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Celebrating students march in a Havana street on Wednesday after Washington released three Cuban spies.ROBERTO MOREJON/AFP / Getty Images

Rafael Betancourt has been working to change the relationship between Cuba and the United States since he was a teenager in exile. Yesterday, the 62-year-old economist saw his dogged efforts bear fruit.

"I feel very relieved. For many years, I felt the change was about to happen but the hopes just faded away," Mr. Betancourt said over tea on his porch in Havana. "But this year, this moment, this day – I personally feel vindicated and very, very happy."

Hours earlier, regular midday broadcasts on all of Cuba's state television channels were interrupted by Raul Castro announcing that after decades of hostility, which began shortly after the revolution swept to power in 1959, his government was beginning talks to normalize relations with the United States.

Wearing a military uniform and speaking in a measured tone, the 83-year-old Cuban President said that while stark disagreements remain between the two countries, "we must learn the art of co-existing with our differences in a civilized manner."

He praised U.S. President Barack Obama with whom he had spoken directly by telephone. "President Obama's decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people," he said.

Invoking a promise made by his older brother, Fidel, who was forced by ill health to transfer power in 2006, the younger Mr. Castro also announced that the remaining three imprisoned spies known collectively on the island as Los Cinco (and abroad as the Cuban Five), were being released by the United States and returning home.

At this news, Cubans watching the broadcast erupted in cheers and rousing applause. Across Old Havana's cobblestone plazas, church bells rang out in celebration.

"It's a historic moment in revolutionary process that creates a lot of hope and expectation among the Cuban people," said Lupe Gonzalez, a community development worker. "We are incredibly happy about the openings this decision could create in the economic and social development of our country."

Mr. Betancourt, who teaches at the University of Havana, was not surprised by the announcement itself but rather its scope. "It's wider than I expected. But I was sure there was going to be a prisoner swap before Christmas," said the economist who returned to Cuba in the mid-1980s.

"There was too much of a risk that Alan Gross would die in a Cuban jail and that would prevent any improvement in relations for decades," he added, referring to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor who was held for five years after being caught bringing illegal satellite Internet equipment into the country.

Ms. Gonzalez, 48, cautioned that Wednesday's events do not definitely mend frayed relations across the Florida Straits but instead represent an important first step. "The fact that both heads of state had a conversation and announced it publicly shows there is a real desire to change the relationship."

Also key was Mr. Obama's concession that the long-standing U.S. policy of isolation in hopes of regime change had failed. Mr. Betancourt reached back even further in his country's history with its powerful northern neighbour in explaining the significance of that admission.

"This may be the most important policy change by the United States toward Cuba since James Madison, whose administration decreed that Cuba was ripe fruit that would eventually fall in the U.S. lap. Since then, U.S. policy has basically had the same tenets: Cuba policy is not something the Cubans can make for themselves, it is something that has to be approved by the U.S. And that is changing."

The economist warned the changes announced Wednesday could still be rolled back, either because a Republican succeeds Mr. Obama in the White House – Jeb Bush, for example, has called for sanctions on Cuba to be tightened – or because Mr. Castro's government does not follow through with significant reforms.

"The Americans have to see a benefit to their decision in terms of Cuba's policies. I don't know whether that will take place as well," Mr. Betancourt said. "Will Cuba change its policies on civil rights? On individual rights? On Internet use?"

Both he and Ms. Gonzalez were also wary of the U.S. President's declaration of continued support for those working to improve human-rights conditions and bring about democratic reform on the island. "What kind of support? Will this include the underground, surreptitious funding of opposition groups bent on regime change?" Mr. Betancourt asked. "Will this eliminate the soft war against Cuba, or will that stay in place?"

It was that type of support that landed Mr. Gross in jail in the first place, he added, and that has embarrassed the U.S. government in recent months with the revelation of various USAID schemes including the creation of a Cuban Twitter equivalent and attempts to foment youth dissent via travel and artistic programs.

On the positive side, that the United States is not yet allowing unrestricted travel to the island by all Americans is a relief to those who worry about the potential for disruptive change – which hordes of hedonistic spring-breakers would certainly represent.

Nevertheless, the presidents of both countries have been taken their initial steps and there is likely no going back. "Openings always include risks," Ms. Gonzalez said. "And you can't make progress if you don't take those risks."

While Mr. Betancourt believes yesterday's announcement will broadly benefit the people of both countries, he concedes there is one clear winner.

"This is a huge triumph for Fidel," the economist said. "Fidel launched the revolution that challenged U.S. dominance over Cuba. He refused to negotiate our sovereignty and maintained that eventually U.S. policy would be defeated. And that, at long last, is what has happened."