* Cubans feared Romney would toughen U.S. policy
* Obama lifted restrictions on remittances, travel to Cuba
* U.S.-Cuba relations slightly improved under Obama
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA, Nov 7 Cubans breathed a collective sigh
of relief on Wednesday over U.S. President Barack Obama's
re-election victory and expressed hope he might still bring a
change in U.S. policy toward Cuba that many expected after he
won his first term in 2008.
They generally supported him over Republican candidate Mitt
Romney because they feared Romney would be the second coming of
President George W. Bush, who toughened the longstanding U.S.
trade embargo and hardened relations with the Cuban government
during his time in the White House.
"Bush made it really hard for us economically and even to
see family who live in the United States. If Romney had won most
of the people here would have been really sad," said Havana
domestic worker Violeta Gutierrez as she washed dishes in her
Obama's 2008 victory raised hopes that the U.S. trade
embargo against Cuba, imposed in 1962 with the intent of
toppling the island's communist government, would finally be
lifted and U.S.-Cuba relations, hostile since the 1959
revolution led by Fidel Castro, would improve.
The embargo is still in place and relations have improved
only slightly, but in 2009 Obama lifted Bush-era restrictions on
remittances and Cuban American visits to the country 90 miles
(145 km) from Florida, both heartily welcomed by Cubans.
The flow of remittances has risen to an estimated $2
billion, a huge help to Cubans who earn on average $19 a month,
and 300,000 to 400,000 Cuban Americans have been pouring into
the island annually, bringing their families a steady flow of
consumer goods, food and medicines hard to find in Cuba.
They have helped Cuba's budding self-employed sector by
bringing items for Cubans to sell, although stiff new import
duties imposed by the government threaten the influx of goods.
MONEY CHANGED LIVES
"The money people receive from their family has changed
their lives. It helps them eat better, dress, buy soap for a
bath, everything thanks to that money," said Gutierrez, who gets
money occasionally from family members in Miami.
Romney had threatened to roll back Obama's changes if he won
the presidency and was supported by Cuban American lawmakers who
say the easing of restrictions had only helped the Cuban
government, led by President Raul Castro, younger brother of now
retired Fidel Castro.
"The Cuban American extremists favor policies that hurt the
Cuban people and give the Cuban government excuses for their
failures," said dissident Miriam Leiva at an election night
function at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which the
United States has instead of an embassy because the two
countries have no official diplomatic relations.
A straw vote by those in attendance, among them Cuban
dissidents and diplomats from the United States and other
countries, went to Obama 64-19.
Obama also renewed U.S.-Cuba talks on immigration and postal
issues, but the mild rapprochement ended when Cuba arrested
American Alan Gross and sentenced him to 15 years in prison for
setting up Internet networks on the island.
Washington insisted he was only trying to improve Internet
access for Cuban Jewish groups, but he was working for a U.S.
program that promotes political change on the island, which the
Cuban government views as subversive.
Despite the setbacks, handicrafts vendor Rene Castillo said
four more years of Obama still held the promise of hope for
better days between the two ideological foes.
"Obama is the hope that more things change between Cuba and
the United States. Not even under (President Bill) Clinton, who
also did his part in favor of better ties, was there so much
interaction as there is with Obama," he said.
"Now it's needed that he fill himself with courage and lift
the embargo, but here everyone knows he can't do it alone," said
Cuban officials have expressed less optimism about Obama,
saying before the election they expected no major changes in
U.S. policy no matter who won because Obama and Romney shared
the goal of toppling Cuban communism, but with different
Obama "proposes to liquidate the Cuban Revolution, but with
softness," Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon
told Venezuelan television network Telesur in a recent