Young Cubans here and on the island are indebted to Obama

President Obama, in Havana in 2016, greets people in the audience after speaking at an event about entrepreneurship and opportunity for Cubans.
President Obama, in Havana in 2016, greets people in the audience after speaking at an event about entrepreneurship and opportunity for Cubans. Associated Press

One of the lasting legacies of the Obama presidency is the impact it had on a new generation of young Cuban Americans and our peers on the island.

These two groups of people have been so distant from each other despite being so geographically and culturally near. For years, many Cuban Americans only knew our heritage through the nostalgia of our abuelos. Meanwhile, our counterparts in Cuba were being raised with deep-rooted misconceptions about our community. Today, thanks to President Obama, there are genuine opportunities for progress, unity and reconciliation.

Obama began charting a new course on Cuba in 2009 with his decision to eliminate restrictions that stripped Cuban Americans of our rights to freely visit and support our loved ones on the island. In doing so, the president offered the Cuban-American community a seat at the table and began paving the way toward a more independent society on the island.

More than 400,000 Cuban Americans a year began exercising their franchise to see and help their families in Cuba. As a result, for a new generation in the United States, Cuba is now much more than a pair of brothers; it is the names and faces of people we know and love. By traveling to the island, independently or through organizations like CubaOne Foundation and Discover Cuba, thousands of young Cuban Americans are embracing family for the first time, engaging their peers and shattering stereotypes.

We now have vehicles to channel our passion while honoring our families’ sacrifices. In doing so, a new generation is broadening the definition of patriotismo to supporting the Cuban people, instead of merely opposing Castro. The young Cuban Americans who go through our CubaOne program are prime examples of the possibilities. In the last six months, young leaders like Miami’s Miranda Hernandez and New York’s Steven Garcia visited the island for the first time and have since launched their own initiatives, CubaCodes and Toda Fuerza, respectively, to teach Cuban children how to program computers and skate.

The Cuban people also benefited from Obama’s policy. By lifting the caps on remittances and Cuban family travel, the President fueled the single largest growth in Cuba’s private sector since 1959. This enabled initiatives, such as Catholic Church’s Cuba Emprende Project, to equip a new generation of Cuban entrepreneurs with 21st century skills and become more independent. Today there are 500,000 Cubans with self-employment licenses compared to just 144,000 in 2010. For many of Cuba’s young emprendedores, like consultant Marta Deus and technologist Yondainer Gutiérrez, the $2 billion in remittances that Americans send each year to Cuba and greater contact with Cuban Americans means seed money for their ventures and a better life for their families.

The Obama White House also supported greater internet access for Cuba. Despite the limitations of life on the island, it is now easier than ever for young Cubans to go online, speak with their families in the United States and create opportunities for themselves. We are now Facebook friends with our peers in Cuba, rejoice in life’s celebrations together and read about each other’s dreams.

The torch has been passed to a new generation of Cuban Americans that is better positioned to build a brighter tomorrow. Political, economic, and human rights issues remain, but we can now address these matters in Cuba, instead of just talking about them from Miami. The youth on both shores have an opportunity to come together to write a new chapter in our shared history. For this, young Cuban Americans owe President Obama a debt of gratitude.

Giancarlo Sopo and Daniel Jimenez are the founders of CubaOne Foundation, a Miami-based nonprofit.