President Obama Arrives In Cuba With His Family
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's start with President Obama's historic trip to Cuba. It begins tonight. This is the first visit of a sitting U.S. president to the island in more than 80 years. Obama's visit comes after two years of meetings, some secret, between the two former Cold War foes. But it is the high point of the president's plan to reset relations with Cuba and its long-time communist leaders. NPR's Carrie Kahn is covering the visit in Havana, and she's with us now. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: So have you had a chance to talk with Cubans about the visit? What are they saying?
KAHN: Everybody here is very, very excited. Overall, that's what you hear, just extremely excited that he's coming. And expectations are very high for President Obama, too, but it depends who you talk to also within the community, especially those opposed to the regime - outwardly opposed to the regime here. Some think it is a very poor decision by the president to come here at this time. They feel like he's rewarding the Castro regime with a presidential visit. But overall, most people are very excited.
MARTIN: Let's talk a little bit about opposition leaders, particularly people who are concerned with human rights. Have they improved since the U.S. and Cuba have started to restore diplomatic relations? And is the president going to meet with dissidents and other people who oppose the regime?
KAHN: He has scheduled on his agenda to meet with dissidents. And I have talked with a few of them, so it's confirmed that they're going. And he's also going to speaking with civil society. But if you asked the dissident community here and the opposition - people in the opposition if things have improved since the restoration of U.S.-Cuba ties, overall they say no.
I spoke with one dissident who is sort - a human rights activist who is the unofficial keeper of the number of political prisoners in detentions here, and he says since June of last year, there are 20 more political prisoners in Cuban prisons. He's also said there's been an incredible increase in short-term detentions, and those are for people that are actively protesting and demonstrating against the regime here.
But for others that are active in civil society, and they will also be talking with President Obama - like the Afro-Cuban groups, LGBT groups and the Catholic Church - they do say that there is a bit of an opening and they - you could feel it in the streets. I can walk up to anybody now in the last couple of months and they talk openly about the situation here in Cuba.
MARTIN: Are there one or two major concerns that Cubans would like to tell President Obama about and hear him address when he's there?
KAHN: Overall, if you talk to Cubans in the street, the major concern is the economic conditions on the island. You know, Cubans on average make a state salary of about $20 a month, and they get food rations, and everybody just is scraping to get by. They say you can't get by on that amount of money and those rations that they're getting.
That's what everybody's talking about, is the economic situation. They want an improvement. They like what President Obama has done to sort of punch holes in the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which is allowing for a budding private sector here. Some estimates put that private sector now at about 25 percent of the economy, and that has been growing quite quickly in the last about five years.
And then there's people that are getting remittances from abroad, from family in Miami and other places in the world and the United States. And the Obama administration has also allowed for an unlimited amount of remittances, and so that's really helped a lot of the poor and this burgeoning middle class here in Cuba, but it's also - created also an income gap here in Cuba that has never really happened before. But that's an income gap nowhere near others in Latin America. But tensions are slowly growing, and it's become a concern of the Castro regime.
MARTIN: That NPR's Carrie Kahn, who's in Havana. Carrie, thank you.
KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.