By Jeff Franks
HAVANA (Reuters) - 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 employer's kitchen.
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 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 Castillo.
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 tactics.
Obama "proposes to liquidate the Cuban Revolution, but with softness," Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon told Venezuelan television network Telesur in a recent interview.
(Reporting by Jeff Franks and Rosa Tania Valdes; Editing by Jim Loney)