Posted: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 8:01 AM
By Mary Murray, NBC News Havana Bureau Chief
HAVANA – When it comes to the U.S. presidential elections, the Cuban public doesn’t believe everything it’s told.
For more than a year, Cuban officials and the state-run media have been hammering away at the U.S. voting process, criticizing the influence that big money plays in electoral outcomes and dismissing both candidates along with their proposed policy toward the island.
No surprise there, given that Havana has spent the past 50 years battling a White House occupied by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Even retired and ailing Fidel Castro dedicated 11 different editorials since the presidential primaries began to belittling the U.S. elections, equating the process with the seriousness of a "Sunday afternoon card game" and accusing both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain of planning to starve the island into submission.
And other Cuban officials have echoed that disdain for anything American.
Recently parliament president Ricardo Alarcón advised voters looking for "real change" to cast their ballot for Green Party candidate Cynthia McKinney or independent Ralph Nader. Neither Obama nor McCain, predicted Alarcón, will transform much of anything.
But the Cuban public isn’t falling for the rhetoric.
Instead of just parroting the editorial line from state-run media, people are watching and weighing the U.S. election. They’re forming their own strong opinions instead of conforming to the prevailing official view.
Furthermore, many people believe that the outcome on Nov. 4 does matter. Some even argue that their own futures are at stake.
"I’m hoping that the American people will elect someone who will be open to changing relations with Cuba and allow free travel," said Alejandro Sene, 22, who dances with the National Ballet of Cuba and dreams of performing on the U.S. stage. "We need the breathing space."
Looking for a loosening of restrictions
Hands-down, the average Cuban prefers Obama to McCain – believing that he is the more likely candidate to loosen trade and travel restrictions while engaging the Cuban government.
In our own informal NBC News survey of 100 people in downtown Havana, 63 said they preferred Obama to McCain, two preferred McCain, 13 had no preference and 22 declined to answer.
"I hope Obama is open to dialogue and that he’s going to be able to sit down and have a frank discussion with his Cuban counterpart," said Majel Reyes, a 32-year-old translator who works for American businessmen selling licensed food to the island.
"McCain pretty much stands for whatever Bush represents and that doesn’t work for us. We want someone to realize that the 40 years of policy with Cuba have been wrong," said Reyes.
Obama has promised to allow unlimited Cuban-American family travel and remittances to the island. He has also promised to use "aggressive and principled bilateral diplomacy" with Havana with the hope of eventually normalizing relations and easing the U.S. embargo – if the Cuban government takes steps toward democracy, such as freeing political prisoners.
McCain has taken a more hard-line approach. Until the Cuban government releases political prisoners, grants basic freedoms and organizes internationally monitored elections, McCain has said, the economic embargo should stay in place and there should be no direct diplomacy with Cuban’s leaders.
In light of the candidates’ different stances, young Cubans seem particularly focused on the U.S. elections. "My circle of friends talk about this all the time," said Lourdes Dos Santos, a 21-year-old college student. "We don’t know which candidate will be better for the U.S., but, when it comes to Cuba, we think Obama is the better choice."
Like many, she’s putting her faith in Obama "since he’s willing to talk to us."
With almost 73 percent of the island’s population under the age of 50, people have grown tired of the political war between the two countries.
"I was born in the middle of this conflict. When is it going to end?" asked Junia Reyes, a 38-year-old single mother and wedding photographer.
Like many here, her choice for Obama comes down to bread-and-butter issues: "Life would be easier if we traded with the Americans. Food and soap and clothing would be cheaper," said Reyes.
Tough times just got tougher
The U.S. election is coming at a particularly vulnerable time for Cuba.
Twin hurricanes Gustav and Ike battered the island in the late summer – destroying key crops, killing thousands of farm animals and causing an estimated $5 billion in damage. While the government is distributing the country’s food reserves, some 500,000 people are still living in government shelters and are relying on public handouts to survive.
With dwindling supplies diverted to the neediest areas, Havana grocery shelves are sparse and many farmers’ produce stands are closed. Government officials are warning that progressive food shortages could last at least six months.
Ovidio Sanchez, a shoemaker in Central Havana, has seen his income cut in half over the past several weeks. "People spend their money on food before they’ll pay to fix their shoes."
Sanchez backs Obama because of his dream of Cuban law one day changing to allow him to open his own store with seed money from a brother living in Ohio. Obama has promised to ease restrictions on the amount of money Cuban Americans may send back home. Under current rules, people may send $300 every three months to immediate family.
Tired of isolation
From the Cuban vantage point, said Rev. Juan Ramon de la Paz, this election boils down to a single issue: "Who here supports George Bush?" Not many, he claimed, pointing to his parishioners at Havana’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.
"Bush tightened the embargo. He cut us off from our families," complained the pastor. "If McCain wins, people believe, it’ll be more of the same – more sanctions and more isolation. If Obama is elected, things will get better for us. It’s that simple."
Retired government economist Ileana Yarza agrees and even wrote Obama a three-page letter expressing her far-away support for his candidacy. "He’s the only one I have faith in. I feel attached to him."
After thanking Yarza for her interest, the "Obama for America" form letter urged her to get out and vote for the candidate on Nov. 4.
"If only I could," she sighed.
VIDEO: Cubans weigh in on the U.S. election