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What Does Obama’s New Cuba Policy Mean To Cuban Americans?

Last week President Obama announced a completely new strategy for dealing with Cuba and its 55-year-old communist government. Clearly, any changes in Cuban policy were going to be controversial. Since 1961 the United States has had a trade embargo placed on the island nation, since shortly before the disasterous Bay of Pigs invasion. This made it illegal for Americans to travel to Cuba or for American corporations to trade with them. At that time the United States also withdrew formal relations with the island by removing its embassy. Since then there has only been the infamous Cuban interests section in Havana. Obama’s new plan would do several things. First of all it would normalize relations with Cuba for the first time in half a century. We would open an embassy in Havana and they would have an embassy in Washington D.C. Formal diplomatic channels would then be open to deal with any problems between the two countries, something that was impossible until now. Cuba would also be allowed to join the league of American States. For the time being the trade embargo is still in place so Americans can’t just up and fly to Cuba, however, they will make it easier for Americans to get a special visa to travel there if they meet one of 12 categories of traveler. So, even though travelers are allowed to bring $400 worth of goods back from the island this DOES NOT mean that Cuban cigars will be available soon at your local tobacconist. It’s already legal for Cuban-Americans like me to travel there as many times as we want a year only now we can take or send $2000 in remittances to our families there. In addition Obama’s plan would allow financial institutions and individuals to open accounts in Cuba and use credit or debit cards. It also promises a new era in cooperation where American and Cuban aid workers can together combat diseases like Ebola and assist in disaster relief. Obama is also looking into removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism because there is little evidence that they continue to do so. All of this comes as a welcome relief for many Cuban-Americans who have been wanting a change to the ineffectual policies that have been in place all these years. But not everyone is happy.
I certainly understand the old hardline position though I do not share their views. My family were staunch supporters of Castro in the early days of the revolution. In fact, my uncle died fighting against Batista’s troops. Later, when Castro turned out to be just another dictator, my family turned against him and joined the counterrevolution. My grandfather was put in jail during the Bay of Pigs invasion and my mother and aunt sent to work camps as punishment. In 1969 they left everything they had to come to America with nothing but the clothes on their back. I have no love for the Castro regime, believe me. I was raised to believe that the trade embargo would lead to the collapse of the communist government.
Well, guess what? It didn’t. The regime didn’t collapse when the Soviet Union fell nor when Fidel retired in favor of his brother Raul. Unlike most of the folks that are protesting Obama’s actions, I’ve been to Cuba twice and seen what it’s really like there. The people there suffer under the regime, it’s true, but they suffer even more under the embargo. All it does is hurt the common Cuban citizen. Do you think Fidel ever felt any privation? It also gains them a lot of sympathy world wide as they say, rightly, that the United States is bullying them. Why is it alright for us to trade and have full relations with China and Vietnam but not Cuba? It makes no sense other than that Cuban-Americans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, (who slammed Obama for the change in policy), think that somehow our circumstances are somehow different.
They aren’t. It is the hardheadedness of Cuban-Americans and fifty years of pain that have kept this last remnant of the Cold War in place. If history has taught us anything it’s that tyranny cannot survive in the light of day. The more we keep them isolated the more that the Castros can violate human rights. By opening the door just a crack things have already improved a bit for Cubans on the island. Real change will only come with openness. One thing is for sure, what we’ve done so far hasn’t worked. It’s like that old saying, ” doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity”.
This divide in opinion over what to do about Cuba is largely generational. Older Cuban-Americans want the status quo to continue whereas most, though not all, younger Cuban-Americans like me want to see some change. The protests against the latest changes in policy have been tiny and predominantly older people, a far cry from the thousands that protested during the Elian Gonzalez affair in 2000. I sympathize with my older relatives but they have to grow up and see the truth, that their way is the wrong way. It will be interesting to see what happens.

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