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Cubans Curious To See If Diplomatic Shift Leads To Democracy

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama's announcement that full diplomatic relations will be restored with Cuba marked an historic shift in U.S.-Cuba relations. The diplomatic change includes relaxing travel and trade restrictions that have been in place for decades. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is NPR's Latin America correspondent and she's a frequent traveler to Cuba. She brings us this report on what it means for the Cubans who have been pushing for democracy on their island.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Raul Castro made his speech at exactly the same time as President Obama. Sitting in a wood-lined office, Cuba's president was dressed in his customary military fatigues. It wasn't until halfway through his address, though, that he announced in one brief line the diplomatic ties between the two countries would resume. He quickly followed, though, by saying that the economic embargo of the island must end. He finished his speech with these conciliatory words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Translating) The progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems. As we have reiterated, we must learn the art of coexisting with our differences in a civilized manner.

LOUIS PEREZ: So I think this could be very well-classified as a game changer in Cuba.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Louis Perez, a renowned Cuba scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

PEREZ: The normalization of relations with the United States, however slowly and judiciously they move forward, allows for greater space in Cuba. The state of siege mentality that has endured in Cuba for the last 50-plus years begins slowly to lift and evaporate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Perez says the Cubans are viewing this is not only a way to open the door but to keep the door open. According to reports on the streets of Havana, there were celebrations with church bells ringing and Cubans hopeful that the rapprochement would mean an improvement for their lives. But some dissidents in Cuba were more guarded. Ostensibly, President Obama's policy shift is supposed to help bring democracy to the Socialist island where the Castro brothers have ruled for 54 years. NPR reached Jose Daniel Ferrer, one of the leading dissidents and a former political prisoner in Cuba.

JOSE DANIEL FERRER: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We always maintained that without clear commitments in favor of human rights by the Cuban regime, it wasn't the right time to take the steps that the U.S. government announced, he said. But, he says, it's happened and now we think that there are some things that are very positive for our fight for democracy, in particular, more access to the Internet.

But he also noted that so far only a few of the political prisoners, whom the U.S. said will be released, have left jail. Blogger dissident Yusnaby Perez tweeted that he felt people felt a great uncertainty as to what the policy change will mean - will we be able to eat meat? That's the first thing my neighbor asked me, he tweeted. Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo is a Cuban writer and dissident who is currently on a fellowship at Brown University. What struck him more than anything, he says, was the absence of a certain someone.

LUIS PARDO LAZO: Fidel Castro is really out of the equation now. Definitely a new era is opening and Fidel Castro is no man of new eras.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, as someone who grew up with the omnipresent Fidel, it's a shocking realization. Like many of the dissidents, he is worried about whether this bold move will actually help democracy in Cuba. He says this may prove to be new oxygen for the dictatorship. Still, he says...

LAZO: If this is going to create new possibilities for Cubans to strive peacefully for their freedom, we will.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cuba is often described as a country frozen in time. But this time, Cuba is traveling on uncharted waters. Yusnaby Perez's recent tweet speaks to the hope and fear some of those in Cuba feel. Cuba is entering a place it has never explored, he wrote. Good things can happen, or not so good things. We will see.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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