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Hope, anxiety in Cuba amid thaw with U.S.

HAVANA -- The restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States has unleashed expectations of even more momentous changes on an island that often seems frozen in a past of classic cars and crumbling Art Deco buildings.

Many Cubans expressed hope that it will mean greater access to jobs and comforts taken for granted elsewhere, and lift a struggling socialist economy where staples such as meat, cooking oil and toilet paper are often hard to come by.

That yearning, however, was tempered with anxiety. Some fear a cultural onslaught, or that crime and drugs, both rare in Cuba, will become common along with visitors from the United States. There is also concern that the country will become just another Caribbean destination.

"There are things that shouldn't get lost, that have gone very well here even though Cubans complain," said Nayda Martinez, 52, a chemical engineer in Havana.

"I don't want the system, the country or the regime, whatever you want to call it, to change," Martinez said. "What the people want is to live better."

That mix of optimism and concern was a common refrain among Cubans trying to digest the implications of such a seismic shift between the two Cold War rivals after more than half a century of bad blood.

Cuba is a place of contrasts. It matches the most developed nations in education and health indicators such as infant mortality. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the Western Hemisphere and some of the best-preserved habitat in the Caribbean, in part because of the lack of development.

But the majority of islanders still work government jobs that pay just $20 a month on average. Internet access is scarce, slow and expensive. Nearly all media is controlled by the state. The Communist Party is the only sanctioned political party, and that is not open to debate.

In announcing that the United States and Cuba would resume diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961, President Barack Obama said he still has concerns about human rights, democracy and freedom of expression on the island. President Raúl Castro, brother of former dictator Fidel Castro, said he still wants an end to the trade embargo that has choked off commerce to the island and has kept generations of Americans from being able to visit.

Last year, Cuba began allowing its citizens to travel abroad without first getting permission from the government. Many now have access to consumer goods such as smartphones and flat-screen TVs. Not only is that likely to expand, but also remittances from abroad could surge, helping people to start more businesses and repair homes.

Castro has introduced economic reforms, letting hundreds of thousands run small private businesses and hire employees, and buy and sell their homes for the first time since the early days of the 1959 revolution. He's allowed the sale of used cars. The famous classic Chevys and Cadillacs from the prerevolution 1950s, often kept road-worthy with makeshift parts, are still a delight to tourists.

The society may change in its views of the United States. While many Cubans have family in the U.S. they have grown up thinking of Washington as the enemy and many blame U.S. policy for Cuba's problems.

Cubans may have to get used to the notion that they are not in a cold war with the United States anymore, said Peter Kornbluh, a fellow at the National Security Archive in Washington.


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