By David Adams
HAVANA (Reuters) - Miguel Barnet, one of Cuba's most prominent Communist Party intellectuals, fondly recalls his teenage years in the 1950s, attending one of Havana's elite private schools, singing in the Episcopal church choir and performing in American musicals.
"I love North American culture, I was shaped by it," Barnet, a 74-year-old noted poet and anthropologist who is also a member of Cuba's powerful Council of State, said at his office in Havana, where images of Cuba's revolutionary leaders, Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, adorn the walls.
He is not alone. After more than five decades of hostility from Washington, most Cubans firmly oppose U.S. policies and the long economic embargo against their communist-led country but they admire U.S. culture.
Many have relatives living in the United States, Cuban teenagers listen more to rap and hip hop than to home-grown son and salsa, and baseball is the country's most popular sport.
Following U.S. President Barack Obama's historic shift in Cuba policy last month, the two governments are meeting in Havana this week to set about restoring diplomatic relations.
Cuba's leaders have said little about the negotiations ahead, but they seem ready to make up.
"We never burned an American flag in Cuba," said Eusebio Leal, 72, another leading intellectual and the official historian of the city of Havana. "We Cubans don't have our hands soaked in American blood. There is no anti-American hatred here."
Since both sides promised a new era in relations on Dec. 17, Cuba has released dozens of people considered by Washington to be political prisoners and Obama has significantly eased sanctions against Cuba to allow more U.S. travel and trade.
Cuba says the U.S. economic embargo has caused well over $100 billion in damages over the decades.
It desperately needs investment to build its economy and the United States is its natural market so many people here hope for quick changes that draw the two countries closer together, especially those who are taking advantage of market-style reforms and setting up small businesses.
"Everyone wants to see what the future will bring. They can taste the consumer benefits in the future," said Camilo Martinez, who runs a six-room bed and breakfast for foreign tourists in Havana and recently invested in a roof top bar catering to late night revelers.
"No one can stop this. Everyone wants to work with people in the United States, we all have friends and relatives there .... Everyone can see the future: McDonald's, Home Depot, Walmart."
That does not mean there will be major political change on the communist-run island, however.
President Raul Castro has made clear that he fully intends to preserve one-party rule and keep a lid on political dissent.
Barnet, the poet and anthropologist who heads the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, said Cuba's long battle for independence, first from Spain and then from U.S. domination, has forged a strong cultural identity and that the U.S. government should not try to pressure the country into reforms.
He also warned radical Cuban exile leaders in the United States will try to scupper deals between Washington and Havana.
"We have to be very careful. The right wing in Miami will try and destroy anything that Obama has done."
Even after the 1959 revolution, Barnet traveled frequently to the United States to give lectures on African influences in Caribbean society.
In the mid-1980s, he spent 18 months in New York on a Guggenheim fellowship researching immigrant Caribbean communities. "It was the best period of my life."
(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Kieran Murray)