very scared.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re scared of what might happen?

CARMEN BLANCO BOYCE: That things won’t come out as I think they should.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there are also those, like 26-year-old Manuel Mons, part of a dissident group called Somos Mas, We Are More, who want Americans to see the Cuba they see, for all the tentative openings, still a one-party, repressive state.

MANUEL MONS, Somos Mas (through translator): The Cuban people are not free. In Cuba, thinking independently is prohibited. It’s written in the constitution. Thinking independently from the government is illegal.

JEFFREY BROWN: The contradictions of a still-evolving situation: Come to Cuba, if you can, and watch the changes unfold.

From Havana, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tomorrow, Jeff reports on efforts to bring modern development, design and critical infrastructure to the city of Havana, while still maintaining its historic aesthetic and character.

WOMAN: Decades of deferred maintenance. You see infrastructure that’s falling part, cracked buildings, dirt, corrosion.

But, to me, that is not nearly as potentially destructive as what can happen if developers come in here and they don’t protect the city.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And there’s more online. We sat down with Cuban poet Omar Perez, who is also the son of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. He read one of his latest works, which you can watch on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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