The historic Dec. 17 announcement that Washington and Havana agreed to restore diplomatic relations took members of the exile community and Cuba’s opposition movement by surprise.
But now that the shock has subsided, there is a new effort underway for Cubans on and off the island to join forces and take on a greater role in both the ongoing negotiations between the two governments and in the future of Cuba. The dialogue between exiles and Cuban dissidents and activists is happening in organized gatherings in Miami as well as at homes across the island.
At a Convention for Democracy in Cuba event held Wednesday evening in Little Havana, some 150 Cubans and Cuban Americans pledged to set aside differences and sang Cuba’s national anthem together before pitching ideas for establishing a consensus that would help shape the future political landscape of Cuba. Among the ideas was establishing a formal Mesa de Diálogo (Roundtable of Dialogue) between government opponents on and off the island and creating a citizens network tied to the Roundtable to enhance the flow of information. The group also discussed organizing a similar event in Cuba.
While much remains to be seen on how negotiations and civil society’s role will unfold, the Little Havana gathering illustrated how the new Cuba policy has enhanced dialogue.
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Many in the audience expressed support for dissidents in Cuba.
Elvira Casal, who left Cuba in 1961 as part of the exodus of children during Operation Pedro Pan, said she attended the Convention for Democracy in Cuba event at the Cuba Ocho cultural center to hear what dissidents living on the island had to say and how exiles could help their cause.
"These are the people we need to listen to because they are the ones living there," Casal said. "If we want to be part of whatever happens in the future — and I'm not necessarily overly optimistic in the short term — we Cubans here and there need to take advantage of whatever spaces we can because the United States is not going to solve our problem."
Ramon Saúl Sanchez, founder of the Democracy Movement, said the new dialogue between exiles and Cubans breaks traditional patterns.
“It is the first time this happens at this magnitude,” Sanchez said. “We are eager to see how the Cubans can coordinate an effective instrument and become protagonists of our own destiny, so that the absence of our voices does not cause someone else to speak for us."
Convention participants also said they would like to develop a comprehensive plan for changing the political landscape in Cuba to present at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April. Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. top diplomat on Cuba, has said that including a broad range of civil society organizations — including Cuban dissidents — in discussions at the Summit of the Americas is a priority.
But during his address at the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Costa Rica on Wednesday, Cuban leader Raúl Castro said he would expect that only Cuban NGOs with formal United Nations recognition, in essence those with links to the Cuban state, could participate in the Summit in Panama.
Follow Nora Gamez Torres on Twitter @ngameztorres