Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Sound bites don’t capture maturity of Cuban exiles

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., second from left, comforts Miriam de la Pena during a news conference, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 in Coral Gables.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., second from left, comforts Miriam de la Pena during a news conference, Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014 in Coral Gables. AP

Ours is a weary exile community, molded by decades of searing losses and dashed hopes.

In this Miami — “a profoundly American city, a place that reminds us of what Cuban people can achieve,” as the president described us — the historic change of heart on Cuba is viewed with more nuance than is in plain view.

Ours is a weary exile community, often undermined by the shortcomings of journalism thirsty for expedient sound bites and dramatic images out of the Versailles café counter, the anointed “hot spot” of ready-made opinion.

But for every piece of emotional footage, there are hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans quietly rejoicing, disagreeing and experiencing every mixed emotion in between at this landmark moment.

It’s not a flaw, but a healthy sign of maturity, to hold different and wide-ranging opinions on President Barack Obama’s bold move to restore full diplomatic relations with the Cuban government after five decades of failed isolationist strategies.

For starters, no one can bestow legitimacy and dignity where there’s none. No policy shift from the U.S. president or any other world leader toward Cuba can change the facts: The Castro brothers have presided over a wicked dictatorship that turns 56 on Jan. 1.

No spy exchange or “humanitarian release” of an American who shouldn’t have been jailed in the first place can erase Cuba’s history of human-rights abuses. Nor can a continuation of unsuccessful U.S. policies bring back the dead, compensate the grieving — or deliver justice and freedom.

There is warranted pain and outrage in sectors of the Cuban exile community at what feels like an undeserved, overnight thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, but which in reality has been in the making for years — and secretly, through diplomatic channels, for the past 18 months.

“I feel that I have been slapped in the face by a president,” said a tearful Miriam de la Peña, mother of one of the four Cuban-Americans killed after their Brothers to the Rescue aircraft were shot down over international waters by Cuban fighter jets in 1996. “I feel that the justice system of the United States of America has suffered a big blow.”

One of the spies released and returned to Cuba this week was serving a life sentence after being convicted in court of conspiracy to commit murder for his role in those deaths. The victims of this and countless other despicable acts of violence by the Cuban regime deserve respect and understanding.

But after five decades of an abundance of anti-Castro rhetoric — and no results — re-engagement with Cuba is a welcome development, and there’s no “traición,” as some claim, no treason at all, in President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba by reopening embassies in both countries.

“The President's words today, on the first day of Hanukkah and eight days from Christmas, brought tears to our eyes. We have so much wished for peace between Cuba and the U.S.,” Raúl Rodriguez, the Miami architect who so lovingly helped restore the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, told me Wednesday.

Rodríguez and his wife, Ninón, left Cuba as children and their return trips to the island starting in 1980 were chronicled in David Rieff’s book The Exile.

They describe their thought process at the news of a diplomatic opening this way: “No es fácil” [it’s not easy] is only half of the popular Cuban phrase. The other half is, “pero vale la pena! [But it’s worthwhile.]” And that is the question. ¿Vale la pena?

They’re betting that the opening to Cuba is worthwhile.

Obama’s plan entails increasing remittance limits and allowing Americans easier access to travel to Cuba, including for the first time, the use on the island of the almighty American credit and debit cards.

But along with optimism about a “saner” new policy, there’s also an intelligent dose of skepticism, even among those who support the normalization of relations.

The president voiced his own misgivings, acknowledging that he was “under no illusion that continued barriers to freedom remain for ordinary Cubans.”

Rapprochement strategies by the European Union and Canada, including hefty investments in the island, have failed — as miserably as the U.S. embargo — to put the island’s ruling class on a road trip to democracy. Instead, Cubans have served as cheap labor to wealthy investors while the Cuban government (which holds a 51 percent share in those foreign enterprises) pockets the profits.

If anything, the contact with foreigners has served as another exit route for disillusioned Cubans, who marry for visas and leave the island. Why would increased American tourism and investments result in a different result for ordinary Cubans?

It’s a valid question posed by another thoughtful and respected Cuban-American, lawyer Rafael Peñalver.

“This is an agreement between American economic interests and the Castro regime in which the people of Cuba — as in exile — have been left out of the picture,” he told me. “It’s a great victory [for the Castros], an economic opportunity for a Cuba that was on the ropes because of dropping oil prices. This is throwing a lifeline to the regime.”

He wouldn’t want to see Cuba become “a Vietnam or a China” and witness “the dream of a free Cuba compromised.” Who among us does?

A shake-up of the status quo, however, may have been a necessary route, a pragmatic way to move forward.

This in no way diminishes Cuban exiles’ long and valiant fight for principled change, nor does it mean this makes the diaspora a house irrevocably divided, as politically expedient as it may be for Cuban-American elected officials, left out of Obama’s decision, to fan the flames of disgust with the president.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio says that Obama’s strategy assures that the Castros will remain “a permanent fixture.”

But isn’t that what the Castros have been through decades of “Cuba sí, Castro no” rallies? And through the hard-line Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the embargo and imposed a travel ban that forced Cubans in Miami to visit family and send remittances through third countries?

Fifty-six years in power is hardly temporary status.

“I’m free.” Those were Alan Gross’ first words after the Cuban government released the American contractor, jailed for five years for bringing communications equipment to the small Jewish community on the island.

It was as if Gross needed to say the words to believe it.

Cubans know they aren’t free — and to ensure none of us forgets it, the aging Raúl Castro delivered news of re-established relations with the United States wearing not the suit he reserves for diplomacy, but his military uniform.

I wouldn’t expect any less demagoguery from the Castros, and more can be anticipated, as has been the case when there have been small signs that an opening is fostering a new day in Cuba.

But if there’s a shred of hope that engagement brings to the Cuban people greater freedom and prosperity, , vale la pena.