Ripples of change are sweeping over Cuba and Miami as delegations from Washington and Havana meet in the Cuban capital this week to begin discussing a new relationship for two countries that have been hostile neighbors for half a century.
In the South Florida exile community many are still struggling to come to terms with the new reality that the United States and Cuba will have diplomatic relations and soon an American flag will fly over a U.S. Embassy in Havana.
For some, there’s almost a sense of vertigo, of disequilibrium because they never thought a move toward normalizing the troubled relationship would come with a Castro still in power and the Communist Party holding sway. The dream of returning triumphant to Cuba before relations were renewed dies hard.
Others embrace the policy shift, agreeing with President Barack Obama that engagement is the way to influence democratic reform on the island and better support the Cuban people.
“This really upset the apple cart,” said lawyer Pedro Freyre, who has long been involved in Cuba-related matters. “Miami Cubans will need to rethink a lot of things. That whole narrative about Cuba as the forbidden land or the dark side of the moon has been turned on its head. I think a growth industry in this community will be psychiatry.”
Things got very different very fast on Dec. 17 when Obama and leader Raúl Castro unveiled their new relationship. Even though the embargo is still in place, Obama announced openings on trade and American travel to the island, and Castro offered to free 53 political prisoners whose names the United States had given to Havana over the summer.
For the past month, Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits have been trying to sort out what it all means.
In South Florida, there’s no monolithic opinion about the new policy.
A flash poll done just after the president’s announcement by Bendixen & Amandi International of 400 Cuban-Americans living in the United States showed they were almost evenly split on normalization of relations with Cuba with a slight edge going to those against the policy. Only 35 percent of Cuban-Americans living in Florida, however, agreed with the policy change.
The poll conducted for the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and the Tampa Bay Times also showed a split in the Cuban-American community with younger Cubans and those who came to the United States after the 1980 Mariel boatlift much more supportive.
Even within many Cuban-American families, it is a divisive issue.
During a Christmas Day gathering at the home of one large Cuban-American family, for example, the older brother, a Bay of Pigs veteran, was unleashing vitriol against Obama in the kitchen and his younger brother was holding forth in the yard, answering the questions of nieces and nephews and cousins about going to Cuba and what the changes might mean, according to a family member who asked not to be identified.
There’s increased curiosity among Cubans on the island, too.
“Everybody loves their own country. Do we want to travel? Yes. I would love to go to that Mango[’s] disco in Miami [Beach], but I would always want to come home,” said Lazaro Lopez, who makes wicker furniture in his own shop in Havana. He said better U.S.-Cuba relations are long overdue and that he would love to export his chairs and tables to the United States.
Under new U.S. guidelines released last week, goods produced by private Cuban entrepreneurs can now be imported into the United States. Commercial exports from the U.S. to help Cubans develop small businesses and repair and build homes also are allowed.
But during an appearance in Miami on Friday, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio scoffed at the idea that increased trade might create an opening in Cuban society.
“The history of economic openings leading to political change is not very good,” he said. “And as we've seen in China, Vietnam, Burma — there is no modern example of a country that's changed democratically because of an economic opening with the United States as long as that tyranny is reluctant. And the Cuban tyranny is reluctant.”
A new nationwide Pew Research poll showed that while 63 percent of Americans approved of the decision to reestablish ties with Cuba, only about one-third thought it would lead to greater democracy on the island.
Raúl Moas, executive director of Roots of Hope, which connects young people in Cuba with their counterparts abroad through technology, is looking forward to changes that would allow unlimited humanitarian remittances to be sent to the island and U.S. companies to export consumer communications devices and participate in the upgrade of Cuban telecom systems.
In many ways, those provisions dovetail with the work Roots of Hope is already doing, he said. Under its Tech for Cuba program, it sends donated cell phones — new, used and broken, USBs, laptops and tablets to the island.
“We’re hopeful that under the Obama plan that the new spaces created will help us increase our impact,” he said. “What we hear all the time from young Cubans on the ground is that they want to join the 21st century.”
With the new guidelines “it’s more likely U.S. companies might feel more confident going into Cuba,” Moas said. “But I also don’t think the Cuban government will be rolling out the red carpet.”
“Our hope is the changes will result in Cubans more freely exercising their rights and rebuilding civil society,” he said.
In 1981, when Jorge Mas Canosa and Pepe Hernández, an anti-Castro leader and veteran of the Bay of Pigs, founded the Cuban American National Foundation, they thought exiles would be the protagonists of change in Cuba.
But now, more than 30 years later, Hernández has changed his point of view. Those in Cuba are the ones who will bring about change, he said. “We are here to help.”
Still, Hernández, the CANF president, feels frustrated that the Cuban-American community was cut out of the formulation of Obama’s new Cuba policy.
“That was a huge mistake because the Cuban-American community is a resource,” Hernández said. “But we aren’t going to complain about how this was done — because it’s done. Our mission is the same, but we think with the new policy, we’ll have more opportunities to support civil society in Cuba.”
Carlos Saladrigas, a prominent Cuban-American businessman, wants to give the new policy a chance. “We have opened the door to change,” he said. “This is how it begins, like a snowball going down a hill. All you have to do is start in a small way.”
He, for example, has contributed to a Cuban Catholic Church program called Cuba Emprende, which provides business training for budding entrepreneurs. Despite obstacles, he said, so far 2,200 Cubans have been trained in Havana and Camagüey and soon the program will start in Cienfuegos.
“Engaging is the way to go,” Saladrigas concluded. “We’ve been waiting for 55 years for the old policy to work and it hasn’t. Now, it’s time for change and to take a risk. Of course, this new policy will take time to produce.”
But Rubio doesn’t want to give it any time and is trying to roll back the normalization policies. “Are the changes they're making legal in light of existing law? We believe that a lot of them really skirt the law,” Rubio said in Miami.
From the floor of the House of Representatives, Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also delivered a plea for her fellow lawmakers to “do everything we can to prevent these disastrous policies to go into effect.” Cuba, she said, is still “an avowed enemy of the United States.”
But Andy Gomez, a Cuba adviser to the Washington law firm Poblete Tamargo, said things are different now than they were before Dec. 17. “Members of our congressional delegation are in front of a big losing proposition,” he said.
Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, suggests the Cuban-American delegation might have to moderate its stance somewhat. “They have to be careful,” he said. “The North of this argument has shifted.”
Their point of view has been the dominant voice on Cuba for decades, Meacham said, but now there is another point of view that has emerged among those who want to see change in Cuba.
Lawmakers from the farm states, “the bread basket of the United States really, really want a commercial relationship with Cuba,” said Meacham, who was formerly the senior Republican staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This month, they joined more than 25 food and agricultural companies and federations to form the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba whose aim to is to lift the embargo.
Going forward, Meacham said, the Cuban-American delegation “may have to become more inclusive in their views.”
Asked to respond, Ros-Lehtinen said: “My position on Cuba has always been based on respect for human rights, release of all political prisoners, and free, fair, transparent and multi-party elections. The new concessions by the White House do not help the people of Cuba and we must hold accountable the murderous Castro regime and speak up for those yearning for democracy and freedom on the island.”
Ninoska Pérez, an outspoken talk show host on Radio Mambí, said the new reality hasn’t altered her views in the least. The president’s policy isn’t about change, she said. “Where is the benefit to the Cuban people?”
It’s “extremely naive,” Pérez said, to think that engagement will lead to meaningful change in Cuba. “I don’t see how Americans with their mojitos in hand and their Hawaiian shirts will bring about change,” she said. “It does nothing but bail out the regime.”
But 59-year-old Nancy Lopez, a self-employed upholsterer in the Jaimanitas neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, is eager for the Americans. On a recent weekday, she was fixing up her ocean-side home with the hopes of either turning it into a hostel or selling it.
“I would love to stand here on my porch and be able to wave hello to American tourists going by in a boat,” she said. “We have to have faith that Obama and our president can meet and work things out. Some day something good has to come out of all of this.”
But in Miami, Pérez said the people who call her Spanish-language radio show have been “surprised, outraged” by the policy change. She admits having trouble adjusting to it herself. “It’s so unreal,’’ she said.
So how will change come to Cuba? “Change will only come when the Castros are not there, when that system that has prevailed for so many years is gone,” she said.
“Some people still want to extract revenge and some people also feel betrayed,” said Carlos Sanguinetty, an economist who worked in economic planning in Cuba until 1966 when he fled to the United States.
Cuban-Americans, he said, are still grappling with what to do about the new situation.
The prospect of U.S-Cuba diplomatic ties is especially tough for many exiles who lost family members, were jailed or saw their livelihoods and properties disappear during the revolution.
But Sanguinetty said, “The community isn’t well-organized in terms of a game plan. Many are spectators waiting for the best to happen.”
Although he said the White House didn’t get a good enough deal in its negotiations with Cuba, on the positive side “it’s a game changer that got us out of the stagnation we’ve been in for decades.”
Now the important things, Sanguinetty said, are rebuilding Cuban institutions and recovering “from the total collapse of Cuban civil society over the past 50 years.”
Inside Cuba, some have already pushed the envelope to see if a new relationship with the United States might bring about more tolerance.
In the last days of December, Tania Bruguera, a Cuban installation and performance artist who lives and works mostly in the United States and Europe, returned to her homeland to stage a performance about free speech in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.
Cuban authorities prevented it from happening and she was arrested and released and then detained two more times. Her passport has been confiscated.
And some of the newly released 53 political prisoners wasted no time in lifting their voices. A week ago Sunday, they marched with the dissident Ladies in White to Gandhi Park where they waved pink gladioli and shouted, “Libertad, libertad, libertad!”
In a Twitter post, Hablemos Press reported that two of the newly released prisoners had been rearrested last week.
Obama has said the United States intends to “continue to press on issues of democracy and human rights.” An important test will come in April when Obama and Castro attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama. The administration has said that it plans to highlight human rights.
Still, the Foundation’s Hernández said he isn’t expecting too much from the Cuban government “unless it is pushed to respect human rights and give more space to civil society.”
“The question now,” Meacham said, “is whether engagement will be a more effective tool to deal with repression.”
Miami Herald Staff Writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report.
The U.S. and Cuba are scheduled to hold migration talks in Havana, the next step in their normalization process. Leading the American delegation is Roberta Jacobson, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America. Her visit marks the highest-level trip to Cuba by a U.S. official since 1980. The two days of talks will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 21, and Thursday, Jan. 22.
Check MiamiHerald.com and the Miami Herald for the latest on the talks.