In December 2014, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed that both governments should begin taking steps to ease the 53-year-old strained relationship between the neighboring countries. Though Obama and Castro still stand far apart on many issues, good faith measures have signaled that both sides are serious about opening up diplomatic relations.
In addition to proposing a plan to open an embassy in Havana, the Obama administration announced that it will allow Americans to travel to Cuba for non-tourism-related reasons in 12 categories, including journalism, educational and professional research, humanitarian aid and official government business. Previously, this type of travel required case-by-case approval.
The U.S. also announced it will open up telecommunications access to the isolated island. In a country where only about 5% of the population can access the global Internet, expanded interaction with the outside world could mean big changes for Cuba. For a country that has been held back for more than half a century, many Cubans are eagerly awaiting the change.
The shift will be felt most acutely by young Cubans. How will they feel about Americans suddenly showing up at their doorsteps? Do they think the changes in diplomatic relations will have an effect on their day-to-day lives? And if so, what do they imagine those changes will look like?
We asked young Cubans in Havana these very questions. Their answers were illuminating and show a side of Cuba that most Americans have never had the chance to see.
Some people were too embarrassed to speak to us. A surprising number seemed afraid of the consequences if they did. Not that it's necessarily illegal to discuss sensitive topics with a journalist or an American — they just weren't sure what would happen to them. More than a few said they were afraid of being arrested if they talked or had their picture taken — one man pretended to put handcuffs on himself when asked why he didn't want his picture taken.
Arian, 20, professional dancer from Santa Clara
"I have a lot of family that are American citizens. A lot of my family that got citizenship have been there for a number of years. But I have not visited. It's an impressive country, but I will stay in my country.
"I think that the changes are great for Cuba and the U.S. Both will benefit, but only up to a certain point. I don't think either of us should change our thinking or our politics just because of this simple [economic] change. I think we can reach an arrangement where we can make our economy better while maintaining our thinking and our political views.
"Everything can change from tourists coming to Cuba. We're going to have more direct communication with them. We don't know the Internet. We don't know many things that will help us work a little better, to get more information. But to change our culture? We are an intelligent people, so I don't think we should change our culture. Our culture is beautiful. I don't think that we have to change that."
Amanda, 20, psychology and education student at the University of Education in Havana
"I think that the opening of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba will benefit us a lot. I think there should be some type of relationship between our countries that nourishes each. We can enrich ourselves from your culture and you can enrich yourselves from our culture. Having the U.S. as an economic partner will benefit us a lot, since the U.S. is a huge world power. And we are country that is, well, a little small. We need that type of relationship."
Benni, 32, a parking attendant, and Zaili, 19, unemployed, both from Havana Vieja
Zaili: "Well, my friend, I can tell you something — I think we are better than you!"
Benni: "We are better!"
Zaili: "We are thinking about these changes. Cuban lives are beginning to change. We think things are going to change for the better."
Benni: "I hope so. I hope they're for good. I don't know, I don't know."
Leandro, 20, math student at the University of Havana
"I don't dislike Americans. I cannot tell you much more because I haven't had any contact with them. ... I hope the changes are for good. I hope the situation gets better. That's my hope. Cultures will mix. It's always good to meet new people, so I don't know why there is anything wrong with that."
Greta, philosophy student at the University of Havana and Ernel, computer technician from Havana
Ernel: "Various sectors of U.S. society and government are interested in the improving relationships. And from [the Cuban side], the leaders in our society are interested as well, without undermining principles and important ethical points. But yeah, there is a lot of willingness to collaborate and improve economic relationships."
Greta: "We have also been very influenced by U.S. culture, even if people don't think so. The shows that you see on TV and movies, maybe not all of them, but a huge majority of them are American. And we listen to a lot of American music. American culture has strong foundations here in Cuba."
Ernel: "There are a lot of Cubans that follow the American way of doing things."
Ariadne, 25, accountant from Havana Vieja
"[Americans] are people like us. At work, their home life, they're the same. There's no difference. If they live in one country or the other, it's the same. They're the same people. Whether or not they are good or bad, I cannot tell you, because I don't know many Americans."
Maielis, 25, Literature professor at the University of Havana
"The relationship of Cubans with Americans, at least in my experience, is mostly through the movies and TV shows. It is a culture that does not seem too distant. Actually, it seems to me that a lot of phrases are mixing lately in the language and the ways young people in Cuba are communicating. Sometimes I even catch myself, and it makes me feel guilty to use American phrases to say things that I cannot find a way to say in Spanish. I think that is mostly an influence from TV shows. I watch a lot of shows in English, sometimes without even knowing what they're saying.
"There are going to be a lot of changes and I hope for good. I think they're going to be positive, the changes. We're going to start participating in a more active way in this globalized world. We were experiencing it and consuming in a very unique way. We were not completely isolated from the world."
Adonis, 26, studying Chinese at University of Havana, from La Lisa, Havana
"As far as I know, Cuban people have very good opinions about Americans. There have been problems between governments, you know, but Cuban people are very friendly and sociable, as are Americans. I think that President Obama is trying to make the relationship closer. I think it has to be done, and it should have been done a long time ago. I see the progress in this."
Pedro, 34, math professor at the University of Havana
"My prediction is that things are going to get better, but slowly. I think that many people think that there are going to be immediate changes with relation to the U.S. and I think that there are going to be some, but little by little. Slowly. That's what I see."
Name withheld, from Havana
"What do I think? I have American friends. It's good that they come and get close to us, that they come to Cuba. We are two people divided by one policy. And the people of the U.S., even the government of the U.S., have been friends with the people and the government of Cuba. It's a fight that has no meaning. The U.S. even helped us in our independence struggle against Spain in the war of 1895.
"The Cuban economy feels more secure being in a partnership with the American economy. It has always been this way. Even in the tourism sector as well. For us, it has always been a benefit to be close to the U.S., not only geographically, but also spiritually as good friends. Nevertheless, this issue with the negotiations, people still do not trust them. I think, at least, that the U.S. has good intentions with Cuba."
These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. Translation help from Eric French.