The Miami Herald

Among exiles, support for trade embargo diminishes

As pressure to dismantle the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba mounts in Washington, pro-embargo flames still burn in Miami, though polls show that support among Cuban Americans for keeping the longstanding law in place has eroded over the years.

The nuanced layers of exile sentiment indicate as much frustration with the embargo's porous rules as with the Castro regime's public-relations tactics to blame all that's wrong with Cuba's economy on the 47-year-old embargo.

As evidence, there is the recent controversy stoked by 37-year-old Colombian singer Juanes' decision to perform on the communist island later this month. He has personally asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to do away with the embargo.

Hearing Juanes and others call for an end to the embargo pains Ninoska Perez Castellón, a popular television and radio personality well known for her ``unwavering support'' of the policy.

``I find it absurd that those who claim the embargo has not worked demand that the U.S. change its policy without demanding change from a 50-year-old dictatorship,'' Perez Castellón said.

But in the blogosphere and other circles, Juanes has found support.

``You don't change a dictatorship by blindly continuing a half-century failed embargo and trying to starve the population into submission, or revolt,'' one Miami Herald reader commented recently on a Juanes story.

Polls taken since 1992, in fact, reveal a steady erosion of support for the embargo, as the population of younger Cuban Americans has increased and older exiles have died off, according to Bendixen & Associates, a polling firm that has long asked the controversial question.

Consider:

In 1992, 82 percent of Cuba-born exiles polled said the embargo should be kept in place. By 2005, that number had dropped to 62 percent.

Last month, the most recent Bendixen poll on the topic showed only 47 percent now support the embargo, said Fernand Amandi, executive vice president of Bendixen.

``The two main drivers behind the erosion of support for the embargo since the early '90s are the demographical growth of post-Mariel Cubans and Cuban Americans born in the United States, who now favor the elimination of the embargo, and an ever-increasing segment of the `historic exile' who no longer believe in continuing with a nearly 50-year-old policy.'' Amandi said.

American support for the embargo has steadily diminished, too, national polls show.

In September 1994, a CNN-Time poll showed that 51 percent of Americans wanted to keep the embargo; 39 percent wanted to end it.

By last April, the numbers had flipped. A Gallup poll showed 51 percent of those surveyed nationwide favored an end to the embargo, while 36 percent wanted to maintain it.

Still, for many Cubans sent into exile by the Cuban Revolution five decades ago, the embargo should crumble only when Cuba becomes a democracy -- and not a day sooner.

``The embargo should remain in place until there is some negotiated change in Cuba such as the release of prisoners or free elections,'' said Francisco ``Pepe'' Hernandez, 73, president of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Hernandez spent much of his life publicly pushing to stiffen the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, taking his heartfelt case from the streets of Little Havana to the halls of power in Washington, D.C.

He worked to pass both the Torricelli Bill in 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, both aimed at extending the embargo and closing any loopholes.

As the right-hand man to the late Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF's founder, Hernandez fervently preached to Cuban exiles and U.S. presidents that the best way to get rid of Fidel Castro was to maintain the pressure of the embargo launched by John F. Kennedy in 1962.

Fellow exile Bernardo Benes has long opposed the embargo.

In the late 1970s, Benes helped spark one of Miami's biggest political firestorms over the embargo when, as a member of the Committee of 75, he and other exiles traveled to Cuba to open dialogue with Castro -- code for ending the embargo.

``As far back as 1972, I realized that the embargo was a failure,'' said Benes, 74, of Miami Beach. ``There had to be a better way to deal with Cuba.''

Hernandez and Benes remain well-known bookends on the embargo -- but the world around them is changing.

Some believe that Barack Obama, who eased restrictions on travel to Cuba earlier this year, may be the president who knocks down that wall between the U.S. and the Caribbean island.

And even some exiles have come to see the embargo as ineffective.

``The embargo? What embargo?'' said Juan Clark, a Miami Dade College sociologist and Bay of Pigs veteran who has made it his life's work to track the arrival of Cubans to the United States. ``U.S. companies already send rice, chickens and now light poles to Cuba. The embargo is now a myth.''

Joe Cardona, 41, a local filmmaker and son of Cuban exiles, agrees.

``Unfortunately, the embargo has become a hot-button issue for Cuban Americans over the years, when in reality it's a non-issue. I mean, what embargo are we referring to? Castro can buy goods from the entire world yet he chooses to blame the lack of American goods for the absolute failure of his economy,'' he said.

For older exiles, a call to end the embargo is still considered heresy.

Eugenio Rothe, a Florida International University sociology professor who studies the exile experience, said many feel victimized by the Castro government.

``The embargo is the one thing exiles feel has punished Castro for kidnapping their country in a revolution that they feel cost them their way of life, their families and their future in their homeland,'' Rothe said.

The embargo, he added, provides ``one of the only weapons they have to fight back or feel that there is some sense of justice.''




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