Photograph by Paolo Pellegrin, National Geographic Creative

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A window reflects an image of Fidel Castro in a working-class Havana neighborhood.

Photograph by Paolo Pellegrin, National Geographic Creative

Opinion: Why Cubans Might Have Mixed Feelings About New Relations With U.S.

There's more enthusiasm this week for released Cuban prisoners than for a new U.S. embassy.

Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero—those names, which mean nothing to most Americans, will be at the center of the celebrations in Havana after news of renewed diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

The opening of a new embassy? At least this week, I'm guessing, there's not much comparison. Everybody in Havana knows where the massive building called the U.S. Special Interests Section stands, within sight of the sea. One of the first things I wondered, when I heard about the new U.S.-Cuba relationship, was whether Cuban authorities would now pull down the scores of Cuban flags flying from tall flagpoles right in the face of that building's front wall. They were put there to block sight of an electronic billboard that the Americans had going for a while, to transmit messages the Americans regarded as prodding Cubans toward more democracy. (One sample: "In a free country you don't need permission to leave the country. Is Cuba a free country?")

The Cuban authorities called these messages crude insults and provocations. The place where they installed the flagpoles is called Anti-Imperialism Plaza. (Read the author's 2012 National Geographic magazine story about the "new" Cuba.)

Around Cuba, in fact, the words "USA" or "United States of America" are usually left off the defiant revolutionary messages that still resonate from billboards and wall posters. Some of the most common and passionate slogans are instead about los heroes, the five Cuban spies jailed in the U.S. more than 15 years ago after infiltrating a violent anti-Castro group based in Florida.

Gerardo, Ramón, and Antonio—they are known by their first names, as though they were everybody's beloved cousins—were the last three of the imprisoned heroes still incarcerated in the U.S. On Wednesday, as American Alan Gross was landing on U.S. soil after five years of imprisonment in Cuba, the three Cubans were also reported to be en route to their home. At midday Wednesday, the lead article in Granma, Cuba's national newspaper, began by announcing "the arrival of the patriots" and named all three, in the familiar Cuban incantation, starting with Gerardo.

Mention of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations came after that.

Granma is a richly mocked publication in Cuba, a state mouthpiece nimble at skirting anything that smacks of genuine discontent, but I suspect that in this regard their opener, as an expression of national sentiment, got it right. The decision to "cut loose the anchor of the past," as the White House put it Wednesday morning, is already generating ardent complaint from some U.S. factions. But in the Cuba I came to know, after nine weeks of travel there for National Geographic in 2012, the news also may not be received with unconstrained enthusiasm. The heroes are back—this is big. The prospect of a United States in full capitalist engagement with the Republic of Cuba, though—this may land on the island in more complicated ways than you'd imagine.

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Until the 1959 ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuba's legislature convened in the domed Capitolio building in Havana. Today it's a symbol of a prerevolutionary Cuba that no one under the age of 50 experienced.

Three starter reasons why:

1. The White House's statement Wednesday morning listed multiple categories in which the State Department will continue relaxing its travel restrictions to Cuba. For now, those categories do not include conventional tourism. But should this "new course in our relations with Cuba" (that's another phrase from the White House statement) end with the full opening of U.S. tourism to the biggest island in the Caribbean, the effect will be that of a massive invasion of dollar-brandishing capitalists, a few interested in history and many more interested in beaches and rum.

2. There are profitable sub-industries, both economic and political, that have fed for decades on the bloqueo, as Cubans call the U.S. economic embargo. In the U.S., these forces are centered in Florida, where political and personal fortunes still flourish by means of steady attacks on the Castro family. But in Cuba, too, whole sub-economies and a lively nationwide black market exist primarily because of all the goods and equipment that can't legally be obtained from the United States.   Fiefdoms, business relationships, and coveted class status all depend on Cubans' need for goods that can't be obtained without connections.

President Obama made clear Wednesday that an end to the embargo would have to be approved by Congress. Still, that prospect surely looms a little closer now on the island as well—and it will be fascinating to see whether and how the "new course" begins to take apart those webs of mutually understood power.

3. I wish I could be in Cuba over the coming weeks to watch this one. Cuban satire and political cartoons—they are sharp, smart, and brutal—are surely going to have some vicious fun imagining the government without its trusty bloqueo as an all-purpose explanation for things that go wrong. It took a while on Wednesday for the comments to begin showing up on Granma's website; the Cuban Internet is one of the least accessible, most individually expensive, and most cumbersome in the world.

The government publicly blames its terrible Internet service on the bloqueo, too. When I was in Cuba, I met no one who believed that, and the Internet made everybody furious. So this online observation, by a commenter named Jose, is an edgy and intriguing bit of wisdom for whatever comes next, and not least because it appeared on Granma itself. "There's nothing more dangerous for the revolution than the elimination of the bloqueo," Jose wrote. "But here's where we must put ourselves to the test."