A Note From Havana

thB3T9NPFPIn Havana, December 17th was a day of miracles. The first day of Hanukkah, the Feast of Saint Lazarus, and the Afro-Cuban celebration of San Lazaro converged mystically. Magic was in the air.

It was a day for Alan Gross, echoing Judaism’s story of exile and return, to soar from confinement to freedom; a day for the island’s “Three Heroes” to land in Cuba as the faithful prayed to a saint who rose from the dead; a day when Afro-Cubans saw the hand of the “miracle worker” writing a new chapter of Cuban history; a day when Cubans could watch President Obama and President Castro speak on Cuban state television and cheer their commitment to diplomatic recognition and mutual respect.

By early morning, there were already unusual signs. A cryptic email message from Washington with the subject line: “Merry XMAS.” News readers on Cuban state television reminded viewers, again and again, tune in at noon. Hear President Castro speak about a “swap” to bring three Cuban intelligence agents home. And, later, watch his address on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Emilia Fernandez, an IT specialist at a Cuban eye surgery clinic, listened to colleagues call one another to get ready for the broadcast. A Cuban journalist glanced nervously at text messages piling up on her cell. Artists at a graphics studio near Havana’s Cathedral Square laid down pieces they had prepared for sale to gather in front of a Panasonic television; together with a few tourists, one estimated, they were twenty strong. As our conference came to order, Cuban and U.S. academics who had been waiting for this moment since President Obama’s election exchanged knowing glances, but in fact had no Earthly clue of what was to come.

Finally, noon arrived. The presidents spoke to their respective publics about more than a prisoner swap. They announced an end to the Cold War. When Raul Castro announced that Cuba would resume diplomatic relations with the U.S., Cubans cheered. They stood next to their chairs and sang Cuba’s national anthem with tears streaming down their faces. Scholars who barely knew each other hugged the person next to them and many could not let go.

For his part, Barack Obama conceded that America’s efforts to unseat the Castro government had ended in failure, and he pledged to begin removing the sanctions that force Cubans to live harder lives. After decades of rejecting Cuba’s existence, the U.S. would recognize it and treat Cuba like the sovereign state it is. All of us who have worked so hard to reach this moment sat as if we’d been stunned by a card trick of epic dimensions when we heard those words spoken.

Across town, Emilia said she sat at her work station and cried, thinking of broken Cuban families and people lost at sea attempting to reach the U.S. With restored diplomatic relations, her workmates could imagine more contact with relatives who had never looked back after leaving Cuba, and hoped they would now find their way home.

The reporter looked down at her phone. “We have to honor St. Lazarus,” the text message said, “for working this miracle on this day.”

An artist told us, “I had no idea it would be this big.” Andy, who used American flag picnic napkins and acrylics to assemble an astonishing work called Conflicto (Conflict), pronounced himself “contento.” He liked it when Obama said, “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy,” quoting Cuba’s George Washington, José Martí. It showed respect.

Guillermo Vantour, a painter, called the pledge for diplomatic recognition a guarantee of better conditions for investment by U.S. businesses. “I’ve been living my whole life under the blockade,” he said. “In one way or another, it affects all Cubans economically. And, for what?”

That question probably never crossed the minds of President Obama’s political opponents who have bashed him for cutting this deal with Raúl Castro instead of holding out for more concessions.

Not a single Cuban we spoke with said it would have been better to squeeze Cuba harder or for the U.S. to hold out longer. A Coco taxi driver told us, “It’s about time.” He had waited long enough.

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