For exiles in Miami, move toward closer Cuba ties stirs complicated emotions

Abdel Rodriguez holds a Cuban flag as he stands outside the Little Havana restaurant Versailles on Wednesday.
Abdel Rodriguez holds a Cuban flag as he stands outside the Little Havana restaurant Versailles on Wednesday. GETTY IMAGES

A man burst into Hialeah’s famed Vicky Bakery on Thursday afternoon and held up his arms in victory.

“¡Triunfamos! ¡Triunfamos!” he said. We triumphed.

“What are you talking about?” a woman working behind the counter asked him in Spanish. He answered: “Relations with Cuba!”

She was not impressed. The man, though older, accused her of clinging to an outdated way of thinking — to the detriment of suffering Cubans.

For Miamians who said Thursday they supported President Obama’s decision a day earlier to renew diplomatic ties with Havana, their optimism was tempered by fear — a sign of the complicated emotions felt by exile families whose histories have been shaped by leaving Cuba.

Despite referring to Raúl and Fidel Castro as “degenerates,” the man refused to give his name, saying he might get in trouble at the auditing firm where he works if he publicly endorsed Obama’s plan. His friend, a doctor visiting from Cuba and equally disdainful of the regime, also kept his name private, out of concern that appearing in a newspaper would jeopardize his return home.

“The freedom Cuba needs can’t be achieved by isolation,” he said. “You know when the Cuban dictatorship will end? When the first McDonald’s opens in El Vedado,” an upscale Havana neighborhood.

Others fretted over their social standing in a community that, for half a century, has been dominated by hardliners opposed to any U.S. actions they consider appeasement. That made it all the more noteworthy when one of the people willing to speak up for Obama was a powerful Coral Gables billionaire, 62-year-old Mike Fernandez — who is a Republican political fundraiser to boot.

“I am not a fan of President Obama but after 50-plus years, this is long overdue,” he said in an email.

A day removed from the initial surprise of Obama’s announcement, more Cuban Americans seemed prepared to acknowledge that a change might do the island good. Yet they felt abandoned by the U.S. after five decades of fighting.

For some, their views on the shift were clear-cut.

Outside Versailles Restaurant, Santiago Portal declared himself a fan of Obama’s move — though the 71-year-old said he would also like to see Congress lift the U.S. trade embargo. “The embargo is a weapon that the United States gave the Castros,” he said.

Playing to the horde of reporters, some from as far away as Japan, Portal wore a sandwich-board sign that read, with a couple of grammatical errors, “Obama: Cuban people need liberty and food. Can you help?”

That caught the eye of Angel González Salas, 75, who challenged his fellow septuagenarian. “Obama is never going to help you with the liberty of Cuba,” González Salas told Portal in Spanish.

That set off a discussion that was part yelling match, part spectator sport.

“What you need to do … is demand that Cuba allow for freedom of the press, freedom to create political parties,” González Salas said. Obama “has always sided with people who hate this great country.”

Nonsense, Portal responded, blaming all recent U.S. presidents for trying to isolate Cuba: “[Ronald] Reagan supported the tyranny!”

“It’s true, none of them did anything,” González Salas said. “But this one isn’t going to, either.”

Voices rose. Cameras zoomed in. But the people around them waiting to order breakfast seemed more amused than disturbed. Portal and González Salas laughed things off.

Still, don’t dismiss it as a mere disagreement between stubborn old men.

“For those of us who had to endure all the perfidy, all the malice, all of that totalitarian reality in Cuba — it really hurts,” González Salas said afterward.

Curious onlookers said they understood both sides.

“I’ve been listening to the same thing for 20 years,” said Kathy Loo, 43, whose family is Peruvian. She said she has visited Cuba, and “I don’t know how people can live out there.”

Still, Loo said she couldn’t justify a continuation of U.S. policies.

“I just feel that if something hasn’t worked for 50 years, something needs to change,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be good or bad. One thing’s for sure: It’s not going to be the same.”

It’s that uncertainty that complicates Cuban Americans’ feelings, said Peter Gonzalez, a 46-year-old attorney whose practice is focused on U.S.-Cuba law.

“Intellectually, I know it doesn’t make any sense to keep the embargo, but on the other hand it is quid — no pro quo,” he said. “Anyone who thinks the Castro regime is going to turn around and change its stripes doesn’t know their history.”

Loud partisans like Portal and González Salas “are the guys who get the air time,” the attorney said. For most everyone else, it’s more difficult.

“For my in-laws, my mother — it’s still very raw,” said Gonzalez, who was born in Connecticut. “At the end of the day, I’m American. I didn’t suffer what my parents suffered.”

Aurora Delgado Joslyn remembers her grandmother hiding sacks of rice inside the family’s couch cushions in Havana in order to foil communist rations. The soldiers came to their house on Dec. 31, 1965, to escort them to the airport and to exile. Joslyn was 6 and could only bring one doll. She decided on the one she felt was old enough to leave home.

“Her name was Lucy,” the 55-year-old teacher from Hollywood said Thursday. “She seemed so grown-up.”

Almost 50 years after the forced exodus, the Obama voter seethed at her president’s decision. “I just felt so betrayed,” she said.

Not so with her 27-year-old son, an IT worker at the University of Miami: “When I told him what happened, he said: ‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it?’”

Her two older children, both in their 30s, generally share Joslyn’s view that Cuba needs to earn its way out of pariah status.

“My father was still young enough to tell them stories, and damn Castro, and just show everything that Cuba was and is,” she said.

But age, and a growing number of grandchildren to take under his wing, diluted her father’s message just enough for her youngest. “He hasn’t really experienced the immersion, or the connection, quite as much,” she said.

In other families, perspectives sometimes defied stereotypes. Herb Sosa, 50, said that while he and his relatives don’t usually agree politically — they’re Republicans, he voted for Obama — Wednesday’s announcement brought shared disappointment.

“I am not saying we should not be having negotiations with Cuba,” said Sosa, president of Unity Coalition, a local Hispanic LGBT-rights nonprofit. Existing policy “hasn’t worked.”

But while he supports Obama’s push to try something different, Sosa said exiles feel let down that the U.S. didn’t get a firm commitment from Cuba for a freer society.

“Hundreds of thousands of people died at the hands of these dictators, and nothing has changed,” said Sosa, who’s in regular contact with LGBT-rights activists on the island. “Cubans have basically zero civil rights. They have zero access to the Internet, no access to the outside world, with very few exceptions. … None of those things are being addressed.”

Friends have told him that, over time, closer U.S. ties will force Cuba to open.

But Sosa remains unconvinced.

“This agreement — it should be coming from a place of mutual giving,” he said.

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