HAVANA — Daniela Martinez long figured that someday she would leave the struggles of daily life in Cuba and join her uncle in the United States, but after the events of the last few days, the 18-year-old medical student thinks exile may not be her only choice.
“He always tells me things are better there,” Martinez said, gesturing with her chin toward the sea leading to Florida. Dangling her legs over the edge of the Malecon, the iconic concrete seawall where entertainment-starved young Havanans gather each evening, she said, “I think things are going to get better.”
For a generation that grew up believing the best way to pursue their dreams was to leave the island, the announcement this week that Cuba will open relations with the United States is prompting many to reevaluate their futures. At the same time, Cuban-Americans are considering what the changes will mean for their lives, with some even wondering whether they are significant enough to present a once far-fetched chance for them to return.
The five decades of estrangement since Fidel Castro came to power in the Cuban revolution have created an economic and psychological gulf much wider than the 90 miles of the Florida Straits. But the opening of relations, with increased travel and communication, stands to narrow those differences and create new opportunities, especially for young people less burdened by the past.
For Cubans like Martinez, it may mean that becoming a doctor won’t limit her to a meager state salary. For others, there is the hope of Internet access and an end to the desperation that leads thousands to migrate each year. Cuban-Americans, meanwhile, see the possibility of starting businesses in their homeland, connecting with their roots and putting aside the bitterness of parents and grandparents who were arrested, exiled or had property seized in the revolution.
“My family always said they weren’t going back until Fidel died,” said Vanessa Garcia, a 35-year-old writer in Miami whose parents left Cuba in the 1960s. “But it seemed like that was something that was hurting us rather than helping us in many ways. It’s lasted much longer than anybody thought it would.”
Some change already has been in the works. Cuba did away with a longstanding restriction on overseas travel last year, and knowledge of modern culture has been making its way into the island via TV and flash drives brought from overseas — enough for people here to know what they are missing. Young people increasingly are on Facebook, even if they don’t manage to get online often. And in the other direction, Cuban-Americans have been visiting in greater numbers, often helping to keep their extended families afloat.
Many in Florida grew up hearing their grandparents’ stories about fleeing from communism. The revolution, they were taught, brought an end to freedom and ushered in tyranny. Cubans on the island, meanwhile, learned from state propaganda that the Yankees were the enemy and capitalism was savage. Anybody who left was called a “worm.”
But Cubans and Cuban-Americans find that when they meet, they have much more in common than expected. They share the same hand gestures, slang and even taste in music. They love baseball with a passion. “Everybody says their grandmother’s flan is the best and nobody knows how to make a Cuban sandwich except the place that they know,” said Dave Sandoval, a musician in Washington.
Even after years of propaganda, Cubans are fascinated with some of the most hyper-American aspects of U.S. culture. Paula Pineiro, a 14-year-old high school student and musician, is dying to see the skyscrapers of New York while classmate Otto Rivero wants to see Disneyland and Las Vegas, places he knows only from TV.
“We want to have new experiences,” says the 14-year-old Rivero. “I love casinos. They say they are magnificent.”
Yusset Perez, 30, arrived in Miami 10 months ago to join his wife and found work at a college as an administrative assistant and computer lab manager. But now he’s thinking about opening a business back home.
“I always wanted to maintain ties, not turn my back from Cuba entirely,” Perez said in Hialeah, the heavily Cuban Miami neighborhood where he passed out flyers for the college in front of a discount store specializing in clothing and housewares destined to be sent back to the island.
Nearly everyone in Cuba seems to have some familial connection to the United States, though people from the two countries can have cartoonish views of each other.
Many Cubans are envious of the lifestyle and wealth of their relatives in the U.S., but can also consider them materialistic and arrogant. Many feel Americans don’t respect their accomplishments, such as in schools and medical care.
Beatriz Garcia, a 25-year-old who teaches Spanish to foreign students, said that while she hopes to see Cuba have greater access to affordable consumer goods, she bristled at the notion the U.S. is better. “Over there, they may have a better economy,” she said, “but here we have good education and health.”
Cuban-Americans, on the other hand, sometimes see islanders as poor and unsophisticated, out of step with the modern world.
“It definitely feels like a frozen 1950s version of everything my grandparents told me it looked like,” said Garcia, the writer.
Miami architect Jovan Rodriguez said he’s noticed improvements in Cuba, such as when he visited in February and found that a relative’s home was for sale — something only made possible by recent property reforms. It’s still not legal for foreign nonresidents to buy real estate, but he’s hopeful that may become possible.
“This completely changed my whole outlook toward the future as far as my relationship with Cuba,” Rodriguez said. “I really made a profound connection with the people. I really hope to be able to go back soon, and I hope relations between our two nations make it easier for that to happen.”
At the University of Havana, several students said they are aware of problems in their country but are optimistic about the future.
Sitting on the same steps where Fidel Castro addressed jubilant crowds after rolling into Havana in January 1959, Ernesto Gutierrez Leyva, 20, said he would like to see Cuba move toward greater political tolerance, perhaps even a multiparty system, an idea that is still officially considered anathema. The country “is broken, but you have to fix it from here,” he said.
And on the Malecon, Martinez noted there are advantages to staying in Cuba, such as a free university education.
“I want to go to see it,” she said of the United States, “but live in Cuba.”