L.A. Now
Live updates: Tour bus collides with big rig in fatal crash in Desert Hot Springs

In Cuba, celebration and skepticism greet opening of U.S. relations

Renewing of diplomatic relations with the U.S. brings hope to some Cubans, but others stay skeptical

Down Prado boulevard, lined with wide-topped trees and pastel-colored 19th century buildings, men and a few women were hawking homes, cars, just about anything you could want. Business, they said, is only bound to get better.

"A lot of families will be returning," said Jesus Parra, the street representative of the Habana-Yunior real estate company, offering apartment trades and small houses for the equivalent of a few thousand dollars.

"A big salute to Obama! To Raul! It's the best thing they could ever do."

Reinaldo Riesch, who sells cars along the boulevard, had a different opinion.

"The mentality still has not changed," he said, lounging on a bench and dressed in shorts. "The people need proof that real change is coming. Until I see someone saying something strong against the government, without anything happening to them, I won't believe it."

With the opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years of rupture, change will come to the Communist-led island only in fits and starts. Cuban President Raul Castro has made it clear that for all the overtures by President Obama, his pace is his own.

"We must not expect that in order for relations with the United States to improve, Cuba will abandon the ideas that it has struggled for," Castro said.

Castro's motives for acting now have been a matter of much debate and speculation. For one, Cuba may be losing its sponsor Venezuela — much like it lost its Soviet Union patron in the 1990s. With falling petroleum prices, Caracas is less able to continue its generous supply of 100,000 barrels of crude to Cuba on a daily basis.

But probably more important than that is Raul Castro's own sense of history and legacy. He — and most of the top officials in the Cuban leadership — are in their 80s. They alone can set the tone for the next generation, claim a direction for slow change that does not undermine the basic tenets of what they see as the socialist direction of their nation.

"No child dies of hunger here," Riesch said. But, he added, with salaries at the equivalent of less than $20 a month, "that does not mean you can support your family....The people of Cuba are strangled."

The slow pace of change in Cuba has been in evidence before. Nearly four years ago, Raul Castro announced a liberalization of private entrepreneurship that gave rise to hundreds of small businesses all over the island, including car washes, shoe repair shops and restaurants. But the government then also imposed a taxation system that was more than many businesses could bear, and they closed within a year or two of opening.

Edarvelio Sanchez is optimistic. His two sons left for the United States — one two decades ago and the other, a pianist who is a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, just last year. Sanchez, 70, has never gone to see them, but he hopes now that a visit could be possible.

"Think of how many people have drowned," he said, referring to the hundreds of Cubans who have tried to reach the U.S. in rickety boats. "Now you won't have to go into the water."

Real estate and cars are among the items that, in the last few years, Cubans have been able to buy and sell.

Across the street from the Prado hawkers was Jose Andres Rignack, who earns about $8 a week filling disposable cigarette lighters with fuel so they can be reused. He can make ends meet only thanks to a brother in the U.S. who sends money.

Down the street, Teresa Sevilla recently opened a fancy restaurant, called here a paladar, which serves lobster and is decorated with artistic photographs and paintings. She is hoping the new ties with the U.S. will help her import products from Latin American countries that have shied away because of duties imposed by the U.S., she says.

"You have to have a lot of intuition, read a lot of laws, and know what is allowed and what isn't" to succeed, she said.

"I can't complain," said Sevilla, a former elementary school teacher who has lived through much worse times, such as the economic implosion of the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed.

In a common exchange here known as permute, she traded her home to the owners of the 150-year-old building where she established her restaurant and that she refurbished. She now lives above the high-ceilinged dining rooms, in an apartment with marble flooring and art deco furnishings.

Yamile Quintana sells hand-made metal kitchen utensils from a street-side window, a business she was able to open with a friend about two years ago. But she does not see her lot improving with the diplomatic opening.

"For those of us on the bottom rung, nothing is going to change," she said.

Next door, at a new CD shop where green, blue and purple blinking lights surround a selection that includes a startling number of Bruce Willis films, Angel Lopez uses his computer to bootleg discs for customers. It's another industry reflecting the changing times in Cuba. Does he see progress on the horizon?

"We'll have to wait and see," Lopez, 19, said.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times