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Cuba faces tough US choice

Emotional reuinions at Havana airport
For many, the move means more time can be spent with their loved ones

As the US eases restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting relatives back home, the BBC's Michael Voss in Havana looks at the impact this could have on a 50-year-old conflict.

Havana airport's Terminal 2 is reserved exclusively for charter flights from Miami.

Every day, noisy crowds pack around the barrier in front of the exit from the customs hall waiting for their relatives to emerge.

There are screams of excitement and tears of joy as families rush to greet their loved ones.

Under the Bush administration, Cuban Americans could return only once every three years - and with strict limits on how much they could spend or send home.

"I feel great, I've got my family with me now, it's awesome," said Miami resident Roberto Grande after hugging his mother and sisters.

"I think things are going to get better now. I think there's a big hope with the new president [Barack Obama]. He's making a lot of changes for good."

Cuba abuzz

President Obama recently said there were "no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans".

Similar arguments are now being used by those who are trying to push a bill through Congress that would lift the travel ban on all Americans visiting this Communist-run island.

If we start to communicate then people will understand us
Armando
Cuban pensioner

There were some US citizens on the same flight as Roberto Grande.

All had special treasury department licences which are usually given on humanitarian or religious grounds, or for legalised food sales.

Now Cuba is abuzz with speculation that American tourists could soon be on the way, joining the two million other holidaymakers who come here each year, mainly from Canada and Europe.

In the US, shares in the major cruise-liner operators have jumped in anticipation of a change in policy.

At present any ship that docks in Cuba cannot enter a US port for six months.

Only one smallish cruise ship, sailing out of Nassau in the Bahamas, has docked in Havana in the past year.

Some Cubans believe that American tourists could be in for a big surprise if they are allowed to come.

"If we start to communicate then people will understand us," explained Armando, a pensioner who did not want to give his surname.

"Over there they tell lies about Cuba. Newspapers there don't tell the truth. They don't want their people to come here because they might discover how it really is."

Internet woes

Another important step is the lifting of restrictions on Cuban Americans sending money home as well as what they can include in care packages.

For a country where the average salary is around $20 (£13) a month, these remittances are an important economic lifeline for thousands of people.

Cruise ship in Cuba
Just one cruise ship has docked in Cuba in the past year

President Obama is also allowing US telecommunications companies to bid for licences here, though it is unlikely the Cuban Authorities will co-operate.

But if this includes access to the internet through the US undersea fibre-optic cables, that could have a major impact.

At present the only internet available in Cuba is via satellite. It is expensive and slow.

The government here has long claimed that this is the reason why people cannot have the internet at home.

'Rubbed off the map'

The announcement from Washington comes just days before the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, which President Obama will attend.

Cuba map

He is likely to face pressure for further moves towards ending the decades-long conflict which many see as a leftover from the Cold War.

Cuba is the only country not invited to the summit, a fact that many Cubans deeply resent.

"It's as if someone took a rubber and erased us off the map. We exist, we should be invited," said retired agriculture worker Eugenio Martinez.

There are no signs, though, that the trade embargo is about to be lifted.

The Obama administration continues to insist that Cuba must first make progress towards democracy and on human rights.

Cuba's President Raul Castro has pushed through some limited social and economic reforms. But this remains a one-party state with no opposition allowed.

'Totalitarian regime'

The European Union has taken a different approach and has already removed all its sanctions and recently announced a 40m euro development aid package.

The EU argues that engaging with the Cubans on areas of common interest such as trade and the environment could open the door to future discussions on issues such as human rights.

Dissidents such as Miriam Leiva, a rights campaigner, are sceptical of the approach.

"Its very naive what they are doing," she said.

"You can't expect a totalitarian regime to change just because you come along and say I want a dialogue. It's not a dialogue, it's a monologue."

She does welcome the moves on allowing Cuban Americans visiting relatives and sending remittances home.

The announcement from Washington did not make headline news on Cuban state television, but the statement by the presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs was shown and reported, including details of the telecommunications plans.

In one of his recent editorials, former President Fidel Castro wrote that Cuba "does not fear dialogue with the United States nor do we need confrontation to exist".

President Obama has made the first move. All eyes are now on President Raul Castro to see if he can offer any reciprocal gestures to help push the process forward.



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