New day for Cuban-American relations

Scott Pelley reports from Havana as the U.S. reopens diplomatic relations with its longtime Cold War enemy

The following script is from "Cuba" which aired on Dec. 21, 2014. Scott Pelley is the correspondent. Nicole Young, Oriana Zill de Granados, Andy Court and Robert Anderson, producers.

A truce has been declared along a frontline of the Cold War. After 18 months of secret talks and an old fashioned exchange of captured spies, President Obama surprised the world, on Wednesday, reestablishing relations with Cuba, in a deal guaranteed by the Vatican. It happened because of accidents of history. A second-term president doesn't have to worry about losing Florida. For the first time in 2,000 years, the pope is Latin American. And the last Castro seems somewhat more inclined to evolution than revolution.

It's been half a century since communism staked a beachhead 90 miles from the United States, half a century since the island was primed as the detonator in a countdown to nuclear holocaust. Once, the world held its breath over Cuba. But when we arrived there, this past week, we found a nation still waiting to exhale.

Havana is a city of antiques. An island in the flow of time. Wealthy societies spend fortunes to recreate what comes naturally to poverty -- a living museum of old models still running beyond their time; Chevy and Ford, Marx and Lenin.

Wednesday, it seemed to fit the pattern that news of change would come from a classic, an 83-year-old dictator clothed in fatigue.

Even the music stopped at Havana's University of the Arts, where visiting teachers from Chicago were interrupted so students could be told their future would not be the past.

A Cuban and an American clasped hands. Orbert Davis and Mark Ingram of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic just happened to catch the downbeat of history.

Orbert Davis: It was just a joyous occasion of experiencing change and something that they've been hoping for, for a very long time.

Mark Ingram: And the cheering, some tears and, you know, just amazed and happy, not knowing what really that means other than communication with the U.S.

Before now, communication sounded like this. Cultural exchanges have been permitted for years. And, the Chicago musicians were here on one of those programs. We asked these young Cuban performers what they would call their generation. One of them said, "How 'bout the 'window generation? Because now we can see the future."

Scott Pelley: Ernesto, how do you imagine your life will be different than that of your parents?

Ernesto Lima: I don't imagine. I'm sure that it will be different. So it would be better. So better. And Cuba will be going, a great place.

Scott Pelley: Give me some specifics of things that you think will change in Cuba.

Ernesto Lima: I think the economy. And this is important thing because we can get a better instrument. We can get computers, Internet.

Scott Pelley: You'd like to be online?

Ernesto Lima: Yes. Yes.

Wendy Ora: It's another perspective.

Scott Pelley: Another perspective on the world if you're communicating with the United States.

Ernesto Lima: I think we will be more of close to the freedom that you always are talking about your country, and the freedom that we want to make.

But "freedom," remains a distant dream. Among the government graffiti is the slogan, "socialism or death," which could be read more as a warning than a call to patriotism. Stalin would be comfortable behind the wheel of this 1950s autocracy, the last Big Brother model in the West. Housing, medical care and education are all free. But look at what's missing from this picture. This has to be the only harbor in the islands that has no boats. The government restricts ownership because many Cubans would sail away.

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Every neighborhood is organized under its own Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. The CDR's hold neighborhood meetings and every Cuban has to attend. A lot of them hate that. Because the government runs just about everything, 80 percent of the Cuban people are government employees and they get paid pretty much the same. Somewhere between $20 and $50 a month, it doesn't really matter much whether you're a street sweeper or an accountant. They also get one of these. It's a food ration book. It covers things like eggs and milk and meat and rice. The food that is purchased with these ration books is virtually free, but it's supposed to last a month, and any Cuban will tell you, it lasts about 10 days.

Stomachs may grumble but not too loudly. Hector Maseda Gutierrez went to prison for criticizing rations, pay and medical care. And yet he was willing to do it again with us.

Hector Maseda Gutierrez: I have always been and will always be faithful to the truth, even if it harms me.

Scott Pelley: What is the truth that needs to be known?

Hector Maseda Gutierrez: What happens in Cuba every day, the way people suffer, the shortages, the deprivations. The government simply does not care about what happens to the Cuban people; it only cares about its own interests.

He's a man of extraordinary courage -- a nuclear engineer by training -- Maseda Gutierrez started an opposition news service. He was jailed in 2003 in a roundup of 75 dissidents. His wife led a protest movement that Cubans called "The Ladies in White." In 2011, Maseda Gutierrez was released into her arms but eight months after this picture she was dead. It was a sudden illness. And he will not forgive missing her last eight years. After so much sacrifice we wondered what a man like him thought of America establishing relations with the regime.

Hector Maseda Gutierrez: I think this is a very interesting, very intelligent and very positive move by the U.S. government. We applaud this and will support it. It is what the people need. Even if only some of this is achieved, it will be a substantial leap forward, regardless of the Castros.

"The government simply does not care about what happens to the Cuban people; it only cares about its own interests."

Any connection to America, he told us, will inevitably increase pressure for reform.

Scott Pelley: Are you in favor of the embargo being lifted?

Hector Maseda Gutierrez: I am against the lifting of the embargo. It is a way to pressure the Cuban government to really achieve things for the Cuban people and for the world.

Scott Pelley: Do you have hope for Cuba?

Hector Maseda Gutierrez: Yes, I have great hopes for Cuba, as I never have had before.

The hope of a relationship dimmed in 1961 when the U.S. took it's flag and went home. One of the diplomats closing the embassy then was Wayne Smith.

Wayne Smith: I remember it very well. The Cubans, as sort of a farewell, had brought a battalion of women militia members to the embassy to protect us. We didn't need any protection-- except for-- dozens and dozens of people trying to get visas before we left.

Months later, America organized the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Then came the trade embargo JFK signed after he took delivery of 1,200 Cuban cigars. Wayne Smith, who's famous among diplomats for his work on Cuba, returned in the Carter years in another failed attempt to patch up relations.

Scott Pelley: There are a lot of reasonable Americans who argue, "Why reward the Castros? You're caving in to the Castro regime."

Wayne Smith: We haven't gained anything in 50 years with this refusal to have a dialogue, embargo, all that. That hasn't gained anything. Why keep repeating the same old mistake year after year when it isn't achieving anything? It was time to change, time long ago to change. And at last, sensibly, we have.

Scott Pelley: You probably know Fidel Castro about as well as any American. How do you think he's reacting to this?

Wayne Smith: I think he's reacting very favorably. They didn't do this against his will.

Smith thinks the embargo should end too. But it won't. Only Congress can do that. The U.S. Treasury will continue to enforce the rules as Orbert Davis and Mark Ingram discovered.

"Why keep repeating the same old mistake year after year when it isn't achieving anything? It was time to change, time long ago to change. And at last, sensibly, we have."

Scott Pelley: You wanted to bring some things to these students?

Mark Ingram: Yes. 'Cause they have limited resources here. I mean, they have 12 music stands.

Scott Pelley: How many do you need?

Mark Ingram: Well, it's a 60-piece orchestra. You know--

Scott Pelley: What else do they lack?

Mark Ingram: Reeds. We have one student who's a saxophone player. They're playin' reeds from 1970. Old dried out reeds, you know, paper.

Orbert Davis: Music paper--

Scott Pelley: Did you bring this stuff to them?

Mark Ingram: We weren't able to bring any of this stuff to them. You can't do that.

Scott Pelley: So because of what they call the embargo here you couldn't bring music paper, you couldn't bring reeds?

Orbert Davis: To use, but not to give.

Scott Pelley: You couldn't give it to them?

Orbert Davis: No. We're using the music stands, but they are ours.

Mark Ingram: We cannot donate them.

Scott Pelley: You have to take them back with you.

Orbert Davis: Yes.

Scott Pelley: You'd like to leave them?

Orbert Davis: Can we say that?

Mark Ingram: We would love to leave them. Yes, we would love to leave them.

Scott Pelley: But the United States Treasury will not let you?

Mark Ingram: Well, yeah. No. They told us we can't do that. And the Cuban government says you can't do that.

They can't make extra copies of the sheet music either.

Orbert Davis: Unfortunately, we could not Xerox the music because there is no Xerox machine.

Scott Pelley: At a university?

Mark Ingram: At a university.

Orbert Davis: A university, right.

Mark Ingram: No copy machine. Can't afford one.

And they can't e-mail it. Only five percent of Cubans are connected to the world wide web, it's about the lowest percentage on Earth. In the new agreement, America added an exception to the embargo, U.S. Internet technology.

Jeff DeLaurentis: This could be a game changer down the line.

Jeff DeLaurentis is America's top diplomat in Havana.

Jeff DeLaurentis: The government here did its best to restrict the flow of information. And they have committed to providing more access to the Internet to the Cuban people in the course of our discussions.

DeLaurentis works in the same building that America abandoned in '61. It won't fly the flag as an embassy until next year. But U.S. diplomats have been back since the 70s trying to pry Cuba open. For example, Castro first permitted cell phones in 2008. And after that, the U.S. brought in tens of thousands of phones and gave them away for free.

Jeff DeLaurentis: We believe that lighting up the island is gonna make a major change here.

Scott Pelley: Lighting up the island in terms of connecting it to the worldwide web?

Jeff DeLaurentis: Yes, yes.

Darkness has been lifting slowly. Raul Castro, who took over from his brother, has allowed some small business and real estate ownership. And, last year, he largely lifted the ban on travel.

Scott Pelley: And I wonder now, in this building, how many Cubans come to you, looking for visas to the United States?

Jeff DeLaurentis: 500 a day, sometimes more--

Scott Pelley: 500 a day?

Jeff DeLaurentis: 500 a day.

Scott Pelley: You process 500 Cubans a day, looking for visas to go to the United States?

Jeff DeLaurentis: Yes, we do.

It seems remarkable, when you consider that an entire generation of Cubans has been taught their suffering is imposed by America and its embargo. But even that was something most Cubans couldn't buy. They're too far from Marx, too close to Miami. They pirate American TV signals, love jazz, baseball is the national pastime, and two million family members live in America. Most any Cuban will tell you, in a whisper, they're poor because socialism is bankrupt.

Scott Pelley: We were driving through town today and I was struck. I looked up at an apartment building and somebody had hung a Cuban flag and an American flag, side by side. I have to imagine on Monday somebody would've gotten arrested for that.

Jeff DeLaurentis: Yes. I suspect that's probably true. And I suspect we're going to see more and more of that.


  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"