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President Obama defended his decision to reopen American relations with Cuba at a press conference yesterday. The president says he does have concerns about human rights in the country and that he doesn't expect the Cuban regime to change anytime soon, but he said normalizing relations could give the U.S. more influence. The president also addressed the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which would require congressional approval to lift. He called the embargo self-defeating and said it should be pulled down. You won't hear disagreement with that in Cuba. Cubans say real change will come when the ban is lifted. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports from Havana.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The state-owned-and-run Carlos III shopping mall in Havana is bustling.
YAMI MARTINEZ DE COHUE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: This place is always packed, says Yami Martinez de Cohue. She sells clothes on the second floor of the Compaq Center. She's off today and is plunking 25 cent coins into the mechanical kiddie rides for her 4-year-old daughter.
MARTINEZ DE COHUE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Things will hopefully get better now - much better for us - she says, with the new warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. It will be better for Martinez and other Cubans who have relatives in the United States who send money back to the island. The new policy allows for as much as $2,000 to be sent to Cubans every quarter - four times the previous limit. Martinez's mother lives in Miami and sends money when she can. Martinez is hoping to join her in Florida soon. Elder Montero, who's 58, says he's not going anywhere. He welcomes better relations with the U.S., but he has reservations.
ELDER MONTERO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: As long as they don't come in here forcing their ways on us everything will be fine, says Montero, who's an engineer. He says Cuba and the U.S. have different politics and it should stay that way. Thanks to our way of life I have an education, a profession and health care, says Montero. We like things the way they are. Electrician Johnny Brinones says this year has been good for him too. He's one of the hundreds of thousands of Cubans who've been able to operate private businesses. Brinones says he's hoping more foreigners come to Cuba so he'll get to work with businesspeople. He says in Cuba the culture isn't used to private enterprises.
JOHNNY BRINONES: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: People here don't understand what a schedule is. I have a family too. I try to keep business hours, but no one understands appointments. His wife, Dahlis Estevez, is a chemist at a state-run water plant. She says real change will come when the U.S. embargo against Cuba is lifted.
DAHLIS ESTEVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: The government will have to work a little harder without the blockade, she says.
ESTEVEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: She says we're always told everything that goes wrong, everything we don't have, is because of the embargo.
BRINONES: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: My finger hurts - it's the blockade. My fingernail hurts - the blockade, interjects her husband. Without the embargo as an excuse they both say the government will be held more accountable. For most out shopping and selling by this market, the immediate news of a thawing in U.S.-Cuba relations is enough for now.
JESUS ALONZO CASTENADA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Jesus Alonzo Castenada sells cookies on the street, which he shouts out go great with yogurt or dipped in coffee.
CASTENADA: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He says everyone is just happy for the news. It's a happy end to the year, he says. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.