Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Politicians still naive, or manipulative, on Cuba

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a campaign stop at Florida International University in Miami on Friday.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a campaign stop at Florida International University in Miami on Friday. AP

I wish every Cuban back in Cuba could spend a day walking around Miami and see what you have built here, how you have turned this city into a dynamic global city. … It would not take them long to start demanding similar opportunities and achieving similar success back in Cuba.” — Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, on Friday in Miami-Dade.

I know naïveté when I hear it — and although Hillary Clinton’s campaign speech Friday in Miami eloquently supported engagement and argued for the United States to lift the 54-year-old embargo on Cuba, it also was a window into how easily Americans misfire on Cuban issues.

For decades, Cubans on the island have come in droves, seen Miami, liked it — and stayed.

Their aspiration when they see our glitzy skyline, hear homey Spanish chatter on the streets, feel the vibe of their culture in our Americanized hands, is not to return to Cuba carrying entrepreneurship and civic lessons with fight in their hearts.

It’s to become part of the mosaic that makes this the most unique city in America.

A recent American poll taken on the island would back me up on that: Most Cubans said that if they had a choice, they’d rather live in the United States more than any place else in the world.

Can we keep the conversation on U.S.-Cuba policy real, please?

Ignorance gives me the shivers, makes me remember horrible things like the taking of a 6-year-old child at gun-point from a home in Little Havana, as if there had been no other way to return a boy to his father in Cuba.

Not that I want to look backward to the Bill Clinton years of Cuba policy, but there’s much to be learned from that era.

There is much to like in Hillary Clinton’s speech. She didn’t give the Castros an inch, condemning human-rights violations. And her theory on the merits of lifting the embargo is as good as any and a testament to her on-the-job experience as secretary of state.

It is, however, missing the Cuban reaction factor.

So far, the most assured response from Cuba since President Barack Obama’s historic policy shift in December has been more Cubans leaving the island — not exactly the vote of confidence Americans were expecting.

Not a week goes by that a raft or a boat doesn’t wash ashore somewhere in South Florida or is interdicted by the Coast Guard at sea. Cubans also are crossing the Mexican border in record numbers. Large groups recently have been caught and arrested in Central America trying to make the seven-country cross from Ecuador to Texas. Half the Cuban hockey team defected in Canada last week. Talk about historic: that would be the largest group of athletes to ever do so.

I don’t hear Cuban leader Raúl Castro complaining; he just looks the other way as more of the disaffected choose to leave rather than see what rapprochement might mean to them.

It should all sound familiar to Clinton, who was in the White House in 1994-95: 35,000 Cubans at sea; Guantánamo tent-cities; wet-foot, dry-foot policy; Elián.

None of that was addressed, but it should have been. That history is the backdrop to the new times.

Lucky for her candidacy, the potholes on American policy toward Cuba are bipartisan.

Democrat or Republican, anti or pro embargo, not one politician manages to hit a balanced note that rings true in Cuban Miami, a city where people experience the immediate repercussions of whatever is afoot in Cuba.

Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, reacting to Clinton’s embargo speech on Friday, only added a terrible footnote, worse than anything Clinton said in her speech.

“It’s insulting to many Miami residents for Hillary to come here to endorse a retreat in Cuba’s struggle for democracy,” Bush said in a statement. “This city has become a home and a refuge to thousands and thousands of Castro’s victims.”

The struggle for democracy is at the heart of the rapprochement policy that a growing number of Cuban Americans, including Republicans, do support. So that statement is a pants-on-fire lie. But what’s even more unacceptable to freedom-loving Cuban Americans is Bush’s implication that Miamians can’t be open to hearing a different point of view.

Clinton may have selective memory. But Bush pulls the old, ugly emotional chain of all the former Bush eras. No results, only rhetoric to keep the wound of loss open — and the Republican votes coming.

We might not be able to change Cuba, but Miami has changed.

The Cuban palm trees were transplanted long ago, and they’ve flourished here in excess, lining more acreage than they ever did in Cuba’s famed Palmar de Junco. But Miami, misunderstood and miscast as it is, is still a part of the United States — and the principles of free speech apply here, too.

Demagogues need not exempt us.