HAVANA — Ask about any Cuban these days how the normalization of relations with the United States has changed their lives, and they’ll give you roughly the same answer.
"Look around," said Ignacio Frade, 41, laughing as he looks up and down the street in the Vedado neighborhood of this capital city. "Do you see anything different?"
In the 17 months since President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that the Cold War foes would re-establish diplomatic relations, I’ve visited here repeatedly to witness a series of historic events on an island unaccustomed to such spectacles.
I saw Cubans lining up for hours last summer to catch a glimpse of Secretary of State John Kerry preside over a ceremony to raise the American flag over the newly christened U.S. Embassy in Havana. I sat with Cubans inside their homes in Old Havana in March as they watched Obama deliver a speech from a theater a few blocks away.
People in Cuba have seen a steady stream of American politicians, CEOs and curious visitors flood their country. Even a U.S. cruise ship that docked this month in Havana’s harbor drew throngs of Cubans eager to witness the next step into their future relationship with the Yankees.
Throughout those 17 months, I’ve seen Cubans gripped with an optimism they haven't felt in decades. But now, as the luster of Obama’s spring visit gives way to the broiling days of summer, comes the hard part. Cubans once again find themselves waiting for a change that may never come.
Jorge González, a retired Spanish teacher in Havana, said Obama has done everything he can to improve trade and travel between the two countries. Like many other Cubans, he can recite the regulatory changes that the Obama administration has implemented, which allow Americans to travel to Cuba more easily and U.S. companies to sell their products and services to Cuban entrepreneurs and the Cuban government.
But González said the “dinosaurs” in Cuba’s government haven’t reciprocated. He said the government has not changed its own laws to take advantage of the openings created by Obama. Last month's meeting of Cuba's Communist Party Congress was expected to do that, but it ended with little more than an announcement of reduced food prices across the island.
"Notice what happened when (Obama) left," González, 65, said. "While he was here, everybody was nice to him, everybody smiling, arms open, all of that. But the second he walked up the ladder and stepped onto his plane, those smiles disappeared and the government started criticizing him again."
González was referring, in part, to a column published by Cuba’s retired leader, Fidel Castro, a few days after Obama left. Castro said Cuba didn’t need any gifts from Obama and blasted several parts of Obama's speech to the Cuban people, a sentiment González said was repeated in the state media by government officials.
"How can you have any hope of change when you see that?" he said.
Others, like Frade, 41, remain optimistic. The shift supervisor at a Havana factory said it’s foolish to expect Cuba’s massive bureaucracy to change overnight. Frade pointed to changes in the country’s economic system that Raúl Castro has implemented since taking power in 2008 as proof that he’s willing to evolve.
"You have to stay optimistic, right?" Frade said.
As the country waits for that to happen, people like Eliud Sierra remain stuck.
Sierra has worked as a model from time to time, but spends most of his days sitting behind a table on a front porch in Havana fixing anything that people bring. He is one of the 500,000 private entrepreneurs that Raúl Castro has allowed to work outside the state-run economy, and the target for a lot of the economic openings created by the Obama administration.
I met him Friday as people brought him broken pressure cookers, malfunctioning fans and burned-out microwaves. He fixed what he could, but most conversations involved figuring out how to find the needed parts. He told one woman she would have to wait a few days while he found a regulator for her pressure cooker. He told another woman that he saw the part she needed in a store on the outskirts of the city.
Sierra laughed when I asked how the opportunity to buy tools and parts directly from American companies would help him. “Look at this drill,” he said, grabbing an ancient-looking drill that he turns by hand. “Imagine the time I’d save if I could buy an electric drill.”
For now, the Cuban government hasn’t allowed Cuban entrepreneurs to import products from the United States So Sierra, like the rest of the country, must continue to wait.
Gomez is a Miami-based correspondent for USA TODAY who covers Cuba.