'Just words': Cubans applaud Obama visit, but see little change

American classic cars drive along a street in Havana on March 19, 2016
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American classic cars drive along a street in Havana on March 19, 2016 (AFP Photo/Rodrigo Arangua)

Havana (AFP) - After the heady excitement of seeing President Barack Obama shatter decades of US-Cuba hostility, Cubans woke up Wednesday wondering how much will really change on the communist island.

The climax of Obama's trip was a speech Tuesday in which his oratorical skills were on full display, urging Cubans to embrace democracy and vowing that the United States will drop its punishing economic embargo, even if that decision has to come from the more hawkish Congress.

The cheers for Obama in Havana's Gran Teatro showed how far the visit -- the first by any US president in 88 years -- has shifted Washington's old policy of treating Cuba like enemy territory. And while all-powerful President Raul Castro seemed less than happy, listening stone-faced, he had let the speech go ahead live on state television.

But after the euphoria came something of a hangover for Cubans who say there will be no easy answers.

"We appreciate his good intentions. He's a man who talks very well, but at the end of the day they're just words," said retiree Estrella Mora, 61. "Another thing is reality: Obama came and went, but the embargo is still there."

Cley Poll Betacourt, 41, praised Obama's speech and visit. "He said things as they are."

The problem, Betacourt said, "is that he wants to achieve very quickly things that will take years. We need time to change things here."

Betacourt said Cubans are not ready for radical political change and that reform of the country -- ruled by one party and with a sclerotic economy -- should come from within. "We are fine with our president. We listen to what he says, because he wants the best for us. We don't need anything else."

- Thinking for themselves -

Those who have experienced the hard end of Castro's rule cautioned that Obama -- however spectacular his visit -- has only limited power.

"I think the government will not listen to Obama's words on political change," said Mirian Leiva, a former member of the Ladies in White dissidents group. "I think these ideas of his were aimed at the population and that anything further is up to Cubans themselves."

And former political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer, 75, said Cubans will have trouble following through on Obama's call for them to build their own future.

He said Cubans are used to having a "paternalistic" figure "who will resolve all the problems, with everyone else like children who need being taken in hand and are waiting for a pope or a US leader."

That mentality, he said, is gradually easing but Cubans need to understand that "we are the ones with the main role for changing Cuba."

Certainly the state media have been quick to reinterpret Obama's speech for the population, warning that Obama's slickness could not be trusted.

"Obama's visit to Cuba was a masterclass in political marketing that we Cubans are not used to," state television commented.

"Maybe there won't be another US president for another 88 years. What will be more important is what happens and what happens depends not on what (Obama) thinks, but on the plans of an elite that he must now represent."