Miami-Dade County

In Cuban Miami, wary support for President Obama’s Cuba visit

Students at Florida International University watch President Barack Obama’s speech from Havana on Tuesday.
Students at Florida International University watch President Barack Obama’s speech from Havana on Tuesday.

For Antonio “Tony” Argiz, a successful Miami accounting executive who was traumatically exiled from Cuba as a boy, the most astonishing thing during President Barack Obama’s history-making visit to Cuba wasn’t the photo of Air Force One flying low over the rooftops of a ramshackle Havana neighborhood on the landing path to José Martí International.

It wasn’t the images of Obama strolling through Argiz’s beloved Havana, which he hasn’t set foot in for 54 years, or of the president of the United States warmly shaking hands with Cuban leader Raúl Castro, a leader of the olive-clad Communist revolutionaries who seized his grandfather’s business and tore Argiz’s family from their home.

The true stunner, he said, was watching live on TV as Obama egged on Castro to answer a blunt question from Cuban-American CNN correspondent Jim Acosta about political prisoners, sending the rankled, aging Cuban leader into a sputtering, doddering denial. That was the moment when Argiz felt sure that his tempered and — in some quarters of Cuban Miami, controversial — support for Obama’s sally to Cuba had been the right call.

“I can’t believe they allowed that,” Argiz said. “Twenty years ago, that guy would have been picked up, I don’t care who he is. I was kind of shocked. That question to Raúl, that told me a lot.”

What it affirmed for Argiz, and for many others in Miami’s Cuban community, was cautious hope that Obama’s year-old policy of direct engagement with the Cuban government and the island’s people may do what 55-plus years of isolation and hostility failed to do — bring about real, peaceful if gradual change in Cuba.

In a circumstance that may have been unthinkable just a few years ago, reaction to Obama’s three-day Cuba trip in Miami’s Cuban community — a diverse population once united by loss and exile and defined, fairly or not, by fiercely hardline opposition to anything smacking of a rapprochement with Castro and his now-retired older brother, Fidel — was remarkably subdued, a sign of its broad if sometimes wary acceptance.

“I hate that the Castros are still in power. It kills me,” said Argiz, 63, who also backs Obama’s call for an end to the decades-old Cuban trade embargo, choking up as he recalled an idyllic life in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood.

Some exiles who had been reserving judgment on the trip’s success pending the president’s speech on Tuesday said he nailed it, balancing ardent praise of Cuban exiles and their accomplishments in Miami and call-outs to local Cuban American icons like Gloria Estefan and even Pitbull with a pointed call for greater freedom of expression and commerce and an end to “arbitrary detentions” on the island as the key to its future.

“I think it was one of the great foreign policy speeches by a U.S. president ever,” said Cuban-American Miami pollster Fernand Amandi, who hosted a show on WIOD after the speech, which was broadcast on Cuban TV, and said acclaim by callers was “nearly universal,” even from critics of the trip. “Delivering those remarks in the belly of the beast like that, that’s never been done before.”

I think it was one of the great foreign policy speeches by a U.S. president ever.

Cuban-American Miami pollster Fernand Amandi.

For many in Miami, the real moment of surprise came more than a year ago, when Obama, after months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government, announced his administration would pursue a “normalization” effort that has included re-establishment of diplomatic relations and a lifting of some rules that kept Americans from visiting and U.S. companies from doing business there. Many assumed a presidential visit would eventually follow, blunting the emotional impact of the actual visit.

If Obama’s visit is potentially a signal moment for the island, its reception in Miami underscores just how dramatically the political dynamics surrounding Cuba have already changed in the city often dubbed “the capital of the Cuban exile,” said Raul Rodriguez, a prominent Miami architect who has been traveling back to Cuba to visit family and friends, including one who’s imprisoned, for years.

“People see it as a fait accompli. It’s irreversible,” Rodriguez said of Obama’s policy. “Obama turned the tables. He declared peace. There is no answer to that.”

A poll taken in December by Amandi’s firm supports that view. Cuban Americans around the United States strongly supported Obama’s re-engagement effort, and a small majority also backed lifting the embargo, even as they opposed a visit, not yet announced when the survey was done by Bendixen & Amandi International.

Once the visit was announced last month, Amandi noted, it generated relatively little overt opposition but considerable reflection.

“It represents the closing of a chapter of a very painful period,” said Amandi, himself a Cuban American. “It’s a very sobering and bittersweet acceptance. It’s an American president returning to Cuba for the first time in 90 years, and it’s not to a free Cuba.”

Much of that lack of opposition may simply reflect sheer fatigue after decades of futile hardline opposition, suggested Lisandro Perez, a Cuban-born former Florida International University professor now at City University of New York’s John Jay College.

“The old model of how to bring about change in Cuba has just exhausted itself,” Perez said. “There have been great disappointments over administrations that said they were going to do some things and didn’t, including both Bushes and Reagan. It’s hard to make arguments against what the president is doing here. The strategy is still regime change, but we’re going to go about it a different way.”

The strategy is still regime change, but we’re going to go about it a different way.

Professor Lisandro Perez

Another factor, he suggested: Exiles and younger generations of Cuban Americans would not be so sanguine if Obama was to meet with a Fidel Castro still in power.

There were exceptions, to be sure: a short march of a couple of hundred demonstrators, many elderly, down Little Havana’s Calle Ocho on Sunday, and a brief reprise on Monday with about 40 protesters. Talk-radio hosts and mostly older listeners who called in on Radio Mambí broadcast impassioned denunciations of Obama, whom some called “a traitor,” a Communist sympathizer and “a disgrace,” and of his trip, which one caller labeled “un vomitivo.” Another regretted that the Castro brothers could get away with fading into retirement instead of facing a firing squad like many of their victims.

But even some prominent longtime opponents of dialogue with the Cuban government expressed resignation. On Mambí, veteran morning host Lourdes D’Kendall ruefully urged her listeners to “turn the page” even as she dismissed the possibility of significant change in Cuba because island residents have failed to demand it.

“It’s time to close that chapter,” she said. “That history of Cuba has been written. We have to take care of our own front yard” in Miami.

One caller to D’Kendall’s show delivered a eulogy: “The time of the patriots is over,” he said.

The sharply contrasting reactions underscore generational and demographic divides, as well as sharp differences in attitude among Cubans in Miami that vary according by their date of arrival, exiles and experts say.

Many older exiles, those forced to leave Cuba as adults or as children, including many of the community’s most steadfast cold warriors, have died or are increasingly infirm. Their children and grandchildren, meanwhile, have grown up as Americans and, though many have inherited an attachment to Cuba from their elders, are focused on their lives in the United States.

“That fatigue is hard to accept but it’s generational,” said Rodriguez, the architect. “What has to hurt is that the injustices that were committed, those accounts won’t ever be settled. But it’s now clear that the change won’t be violent, and it won’t be made by the Americans. It will have to be the people in Cuba.”

Those younger Cuban Americans have been joined by tens of thousands of more-recent, more-apolitical arrivals from Cuba who think little of traveling back to the island to visit family or providing them material support — once seen as a controversial practice that only propped up the Cuban regime.

It’s now clear that the change won’t be violent, and it won’t be made by the Americans. It will have to be the people in Cuba.

Miami architect Raul Rodriguez

Some former hardliners, meanwhile, including leaders of the Cuban American National Foundation, have backed the presidential trip and Obama’s normalization effort, even as they note that Castro and the military remain firmly in charge and warn against expecting the policy to lead to a rapid easing of repression against dissidents or an end to Communist rule.

“What Obama is pushing for is economic changes, but it doesn’t change the politics,” said CANF human rights director Omar Lopez Montenegro on a Radio Caracol program Monday. “A door may be opened. That remains to be seen.”

But the door to Cuba opened by Obama for Americans is about to swing wide open, as cruises, regular commercial air service and a possible ferry will soon make the once verboten trek to Cuba a routine matter — like a trip to “an adult Disney World with hotels and casinos,” bitterly predicted Radio Mambí’s D’Kendall.

“People will come and go from Cuba with a frightening calm,” she said.

But that’s exactly the point, said Oscar De Armas, 28, a teacher at Coral Gables High School. Born in Miami of Cuban parents, he’s never been to the island, but now intends to go in spite of his parents’ strong opposition. De Armas said he and his peers are no longer content to hear about Cuba from parents or read about it in books.

“It’s a strange, weird relationship we have in Miami with Cuba, and it’s time to change,” De Armas said. “I see people are really craving to see what it’s like. We teach the Cuban missile crisis in school, but why can’t we go there and see for ourselves? As things are right now, we’re just holding up the status quo. Let’s open trade and see what they can do on their own. What if they had real access to the Internet in Cuba? Would they wake up?

“My parents and grandparents look at me like I’m a crazy socialist for thinking these things. But who will really benefit from capitalism? It’s the Cuban people. You give people capitalism, and over time this authoritarian one-party system changes.”

De Armas says he only regrets he did not go sooner.

“I wanted to see Cuba untouched,” he said. “Now it’s going to be a very popular place to go.”