By DeWayne Wickham
HAVANA — The anticipation of change here is as thick as the air that drenches a body in sweat in the time it takes to walk a single block in this sprawling city.
Change was the mantra of Barack Obama’s historic presidential campaign — and it’s the hope of virtually everyone in Cuba these days.
For some, the change they seek is geopolitical.
"We are ready to sit down with the United States to have a discussion about everything," said Josefina Vidal, director of the North American division of Cuba’s foreign ministry.
Vidal, inspired by stepped-up diplomatic contacts with the U.S. since Obama took office in January, told me her government is anxious to broaden its dialogue with the Obama administration.
"We have noticed with the Obama administration that there has been a change in tone," she said.
She cited a long list of what her government wants from America, beginning with an end to the economic blockade imposed nearly half a century ago.
Others hope to achieve change through art, not politics.
Gloria Rolando is a small, soft-spoken Cuban filmmaker who believes Cuba must confront its past before it can secure its future. She recently returned to Havana from Santiago de Cuba, a city in the southern region where she was doing research for a film about one of this nation’s darkest chapters.
"This is a story too many people don’t know about, but it must be told," she said in a barely audible voice of determination.
She was talking about the massacre of members of the Independents of Color, a Cuban political movement wiped out in 1912.
The group, created in 1908, consisted mainly of black veterans of Cuba’s war of independence, which Americans call the Spanish-American War. They pressed the Cuban government for racial equality and protested the mistreatment of blacks across the island. Urged on by the United States — which had occupied Cuba twice between 1898 and 1909 and threatened to reoccupy the island if the protest movement wasn’t crushed — the Cuban government responded with brutal force.
Over a few days in the spring of 1912, the Cuban army hunted down and killed more than 6,000 members of the Independents of Color. Successive Cuban governments have largely suppressed the history of this awful event. But Rolando’s effort to make a movie about what happened recently won the backing of the current Cuban government, whch will make it easier for her to finish this film.
Digna Castaneda, a senior history professor at the University of Havana, is more contemplative about the idea of change — but no less hopeful.
"This is an important moment for both the United States and Cuba," she said. "No one ever thought a black man could be president of the United States. That’s a victory your country must share with us. It has brought change to your country and I think it will help bring change to mine."
Cubans are ready for change. What form it will take is still unclear — and less important than its anticipation.
Change is in the air in this country. It’s a subtle breeze that stirs the imagination of Cubans about the possibilities for a better life here and improved relations with its American neighbor.