The World

Don’t Expect Flags and Champagne in Havana

Locals sit next to a poster of former Cuban President Fidel Castro in Havana on Dec. 18, 2014. 

Photo by Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

Yoani Sanchez is one of Cuba’s best-known independent journalists and director of the news site 14ymedio, on which this post was originally published. She is also the author of the book Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today, and received the World Press Freedom Hero award from the International Press Institute in 2010.

Wednesday was one of those days we had imagined a thousand ways, but never as it actually finally happened. We were prepared for a date on which we could celebrate the end, hug our friends who returned home, and wave a flag in the middle of the street. But D-Day is late. Instead, the events arrive in fragments, an advance here, a loss there. With no cries of “Long live free Cuba,” nor uncorked bottles. Life obscures from us this turning point that we would mark forever on our calendars.

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The announcement by the governments of Cuba and the United States of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations surprised us in the midst of exhausted hopes and signs that pointed in the opposite direction. Raúl Castro had just postponed the third round of talks with the European Union, scheduled for next month, and this Dec. 10, International Human Rights day, fell heavily on activists, as it does every year.

The first surprise was that, in the midst of all the official bluster and calls by the government to redouble our guard against the enemy, the Plaza of the Revolution and the White House had been in talks for 18 months–clear evidence that all this intransigence was just for show. At the same time they were telling the island’s citizens that even crossing the threshold of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana would make someone a traitor to the homeland, the leaders in their olive-green uniforms were working out agreements with Uncle Sam. The deceits of politics!

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Both Obama’s statements, as well as Castro’s, had a hint of capitulation. The U.S. president announced a long list of moderating measures to bring the two nations closer. But he did so before the coveted and greatly demanded goals of democratization and political opening in our country have been achieved. The question of what would come first, a gesture from Havana or flexibility from Washington, has just been answered. The fig leaf of the American embargo remains, preventing the resignation from being complete.

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Raul Castro, for his part, limited himself to announcing the new gestures from Obama and referring to the exchange of Alan Gross and an American spy for the long-awaited return of three Cuban agents held in U.S. custody. However, in his address before the national television cameras, he gave no evidence of any agreement or compromise from the Cuban side, aside from the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. The agenda on the far side of the Florida Straits we know in detail, but the internal one remains, as it so often does, hidden and secret.

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Still, despite the absence of public commitments on the part of Cuba, today was a political defeat for the government. Under the leadership of Fidel Castro we would have never even reached an outline of an agreement of this nature. Because the Cuban system is supported by–as one of its main pillars–the existence of a permanent rival. David can’t live without Goliath and the ideological apparatus has depended too long on this dispute.

Do I listen to speeches or buy fish?

In the Carlos III market in central Havana, customers were surprised midday that the big TVs were not broadcasting soccer or videoclips, but Castro’s speech and later Obama’s. The first statement caused a certain astonishment, but the second was accompanied by kisses launched toward the face of the U.S. president, particularly when he mentioned relaxing the regulations for sending remittances to Cuba and the delicate topic of telecommunications. Now and again the cry of “I LOVE…” (in English!) could be heard.

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It is important to also say that the news had fierce competition—the arrival of fish to the rationed market, after years of absence. However, by mid-afternoon almost everyone was aware of the big news and the shared feelings were of joy, relief, hope.

This, however, is just the beginning. What we have yet to hear is a public timeline that commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences. We must take advantage of these announcements to extract a public promise from the government, which must include, at a minimum  four consensus points that civil society has been developing in recent months: The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; the end of political repression; the ratification of the United Nations covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the consequent adjustment of domestic laws; and the recognition of Cuban civil society within and outside the island.

Extracting these commitments would begin the dismantling of totalitarianism.

As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to believe that the day we have longed for is still far off. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.

-This post was translated by Mary Jo Porter and lightly edited for publication on Slate.

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