A year ago, after months of secret negotiations, the leaders of Cuba and the U.S. announced in almost simultaneous speeches the two nations were restoring diplomatic ties after 54 years.
Around noon on national television, President Raul Castro addressed millions of watching Cubans: “As a result of a dialogue at the highest level, which included a phone conversation I had yesterday with President [Barack] Obama, we have been able to make headway in the solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations.”
Finally, he confirmed it: “We have also agreed to renew diplomatic relations.”
An announcement many waited a lifetime for was now a reality.
FILE - A screenshot from Cuban television shows President Raul Castro addressing the country, in Havana, Dec. 17, 2014.
The White House has touted the restoration of ties as a positive step for Cubans: “Simply put, our new Cuba policy allows us to more effectively improve the lives of the Cuban people.”
But a year after the historic step, many Cubans say conditions on the island remain the same.
Issues of concern
According to Cubans interviewed by Voice of America, topics of concern such as human rights, access to the Internet, political prosecution, food shortages and low wages remain unchanged.
“People had a perspective that everything was going to be quicker. There were people who had the hope that in less than two months we would have McDonald’s on the corners of Havana and that Internet cables would be connected in less than three or four months,” said Reinaldo Escobar, one of the leading journalists in Cuba and co-founder and editor of 14yMedio, a renowned digital publication. “But it has not been like that.”
The White House hoped this opening would create a better environment for human rights on the island. But so far, according to dissidents and opposition organizations, that has not happened.
FILE - An opposition activist is detained by Cuban security officers ahead of a march marking International Human Rights Day in Havana, Cuba, Dec. 10, 2014.
“It is about time the Obama administration starts to reevaluate its attitude if they see that the Cuban government does not fulfill what it promised,” said Guillermo Fariñas, a Cuban political dissident and winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded by the European Union Parliament. Fariñas is opposed to normalizing relations.
Fariñas argues that in the past year there has been an increase in temporary arrests by government security forces to 1,200 to 1,500 each month. He said that in 2014, the numbers were around 700 to 800 a month.
Every Sunday for more than 30 consecutive weeks this year, the Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, an opposition movement formed by wives and other female relatives of Cuban jailed dissidents, have marched in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana.
These protesters constantly face the censorship of the Cuban government and according to people on the island, they have also faced increased levels of violence.
The State Department said it brings up human rights in meetings between U.S. and Cuban delegations every few months.
The White House said both nations “held a human rights dialogue in Washington, D.C., in March” and the U.S. will “continue to criticize violations of human rights and advocate for the respect of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Cuban cigar-maker Habanos S.A. predicted in February it would gain 25 percent to 30 percent of the U.S. premium cigar market if the U.S. lifts its trade embargo on Cuba.
Despite the efforts, many Cubans say the repression continues.
“The unresolved matter is yet to be solved … and that is that the Cuban government restores relations with its people. That the Cuban government ends, once and for all, the economic and political blockade that it has imposed against the Cuban people, to allow the Cuban people to invest, to be entrepreneurs and to express and associate freely,” 14yMedio's Escobar said.
The U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments announced in January and September a series of steps to ease commercial and economic limits imposed on Cuba that among other things make it easier for Americans to travel to the island.
They also allow more business transactions between the American and Cuban private sectors.
Regulatory changes permitted U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies to engage more on the island, which many hoped would translate into better and faster Internet connectivity for Cubans.
FILE - People surf the Internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 25, 2015.
Claudio Fuentes, a Cuban photographer based in Havana, and also a member of Estado de SATS, a policy and cultural organization, said that before all these changes, the Castro administration had blamed economic conditions on the U.S. trade embargo.
And now, the government is digging in its heels.
“With the relaxation, we see that the ones that are really not budging is them. … What we see is a series of rejections to any kind of aperture,” Fuentes said.
Obama has stated he wants the embargo to be lifted. This is not likely to happen anytime soon with a Republican majority in Congress that not only opposes lifting it, but the entire process of normalization.
If the embargo were lifted, some Cubans believe they would see the government's true colors.
“The day that embargo or blockage, or whatever you want to call it, ends, that is when we will start to see who is really responsible and the culprit for our difficulties,” Escobar said.
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The White House has declared time after time that “change will not happen overnight.”
The government in Havana has what Cubans call a “no rush but no pause” approach to the normalization process and the changes that come with it.
Hardliner dissidents, such as Fariñas, who have opposed the reestablishment of diplomatic ties, say the Obama administration should reassess its relations with the Castro authorities.
“Tell them if there are no obvious changes, we will simply go back to the previous status because we made a mistake," Fariñas said.
The pulse on the island this holiday season is far from positive and hopeful. Many Cubans think their everyday lives have worsened.
One woman told VOA that malanga, a national food staple, is often hard to find.
“Nothing has changed at all; everything is the same,” said another Cuban, who asked for anonymity fearing retaliation from the Cuban government.