Voices of the Cuban-American Thaw

by Aaron Spitler

October 20, 2016

The past two years have seen monumental changes in relations between Havana and Washington, as rapprochement is still sending shockwaves through American political discourse following a half-century of hostility. Since the surprise announcement of normalization, the former Cold War adversaries have seen goodwill acts like prisoner exchanges, relaxed travel restrictions and the even the return of embassies that had been shuttered since 1961. This breakthrough period has also been highlighted by the first presidential visit to the island since the Coolidge Administration, as President Obama’s March trip to visit communist officials and dissident activists has been touted as the capstone of the long diplomatic thaw. However, even as recent polling shows that 63% of Americans support renewed engagement, 51% of Cuban-Americans still believe the approach to be ill-advised.

Interestingly, the statistic shows shifting perceptions about the island, as younger, more progressive Cubans are chipping away at the once monolithic anti-communist notion that defined the exile community. Even with greater diversity of thought, the future of cooperation still belongs solely to Cuban-American voices. Yet what that future will look like remains to be seen.

For older Cuban-Americans, many of whom arrived stateside as refugees, they mark normalization as tantamount to appeasement and doubt the Castro regime will hold up its end of the bargain. Despite President Raul Castro’s assurances to secure greater political freedoms (like rights to assembly and information) and to retire by 2018, some Cuban-Americans are weary of empty words and paint these gestures as largely superficial. Carlos Naya, 61, a Miami resident who fled the country as a youth to escape political oppression, captures this sentiment and believes that any signs of progress are nebulous at best. “As long as there is no freedom of expression, how can anything change? If the people have to function under the same rules in which they have functioned for the last sixty years, what is a visit going to do?” In his opinion, Obama’s charm offensive has done little to sway the Castro Brothers to democratize and shows his foreign policy’s lack of backbone in achieving substantial headway.

Other traditional Cuban-Americans take their criticisms a step further and label his actions as legitimizing an avowed enemy of democratic values as a respectable partner for regional stability. Simply put, Obama’s re-opening is an unearned concession, rewarding totalitarian despots that have sacrificed nothing at the expense of the imprisoned and exploited. Margarita Quintero, another South Floridian and virulent opponent of the current government, frames the negotiations as a complete embarrassment that fundamentally undermines what makes America “exceptional”. “All the killing, the way they pushed us out, the hunger, the lack of freedom. Fidelismo is immoral. If he had been one minute in our shoes, he would have never negotiated with the Castro government.” Hitting familiar beats, the aggressive anti-communist tropes of the Cold War era are still being used and show that old opinions die hard. Yet views like that of Ms. Quintero also remind us that the history’s hardships leave deep wounds and provide a perspective that is just as valid now as it was then. Surprisingly, this narrative hasn’t stopped some Cuban-Americans from observing the issue with fresh eyes.

Younger citizens, who mainly inherited their familial attachment to homeland, have been expressing oppositional fatigue to the Cuban state and believe that reconciliation could be a welcome change of pace. A hallmark moment, Obama’s visit to the island signifies a friendlier American presence across the Florida straits and shows our solidarity with the Cuban people. Gabriel Puello, a Miamian who took advantage of Cuba’s tourism push, argues that the island’s residents want American money to generate jobs and provide an income that lifts them from living paycheck-to-paycheck: “inhabitants there are super anxious for us to come in droves and invest, spend dollars.”

By directly supporting the Cuban people’s welfare, many progressive perspectives believe that such aid will provide them with needed economic security and embolden them to advocate for their civil rights. This personalized campaign to restart relations has been more humanitarian than any foreign policy agreement, instilling the Cuban people with a sense of hope that will galvanize political action. Younger Cuban-American liberals elevate Obama’s joint press conference with Castro as a prime example of realizing this promise, as the president called out the politburo head for his fumbling of the political prisoner situation and compelled him to answer probing questions from the press. Fernand Amandi, a Miami-Dade County pollster, lauded the encounter as striking a balance between normalized recognition and holding the regime accountable for their human rights abuses. “Delivering those remarks in the belly of the beast like that, that’s never been done before.”

This snapshot into modern diplomacy wouldn’t be possible without the younger generation’s commitment to a new direction, as this reinvigorating reset has justified the belief in cautious optimism for gradual democracy. With the electoral future unclear and tricky nuances of negotiations still unresolved, the rest of America will have to look to them again for guidance on the way forward.

Aaron Spitler is a Sophomore B.A. student at the College of William & Mary and an Intern for the William & Mary Policy Review.