The pain of Cuban exiles

A couple stands at the door of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, the first stop for many Cuban exiles.
A couple stands at the door of the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, the first stop for many Cuban exiles. UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI LIBRARIES

Though President Obama’s announcement of relaxed relations between the United States and Cuba spurred excitement in many circles, the news felt like a kick in the gut for many in our community.

Older Cuban exiles — the ones who have never stopped chanting “Viva Cuba Libre!” at large patriotic gatherings — fled Fidel Castro’s communist takeover in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s because they wanted to live in the democracy America markets so well across the world. They have never forgiven Castro for hijacking their homeland into a dictatorship, executing thousands, derailing their lives and tearing Cuban families apart.

Given their experiences, these exiles have every right to feel betrayed, to feel a deep hurt by what appears to them to be another victory for Cuba.

They should not be ridiculed or dismissed — especially not in Miami, where they have thrived. They deserve respect as they struggle to digest a deal struck by their beloved adopted country — facilitated by Pope Francis — with their most bitter enemy.

These exiles fell to their knees again over the actions of a U.S. president that they say negates, ignores and undermines their five-decade battle to dethrone the regime of the Castro brothers, a deal that fails to call for specific, measurable gains in the area of Cuba’s continued human-rights abuses.

After years of staunchly fighting Castro and supporting the embargo, older exiles suspect that Raúl Castro likely smiled and winked like the Cheshire Cat, thinking he pulled yet another fast one on the well-intentioned United States. Cuba walked away from that negotiating chat with a promise of more U.S. tourists to Varadero; more money via remittances to the island; renewed diplomatic ties; and U.S. banking and updated telecommunications for the island, which is stuck in 1950s technology.

The United States won the welcome release of Alan Gross, while Cuba got back three of its imprisoned spies, but made no promise of change. How unfair, they say. In this they have the support of Miami’s Cuban-American congressional delegation.

This is another slap for exiles who endured the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion under President Kennedy, who blinked and canceled U.S. air support; Fidel Castro’s outsmarting President Carter during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, which allowed the dictator to send thousands of his citizens to our shores, including criminals; and the return of Elián González — not to mention the shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing three Cuban Americans and a legal resident without retribution from President Clinton.

As they demonstrate at Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho, they should not be viewed as people stuck in the past or on the losing side of a generational shift. Through the decades, they have seen their hopes of returning to their cherished island again crumble into resignation that they won’t ever see a free Cuba. And now this. It’s just that their wounds have not yet healed. Will they ever?

But these exiles must also recognize that the change reached in U.S.-Cuba relations is of historic significance, a train that has been a long time coming.

Mr. Obama deserves credit for ending a Cold War-era stance that kept the United States at odds with one of its closest neighbors in the hemisphere.

Still, it’s a bitter pill for some Cuban exiles to swallow — understandably so.