President Obama’s dramatic move this week to normalize relations with communist Cuba has ignited a whirlwind of emotions from Cuban Americans, many of whom remain thunderstruck by the president’s actions on Thursday after 50 years of bitter distrust between Washington and Havana.
This isn’t as simple or straightforward as pro or con, Republican or Democrat, old or young. Instead – there is anger, there is joy, there is betrayal and there is hope.
“The people who had money, land, homes and businesses in Cuba had to leave everything behind when they came here after Fidel Castro took over,” said one Miami-born Cuban American baby boomer who asked not to be named. The vast and devastating losses his family suffered have never been forgotten.
“My uncle lost his chain of shoe stores, his house on five acres of land, his cars. He had to start with nothing when he got to Miami. He came here with his wife and three sons, destitute and feeling betrayed by his government. He built a life here, always hoping he would somehow be compensated for his losses. Now his family and a lot of other Cuban Americans feel betrayed again – by the U.S. They feel Obama made a unilateral decision without consulting the Cuban community.”
He added, “We feel disrespected – as if the U.S., once such a mecca of democracy for all the Cubans who fled [to come] here, is not really much of a democracy right now.”
Not all Cuban Americans share that view – or believe the economic embargo that has been in place ever since Castro seized homes, businesses, factories, and farms from the Cuban people (as well as from U.S. corporations that lost billions) has done much good at all.
“The embargo has been terrible. It hasn’t worked. The general public in Cuba has long been suffering; they’re repressed and have so little. But we can’t go back in time to 1959 – we’re not going to get any property or money back,” said Victor Cruz of Westchester County, N.Y., who came to the U.S. in 1962 as a refugee when he was 11. “We should be grateful for what we’ve gained in this country, grateful we were able to leave when we did. What we left behind and lost in Cuba is little compared to the gains we’ve made in the U.S.”
Cruz added, “This change is so long overdue. I should be one of the old radical guards given my family background, but I’m not. I don’t like Miami and its repressive feeling. I think this is a courageous move by Obama and bound to bring lots of criticism from the right. But it’s a step that needed to be taken.”
He believes open dialogue and exchange between the two countries is critical. “Countries don’t heal issues and troubles by turning their faces away from each other. You have to have some interchange with people.”
He could certainly be forgiven for feeling differently, of course. He still has a cousin in Cuba on his mother’s side and many family members on his father’s side. An uncle of his, a CIA-backed Cuban fighter, was captured after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and spent a year in prison before the U.S. traded him and scores of other prisoners for tractors – yes, tractors.
“The old guard in Cuba will still be as radical as ever – they will squeeze the people there,” said Cruz. “It’s sad. The only employer is the state and many people have to get by on just 20 Cuban pesos [$20 U.S. dollars] a month. Everything is still thoroughly controlled in Cuba. Last time I was there, I went to a flea market and even there, the government people were walking around to see everything that’s sold, because they take a cut of all the commerce.”
This is partly why many younger Cuban Americans and those who arrived here in recent years support the president’s actions on Cuba. They see hope for Cuba, hope the U.S. might have some influence. A young man who lives in Little Havana told Local 10 News in Miami, “Nothing’s happened in 50 years. Nobody’s moved anywhere. So any change at this point would be good.”
Cruz, so much older, agrees. “It’s time for a change, and change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. People have to talk. Instead of holding a grudge – while I understand it, I say it’s negative energy. Do something positive instead.”
President Obama himself has said that change will take time. And now the differing views of everyday Americans are being mirrored politically – offering a preview of the GOP 2016 presidential nomination battle. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the Cuban American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1956, had sharp words about Obama’s moves on Cuba: “It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established,” he told Fox News.
Yet this weekend, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who supports Obama’s decision, said Rubio was being “isolationist” in opposing trade and diplomatic engagement with Cuba. Paul said Rubio “wants to retreat to our borders and perhaps build a moat.”
“Are we still cold warriors or are we entering a brave new world in diplomacy?” Republican strategist John Feehery commented to The Washington Post. “Rubio’s perspective is we have Cuba, we have North Korea, we need a bold, internationalist, America-led world that fights the bad guys. Rand Paul is taking his father’s position to a new level, which is constructive engagement, but America isn’t really the policeman of the world.”
Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer, saw it this way as the 2016 campaign heats up: “It will be up to the Republican Party to explain and remind the American people that our foreign policy has always been based on what is best for the country. President Obama has nearly always based American foreign policy on what’s best for him – Cuba comes out on top in the deal, but I suspect that’s the way Obama wanted it.”
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