Ramon Espinosa/AP PhotoOn Wednesday

SF professors, activists see bright future after U.S.-Cuba announcement

When longtime San Francisco Art Institute professor Tony Labat travels to his native Cuba on Saturday, he expects it to be much the same as the last time he saw it.

Wednesday marked a historic turning point in U.S.-Cuba relations, but whatever changes come out of it will not be seen in some time.

Web and phone service will remain scarce — only 5 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet — and absolutely zero commercial advertising campaigns will decorate roadways and billboards, Labat said. American cash and credit cards will likely remain prohibited.

But Labat expects to see a noticeable shift in the energy of the people.

“It's a special day,” Labat said Wednesday after consuming a Cuban sandwich and mojito in celebration of the news. “I still can't believe it.”

Joy, relief and encouragement were the general sentiment expressed Wednesday by other San Francisco residents with close ties to Cuba after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced that the nations will begin working to end 53 years of hostility.

“This 50-year-old blockade has been a type of warfare, an economic stranglehold,” said Bill Hackwell, a national organizer with San Francisco-based International Committee for the Freedom of the Cuban 5. The group had been fighting for the release of five Cuban intelligence agents who until Wednesday had been jailed in the U.S. since 1998.

Hackwell and others called Wednesday's news a significant step forward to normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

“It's historic,” said Nancy Mirabal, an associate professor of Latino-Latina studies at San Francisco State University who has taught courses on Cuba for 20 years. “President Obama is basically saying we are going to have diplomatic ties with Cuba.”

The Cuban population is the fifth-largest Latino community in the Bay Area, with many living in San Francisco and Oakland. Most arrived in the U.S. as refugees during the most recent wave of those who were allowed to flee Cuba in the 1990s, Mirabel noted.

“Agencies that resettled the Cubans asked for cities that would settle the refugees, and San Francisco was one of about five cities [at the time],” she said.

Maria Elena Gonzalez, an assistant professor at the Art Institute, is all too familiar with fleeing from Cuba. In 1968, Gonzalez and her family came to the U.S. after declaring seven years earlier that they wanted to leave the island nation just south of Florida.

“My mother really believed in the change of what [Fidel] Castro could bring to Cuba, the social equality … that everybody had faith in,” Gonzalez said. “Then it turned into communism and basically a dictatorship.”

Gonzalez has returned to Cuba twice since 1968 — both times in 2000 — but said each time she was left worried that she might not be able to return to the U.S.

“Maybe I can visit more often now and not have this fear that I'm going to be locked [up] and not be able to leave,” Gonzalez said. “It's a fear for a lot of Cubans — what would happen to me if I go back?”

Easier travel to and communication with Cuba is expected to be among the benefits as both countries take steps to normalize relations.

Felix Kury, a lecturer at SFSU, said he brought students in groups of about 20 to Cuba for 12 days at a time between 1997 and 2012 as part of a student exchange program. But in those 15 years, just three Cuban students were able to visit SFSU as part of the program.”I have friends who are Cuban who live in The City, and for them it will be much easier to send remittances to their families, to visit them, to send them Christmas presents,” Kury said.

San Francisco-based organizations that have fought to end strained ties between the U.S. and Cuba also rejoiced over Wednesday's news.

“We thought the policy was anachronistic and something that would be discarded pretty soon after the Cold War ended. The fact that it's hung on so long has been appalling,” said Ted Lewis, human-rights director for Global Exchange.

Mirabal, whose classes at SFSU include Cuban history, said not much will change in her lesson plans following this news, except for one major thing.

“Now,” she said, “we'll teach a different conclusion.”

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