Cuba Waits for Obama as Ailing Fidel Castro Fades From Scene

Washington may move first to break the decades-old Cold War standoff with Havana.

The same aging U.S. automobiles have been plying the streets of Havana, Cuba’s capital, for decades.

The same aging U.S. automobiles have been plying the streets of Havana, Cuba’s capital, for decades.

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HAVANA—At a dingy former Woolworth's here, the fluorescent lights bathe the store's pink walls and thinly stocked shelves in a dim, artificial glow. Still a variety store, though owned by the Cuban state, it sells a hodge-podge of items, including beer and pastries, motorcycle helmets and baseball jerseys, plastic utensils and used clothing. A wall placard lauds the recent 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Customers amble about, although few find anything to buy, the pastries aside.

The situation at the meat counter is also uninspiring. A woman in her 60s is inspecting the day's offerings—pork liver and "Chuck Wagon" chicken franks from a Phoenix company. Yet her mood is not as grim as her surroundings. She tells a visitor that life on this impoverished island is about to get better. "We're waiting to see if Obama can make some changes. We expect a lot. We have to believe in something."

These days, such expectations hang heavily over this worn, seaside capital. Many Cubans—more so on the streets than in the ministries of government—believe that a half century of antagonism with the Yankee behemoth to the north will soon give way, spurring prosperity and ushering in, somehow, a greater sense of normalcy here. "We voted for him too," laughs a 68-year-old man, who, like many Cubans, did not want to be quoted by name. The topic reveals that decades of deprivation and Cold War-style antipathy have not sapped the Cuban capacity for humor. "You take Raúl Castro, and we'll take Obama," jokes another Havana man.

Even the Castro brothers—the president, Raúl, and the ailing former leader, Fidel—have sounded conciliatory notes on Barack Obama. Saying that Obama "seems like a good man," Raúl Castro last year expressed willingness to meet the U.S. president at a neutral place and improve relations "gesture for gesture." Fidel Castro called Obama "intelligent and noble," not the usual tone from the 82-year-old comandante. The administration has been listening. "I think the statements are important. They've registered," says a senior State Department official.

After eight years of hard-line Bush policy on Cuba, Obama's desire to deal directly with adversaries offers a possible historic break from the long Cold War between Washington and the Western Hemisphere's only Communist government. Obama has said he will remove restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island but retain the 47-year-old economic embargo as leverage to work for democratic change here. The administration's review of U.S. policy, which may spur additional steps to engage Cuba, is likely to go public in the coming weeks.

American politics also favor change. Obama has more freedom to maneuver on Cuba than his predecessors had. Cuban-American demands for sticking with the hard line on Havana are easing, and Obama's victory in Florida did not depend on Cuban-American votes. The combination of a pro-engagement president in the White House and a more pragmatic Cuban chief in Raúl creates the best chance in decades to renovate a tortured relationship.

Any moves to shed the Cold War tone and re-engage Havana will be welcomed here. But a U.S. decision to withhold further steps like lifting the embargo until Cuba opens its political system could end up prolonging the stalemate. Political conditions for improving ties are "a nonstarter," asserts Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, a senior Foreign Ministry official. "What I see there is the same mistake previous administrations have made," she adds. "The U.S. needs to accept Cuba the way Cuba is."

That is galling to those who want democracy in Cuba now but it is also fair warning of what would be needed to make a breakthrough. "Every time you tie things to Cuban actions, they don't happen," says Vicki Huddleston, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section, America's de facto embassy, in Havana.

Cuban defiance of the norteamericanos has become a way of life, a stubbornness matched by a U.S. approach that, though still failing, just keeps on ticking. The Castros are now facing their 11th U.S. president. Cuban officials seem buoyed by having endured the economic free-fall of the 1990s after the loss of Soviet subsidies and then Bush's squeeze strategy. "Regime change didn't work in the case of Cuba," Vidal declares.