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What Do Cubans Think Of Renewed U.S. Relations?


The Cuban president delivering a big speech to the National Assembly is rarely big news. But in the wake of President Obama's historic agreement to reestablish diplomatic ties, a lot more people were paying attention to Raul Castro's speech this morning. Castro expressed gratitude to President Obama, but also called for an immediate end to the decades-long U.S. embargo. He also said the Cuban revolution had won. NPR's Carrie Kahn joins us now from Havana. Carrie, what was President Castro's tone today?

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: I'd say it was a little stronger than it was when he addressed the nation earlier this week. He was a little more defiant. He did mention a few things. He did call for a lifting of the embargo that was essential to Cuba right now. He also stressed that the United States needs to take Cuba off its terrorist watch list. He says that's just - that's when he got most angry. He said that it's just incorrigible that they would call Cuba a terrorist state. So he was a little firmer when it came to that. It was pretty much similar to what he said before, but there was a lot of technical stuff too about the economy.

RATH: What kind of reaction did you hear from Cubans around you to the speech?

KAHN: Well, I'll tell you we tried to find a place where we thought Cubans would gather to talk - to watch the speech. And we went to this place that had outdoor TV sets. It's mostly a sports bar. And there weren't a lot of people there, and the people that were there were watching the game. They weren't watching Raul Castro. Actually, we asked them if they would put it on the TV. Some of the wait staff came out and started watching. And it was kind of interesting because one of waiters that I talked to, he just got very emotional when he saw those prisoners that had been returned from the United States to Cuba. They're hailed here as heroes. And it was a long propagandistic campaign to get them released from American prisons. And they've long been called heroes here in Cuba. And so he said when he saw them, when they panned to them on the TV because they were in the National Assembly watching Raul Castro's speech, and when they panned to him, he said he got chills. And he was so excited to finally see the heroes that had come back.

So that was kind of interesting. This has been a big political, national victory for Raul Castro to bring those prisoners back, and to warm these relations with the United States. It has been a big score for him politically, nationally.

RATH: I know you've also been talking to dissidents in Cuba. What have they been saying about the news?

KAHN: Pretty much the opposite of what we hear a lot in the streets. You know, they are very - very skeptical that anything immediately will change in Cuba. The economy has grown a little bit more than 1 percent and that's according to official figures. So they say really nothing's going to change here. They have a very pessimistic view on the short-term. In the long-term, they too say without the embargo lifted nothing is really going to change for Cuba. They decry the human rights situation. Part of the deal was also that Cuba was going to release 53 political prisoners, but there's been no word about any sort of release here on the island.

RATH: Finally, President Castro - President Raul Castro acknowledged the economy there is not doing very well. What have business owners been telling you?

KAHN: Well, the fact that you asked me about business owners is something very new in Cuba, and it's very interesting. That's only within the last four or five years that there's been limited private enterprise. I did speak to some private business owners and they are ecstatic. They just think it's great. It will bring more tourists with the relaxation of the travel restrictions.

I spoke to one restaurateur in the - in old Havana - a beautiful colonial restaurant with these beautiful plates and chairs and stuff. And he says, you know, most of the stuff they get is from Mexico or Panama. It would be so much easier to get them from just a 40-minute plane ride from the United States and have better quality, and that tourists would come - more tourists than they have. And they're overwhelmingly ecstatic about what a warming of relations could be between the U.S. and Cuba.

RATH: That NPR's Carrie Kahn on the line from Havana. Carrie, thank you.

KAHN: Oh, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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