Tag Archives: Castro

In ‘Papa,’ Hemingway returns to Cuba via the silver screen

Ernest Hemingway left Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro’s revolution, as relations with the United States began to fall into a deep freeze. Over five decades later, the author of “The Old Man and the Sea” returns to the island thanks to the magic of the silver screen.

“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” opens Friday in U.S. theaters as the first full-length Hollywood feature filmed on the island since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, having wrapped even before Havana and Washington’s historic announcement that they would restore diplomatic ties.

“Hemingway left as the doors were closing, and left his beloved home of many, many years to come back to the states and die 18 months later,” said Adrian Sparks, a veteran stage actor with a striking resemblance to the Nobel Prize-winning author he portrays in the movie, in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Now Hemingway has come back to help open the doors again.”

“Papa,” as Hemingway was affectionately known, lived in Cuba from 1939 to 1960. He took his own life in Idaho in 1961, after having won the literary Nobel for classics such as “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He also won a Pulitzer for “The Old Man and the Sea,” which he penned in Cuba.

Directed by Bob Yari, “Papa” is a U.S.-Cuban-Canadian production based on an autobiographical script by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died in 2006. The Petitclerc character in the movie is a young journalist called Ed Myers, played by Giovanni Ribisi, who befriends Hemingway in the late 1950s after sending the novelist a letter.

Through a series of visits to Havana, Myers bears witness to his hero’s greatness, his mutual love for Cuba and its people, and the afflictions that torment him.

“There’s been numerous films about Hemingway. This is the first one that deals with this time period of his life,” Sparks said. “It’s a very delicate time. It’s a powerful journey that the story makes and tries to understand who this man is.”

Joely Richardson, Minka Kelly and James Remar also star.

The film depicts a number of real-life Havana locations associated with Hemingway such as the El Floridita bar, where he was known to down prodigious quantities of lemony daiquiris, and the Ambos Mundos hotel, where he lived for a time. The 1950s cars that prowled Cuban streets then and still do today provide a period backdrop.

Filming took place over nine days in 2013 and again in April-May of 2014, Yari said. It was in December 2014 that Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would negotiate a historic thaw in relations.

Due to decades of bad geopolitical blood and the U.S. economic embargo, now 54 years old, previous Hollywood productions set in Cuba like “The Godfather: Part II” or 1990’s “Havana” were shot in stand-in locations, such as the Dominican Republic.

“Papa” is the first feature with a Hollywood cast and director to be shot on the island, although there have been other productions such as Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary “Buena Vista Social Club.”

On the heels of “Papa” and the resumption of diplomatic ties, a number of U.S. productions such as “House of Lies” and the “Fast and Furious” franchise have already filmed there or sought permission to do so.

“I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have been able to accomplish what we set out to do, which is kind of bridge a barrier between the two people of Cuba and the U.S.,” said Yari, who produced the Oscar-winning “Crash.” “The arts, I think, are the biggest bridge to kind of overcome governmental issues.”

“The Cuban people and the American people really aren’t enemies, and they shouldn’t be enemies. Hopefully this film will help kind of heal that bridge, that gap that has been created between these two people,” he added.

The director said the biggest hurdle was getting Washington’s blessing to shoot in Cuba. “Papa” qualified as a docudrama since it’s based on real events, and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer helped secure permission.

The $3 million production also had to do without backing from a bond company, a necessity for independent projects, since no company had any experience with Cuba, Yari added.

Cuban authorities gave the crew rare access to shoot inside Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s former home 10 miles (16 kilometers) southeast of Havana, now a museum where visitors are only allowed to gaze through the windows. The government also lent one of his old typewriters as a prop and approved the island’s official film institute to help with sets, wardrobe and local actors.

“One of my takeaways was really understanding well not only that Hemingway was loved in Cuba, but how much Hemingway loved Cuba,” said Sparks, who has also interpreted “Papa” in a play by John de Groot.

 

In speech in Cuba, Obama urges change

President Barack Obama challenged Cuba’s Communist government with an impassioned call for democratic and economic change on March 22, addressing the Cuban people directly in a historic speech broadcast throughout the island.

Taking the stage at Havana’s Grand Theater with Cuban President Raul Castro in attendance, Obama used the crowning moment of his visit to extend a “hand of friendship.” He came, he said, to “bury the last remnant” of the Cold War in the Americas.

But Obama also pressed hard for economic and political reforms and greater openness, speaking in a one-party state where little dissent is tolerated.

People take pictures of President Barack Obama as he attends a meeting with entrepreneurs as part of his three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado
People take pictures of President Barack Obama as he attends a meeting with entrepreneurs as part of his three-day visit to Cuba, in Havana March 21. — PHOTO: REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

His speech was the high point of a trip made possible by his agreement with Castro in December 2014 to cast aside decades of hostility that began soon after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, and work to normalize relations. Nonetheless, Obama minced no words in his calls for change.

“I believe citizens should be free to speak their minds without fear,” Obama told the audience. “Voters should be able to choose their governments in free and democratic elections.”

“Not everybody agrees with me on this, not everybody agrees with the American people on this but I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they’re the rights of the American people, the Cuban people and people around the world,” Obama said.

While he urged an end to the longstanding U.S. economic embargo on the island, Obama added that “even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba.”

The scene of the leader of the United States, the superpower to the north once routinely reviled by the Cuban government, standing on Cuban soil urging such changes would have been unthinkable before the two countries began their rapprochement.

For years, Cuban leaders told American presidents to mind their own business. Indeed, Castro has been careful to state since the detente that it does not mean Cuba plans to change its political system, and that while his government is open to discuss any issue, it has to be with mutual respect.

Tuesday’s audience of more than a 1,000 people was made up of invited guests of the U.S. and Cuban governments. They included officials and business people of both countries, visiting U.S. lawmakers and members of Cuba’s cultural elite.

Obama drew sustained applause when he reiterated his call for the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, which he called “an outdated burden on the Cuban people.”

But the response was more muted to his appeal for greater political liberties, including freedom of expression and religion. Obama followed up those comments afterwards with a private meeting with dissidents.

Obama received a smattering of applause, however, when he called for economic reform to help attract more investment from U.S. companies, many of which have remained wary.

At the same time, Obama sought to balance his critique with recognition of America’s flaws and of Cuba’s achievements in areas such as healthcare and education.

Obama, who abandoned a longtime U.S. policy of trying to isolate Cuba, wants to make his shift irreversible by the time he leaves office in January and secure it as a piece of his foreign policy legacy.

But major obstacles remain to full normalization of ties, most notably the continuing U.S. embargo and differences over human rights. The Republican-controlled Congress has so far rejected the Democratic president’s call for a lifting of the embargo, although Obama has used his executive powers to ease some trade and travel restrictions on the island.

The president’s critics at home have called his visit a premature reward to the Castro government. U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, said on Tuesday the trip legitimizes what he called Castro’s “tyrannical dictatorship.”

Speech carried live in Cuba

With his words carried live by Cuba’s state-run media, Obama sought to persuade ordinary Cubans that his new policy, including easing of trade and travel restrictions, was focused primarily on helping them to improve their lives.

Standing at a lectern flanked by U.S. and Cuban flags, Obama laid out a hopeful vision of future U.S.-Cuban relations and told Cubans “it’s up to you” to take steps to change the country.

Some Cubans who listened to Obama’s speech broadcast to their homes and cafes took Obama’s criticism of the Cuban system in stride and were also impressed by his frank admission of America’s own failings.

“He has been very honest in his statements,” said Santiago Rodriguez, 78, in his home in central Havana. “It is not only the blockade (embargo) that has overwhelmed (us) for years. This was a message full of suggestions and positive criticism for the future of Cuba.”

Castro, an army general who took over as president from his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, in 2008, was at the theater to greet Obama on arrival and sat in the audience for the speech. At the end, the Cuban leader lightly applauded from the balcony, then waved to the crowd.

At a news conference on Monday after they met for talks, Obama and Castro aired some of the old grievances between their countries, even as they sought to advance the diplomatic thaw.

Obama’s administration is seeking to bridge the ideological divide by galvanizing the support of the Cuban public to help him pressure their government for reforms to the one-party system and state-run economy that so far have been slow to come. But it runs the risk of being accused of meddling by Havana.

After the speech, Obama met privately with about a dozen Cuban dissidents at the U.S. Embassy. He noted that some of them had been detained and commended them for their courage. Among the participants was Berta Soler, leader of Ladies in White, a protest group.

Obama’s much-anticipated address marked the first time a sitting U.S. president’s speech was broadcast to the Cuban people while on Cuban soil – though speeches by visiting popes have been carried live by state media.

Jimmy Carter, traveling to Cuba in 2002 as the first former U.S. president to visit since the revolution, called for political freedoms in a speech broadcast on live television.

Hemingway’s home in Cuba to get $900,000 in U.S. improvements

A U.S. foundation will ship nearly $900,000 in supplies to build a state-of-the-art facility to preserve Ernest Hemingway’s books, letters and photos — the first major export of construction materials to Cuba since President Barack Obama loosened the trade embargo on the island.

The Boston-based Finca Vigia Foundation has been trying for years to help Cuba stop thousands of pages of documents from slowly disintegrating in the baking heat and dripping humidity of the sprawling home where the American writer lived and worked outside Havana from 1939 to 1960. Officials with Cuba’s National Cultural Heritage Council, which runs the Finca Vigia, have been enthusiastic about building a conservation laboratory but said they didn’t have the funds or supplies to do it.

High-quality building materials are virtually impossible to find throughout much of Cuba, with homeowners forced to buy paint and water pumps stolen from government agencies and pay overseas travelers to bring items as large as sinks and kitchen cabinets in their checked luggage. In state-run hardware stores, a request for an item as mundane as a box of screws can provoke peals of laughter from sales clerks.

The foundation’s proposal to send four shipping containers with as much as $862,000 of materials ranging from nuts and bolts to tools and roofing was approved by the U.S. government in May, after Obama created a series of exemptions to the embargo. The exceptions include permission for Americans to export supplies donated for the purpose of supporting the Cuban people in fields such as science, archaeology and historical preservation.

Cuban architects, engineers and workmen will use the American supplies and Cuban cement blocks and mortar to construct a 2,400-square-foot, two-story laboratory where thousands of photos, roughly 9,000 books and a huge number of letters to and from Hemingway can be treated and preserved.

“It will make a tremendous difference,” Mary-Jo Adams, executive director of the privately funded Finca Vigia Foundation, which was founded in 2003. “They’ll be able to be kept for decades, if not longer.”

TV home improvement expert Bob Vila, a Finca Vigia Foundation board member who is Cuban-American and speaks fluent Spanish, will help oversee the project, Adams said. The head of Cuba’s National Cultural Heritage Council told The Associated Press that she couldn’t make any immediate comment on the project.

The series of exemptions that Obama carved in the embargo a month after his Dec. 17 announcement of detente with Cuba is designed explicitly to help ordinary Cuban citizens and the island’s growing private sector rather than its socialist, single-party government.

But the Cuban government retains control of most aspects of life on the island. Obama administration officials acknowledged from the start that it would be impossible to prevent warming ties from helping a state apparatus that the U.S. criticizes for a lack of political and economic freedom. American tourism to the island is still prohibited by U.S. law and critics of Obama’s engagement with Cuba say that it will simply funnel cash to Raul Castro’s government.

The Finca Vigia is one of Havana’s most popular tourist attractions and its entrance fees go to the government, but Adams said the preservation lab wouldn’t be a part of that.

“It is not going to attract visitors but it will keep the collection safe,” she said.

She said that questions about the ethics of a project that works with the Cuban government had long since dissipated.

“It was sensitive probably 10 years ago. It no longer is,” she said.

Rhythms of everyday life, touring old Havana

In some destinations, tourist areas are located far from the rhythms of everyday life. But visitors who wander through Old Havana — Habana Vieja, as locals call it — can’t help but get a sense of how ordinary Cubans live.

You’ll see uniformed school children, street vendors selling colorful fruits and peppers from carts, clotheslines hung from patios, and small dogs sunning themselves on sidewalks. There are lines at government-run offices for phone service and banking, and bicycle taxis ferrying passengers through the narrow streets. You might hear a rooster crow, a caged songbird, salsa music or the engine of an old car roaring as it trundles past. Watch out for pipes jutting from windows: Water may pour out from housework being done inside.

Nearly every street seems to have a sign attesting to something of cultural or historic significance. O’Reilly Street, for example, named for an Irishman who became a leader in the Spanish colonies and married into a prominent Cuban family, bears a plaque with a rather poetic allusion to the histories of Ireland and Cuba: “Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope.”

Many buildings are terribly rundown. It’s not unusual to see the sky through a roofless stone facade or piles of rubble in the street. But other sites have been beautifully restored, especially around the squares in the eastern half of the neighborhood bordering the water. Spend a few hours walking through Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco and Cathedral Square. Many museums and other attractions are located here, including the Museum of Rum, which offers visitors a swig at the end of the tour, and the Ambos Mundos Hotel, which has an excellent short tour of a room where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote.

Another cluster of major attractions is located in the western half of the neighborhood, near the Prado or Paseo de Marti, a boulevard that divides Old Havana from Central Havana. The Prado itself is worth a stroll, especially on Sundays when it hosts an outdoor art market. Adjacent to the Prado is the Parque Central (Central Park), home to a statue of revolutionary hero Jose Marti. A block over, between Agramonte and Avenida de Las Misiones (Belgica), you’ll find the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, with extraordinary collections of Cuban art in one building and international art in another, and the Museo de la Revolucion, with a tank and the famous boat “Granma” used by Fidel Castro outdoors and a wall of cartoons inside called “Cretins’ Corner” mocking American presidents Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes.

Watch out for hustlers near the Parque Central. Resist all invitations from overly friendly strangers who invite you to a bar or to buy cigars. But if you need a drink, choices abound, including a trio of historic spots. Hemingway frequented El Floridita (located at Obispo No. 557) and La Boguedita del Medio (Empedrado No. 207), while Sloppy Joe’s, where the messy ground beef concoction supposedly was invented, was a setting for the movie “Our Man in Havana,” based on the Graham Greene novel about a bumbling spy.

But more enjoyable than the tourist crowds and watery mojitos at La Bodeguita are the relaxed outdoor cafes in the old squares on the other side of Habana Vieja. Nothing is lovelier than sipping a Cristal beer in Plaza San Francisco or Plaza Vieja in early evening, when the day’s heat dissipates and sweet sounds from a three-piece band playing “Guantanamera” drift across the square.

Human rights in spotlight after US-Cuba deal

To many exiles and their allies, President Raul Castro is a brutal dictator who locks up dissenters in gulag-like jails, snuffs out political discourse and condemns his people to socialist poverty.

Cuba’s supporters see the government as heroic, its sins justified by the behavior of its giant enemy to the north, and offset by the fact it provides health care and education that most developing countries could only dream of.

As often is the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

President Barack Obama said last week that he began his historic call with Castro earlier in the week by delivering a 15-minute lecture on human rights and political freedom, adding: “This is still a regime that oppresses its people.”

Even so, he said that U.S. policy had failed to change Cuba for more than a half century and it was time to try something new.

Human rights activists welcomed the overhaul of U.S.-Cuba relations, but added that the Communist government has much to answer for, including a denial of freedom of speech, the banning of independent labor unions and a lack of fair and competitive elections.

“I believe that President Obama is making the right decision, but that does not mean that our serious human rights concerns with regard to Cuba have gone away,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director for the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. He said the abuses were “part of state policy, systematic and widespread.”

Castro has defended the single-party political system, saying open elections would be tantamount to “legalizing the party or parties of imperialism on our soil.”

Accusations of human rights abuses have dogged the Cuban government since the beginning, starting with summary trials and executions after the 1959 revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista, whose regime committed its own abuses, including torture, executions and persecution of the press.

In the years that followed, priests, gay people and others considered socially dangerous were sent to labor camps in the countryside, and political opponents were jailed or forced into exile.

The panorama has undoubtedly shifted in recent years, particularly since Fidel Castro handed power to his brother in 2006.

In 2010, Raul Castro negotiated a deal with the Roman Catholic Church and Spain to free the last of 75 political dissidents who had been rounded up in 2003 and sentenced to long jail terms, and he has allowed more church freedom on the island, building on the opening worked out between Fidel and Pope John Paul II.

Amnesty International counts five Cuban inmates as “prisoners of conscience,” down sharply from years past, though Marselha Goncalves Margerin, the group’s advocacy director for the Americas, said Amnesty has campaigned for others that don’t meet its strict definition.

“Cuba has always used the excuse of the U.S. embargo and restrictions to crack down on dissidents,” she said. “Once this is removed, we do hope this will generate human rights changes.”

As part of this week’s deal with the United States, Castro agreed to free 53 people the White House describes as dissidents, though their identities have not been released. It was not clear if any of those on Amnesty’s list were among them.

Elizardo Sanchez, one of the only independent human rights activists tolerated on the island, said he has been getting calls from inmates asking him if he has a list and whether they’re on it, but he’s had to say he doesn’t know. There’s been no evidence of any mass release, he said.

Sanchez also welcomed the restoration of diplomatic ties with the United States, despite what he described as a sharp increase in acts of harassment and intimidation.

While the government has moved away from sentencing dissidents to long jail terms, he said that short-term detentions have spiked under Raul Castro, from 2,074 in 2010 to 8,410 through the first 11 months of this year. Cuban authorities dismiss his findings as a fiction, and consider the dissidents to be paid stooges of Washington.

While the Castro government has not budged on the issue of a one-party state, Vivanco says that Cuba’s rights problems aren’t in the same league as a country such as North Korea, and says there has been movement on some key issues such as freedom of travel that was tightly controlled under Fidel Castro.

Prominent dissidents such as the blogger Yoani Sanchez have been allowed to travel under the reforms, using their trips to speak out against government policy.

The younger Castro has opened the island to some private enterprise, and allowed Cubans to own cellphones and computers. Rights for the LGBT community have also advanced under Raul Castro, whose daughter is the island’s most prominent advocate for gay rights. The government’s free universal health care system now pays for gender reassignment surgery, and gay pride parades are an annual fixture.

Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Center at Florida International University, acknowledged progress on some issues like freedom of religion, but added that Raul Castro largely shared the attitudes of his brother.

“Since Raul took over, repressive strategies have become more subtle, not necessarily less brutal,” he said.

Elizardo Sanchez warned against believing that an improving relationship between Washington and Havana would change much on the human rights front.

“I don’t think there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between the normalization of relations between the countries and the necessary implementation of reforms by the Cuban government,” he said.

Obama concurred, saying he did not expect improvements overnight.

Reaction to the president’s new policy toward Cuba

The 53-year-old U.S. policy of isolating Cuba is a failed attempt to promote democracy and freedom, say the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — U.S. Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota — and its Peace and Security Task Force Chair, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California.

The Democrats, responding to President Barack Obama’s new policy toward Cuba, said in a joint statement, “Isolating Cuba separated the people of Cuba and their Cuban-American family members, and impaired our ability to build constructive relationships in Latin America.

“By restarting diplomatic relations and establishing a new embassy, the U.S. can start conversations on issues like commerce and human rights that have been dormant between our nations for too long. We applaud President Obama for his bold new approach and welcome news that, for the first time, both the U.S. and Cuba will attend the Summit of the America’s in 2015.”

The statement continued, “The president has laid out a promising path forward and now it is up to Congress to act. Congress must lift the trade embargo and normalize travel between our two nations, which are only 90 miles apart. The Congressional Progressive Caucus looks forward to working with President Obama and members of Congress who want to stabilize relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”

Other reaction to Obama’s announcement made on Dec. 17, on the eve of International Migrants Day:

• From the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities: “As Latino immigrant leaders, NALACC salutes the president for this clear-eyed and brave action. In his speech, the president noted that the policy of isolation that the United States has pursued for the past 50 years has failed to advance US interests and has harmed ordinary Cubans. We welcome these first steps toward normalizing relations with Cuba and harnessing the “power of people to people engagement,” as the president mentioned in his speech…

“Unfortunately, many of the punitive and isolating measures that continue to pose a barrier to normal relations with Cuba have been enshrined in U.S. Law. This is another instance, similar to immigration reform, where Presidential actions can move the debate forward, but eventually, Congress must act. We hope that a bi-partisan spirit will pervade and the necessary legislative steps to end the embargo will be taken very soon.”

• Inaugural poet Richard Blanco, whose mother fled Cuba while she was seven months pregnant. “There’s a whole sense of what it means to be a Cuban in Miami and what it means to be a Cuban in Cuba. And now we can have a dialogue and talk about what experiences we have in common and what things we can share.”

• U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas J. Donohue: “We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits, and the steps announced today will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish.”

• U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee: “I am hopeful that the Cuban government’s decision to release Alan Gross portends a desire to move toward democracy, openness, engagement, rule of law, and a free civil society.”

• U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, a Democrat from Wisconsin: “I support normalizing relations with Cuba that will ease restrictions between our countries and put an end to 50 years of failed policy. It doesn’t make sense to have economic relations with a Communist nation like China, yet stay closed off to a nation just 90 miles off our coast.

“Now, Congress needs to act to end the embargo altogether and fully open up this new market to U.S exports. For years, farmers in Wisconsin have wanted to lift economic sanctions on Cuba and with today’s news we can look forward to new economic growth and job creation in agriculture, manufacturing and other sectors of our economy.”

• U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, a state with a substantial Cuban-American population: “This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois: “Opening the door with Cuba for trade, travel and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve.”

Editor’s note: This report will be updated.

Text of President Obama’s remarks on Cuba

The text of President Barack Obama’s remarks on Dec. 17 on the release of American Alan Gross from a Cuban prison and on future diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The text was provided by the White House:

Good afternoon. Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.

In the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.

There’s a complicated history between the United States and Cuba. I was born in 1961 – just over two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, and just a few months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, which tried to overthrow his regime. Over the next several decades, the relationship between our countries played out against the backdrop of the Cold War, and America’s steadfast opposition to communism. We are separated by just over 90 miles. But year after year, an ideological and economic barrier hardened between our two countries.

Meanwhile, the Cuban exile community in the United States made enormous contributions to our country – in politics and business, culture and sports. Like immigrants before, Cubans helped remake America, even as they felt a painful yearning for the land and families they left behind. All of this bound America and Cuba in a unique relationship, at once family and foe.

Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades. We have done so primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island, preventing the most basic travel and commerce that Americans can enjoy anyplace else. And though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people. Today, Cuba is still governed by the Castros and the Communist Party that came to power half a century ago.

Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born. Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China – a far larger country also governed by a Communist Party. Nearly two decades ago, we re-established relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.

That’s why – when I came into office – I promised to re-examine our Cuba policy. As a start, we lifted restrictions for Cuban-Americans to travel and send remittances to their families in Cuba. These changes, once controversial, now seem obvious. Cuban-Americans have been reunited with their families, and are the best possible ambassadors for our values. And through these exchanges, a younger generation of Cuban-Americans has increasingly questioned an approach that does more to keep Cuba closed off from an interconnected world.

While I have been prepared to take additional steps for some time, a major obstacle stood in our way – the wrongful imprisonment, in Cuba, of a U.S. citizen and USAID subcontractor Alan Gross for five years. Over many months, my administration has held discussions with the Cuban government about Alan’s case, and other aspects of our relationship. His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me, and to Cuba’s President Raul Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case, and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.

Today, Alan returned home – reunited with his family at long last. Alan was released by the Cuban government on humanitarian grounds. Separately, in exchange for the three Cuban agents, Cuba today released one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States has ever had in Cuba, and who has been imprisoned for nearly two decades. This man, whose sacrifice has been known to only a few, provided America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents that included the men transferred to Cuba today, as well as other spies in the United States. This man is now safely on our shores.

Having recovered these two men who sacrificed for our country, I’m now taking steps to place the interests of the people of both countries at the heart of our policy.

First, I’ve instructed Secretary (of State John) Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to re-establish diplomatic relations that have been severed since January of 1961. Going forward, the United States will re-establish an embassy in Havana, and high-ranking officials will visit Cuba.

Where we can advance shared interests, we will – on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response. Indeed, we’ve seen the benefits of cooperation between our countries before. It was a Cuban, Carlos Finlay, who discovered that mosquitoes carry yellow fever; his work helped Walter Reed fight it. Cuba has sent hundreds of health care workers to Africa to fight Ebola, and I believe American and Cuban health care workers should work side by side to stop the spread of this deadly disease.

Now, where we disagree, we will raise those differences directly – as we will continue to do on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement. After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.

Second, I’ve instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. This review will be guided by the facts and the law. Terrorism has changed in the last several decades. At a time when we are focused on threats from al-Qaida to ISIL, a nation that meets our conditions and renounces the use of terrorism should not face this sanction.

Third, we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba. This is fundamentally about freedom and openness, and also expresses my belief in the power of people-to-people engagement. With the changes I’m announcing today, it will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island. Nobody represents America’s values better than the American people, and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.

I also believe that more resources should be able to reach the Cuban people. So we’re significantly increasing the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba, and removing limits on remittances that support humanitarian projects, the Cuban people, and the emerging Cuban private sector.

I believe that American businesses should not be put at a disadvantage, and that increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans. So we will facilitate authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions. And it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba.

I believe in the free flow of information. Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe. So I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba. Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.

These are the steps that I can take as president to change this policy. The embargo that’s been imposed for decades is now codified in legislation. As these changes unfold, I look forward to engaging Congress in an honest and serious debate about lifting the embargo.

Yesterday, I spoke with Raul Castro to finalize Alan Gross’s release and the exchange of prisoners, and to describe how we will move forward. I made clear my strong belief that Cuban society is constrained by restrictions on its citizens. In addition to the return of Alan Gross and the release of our intelligence agent, we welcome Cuba’s decision to release a substantial number of prisoners whose cases were directly raised with the Cuban government by my team. We welcome Cuba’s decision to provide more access to the Internet for its citizens, and to continue increasing engagement with international institutions like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross that promote universal values.

But I’m under no illusion about the continued barriers to freedom that remain for ordinary Cubans. The United States believes that no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there. While Cuba has made reforms to gradually open up its economy, we continue to believe that Cuban workers should be free to form unions, just as their citizens should be free to participate in the political process.

Moreover, given Cuba’s history, I expect it will continue to pursue foreign policies that will at times be sharply at odds with American interests. I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight. But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.

To those who oppose the steps I’m announcing today, let me say that I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy. The question is how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. Even if that worked – and it hasn’t for 50 years – we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos. We are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.

To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship. Some of you have looked to us as a source of hope, and we will continue to shine a light of freedom. Others have seen us as a former colonizer intent on controlling your future. José Martí once said, “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest.” Today, I am being honest with you. We can never erase the history between us, but we believe that you should be empowered to live with dignity and self-determination. Cubans have a saying about daily life: “No es facil” – it’s not easy. Today, the United States wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.

To those who have supported these measures, I thank you for being partners in our efforts. In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is; the government of Canada, which hosted our discussions with the Cuban government; and a bipartisan group of congressmen who have worked tirelessly for Alan Gross’s release, and for a new approach to advancing our interests and values in Cuba.

Finally, our shift in policy toward Cuba comes at a moment of renewed leadership in the Americas. This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas. But we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future. And I call on all of my fellow leaders to give meaning to the commitment to democracy and human rights at the heart of the Inter-American Charter. Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections. A future of greater peace, security and democratic development is possible if we work together – not to maintain power, not to secure vested interest, but instead to advance the dreams of our citizens.

My fellow Americans, the city of Miami is only 200 miles (300 kilometers) or so from Havana. Countless thousands of Cubans have come to Miami – on planes and makeshift rafts; some with little but the shirt on their back and hope in their hearts. Today, Miami is often referred to as the capital of Latin America. But it is also a profoundly American city – a place that reminds us that ideals matter more than the color of our skin, or the circumstances of our birth; a demonstration of what the Cuban people can achieve, and the openness of the United States to our family to the South. Todos somos Americanos.

Change is hard – in our own lives, and in the lives of nations. And change is even harder when we carry the heavy weight of history on our shoulders. But today we are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future – for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.

Thank you. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Bold push: Democrats in Florida call for shift in Cuba-US policy

When Charlie Crist went to Miami’s Little Havana recently, the Democratic candidate for governor stood before a crowd and said what few politicians have in decades of scrounging for votes in the Cuban-American neighborhood: End the trade embargo against Cuba.

“If you really care about people on the island, we need to get rid of the embargo and let freedom reign,” he said, shouting above a small band of protesters who responded with chants of “Shame on you!”

Crist’s supporters cheered louder.

It was a scene inconceivable just a few years ago, when politicians were careful about what they said on the issue, for fear of alienating Cuban-American voters, many of whom fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s.

But Democrats now sense an opening with newer Cuban arrivals and second-generation Cuban-Americans who favor resuming diplomatic relations with the communist island.

In a sign of just how much the climate has shifted, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, who backed trade limits when she ran for president in 2008, is now calling for the embargo to be lifted. She described it as “Castro’s best friend” and said it hampers “our broader agenda across Latin America.”

Her words mark the first time a leading presidential contender from either political party has suggested reversing the 52-year-old policy.

The efforts represent the largest challenge to Cuban-American orthodoxy in decades and could help reshape American foreign policy.

It also could alter the political landscape in the largest swing-voting state, where Republicans long have dominated the Cuban vote by taking a hard line on the embargo.

Crist’s campaign will be the first statewide test of whether the trade restrictions are still a live wire for politicians in Florida, home to 70 percent of the nation’s Cubans.

Crist is a former Republican governor who once said he would only visit Cuba “when it’s free.” Now that he’s a Democrat and trying to regain his old job, he has floated the idea of going to Havana “to learn from the people of Cuba and help find opportunities for Florida businesses.”

He argues that the embargo has failed because it has not toppled the Castro government but has hurt the Cuban people. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” he told reporters at the opening of a campaign office in Little Havana.

Florida Republicans are outraged, casting Crist’s position as a betrayal of the Cuban-American community.

“I’m going to stand with Cuban-Americans that believe in freedom, believe in democracy, believe in freedom of speech and oppose the oppression of Cuba,” said GOP Gov. Rick Scott. Crist, he added, will “be standing with Castro.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential GOP presidential candidate whose parents left Cuba in the 1950s, said the embargo is “the last tool we have remaining to ensure that democracy returns to Cuba one day.”

Lifting the embargo, he said, would “further entrench the regime in power by giving them more money to carry out their violent repression of people’s fundamental rights and dignity.”

Nationwide, the share of Cuban registered voters who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party has doubled in the past decade, from 22 percent to 44 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Less than half of Cuban voters now affiliate with the Republican Party, down from 64 percent over the same time period.

President Barack Obama won Florida twice, campaigning on easing travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans who want to visit their families on the island and allowing them to send more money to their relatives. In 2012, he captured nearly half the Cuban-American vote, a record for a Democrat.

The shift is driven in part by changing demographics.

Cuban-Americans, once the dominant bloc of Florida’s Hispanic vote, have seen their political clout diminished by a huge influx of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America, who lean Democratic. In the 2012 election, 42 percent of Hispanic voters in the state were Cuban, an 11 percentage point drop from 2000, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.

The exiles who arrived in the decade and a half following Cuba’s 1959 revolution have been dying off while their children and fresh waves of immigrants hold a different view of Cuba. More than one-third of the Cubans residing in Miami-Dade County arrived after 1995, with many supporting travel and trade policies that strengthen ties between the U.S. and Cuba, said Guillermo Grenier, a lead researcher for the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

Even some of South Florida’s most prominent Cuban-American business leaders, long among the most strident defenders of the embargo, are publicly talking about investing in Cuba.

“The politics are way behind public opinion on this one,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant and Crist adviser who managed Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008.

Overall, polls of the community have confirmed a tilt toward engagement, with the most recent survey by Florida International University finding Cuban-Americans in Miami split over the embargo, which was a near record, and 71 percent saying it had not worked either very well or at all.

“The embargo! It’s so screwed up!” said Caridad Novo, as she sipped espresso at a cafe in Doral, a Miami suburb.

The 52-year-old Cuban, who came to Florida during the 1980 Mariel boat crisis, said U.S. trade restrictions drive up the cost of sending goods to her family in Cuba. Shipping a 4-pound can of milk to her 3-year-old grandson in Havana costs $55, she said.

But some scholars and political operatives say Crist risks energizing Republicans in the conservative exile community while attracting little support from younger Cuban-Americans and newer arrivals, who tend to be less politically active.

The recent Florida International University poll found that less than one-third of those who have arrived since 1995 are U.S. citizens. Voter registration rates among newer arrivals lag their older counterparts by double digits.

“What is changing is opinions” on the embargo, Grenier said. “But for the opinions to become relevant to policymakers, they have to translate into more than just opinions. They have to be votes.”

Meanwhile in Mecca: an illustrated story of San Francisco

The place “has always been a refuge for anyone to come to, whatever status in society. For people, intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, for lonely people. For every walk of life.”

Wendy MacNaughton is referring to the San Francisco Public Library, maybe not a stop on every vacationers itinerary, but the population of the library “mirrors the population we have in SF” — from Arab-American to Vietnamese-American.

People line up to enter before the library opens. It’s free and inside there’s a cafe, a literacy center, international center, teen center, environmental center, arts center and an unprecedented program for serving the homeless. Oh, and books.

This generally is not the kind of information found in a tourism brochure from a chamber of commerce or visitors bureau. But it is the type of information found in Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words from Chronicle Books. 

Meanwhile is graphic journalism, an illustrated, street-smart collection from MacNaughton, a New York Time-bestselling artist. Readers might have seen her work in the Times or the Wall Street Journal or her other book, The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert.

When Pride month comes around, we think of “Holy New York” and the Stonewall riots, but also of “Holy San Francisco,” where queer people from around the nation found something much more valuable than gold under that famous fog.

How many of us already have been? But still we think to make a pilgrimage back to the bay.

And we keep it in our hearts through literature.

MacNaughton’s book, at just 176 pages and fully illustrated, is as delightful as a sunny afternoon on the Presidio. “The drawings are mine, but the words came from people living and working in San Francisco,” she says.

She spent hours getting to know the drivers and the passengers on MUNI, studying Giants fans, visiting with the game players of Chinatown, figuring out the character of the lower Haight and the upper Haight, and appreciating the hard work of the vendors at the San Francisco Civic Center farmer’s market. Tourists might browse the market in 10 minutes, but for the vendors, the day begins as early as 2 a.m.

Visitors might have heard about the great bison of the great Golden Gate Park, who first arrived in 1890, or thereabouts. Well, MacNaughton, in just two pages, introduces them with affection and humor, including “Unnamed Cow” or “UC” for short, who “was a gift from Diane Feinstein’s husband about 30 years ago.”

The bison’s daily routine: “Graze, ruminate, eat grain, graze, sleep, retreat.”

There is a map to Dolores Park at the western edge of the Mission District, useful for a visitor who wants to know the “cruising area” or the visitor who wants to avoid the bushes. The “truffle guy” is marked on the map, as is a “naked guy nearly,” “gay beach lite” and “lesbians — butch, femme, young, old, all checking out the endless line for the bathroom.”

The book is not intended as a comprehensive portrayal of San Francisco. MacNaughton says, “It’s only a small handful of the huge number of communities to be found in The City, on every steep street, behind every gated door, in every grassy park. These are the stories of San Francisco daily life. This is what happens in the meanwhile.”

The meanwhile in our mecca.

Marked forever by the 1960s

The 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination brings back many memories. It reminds me how growing up in the 1960s was as traumatic as it was exhilarating.

I was 5 years old in 1960, when JFK was elected. I still remember the ditty that we kids from proud Democratic and Catholic families sang at the time: “Kennedy, Kennedy, he’s our man! Nixon belongs in the garbage can!”

I was 15 when the dramatic decade ended in 1970. Richard Nixon was president. His invasion of Cambodia in April of that year expanded the Vietnam War and led to the shooting of student protesters by National Guardsmen at Kent State in Ohio.

Those years were a kaleidoscope of wild events. From the Cuban missile crisis to Beatlemania to civil rights protests, it was all brought up close and personal through TV and AM radio. 

I remember being scared out of my mind at age 7 in 1962 when I walked down the hall in my house to use the bathroom. I was sure that once I was in there alone that bad guy Castro, who my parents were talking about in alarmed whispers, was going to get me.

On Nov. 22, 1963, I was in my third-grade class at St. Mary’s when the principal came on the PA system to announce that President Kennedy had been killed. It was disturbing to see the teachers so distraught. We were marched to church to pray for the president. Then the buses came to take us home.

What followed were three days in front of the TV watching the national tragedy. I remember how sad everyone was. It seemed like everyone in my family and everything on TV moved in slow motion. The only thing that’s come close since were the days after 9/11, when we were all in a state of shock. 

It was about the time of Kennedy’s assassination that the Beatles invaded the United States, bringing us all a blessed distraction. I screamed along with everyone else, and all the kids on my block started garage bands. I recently listened to my Beatles records again and found, to my delight, that I haven’t forgotten a word.

By age 12, I had to think hard about the civil rights and anti-war protests. My working-class dad used racial slurs. My mom wasn’t a lot better, but she sometimes said, “Elmer!” in a chiding tone to curb his tongue. I knew it was wrong and I remember thinking how dumb it was to hate people you didn’t know and to call them names. I was a fat girl and I knew how hurtful name-calling was. It may seem like a shallow analogy, but it was the beginning of empathy.

Civil rights marches and our napalm attacks in Vietnam spurred my critical thinking. The parish priest grew impatient with my questions and demanded  that I “believe and obey!” Then Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis and Bobby Kennedy was murdered on his way to the presidency. WBBM had just started 24/7 news radio, and I listened on my transistor for days.

What doesn’t crush you makes you stronger. What I gleaned from the 1960s was a profound cynicism tempered by the necessity for questioning authority. I always question authority and urge others to do the same. This one’s for President Kennedy and all the children of the ’60s who grew up too fast.