MEXICO CITY — Joan Zegueira was washing dishes in a Cuban eatery in a Mexico City market when the news about his homeland flashed up on the TV screen. Eugenio Palmeiro was serving ice cream at his stall when a customer told him the latest. Juan Manuel was recovering from a night shift tending a Cuban bar when he saw images of President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama making their historic speeches.
All three say they greeted the news with a burst of happiness. The apparent thaw in Cuba-US relations after half a century of icy standoff has to be good for their country, they say.
“This a very important advance,” says Manuel, sitting in the Son de la Loma Cuban bar in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood. “It’s only a first step. But it’s one that we have waited 50 years for. We hope the other steps will now come quickly.”
After the United States, Mexico is home to one of the world’s biggest Cuban expat communities. The 2010 census found 12,000 Cubans living here, and there are likely many more not counted as they reside without papers.
Most immigrated looking for better opportunities than they found in Cuba, and complain about the poverty in their homeland. But they tend to be less antagonistic toward the Castro regime than much of Miami’s Cuban community traditionally has been. Like many Cubans living around the world, they hope that Obama’s surprise action will lead to more prosperity for their families back home, and perhaps could allow them to return in the future.
Palmeiro, who is 50, came to Mexico 14 years ago, and says he has done very well with his stall selling Cuban ice cream. “It is a paradise here in Mexico,” Palmeiro says. “In Cuba I was in a professional job making $20 a month. Here I sell ice cream and live very well.”
He hopes the restoring of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington will lead to the end of the US trade embargo.
“It makes it very hard when you can’t trade with the closest country. All goods become more expensive. That creates scarcity that leads to repression,” Palmeiro says.
While being critical of the Castro government, Palmeiro says isolating Cuba achieves nothing. “Some are angry about their homes being expropriated after the 1959 revolution and want to punish Cuba. But I wasn’t even born then.”
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After Fidel Castro led a revolution against a US-backed dictator in 1959, Washington imposed a partial embargo in 1960, broke off relations in 1961, and launched a full Cuba embargo a year later.
Obama has said he wants to lift the embargo, but this will mean a battle in Congress. Vocal Cuban Americans such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio want to fight to maintain the embargo and block the White House’s attempts at normalizing relations with the island. They argue that the US should keep putting pressure on Cuba until the Castro regime falls.
However, Manuel, in the Son de la Loma bar, says the aggressive position doesn’t speak for many in the generation of Cubans who have left the island recently. He came to Mexico seven years ago and still maintains close links with his family there, while many hard-line pro-embargo Cuban Americans left the island in the early 1960s.
“They don’t even have close family in Cuba. They don’t know what the blockade means,” Manuel says, calling the embargo by its Cuban name. “Sometimes children cannot get the medicine they need because of it. How can they support that?”
Now attitudes are shifting dramatically among his compatriots in the US. More than half of Cuban Americans polled in June opposed the embargo. Still, lobbyists and politicians are keeping the pressure on to continue the long-running sanctions.
Zegueira, 24, who work in an eatery called El Sazon de Mongo, left Matanzas, Cuba for Mexico just five months ago. He also hopes that the trade embargo will be lifted but is more pessimistic that this will actually happen.
“It has been hard in Cuba all my life and it is hard to imagine it being different,” Zegueira says. “We have to wait and see.”
Mexico is one of the few nations that maintained relations with Havana throughout the Cold War. Cubans have a long history of coming here and have helped shape cultural life and musical styles. More recently, Cubans have featured prominently in Mexico’s steamy telenovela soap operas, which show round the world.
Zegueira said he chose to come to Mexico because the standard of living is significantly better than in Cuba. But while he’s making more money here, he says he would rather be back home.
“There are things that are better in Cuba like security. In Cuba, you can go out and not worry. Here in Mexico, you have to be careful of guns and violence. But it is so hard to make a living in Cuba. We have to hope that this will change and there will be a future for me in my country.”
3 Cubans who blew up in Mexico
Damaso Perez Prado, The King of Mambo
Perez Prado moved to Mexico back in 1948, where he developed and popularized his raucous mambo music and dance. By the time of his death in 1989, mambo had become a beloved part of Mexico’s musical repertoire thrown in to every wedding medley.
Cuban Niurka Marcos traveled to Mexico to become a table dancer. She turned into a soap opera star. She became scandal-prone celebrity whose larger-than-life tale has itself been dramatized on the Mexican small screen.
Another soap star, Cesar Evora often plays handsome if slightly nuts middle-aged playboys. He filmed some steamy scenes with the now first lady Angelica Rivera, wife of President Enrique Peña Nieto.