Miami-Dade County

Miami, heart of Cuban exile community, stunned by U.S. policy shift

An unidentified woman argues with Bryan Medina regarding Medina's congratulatory sign at Versailles Restaurant in Miami on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 after President Obama's decision to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States
An unidentified woman argues with Bryan Medina regarding Medina's congratulatory sign at Versailles Restaurant in Miami on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 after President Obama's decision to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The hard line dividing Miami and Havana, drawn more than half a century ago by Cuban exiles who shunned the dictatorship they left behind, suddenly softened Wednesday, leaving two stunned generations of Cuban Americans to grapple with what the future may hold.

President Barack Obama announced he would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after the communist regime led by Raúl Castro freed American political prisoner Alan Gross and other dissidents. That was welcome news to exiles but the president also agreed to a spy swap, the kind of deal stalwart Castro critics have long opposed.

Shock reverberated through Miami, the heart of the exile community, where detractors lambasted the policy shift — and the Democratic president — for what they called a betrayal. A frenzy of reporters and politicians descended on Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana, a mecca of traditional anti-Castro sentiment.

But only a small crowd had gathered in protest. Miami’s streets, into the early evening, remained quiet.

Hector Torres, a 47-year-old Miami web designer, believes he knows why. After so long, he said, many people have had time to accept that something finally had to give.

“The demand is for change in Cuba,” said Torres, who was born in Havana.

For now, a crucial element remains in place — a trade embargo. Still, disapproval came — and loudly — from high and low. It was hard to keep count of how many politicians, especially Cuban-American Republicans, criticized Obama’s call to thaw a relationship largely frozen since the Cold War.

And it didn’t stop there. In Coral Gables, Republican Mayor Jim Cason — who was a career State Department diplomat and served as head of the U.S. Interests section in Havana from 2002 to 2005 — declared himself “very unhappy.”

“One of the three Cuban guys they’re releasing is in there for murder, convicted in a justice system that works,” he said. Gross was nothing more than a hostage for Cuba, he added, and the deal will encourage hostage-taking in other countries.

“It will give other people around the world the idea that, hey, if we take an American hostage, they might not give us money for him — but they’ll change a policy for us if we just hold out long enough,” he said.

The largely tempered reaction showed this was not the Miami of 14 years ago, when people flooded the streets after federal agents seized young Elián González to return him to his father in Cuba.

The man who became mayor soon after, Manny Diaz, said that was no surprise. People like him, a Cuban-born son of a political prisoner, are “just sick of the policy that has produced absolutely no change on the island.”

“We have continued to be the scapegoat for a failed economic system in Cuba,” said Diaz, a Democrat. “People continue to back a position that we took — rightfully so — back in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. But that was the Cold War, and this is today.”

In an apparent acknowledgment that emotions in a city full of exiles would run high, Obama made sure to mention Miami.

“Countless thousands of Cubans have come to Miami — on planes and makeshift rafts; some with little but the shirt on their back and hope in their hearts,” he said.

“Today, Miami is often referred to as the capital of Latin America. But it is also a profoundly American city — a place that reminds us that ideals matter more than the color of our skin, or the circumstances of our birth; a demonstration of what the Cuban people can achieve, and the openness of the United States to our family to the South.”

Police in many South Florida cities were on alert but there was no significant unrest, despite much anger being vented on conservative Spanish-language radio stations. There was a raging debate about what pursuing greater engagement with Cuba would mean.

Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a county commissioner whose father was a Bay of Pigs veteran, called Obama a sellout.

“The Cuban exile community that has made a foundation out of standing firm against the Castro government has been, in essence, sold out,” he said.

On the other side, Ric Herrero, executive director of Cuba Now, a liberal-leaning nonprofit, was jubilant.

“These changes are going to do more to help empower the Cuban people than 50 years of blanket sanctions has ever been able to achieve,” he said.

All agreed the policy marked a major shift. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, whose Roman Catholic Church was instrumental in bridging U.S.-Cuba talks, called the diplomatic opening a “game-changer.”

“I can only imagine how difficult it is for some members of the Cuban exiles in Miami to accept these changes,” he said. “But I am sure it wasn’t easy for the Cuban government, either.”

Attitudes were particularly buoyant in the Florida Keys, whose residents have been more keen to embrace more travel and business to the island 90 miles away.

Roman Gastesi, the Cuban-born county administrator for Monroe County, said Wednesday he was on a skiing vacation in Utah with his father and friends. All stayed glued to the news instead of hitting the slopes.

“Every Nochebuena we say, ‘Next year in Cuba,’” Gastesi said. “This time I think we might really mean it. We’ll see what the next year brings.”

A former “staunch supporter” of the U.S. embargo toward Cuba, Gastesi said he changed his mind a decade ago, when “I realized it’s just not working.”

Elena Vigil-Farinas, a Cuban-born attorney practicing in Key West, welcomed the changes as a way for her godchild, who lives in Cuba, to come visit.

“My goddaughter has never seen an apple in her life. That’s sad to me. And for what? You’re going to block Cuba for what? For principle?” she asked. “All those people who are complaining and saying Obama is supporting a Communist or whatever nonsense, they don’t have people in Cuba.”

Tampa also has a long history of trade with Cuba, and a much more different political climate than Miami, said Harry E. Vanden, a University of South Florida Latin American politics professor. While Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said Wednesday he would oppose a Cuban consulate in the city, Tampa has already flown politicians and business leaders to the island.

“Tampa is delighted,” Vanden said. “It was the gateway before the embargo, and there’s still a lot of positive sentiment among the business community.”

In Miami, praise for Wednesday’s announcement among hardliners was limited to relief over Gross’s release after more than five years. Gross, of Washington D.C., was arrested in Cuba in December 2009 while working as a subcontractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help a small Jewish community.

The Greater Miami Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council worked to keep politicians on Gross’s case, said Jacob Solomon, the federation’s president and chief executive. Members held petition drives and wrote letters on a regular basis.

“It has occupied our minds, our hearts, our prayers for the last five years,” he said. “This is a very exciting and long-awaited moment. The fact that it came on Hanukkah just adds a level of meaning and importance.”

Obama’s director of intergovernmental affairs, Jerry Abramson, gave individual briefings to Regalado and County Mayor Carlos Gimenez before the president’s speech. The two Republican mayors, though, still panned his deal.

“I think we just didn’t get enough,” Gimenez said. “I’m deeply disturbed that the United States didn’t get any concessions in terms of freedom for the Cuban people.”

Gimenez grew up in affluence on a Cuban ranch, but fled with his family at age 7 to Miami. His father worked as a hotel bellhop, and his mother a secretary for an exterminator. Gimenez said he’s looked up a childhood home on Google Earth, but won’t return until the Castros are out of power and civil liberties are granted.

“I would love to go back someday and see where I was born,” he said. “I choose not to.”

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