Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Obama’s visit to holy Cuban shrine was sign of respect

President Barack Obama’s historic visit to La Ermita de la Caridad in Miami wasn’t a peace offering to the Cuban-American community. After all, a large enough sector supports his engagement policy.

The president’s symbolic gesture was a show of respect — more like a needed balm for the times.

The road to the democratization of Cuba via a welcomed but risky engagement policy is full of tragos amargos, bitter gulps.

The leader of the free world shaking hands with a dictator who demands respect as a condition to diplomacy — and deserves none — is a trago amargo. Seeing the same merciless dictator ingratiate himself with Pope Francis, champion of justice around the world, is a trago amargo.

We take these moments like medicine, holding our nose, making a face, turning away in disgust for the greater goal of improving the lives of Cubans on the island.

Tragos amargos are a necessary component of diplomacy, but hard to digest for the victims of a 56-year dictatorship who’ve suffered — and continue to suffer — long and unjust prison sentences for dissent and for people whose relatives have died at sea, been shot down by Cuban MiGs, or executed by a firing squad.

These moments on the road to bilateral relations are difficult to watch even for people who believe opening to Cuba is the healthier approach to dealing with the Castro regime. The loss of family and homeland that unforgettable day when we crossed the Florida Straits is a forever present wound.

President Obama’s surprise visit Thursday to the venerable shrine to Cuba’s patron saint, Our Lady of Charity — a place of worship built with humble exile donations long ago and today a haven for rafters who come to express their gratitude for safe passage — is recognition of that wound.

It’s not the offensive gesture some diehard Republicans are claiming, not even close.

“He came without fanfare to the spiritual heart of the Cuban exile community, a sign of respect and appreciation for what has been our plight,” Maria Elena Prío, a supporter of the president and the daughter of former Cuban president Carlos Prío, tells me. “I think his visit was intended as a message to Cuban exiles everywhere that he hears our concerns, that he knows the pain we have been through and knows we want freedom in the island above all. He is saying: ‘Don’t think I don’t hear you. I do. And freedom is also my ultimate goal.’”

If this had been a planned show, the pews would have been filled with a who’s who of the Cuban-American Democratic Party. Yet only 13 souls were there — and not even the media traveling with the president knew where they were headed.

Obama became the first U.S. president to visit La Ermita de la Caridad, so on-point and simple a gesture that it would have merited little commentary. But the exaggerated rants of party operatives appealing to exile emotions is the kind of stuff that eggs on the suffering and keeps us stagnant, incapable of giving a different dance a chance. It’s the kind of unprocessed, old partisan rhetoric that separates us from the rest of the world — when we should be winning allies because we’re on the side of democracy, always have been.

Tragos amargos are nauseating, and there will be more to come, but seldom are happy endings written without them.

To see the leader of the free world in La Ermita de la Caridad was good for the soul.

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