The Cuban expression "mañana, mañana." is often interpreted by Anglos as an excuse for laziness. In fact, the saying speaks volumes about its island of origin. In a country that has been led by one Castro or another for more than half a century, what hope can there be that tomorrow will be any different from today?
Earlier this month, that question brought several dozen experts, academics, and journalists to Columbia Journalism School in Manhattan. Optimism was evident in the conference's title -- Covering Cuba in an Era of Change -- as well as in the presentations, which included strong hints that the embargo's days are numbered.
Gregory Craig, former White House counsel under Barack Obama, said the president already has the legal power to lift most of the sanctions that have crippled Cuba since the fall of the Soviet Union. Although Congress probably would refuse to officially overturn the embargo, Obama could -- and should -- instantly normalize diplomatic relations and allow Americans to travel to the island, Craig said.
Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern outlined a six-month window in which Obama is most likely to make a move, beginning after next week's midterm elections and concluding with the Summit of the Americas in late April.
If Obama and Raúl Castro both attend as predicted, it will be the first official meeting between two countries' leaders since Raúl and Fidel swept down from the Sierra Maestra.
"We are reassured [by the White House] that people are working on it," McGovern said of a U.S.-Cuba policy change. "The stars seem to be aligned."
Many roadblocks remain, however. McGovern warned that any rapprochement would require dealing with both Alan Gross -- the USAID contractor imprisoned in Cuba since 2011 for distributing satellite phones without a permit -- and the three surviving members of the "Cuban Five," the Castro agents who spied on Miami's exile community.
Easing the embargo would also cost Obama politically. "I think part of the reluctance is that [the administration] will get some pushback from people who are in pretty serious positions," McGovern said, including Miami's hard-line Cubans.
Perhaps the most concrete evidence that things are already changing on the island was the presence of three Cuban journalists at the conference. Miriam Celaya, Elaine Díaz, and Orlando Luís Pardo Lazo have all been allowed to leave under recently relaxed travel restrictions. Celaya is scheduled to return to Havana this week, while Díaz and Pardo are on yearlong academic fellowships.
But Celaya and Pardo hardly painted a promising picture of their homeland. Celaya said she had been blocked from entering the library because of her journalism. Other reporters had been beaten and imprisoned, Pardo said. Both described having to share articles via paquetes, or troves of documents on flash drives. And Pardo said Cuba's infamous state security apparatus remained intact despite the growth of internet on the island.
"Our own [Edward] Snowden would not survive, would not escape," he warned. "Our own Snowden would be shot on the spot."
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Ultimately, despite the talk of Obama ending the embargo and ushering in change in Cuba, Pardo feared that the solution was still, as it has been for 50 years, "biological."
In other words: when the Castros kick the bucket.