MIAMI – In the year since the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement began, some things have seemed to move at warp speed but others have smacked into the reality that the two former Cold War enemies still have two very different systems and have barely talked to each other in five decades.
There have been important symbolic changes. An American flag now waves over a U.S. Embassy in Havana and a Cuban flag flies at the Cuban Embassy in Washington after an absence of more than 54 years. President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro have met face-to-face twice.
Cuba has been removed from the U.S. black list of state sponsors of terrorism and there have been talks on prickly issues such as migration, human rights and claims for confiscated property of U.S. citizens and corporations.
But because expectations were so high and many U.S. businesses were so eager to engage after a half-century drought, some say Cuba has been slow in taking up the United States on the new business opportunities the Obama administration began outlining in January. Obama also has said he wants to work with Congress to lift the embargo.
Expectations were high among the Cuban people, too, said Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who left the island in 1994, because "in Cuba's political culture, when the president says something is going to be done, take his word, it will be done. Cubans who heard Obama thought this is the president's word."
But such high hopes have been tamped down. It was apparent after the first round of normalization talks in Havana in January that rapprochement would be a slow process, he said.
Some Americans imagined that U.S. companies with all their technical know-how would rapidly expand Internet access on the island or that Americans would be able to pick up a charger for their cellphone at a U.S. mobile storefront in Havana, soon be visiting Cuba via a ferry from Miami and pulling out credit cards issued by U.S. banks to pay for their hotel stays.
All are possible under new U.S. rules, but Cuba has yet to allow any of those changes.
Even though U.S. companies are free to form partnerships with Cuban government entities to improve the island's Internet and telecom infrastructure, the only deals announced so far have been a few roaming and direct connect arrangements. This summer, Cuba began rolling out new public Wi-Fi hot spots that now number 50, but most Cubans don't have regular access to the Internet.
"It's all about what your benchmark was at the beginning of rapprochement. If you had realistic expectations, then you see gradual progress," said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego.
In April, Castro said that while the two countries still have their differences, "we are willing to discuss everything but we need to be patient."
Castro's more conciliatory words to Obama were a watershed event, said Feinberg. "Until that time, the United States was the implacable enemy and a threat to the security of Cuba. His remarks changed the whole paradigm and atmosphere in Cuba."
The most tangible change in Cuba since last December has been the parade of U.S. visitors, including Obama Cabinet members and State Department delegations. Last week, many baseball stars who defected also visited.
American travelers have signed up for people-to-people tours in record numbers, helping Cuba set a new record for international visitors this year. There have been sports and cultural exchanges, U.S. governors have toured Havana in vintage automobiles and countless U.S. business delegations have arrived in Cuba.
But not everyone is in favor of engagement and over the past year, members of the Cuban-American delegation in Congress have introduced legislation that seeks to limit the Obama opening. Congressional supporters of engagement, meanwhile, have been busy trying to line up cosponsors for bills lifting the travel ban and the embargo.
Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the progress the Obama administration sees "is not reflected in the mass arrests and the increase in Cubans fleeing that has marked this year."
Human rights is among the more contentious issues between the two countries. While the United States has criticized the jailing of dissidents and insisted on the importance of respecting basic civil rights, such as freedom of speech, press and assembly, Cuba views human rights through a somewhat different prism of social well-being, emphasizing its free health care as an example of respect.
Although the number of political prisoners has fallen sharply, the number of political arrests is way up. Through November, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation had documented 7,686 political arrests, most resulting in short-term detentions.
In its November report, the commission said the Castro regime was reacting with "ever greater repressive fury" against those who only want freedom for political prisoners and respect for civil rights.
Little has changed
Not only has there been "disappointment by the naive view of the White House regarding its misguided policies towards communist Cuba," Ros-Lehtinen said, but "little has changed for the average Cuban while the Castro brothers continue to rejoice that they have an ally on Pennsylvania Avenue."
Just in time for the Christmas season, the United States and Cuba reached agreement Dec. 10 on a pilot program for direct mail service that will take mail directly from the United States to Cuba several times a week, rather than through third countries. And on Wednesday, both sides said they had reached an understanding to restore regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries.
On the financial front there has been both progress and frustration. Florida-based Stonegate Bank became the first U.S. bank to establish a relationship with a Cuban financial institution. But other banks have remained wary.
Many challenges remain. One immediate one is the more than 3,000 Cubans stranded in Costa Rica because Nicaragua, an ally of Cuba's, won't let them pass through its territory on their route north to the United States.
The U.S., meanwhile, would like to see progress on compensation for $1.9 billion in claims by U.S. citizens and corporations who had their Cuban property seized.