Cuba Lowers Expectations on Eve of High-Level Talks With US

Published January 21, 2015

HAVANA — Jan 20, 2015, 10:03 PM ET
By BRADLEY KLAPPER and MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN Associated Press

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A senior Cuban official said Tuesday that restoring diplomatic ties with the United States won’t immediately lead to a full relationship between the Cold War foes after a half-century of enmity.

The message appeared designed to lower expectations a day before the arrival of the highest-level U.S. delegation to Cuba in decades and just before President Barack Obama made his case in the State of the Union Address for seizing the opening with Cuba by ending the U.S. trade embargo of the island. Alan Gross, whose release from Cuba in a prisoner exchange last month cleared the way for a new relationship, sat next to Michelle Obama.

“We are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date,” Obama said. “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”

The Havana talks start Wednesday morning. But the high-ranking Cuban diplomat said Tuesday: “Cuba isn’t normalizing relations with the United States. Cuba is re-establishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. The process of normalization is much longer and deeper.” Reporters were briefed on condition the official not be quoted by name.

The U.S. has taken “steps in the right direction but there’s still far to go,” the official noted. He expressed optimism about the long-term prospects for U.S.-Cuban relations as long as Washington does not try to change Cuba’s single-party government and centrally planned economy — tenets of Cuba’s system the U.S. has long opposed.

American officials have repeatedly said they hope their new path of engagement will empower Cubans and soften the government’s control over the country.

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are opposed to the rapid rebuilding of relations with President Raul Castro still firmly in control of Cuba. Other obstacles include billions of dollars in economic claims against Cuba’s government, American fugitives living freely in Cuba and the opposition of many Cuban-Americans.

Still, the biggest potential challenge is Castro’s government itself, which needs a rapid infusion of cash into its stagnant economy but fears Obama’s new policy merely repackages the longstanding U.S. goal to push him from power.

Leading the U.S. delegation to Havana is Roberta Jacobson, the most senior American official to visit Cuba in 35 years. The rosters on both sides include officials well-known to one another from years of cautious efforts to improve cooperation.

“We always have tough things to say to them but nevertheless this is a professional discussion,” said John Caulfield, who headed the U.S. Interest Section in Havana until last year. “You don’t have to break the ice. People understand each other.”

Wednesday’s conversations start with a continuation of efforts by both sides in recent years to promote what the State Department calls “safe, legal and orderly migration,” covering everything from the security of charter flights that travel regularly between Miami and Havana to rooting out fraudulent passports and partnering on potential search and rescue missions.

Thursday’s talks are trickier, dealing with the mechanics of re-establishing a U.S. Embassy in Havana headed by an ambassador, and a Cuban Embassy in Washington.

Immediate U.S. objectives include the lifting of restrictions on American diplomats’ staffing numbers and travel inside Cuba, easier shipments to the current U.S. Interests Section and unfettered access for Cubans to the building. Cuba’s government hasn’t signaled how it will respond, but the Americans say restoration of full diplomatic ties depends on how quickly the Cubans meet the U.S. requests. Jacobson will also meet Cuban activists and civil society representatives.

The U.S. and Cuba haven’t had diplomatic relations since 1961, soon after Fidel Castro seized power. Interests sections were established in the late 1970s as a means of opening a channel between the two countries, but any diplomatic goodwill they generated quickly evaporated. In the years since, both governments have enforced restrictions on the activity of each other’s diplomats.

Some changes have come since December’s declaration of detente. The Cubans last week released 53 political prisoners. Three days later, the Obama administration significantly eased travel and trade rules with Cuba.

Cuban state media have heavily emphasized the restrictions on trade remaining under U.S. law. For many years, Cuba has pointed to the trade embargo as the primary cause of its dire economic woes.

But Cuban economists and ordinary citizens often don’t agree. Cuba’s state-run economy suffers from chronic underinvestment, inefficiency, low productivity and pilfering by employees. U.S. steps to soften the embargo may not solve these problems.

“The day that they lift the blockade, the world will realize that there are millions of things that don’t function well here,” said Maite Delgado, a 52-year-old accountant. “Inefficiency, lack of productivity, the fact that they don’t pay people a living wage,” she said, “none of that results from the blockade.”

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AP correspondents Andrea Rodriguez and Anne-Marie Garcia contributed to this report.

President Asks Congress to Lift the Embargo Against Cuba

Published

Jan 20, 2015, 6:48 PM ET
By JIM AVILA and MEGHAN KENEALLY

El Capitollo in Havana, Cuba Dec. 18, 2014                Serena Marshall/ABC News

El Capitollo in Havana, Cuba Dec. 18, 2014                Serena Marshall/ABC News

President Obama asked Congress to begin to lift the embargo against Cuba during the State of the Union address this evening.

“In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new,” President Obama said in tonight’s speech.

“Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo,” he said.

Tonight’s call to action comes after the president has taken all of the steps that the executive branch can to normalize relations with the Communist nation but only Congress can lift the longstanding trade embargo.

U.S.-Cuba relations had long been expected to be a big part of the president’s State of the Union address since he made the landmark announcement last month establishing more ways for Americans to travel to the island nation and plans to begin opening trade and full embassies in both nations.

Another indication that the area would be addressed in this evening’s speech was the fact that Alan Gross, the American freed as part of a humanitarian release in December after being held in Cuba for five years, a move that triggered the new relations, was listed to attend as a special guest of the White House.

During the speech, President Obama said that he was “overjoyed” that Gross was released.

PHOTO: Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor released from prison in Cuba last month, is applauded duringUS President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in Washington on Jan. 20, 2015.

PHOTO: Alan Gross, the U.S. contractor released from prison in Cuba last month, is applauded duringUS President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in Washington on Jan. 20, 2015.

Members of Congress have expressed varied reactions to the calls to lift the embargo, with some from both parties—mostly with Cuban-American ties–pushing against such a move. But, recent Pew polls show more than 60 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s decision to reestablish diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Tomorrow, high-level State Department talks will begin in Havana, the first such talks since the Carter administration.

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New Rules for Travel to Cuba, a Destination Already in Transition

Published January 17, 2015

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A state-run food market in Havana. The Treasury Department announced new, more flexible, regulations on Thursday that will make travel to Cuba easier for Americans. Related article. Credit Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

Estelle Grush sliced cucumber and guava in the busy kitchen one recent evening at Café Laurent, a small, privately owned restaurant in a 1950s penthouse a few blocks from the city’s sweeping seafront.

As she chopped, Ms. Grush, who was visiting Havana from Los Angeles as part of an organized tour, chatted with the chef, Victor Ramón Salgado. She took notes as he prepared rich rounds of flan made with cream cheese, his spin on the popular Spanish dish, and told her how to make caramel. They talked about life in Cuba and in Atlantic City, where Mr. Salgado worked for a couple of years.

“It was a unique experience,” said Ms. Grush, 59, who spent four hours helping at the restaurant, adding, “It was great not just to cook with him, but to be able to talk with people from the country.”

A stint in a Havana restaurant kitchen is hardly a typical element of a Caribbean holiday. As Americans prepare to visit Cuba under new, more flexible regulations announced by the Treasury Department on Thursday, however, American officials still expect them to get a close view of life on the island rather than sit poolside with a margarita.

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Havana. Under the new rules, Americans who qualify to travel will not have to apply for a license before they do so – a process that, in the past, could take weeks. Credit Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Under the economic embargo, Americans are permitted to travel to Cuba only for specific purposes, which fall into 12 categories and include religious, educational, cultural, professional, journalistic or humanitarian activities. Many Americans visit Cuba on educational exchange programs, known as “people-to-people” tours, whose tight itineraries consist of back-to-back meetings with Cubans — from architects to chefs to farmers — and include minimal free time.

Under the new rules, which will take effect on Friday as part of a deal to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Americans who qualify to travel under one of 12 categories will no longer have to apply for a license before they travel — a process that, in the past, could take weeks or months. And travelers will be permitted to use credit cards and spend money while in the country and bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco. What is not clear, say travel experts, is how American authorities plan to monitor what its citizens do when they get to Cuba. “What we don’t know is, ‘What is the border of these regulations?’ “ said Bob Guild, vice president of Marazul Charters, which has provided travel services to Cuba for 35 years. “Is anyone going to be vetting travel anymore?”

More flexible travel rules introduced in 2011 have already increased American travel to the island. About 100,000 Americans visit each year, while Cubans living in the United States make about 400,000 visits to see family. Those numbers could rise significantly under the new regulations, travel agents and tour leaders said.

Mr. Guild said “all hell broke loose” after an announcement on Dec. 17 saying that travel rules would loosen.

“I get hundreds of emails every day from people saying, Can I go next weekend?” Mr. Guild said by telephone this week from Miami. Anticipating high demand for hotels, he said, more than 50 travel organizations that have licenses from the Treasury Department to bring groups to Cuba asked him to block-book rooms for them through 2016.

That is another question: As keen as the Cuban government is to receive tourists — about three million came last year — it may not be able to handle a sudden increase in visits from America, which is the source of about half a million visits a year (80 percent of these are Cuban-Americans). The Communist government may also be wary of having a flood of Americans discussing capitalism and democracy with its people, political analysts said.

“If travel picks up three, four, fivefold, what is the Cuban response going to be?” said Collin Laverty, director of Cuba Educational Travel, which organized Ms. Grush’s trip.

“Are they going to have enough hotel rooms?” he added. “Are they going to have the infrastructure to deal with it? Will they issue all the visas?

Travel representatives predicted that Americans would continue to use people-to-people trips to visit Cuba because everything is arranged for them and if their tour is organized by someone knowledgeable, they experience things they might not see by themselves. A large proportion of those Americans who currently visit Cuba do so on people-to-people trips, they said.

Ms. Grush met Mr. Salgado, the chef, during a group cookery class at the restaurant and asked if she could return in the evening. Mr. Salgado said he hoped others who came for cookery classes would ask to do the same.

“I would love to do it again,” he said.

Mr. Laverty, though, believes Americans who dislike or cannot afford group travel will begin to visit independently because traveling under one of the 12 existing categories will no longer involve difficult and time-consuming paperwork.

“I think there’s going to be a shift overnight from group travel to individual travel and from elite travel to budget travel,” said Mr. Laverty. The looser rules would make it “easier and more affordable to visit Cuba in a small group,” he added.

People-to-people trips tend to attract wealthy, late-middle-aged Americans who enjoy the comforts of four-star hotels after days spent in lectures or shuffling through artists’ studios and organic farms. Americans are popular among guides, who can earn hundreds of dollars in tips from one group.

Ms. Grush’s eight-day trip, which included return flights from Miami to Havana, a trip to Pinar del Rio, a tobacco-growing province west of Havana, activities, some meals, and accommodation at the Iberostar Parque Central Hotel in Old Havana, cost $3,850 per person.

Individual travel — particularly if commercial flights open between Cuba and the United States — could be much cheaper. A meal in the best privately run restaurants costs about $35. A typical bed-and-breakfast in Havana charges $35 to $50 a night.

Given the lack of hotel rooms, bed-and-breakfasts could be in demand, said Tom Miller, author of “Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba.”

“The hotel room situation will be the first crisis,” he said, adding, “There are only half a dozen really high-end hotels and, in the midrange places, there are invariably problems: The window won’t shut, the sink isn’t working.”

Mr. Miller, who took a group of Americans to Cuba for a literary tour in January, said solo travelers could visit remote areas that see few tourists.

“If people go in ones or twos and hitchhike, and they are picked up by people along the highway, I think they’ll learn more,” he said.

Even those who are not up for hitchhiking could use almendrones, the clattering American jalopies that operate as communal taxis in Havana, said travel experts. They could venture beyond the prettified district of Old Havana, where tourists are herded, and into neighborhoods where Cubans rarely see tourists.

Visitors could also go to music venues like El Sauce, an outdoor stage surrounded by royal palm trees in a green suburb of Havana, and mingle with young Cubans, they said.

leksas Juskys, 35, a retired F-16 Air Force pilot who visited Cuba in January as part of his dual masters course at the University of Pennsylvania, said he would like to come back on his own.

“When you’re in a group you can’t walk down the street and talk to people like you would if it was just you,” said Mr. Juskys, who was crammed, along with about 30 fellow students, into the tiny apartment of a Cuban hip-hop band, Obsesión, for a talk on racial inequality.

Even so, Mr. Juskys, who also received an explanation of the Cuban rationing system at a bleak bodega in the poor Havana neighborhood of Regla, said the group was getting “the kind of access I never would have expected.”

There were signs, too, that information was flowing both ways. During the talk on race, Alexey Rodríguez, 42, and Magia López, 40, the band members, asked for advice about establishing a community center — perhaps a coy bid for financial help — and about their impressions.

“What’s the image you have of Cuba?” Mr. Rodríguez asked them. “How are relations between the countries going to change?”

Alex Rodríguez, 50, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles who was with his family on the same trip as Ms. Grush, said that Mario Pelegrín, a folk artist who runs community projects in Pinar del Rio, had offered his 21-year-old daughter Mayela, a student at University of California, Berkeley, space to build a sculpture in his lush garden.

Mr. Rodríguez, who was admiring the 17th- and 18th-century buildings of the restored Plaza Vieja in Old Havana on a recent morning, said he hoped to return with Mayela and had, separately, emailed California legislators and business people to suggest organizing a delegation.

While he was an evangelist for American travel to Cuba, he hoped mass tourism was not in the cards.

“I’m worried about them opening the flood gates,” he said. “Then everyone and their mother will want to come.”

Update
By VICTORIA BURNETT

NYT

CUBA Four locals share in the high hopes of an island nation

Published January 9, 2015

By Michael Sullivan 01/08/2015

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On Dec. 13, four Ventura locals — Patti Channer, community patroness and architect; William Hendricks, professor of photography at Ventura College; Ron Picciotti, retired engineer; and Susan Pollack, commercial interior designer, plus a few Brooks Institute students — flew into Cuba. Hendricks, who had visited the country 55 times before, and his fellow travelers were about to embark on a journey that would be, unbeknown to them, forever written into the history books.

Four days later, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would normalize political relations with Cuba, the small Third World country that had been isolated for over half a century. With the excitement, the fervor, the hope of what this meant for Cubans, the group shared in an experience that few would ever get to. Surprisingly, however, while they all partook in many of the same experiences, their perspectives were almost completely unique.
This week, Channer, Hendricks, Picciotti and Pollack spoke of their recent journey to a land caught in time.

View a slideshow of Cuba images.

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The Rincon • James Brownlie

VCReporter: What was the reaction like when Obama announced the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba?
Patti Channer: Cautiously optimistic ….
William Hendricks: You have to understand that all Cubans thought Clinton would be the one to normalize relations. In 2009 when Obama was elected, the Cubans were optimistic but had low expectations, thinking he was just another bureaucrat. When this news broke on the morning of Dec. 17 it was first received with shock and disbelief … followed by a warmth that filled the streets. I had longtime friends come up to me with tears in their eyes, saying, “Now we can be friends.” This struck me both as sublime and odd. “Why would we need our president to confirm something that we have known for 20 years?”
Ron Picciotti: Church bells rang, there were joyous crowds in the squares and we were getting high-fives from people on the street.
Susan Pollack: Because we had no warning that this event was going to happen while we were in Cuba, it took us by surprise. We found out at breakfast the morning of Dec. 17. Our hotel had CNN and one of the men on our tour came and told us. Later our guide translated Raúl [Castro]’s speech for us. We ended up going to a hotel bar to watch Obama on a big-screen TV. Right when we arrived to the square where the bar was located, church bells started ringing, pigeons flew in a flock circling the square. We had goose bumps. When we entered the bar, Obama was speaking. The crowd was both American and Cuban. I was offered a glass of rum; we were all joyous, everyone together. Tears flowed down many faces and I was proud to be an American at that moment and I was proud of President Obama to acknowledge that 55 years is too long and it’s time to have relations with Cuba.

When we left the bar, people in the streets were so happy. One shop owner came out and gave me and my friends beautiful beads as a gift for her happiness. It was an amazing day with smiles everywhere we went.

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Top: Sunset on the Malecon • Azaria Chavira
Middle: Boxing Kids • James Brownlie
Bottom: Fishing on the Malecon • James Brownlie

Tell us about special experiences on this trip.
Channer: This historic decision taken by the government of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations took place on Dec. 17, which was Pope Francis’ 78th birthday, the first day of Hanukkah and the feast of San Lazaro (Saint Lazarus). One might say it was all in divine right order!
Picciotti: It was special to be downtown Havana on December 17 when Raúl Castro and Obama were doing their joint press conferences announcing the normalization of political relations after over 50 years of Cuban isolation. The people were genuinely happy & looking forward to a better future.
Pollack: My husband and I plus another couple and a gentleman from our group visited a synagogue. It was Hanukkah and they were in the process of getting ready for a children/family celebration in a few days. There are 1,300 Jews in Cuba — 15,000 before the revolution — 800 Jews in Havana, three synagogues, one Sephardic, one Oorthodox and the one we visited was conservative. There is no rabbi; the congregation runs the services, bar and bat mitzvahs and the High Holy Days services. A rabbi came from Miami last Dec. 26 and married couples, mostly mix marriages because there are not very many Jews. I forgot how many couples but it took all day to marry many people. We were told that the young people leave to go to Israel and don’t return.

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Havana Streets • James Brownlie

The other special day was our visit to Rincon for the Saint Lazaro. There were 10 of us who made the trip or, rather, pilgrimage. It’s a long story and a long day but we made it to the church to experience all the people who came to be saved, healed and loved. We saw people crawling on their knees for miles, one man pulling a huge rock tied to his leg while he inched his way on the ground towards the church. Inside the church were people of all ages, praying, sick, crippled, in trances, bringing gifts for the saint and happy to be there.

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Havana Streets • Azaria Chavira

What do you like about Cuba and the culture?
Channer: Living in gratitude for the opportunity to experience the color of Cuba, vitality of yesteryear steeped in customs, the warm inclusive people, the architecture, the music, the art, flavorful cuisine and aroma of coffee beans being freshly roasted.
Hendricks: This culture is a riddle of resilience and vulnerability. For me it’s a place where genius and insanity argue and celebrate together.
Picciotti: The government will not allow free enterprise, yet art flourishes both in the schools and on the streets. Instead of creating businesses like we do in America, the Cubans create art. It is their form of expression.
Pollack: NO GUNS! I felt very safe in Cuba, which surprised me. We walked through some neighborhoods that I wouldn’t walk through in LA but it was no problem in Cuba.

FREE EDUCATION. We spoke to some college students at the jazz festival. They started the conversation with us — very smart, articulate young men. One in particular wanted to talk and ask us questions. His family was poor but he was able to go to college and major in engineering.

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Waiting Game • Bill Hendricks

FREE MEDICAL: Being an RN I was interested in their health care. I spoke to some doctors who, by the way, make the same salary as everyone else. They live very modestly and are very committed. What was interesting is that the doctors I spoke with said they need more medications to treat specific diseases. An example would be some chemo medications that are not available to them.

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Cuban barber in Old Havana • Bill Hendricks

How is Cuba different than the U.S.?
Channer: My observation is that the Cuban people exemplify the art of living together in harmony and without prejudice.
Hendricks: It’s what we have in common that is of great interest to me. Sports, art, music, Columbus and the Cold War. For years and with great energy, Washington and Havana have been clutching on to the past governed by principles and foreign policy created in the time of Richard Nixon.
Picciotti: Everything is faded and run down as if no maintenance has been done in over 50 years. Some buildings were barely standing and one collapsed just before we walked by. There were ambulances and fire trucks surrounding the area as the search for survivors began. The city is in shambles and yet the spirit of the people is strong. Cubans are extremely friendly and we never felt threatened.
Pollack: It’s a Third World country. Visually you see the difference right away in the automobiles, the clothing styles, and people spend so much time outside. They are not watching TV — [they] only have three stations. No one is texting and emailing on their phones and no hand-held video games. Children are playing stick ball on the streets or in the parks not on the iPads. That was very noticeable and I was pleased to see it. I went into a grocery market and the choices were just a few items, not 30 different breakfast cereals but four or five. I think all the differences made it exciting because you didn’t know what you would see next. Wonderful surprises!

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Lacking Internet, Cubans Rely On ‘The Package’ For Entertainment

Published January 6, 2015

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Young Cubans prepare their sticks to charge the latest internet “package” with films, television series, software and other similar stuff from foreign origin downloaded from the web.
AFP/Getty Images

 

Cuba has promised its citizens better Internet access in this New Year. The few Cubans who now manage to get online find it expensive and slow.

Warming ties with the U.S. have stirred hope for improved telecommunications. But until then, many residents have devised an ingenious work-around, or should we say walk-around.

On Havana’s Malecon, roaming guitarists play for the crowds resting against the iconic sea wall. In this nightly gathering spot, it’s old fashioned interacting. No one is on a cell, no eyes glued to smart phones.

While Cubans tout their revolution’s free health care and education, they’ve missed out on the digital one. Less than a fifth of the population owns a mobile device; internet access is even lower and cable and satellite TV is banned in private homes.

But surprisingly, Cubans are plugged in. During a lull in the nightly music the conversation turns to this week’s latest installment of some of the U.S.’s most popular television shows.

Julio Rodriguez and his wife Kadiuska Lara rattle off their favorites: Person of Interest, The Mentalist and Hawaii 5-0. Another couple shouts they love Caso Cerado, the Telemundo courtroom drama, and the Discovery Channel.

Without hi-tech offerings, Cubans have found an ingenious way to get nearly real-time entertainment, as well as the latest magazines, apps and even video games. It’s called the “Weekly Package,” and it’s passed, bought and sold hand-to-hand on external hard drives and memory sticks throughout the island.

Rodriguez says 80 percent of the country watches “the Package,” that’s his unscientific opinion. But it couldn’t be simpler; all you need is a DVD player, which is legal on the island.

In the living room of his small apartment outside Havana, Iyawo sits in front of a computer screen. He won’t say his full name since what he is doing is illegal in Cuba. On Saturdays, he goes to his distributor, who has downloaded the entire package — about one terabyte of data — from a satellite.

By the time Iyawo is back to his house there’s already a line outside. That day he charges about $5.75 for the whole thing, by Monday the price drops in half. Smaller memory sticks full of pre-selected shows are cheaper.

On a recent day, the latest “package” of offerings included everything from the latest episode of Showtime’s Homeland, Univision’s Sabado Gigante and even anti-virus software updates. There were also advertisements for Havana restaurants and a local kid’s party decorator. Looks like capitalism to me.

“Capitalism with the face of socialism,” snaps back Iyawo. “Because what I’m doing is making things better, not worse. I’m providing a service.

And Iyawo he insists it is pure entertainment. The package does not include anything political or pornographic, that’s why he speculates the government permits it.

And the government says it will permit more access to the Internet in 2015. In a state newspaper last week, officials announced improved services, including Internet access in mobile devices, although no timetable was given. For now, Cubans continue to line up and pay up.

On a busy street in Old Havana, in front of the state-owned telecommunications company, Danier Lopez waits in a long line to get inside on one of a dozen computers.

The connection is expensive, Lopez says, about $5 an hour — about a quarter of a monthly minimum salary. And it’s slow. Lopez says he spends most of his time waiting for pages to load. Cuban censors also routinely block some websites. Lopez says he has a Facebook page but hardly ever sees it.

Reinaldo Escobar, an independent journalist for the prominent website 14ymedio.com, eagerly awaits better service too. Sympathetic western embassies allow him to use the Internet free, but he pays a political price for the service. The government publishes photos of him entering the embassies using them to argue his work is subversive. He says change is coming.

“The changes are moving in the right direction,” Escobar says. “Unfortunately, they are not moving at the speed or the depth we need.”

Just last week, Escobar and several other activists were detained by state security forces just hours before they planned to attend a free speech protest.

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JANUARY 05, 2015 3:34 AM ET

CARRIE KAHN