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Cubans Eager For More Economic Investment


When President Obama spoke today about the embargo that remains in place against Cuba, he said it was self-defeating and must ultimately be pulled down. He said he expects a healthy debate on that in Congress. In Havana, the warming of relations between the two countries is what everyone is talking about. NPR's Carrie Kahn has been hearing that on the streets, in bars and restaurants. And she joins us now from the Cuban capital. Carrie, welcome.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: And what kind of reaction have you been hearing?

KAHN: They're just overwhelmingly positive. Everybody is very excited about it. Sometimes when people give me a strange look, I said, well, now we're friends. And then that sort of breaks the ice and people laugh and just everybody seems to be very excited about it.

BLOCK: Have you heard anybody express any sense that these moves might lead to any fundamental change in the Castro regime or how Cuba is run?

KAHN: You hear different ideas about that. A lot of people told me they don't want the political system to change. And I said why? And one man said, well, look at me. I got all my education. I get all my healthcare. I'm retired now. I don't want that to change. Some people definitely want that to change. They say that they need more liberation, more freedom of expression, you hear that a lot, too.

So people are cautious in the way that they talk to you about change and exactly what that would mean and whether that's economical or political. One thing that was really interesting that somebody told me was that the embargo has long been the justification by the regime for anything that's gone wrong in Cuba or by Cubans - you hear that a lot. People say, oh, I broke my finger or I tripped on this thing. It's the embargo. And so they said if the embargo were to be lifted and without the embargo, that would make the regime and the political situation more accountable to the people right now.

BLOCK: Well, that is a real question, right? If that bogeyman is removed, what replaces it?

KAHN: Yes, very much on the minds of people. They do want the economic investment. You talk to people in this burgeoning entrepreneur - if you could use that word - there's a very limited liberalization were some people can have private businesses. And so they're very eager for people to come in and to invest. But whether they could compete on any sort of level, it's just the big question. And obviously they can't right now.

BLOCK: What do you think that the Cubans that you've talked with so far want to see happen next?

KAHN: Everybody says does this not mean the embargo is lifted? It was interesting. A lot of people had very many more questions for me than I had for them. The biggest question was this means the embargo is lifted. And I said, well, no, it does not. And they said, well, that's what needs to happen - is the embargo to be lifted and for there to be, definitely, normal - more normal relations, because without it there is no economic future on the island, they say. And so that is what people are looking for right now. And that's why you get a sense of cautiousness. Is this really going to change anything in my daily life?

People that are tied with family members that can send money back to the island, of course, that will go up in value - the amount of money that they can send back, and that's an intangible effect that will happen right away. But for other people, they want it to be completely open. And that's not going to happen right now. When they hear that, you get more cautiousness, you get not as much optimism and will things really change?

BLOCK: I wonder, Carrie, if you've heard any sentiment expressed there that would certainly be expressed by some here in the States and from some in the Cuban dissident community, that this thaw in relations is an appeasement to a dictatorial, repressive Cuban regime.

KAHN: In the dissident community, you definitely have a lot more skepticism, a lot more cautiousness then you do of the general person out on the street who doesn't have all the news about what this really means in that detailed of a level. And I think there's a lot more cautiousness in the dissident community. But everybody is saying this is the first step, let's take it farther. But I think, when you dig a little bit deeper, like I said before, people say if the embargo is lifted, then that takes away the justification that the embargo is the problem. You know, Cuba's economy barely grew this year. The government's figures are much rosier than what many people tell you they are. But it's only grown a little bit more than 1 percent this year. And so that has a definite pall on people's enthusiasm for this and what the economic situation here is in Cuba right now.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn. She's reporting from Havana, Cuba. Carrie, thanks very much.

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

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.

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