Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Cuban exiles see a different truth behind Obama’s policy change

Lazaro Lozano, center, protests against President Obama's decision to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States while at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho in Miami on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014.
Lazaro Lozano, center, protests against President Obama's decision to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States while at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho in Miami on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

A small group of angry exiles congregated along Calle Ocho on Wednesday, utterly consumed by a collective sense of betrayal over news that President Barack Obama was normalizing relations with Cuba.

But the reaction in Miami’s Little Havana didn’t travel as far as Fort Lauderdale. No crowd marched along the sidewalk in front of the federal courthouse Wednesday afternoon, the usual gathering place for the angry and disaffected in Broward County.

There were no reports of protesters in Jacksonville or Tampa or Orlando. Or Los Angeles or Kansas City or Atlanta or Detroit. The halls of Congress were full of the usual angry bluster, but out in the American heartland, the so-called earth-shaking policy change hardly caused a tremor.

It was as if folks in those other cities had heard different words coming from the president’s mouth than what was discerned in Miami. It was as if the protesters who gathered near the Versailles Restaurant (not nearly as many as similar gatherings have attracted in the past) were not only demonstrating their dismay but also demonstrating an unbridgeable gap between an aggrieved ethnic group and the American majority.

The president said: “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach.” For someone like me, outside the exile community, outside the exile experience, that only sounded like simple logic. I’m sure I’ve voiced similar sentiments over the decades. As the years of the Cuban cold war kept adding up, the truth of it seemed all the more apparent.

Apparent to me. But my perceptions haven’t been altered by the hurt and the bitter memories of exile. I may not understand it, but I know, just from living in South Florida, that those folks shouting and waving their signs in Miami on Wednesday see a different truth, one shaped — some would say distorted — by their own personal histories.

I had the same dissociated feeling 15 years ago, when an angry crowd gathered in Little Havana after the feds had snatched little Elián González from his uncle’s home and sent him back to Cuba. When a young counter-demonstrator dared to show up with a hand-scrawled placard reading, “Reno did the right thing,” the reaction was frightening. She was pummeled and chased until a security guard intervened and led her to safety.

“Communist whore!” someone shouted. “Who paid you to do this?” asked another, as if such a contrary opinion could only originate 90 miles south.

But just 20 miles north, her sentiment represented a preponderance of opinion. I wrote afterward that the “drive up I-95 from Miami into Broward County crosses the greatest ethnic chasm I’ve seen since the O.J. Simpson verdict.”

In the aftermath of the incident, despite the unseemly optics of armed SWAT-like border patrol agents storming the uncle’s house, polls indicated that most Americans — 64 percent —believed that Elián should have been reunited with his father even if that meant “living under communism in Cuba.” Just 26 percent of those polled disagreed.

When it comes to normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba, there has long been a similar disconnect between hardline Cuban exiles and the American majority. On Wednesday, the Atlantic reported that in every Gallup poll since 1999, “a majority of Americans have wanted to normalize relations with Cuba, with the number varying between 55 and 71 percent in favor. And bare majorities — or in one 2000 poll, a plurality — have also supported ending the U.S. embargo against the country.”

In January, a bipartisan survey commissioned by the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center (which operates under the auspices of the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank) found that 56 percent of Americans supported normalizing relations with Cuba. Just 35 percent were opposed. In Florida, that same poll found that 63 percent favored normalization, while only 30 percent opposed the policy change.

In June, even more startling findings came out of a Florida International University poll: 68 percent of Cuban Americans favored normalized diplomatic relations; 69 percent wanted an end to restrictions on Cuba travel; and 52 percent wanted the embargo lifted.

Perhaps that small group of hardliners protesting down in Little Havana, so loud and angry, lending Miami this perpetually hell-no, obdurate image when it comes to rethinking Cuban policy, have become a minority in their own community.

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