HAVANA - In the seaside neighborhood of Vedado in Cuba's capital city of Havana, a tall, heavily-guarded office building houses the United States Interests Section. Officially part of the Swiss embassy, the U.S. Interests Section takes the place of what would be the American embassy if the country had official diplomatic relations with Cuba. Outside the building stands the Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, where Fidel Castro has given speeches, and 138 flagpoles once used to hide an anti-Cuba billboard on the embassy building. There are also two slogans written in red: "venceremos" - we will overcome - and "patria o muerte" - homeland or death.
There is a long history of conflict between the United States and Cuba, beginning publicly with the Cuban Revolution of 1959, during which leaders denounced U.S. imperialist involvement in Cuba's politics and economy since the 1800s. Since 1962, the U.S. has maintained a full trade embargo on Cuba, which Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called "the principal cause of the economic problems of our country" in September.
Cubans look at the American election with acknowledgement of its importance and the potential impact it could have on the island-state. Most Cubans interviewed said they are disappointed with President Obama's last four years in office, but they see him as the lesser of two evils.
Some Cubans said they fear that American policy toward Cuba, not a central issue in the domestic campaign, would be worse under Republican candidate Mitt Romney, whose affiliation with his party reminds them of the aggressive politics of former president George W. Bush. Regulations on remittances and travel to and from the United States are the two most important issues at stake for Cubans in this year's U.S. election, and the potential lifting of the half-century economic blockade between Cuba and the United States in the backs of people's minds, according to multiple sources.
The best of the worst
Many Cubans interviewed said they hope for an Obama victory - not because of what he can offer to Cuba, but because they see him as a better option than Romney. Obama's reelection offers the potential of flexibility in the U.S.-Cuban relationship, whereas Romney and his conservative values represent a return to hard-line Bush-era foreign policy, multiple sources said.
Obama's caution and lack of aggression toward Cuba has amounted to a "soft nothing," said Margarita Alarcon, a Cuban journalist who lives in Havana but spent a large part of her childhood in the United States. Compared to the Bush administration, which oversaw a tightening of the American embargo on Cuba, Obama's last four years have been a relief, she said.
Obama's next four years could bring about a slight improvement, whereas Romney's would only deteriorate relations, said Aurelio Alonso, an investigative sociologist at Cuban cultural center Casa de las Americas. "Even if (Obama's next term) doesn't change things for Cuba," Alonso said, "Obama is less bad than Romney, and that's enough."
Alonso, unlike most Cubans, said he has been able to watch the presidential debates live. He said he noticed a trend between the two candidates when they talk about their stances on domestic and foreign issues.
"Obama makes promises he won't be able to accomplish, but (Romney) makes promises that from the beginning he knows he does not want to accomplish." If he were an American citizen, Alonso said he would rather vote for Obama.
"The United States is the most important country in the world, even if it doesn't want to be," said Yusimi Rodriguez, a writer and former journalist for the communist party's official Havana newspaper, Tribuna de la Habana, adding that it gives an inherent importance to Tuesday's election.
Rodriguez said she thinks the Cuban national press has helped contribute to the generally negative sentiment among Cubans toward American politics. The state communist party controls television and most print journalism like the communist party's official daily publication, Granma. Granma frequently features articles on the less flattering side of the American reality, like the handling of Hurricane Katrina or, more recently, the state of California's private prisons.
"I don't remember ever having read an article that spoke well of the United States," Rodriguez said. "Not in the official press." But she said that the articles she read did not lie, and despite her acknowledgement of their bias, she has a low opinion of the United States. "It's not a lie that the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's not a lie that there are people in jail here (in Guantanamo) who have not had justice."
The last 55 years of American policy toward Cuba, instead of weakening the revolution, have convinced Cubans that Americans are "all a bunch of crazy warlords," Alarcon said. Cubans see the American electoral process - with the intense media coverage and back-and-forth insults between candidates - "as a circus," she added. "They have no respect for it whatsoever."
Obama's message of hope, change and "Yes, we can" resonated with many Habaneros in the 2008 election, Alcaron said. But there is less support for Obama on the island this year: Many have grown apathetic toward U.S. politics from the lack of change in his last four years in office.
"I think, like most people from my generation, the idea of a candidate like Barack Obama as president in the United States was something unreal," Alcaron said. She said she saw Obama - a member of her own Vietnam generation - as a real vehicle for change.
While campaigning in Florida, Obama promised to undo restrictions on remittances and travel to Cuba put in place by former President George W. Bush, which restricted remittances to $300 every three months and family visits between Cuba and the United States to once every three years. In his first year in office, Obama eliminated all restrictions on remittances and visits between family members.
"What Cubans here are worried about is exactly what he took care of," Alarcon said. But on a bigger scale, she said, Cubans want the United States to lift the embargo.
"Nothing has changed here," said Ania Gonzalez Diaz, a painter who sells photography in Old Havana. She, like many others, thought the embargo could be lifted during Obama's presidency, but said she now thinks that all American politicians are the same. "For me (the election) is not important at all."
"I was one of the people who thought that by being the first black president, he would bring about enormous changes," Rodriguez said. But she said she has been disappointed. "You think that if you're black, then you have to identify with black people, you have to identify with the oppressed, and with that you are going to make changes, but in the end it's not like that."
Alarcon said that while some of her expectations like immigration reform and universal healthcare have also been unfulfilled, she is optimistic about the next four years if Obama is reelected. "I still think he's a breath of fresh
air compared to what we had before," she said. "I still think he wants to do good."