Cuba’s Young Cheer Investors as the Rest Greet ‘Hero’ Spies

Since U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, sugarcane cutter Jose Luis Hernandez and his Communist labor squad have talked about little else. Forget the economic opportunities, though: they are thrilled by the U.S. release of three Cuban spies.

“We talk about them here every day,” Hernandez, 48, said as he tried to repair a 35-year-old Soviet harvester in a field in Rodas, Cienfuegos province. “How did they arrive? How well are they looking? What are they eating?”

Two hundred kilometers away in the Miramar House of Music in Havana, the reaction was very different.

“Let the wall open to investment!,” jazz guitarist Rey Fernandez shouted to a packed crowd of revelers on Christmas Eve. “Salute to the foreign investors!” There was no mention of the three state-lauded “heroes,” captured by the U.S. in 1998.

The agreement this month between Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro to loosen the five-decade-old embargo has exposed a generational gap on the island. While younger Cubans are excited about the prospect of investment, higher wages and foreign travel, many Cubans over 45 years old are talking about the release of the spies little heard of outside the country.

For people like Hernandez, working for $20 a month in the Caribbean heat, the spies embody half a century of sacrifice for the benefit of the Revolution and defiance of the U.S. Their release means more to many people than the restoration of diplomatic ties.

New Reality

“It’s always better to be in peace with your neighbors than to fight, but we’re managing to get by without their investment,” said Ramon Ojeda, 44, a night watchman in Rodas. “I’m managing to fight the corner for my family with the system we have.”

The generation that came of age before the legalization of the private sector in the late 1990s will struggle to adjust to any new economic reality driven by U.S. investment, said Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“In Cuba, these people are dependent on a highly subsidized, paternalistic economic system,” Feinberg said by telephone from Wilmington, Delaware. “It will be very hard for many of them to adjust to a more productivity-oriented, efficiency-driven system.”

‘Finally Home’

“Finally Home” reads a poster outside a community center in south Havana picturing Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino and Antonio Guerrero, the three spies released after as long as 15 years in U.S. jails. The three were swapped for a U.S. spy held in Havana as part of the Dec. 17 accord between Obama and Castro.

Cuba’s most famous folk singer Silvio Rodriguez held a free concert for the detainees in the parking lot of a baseball stadium on Dec. 21.

“I cried when I saw the news on television,” 60-year-old Havana teacher Nieves Morre said, while clutching shopping bags of canned food and stationary. “The heroes are finally home.” Morre said she hasn’t heard about any economic changes.

The generational divide in Cuba mirrors one in the U.S. Just 25 percent of Cuban Americans over the age of 65 supported the decision to normalize relations with Cuba versus 53 percent of those aged 18-29, according to a Dec. 17-18 survey of 400 people by polling company Bendixen & Amandi International. The poll had a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

‘Political Consequences’

Cuban state media, which informed the majority of older Cubans who have no access to the Internet about the accord, made little mention of the relaxation of trade and travel with the U.S., said fiction writer Hugo Luis Sanchez, 66.

“The government is afraid that opening up to U.S. capital will bring political consequences beyond its control,”Sanchez said in his Havana home.

That pent-up desire for change could be seen in the bustling Havana bars, where the young celebrated the U.S. accord and the economic implications.

Zahilyn Rodriguez, a 24-year-old civil engineer, was among those that shouted back as the guitarist Fernandez called on people to salute foreign investors.

“The opening up to the U.S. is the main conversation in my group of friends,” Rodriguez said after the concert. “We all hope it will allow us to see the world and earn a salary that matches the effort we put into our degrees.”

Younger Cubans with better access to the Internet are able to get beyond the official propaganda and explore the opportunities offered by the accord, said Barbara Kotschwar, an adjunct professor of Latin American economics at Georgetown University in Washington.

“Our parents grew up in a different time, they don’t see the full potential of these changes.” said Jenny Diaz, 31, a trained accountant working as a bartender in Havana. “The news from the U.S. is our biggest hope for a better life.”

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