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In Havana, Their Man Is John Kerry

Cubans follow the U.S. campaign closely, convinced that the Democratic nominee would improve their lives if elected.

August 09, 2004|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

VARADERO, Cuba — At first glance, it wouldn't seem that Reynaldo Palaso's fortunes would be tied up with the U.S. presidential election.

But the father of two, who zips his dune buggy through the sugar-fine sand of Cuba's biggest resort enclave to deliver sodas and snacks to sun-worshiping foreign tourists, says he is avidly following the latest polls and candidate statements. He is watching for indications that the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, is pulling ahead.

Expectations of a Kerry victory and relief from more than four decades of sanctions are probably driven more by wishful thinking than any concrete indication that relations between Washington and the Western Hemisphere's last bastion of communist rule are about to improve.

The Democratic nominee has said only that he opposes tough new regulations limiting family visits and that he supports "principled tourism" by U.S. citizens to show the benefits of democracy to Cubans.

Still, many Cubans are raptly following the U.S. presidential campaign and pinning their hopes on Kerry.

Palaso's interpretation is that Kerry will lift the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba, which he says would be very good for the island nation.

"We're not well-prepared for a big influx, so there could be more opportunity for private enterprise," said Palaso, whose income from tips is as much as 30 times the average Cuban's salary. "Everyone knows if we don't take good care of the U.S. tourists, we will lose the trade to other countries.

"The Cuban people are brothers with the American people," Palaso insisted, stocking his battered Styrofoam cooler with soft drinks and beer, then loading it onto the motorized cart he rents from the state. "The problem is not between the people, but with the system."

Waitress Mayda Garcia at the Vicaria Italian restaurant said Cubans feel their fate is in the hands of U.S. voters.

"We know President Bush will continue to abuse us, but the other one says he will let Americans travel here," Garcia said, momentarily forgetting the challenger's name. "We don't know if he will actually do it, but we have to hope that our U.S. neighbors agree it makes no sense to keep in place these barriers between us."

Accustomed to heavy doses of political direction from Havana, Cubans have long seen themselves as victims of misguided U.S. policy that will be corrected once a right-thinking leader occupies the White House. State-run television and newspapers keep track of setbacks for Bush and any poll or analysis casting Kerry as the front-runner.

Bootlegged copies of filmmaker Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" have been showing in packed cinemas for the past three weeks. The film, not yet available on DVD in the United States, was also shown on state TV the night of Kerry's acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention.

The Cuban government retains a virtual monopoly on hotels, restaurants and services, allowing only small-scale private initiatives like Pedro Gonzalez's horse-drawn carriage rides through this resort peninsula 70 miles east of Havana. The farmer, 32, uses his own horse but has to rent the 10-seat carriage from a state enterprise for $10 a day. On a good day, he earns $20 above expenses, twice the salary a state worker takes home in a month.

"It would make sense to have more private enterprise, but I'm not sure they will allow it," he said of the government ministries that control the economy. "If the [U.S.] travel ban was lifted, this would bring about pressure for change."

Cuban officials say the nation of 11.3 million remains committed to socialism and the free healthcare and education that have been provided since President Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution. But they concede that there might be more room for free enterprise if the U.S. dropped its travel restrictions.

"We already have paladares [private restaurants] and people renting out rooms. I don't see this as a problem," said Miguel Alvarez, chief advisor to the National Assembly. "But this is not the main issue. The state has accommodations for tourists and any increase will be a fundamental support for the Cuban economy as it is now."

Rafael Dausa, head of the Foreign Ministry's North American department, says an influx of Americans would be a challenge for Cuban society but the government is confident it could handle it. Like most Cubans, he expresses the belief that a change in U.S. presidents could only be an improvement.

Cuban officials have long lobbied for an end to the trade embargo imposed by President Eisenhower in 1961 and maintained by each of his successors.

Relations have worsened in the last four years as the Bush administration cut off cultural exchanges and recently imposed limits on family visits and money transfers.

"The situation between the governments has gotten really bad. There were always exceptions made for artists and cultural figures, but no longer," said Amadito Valdes, the Buena Vista Social Club percussionist. The band was nominated for a Grammy this year, but its members were denied U.S. visas to attend the awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Along Havana's Malecon seafront, Cubans relax after working hours and dream of better days to come.

"We want Kerry to win because he'll let U.S. people travel," said Angel Rivero, who works in a cigar factory that pays part of his salary in product that he can peddle on the streets. His wife, on maternity leave, copies salsa music CDs at home to add to their offerings for foreigners strolling near their tiny apartment.

"We hope you will be free after the election," Lisbet Rivero told an American visitor, echoing the official line that U.S. citizens, not Cubans, are oppressed. "We want to see millions of Americans coming here."

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