The United States | Over Troubled Water

The US–Cuba Thaw Divides Émigré Cubans

Of 1,000 Cuban Americans surveyed in the Miami area, 68 percent supported restarting diplomatic ties between Washington DC and Havana. MIRKO CECCHI
01 July, 2015

I MET RAUL MOAS IN APRIL, at 420 Lincoln Road in fashionable Miami Beach, across the Biscayne Bay from Miami proper. “For us Cuban Americans, Cuba is omnipresent,” he told me at the office of Roots of Hope. “For me, it’s always been a mythical place.” Moas is 27 years old, and the grandson of migrants who fled to Florida after Communist revolutionaries under Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba from a military government, in 1959. The Communists aligned the country with the Soviet bloc through the Cold War, and were shunned by the United States. The US government restricted trade ties and travel to Cuba in the early 1960s, and the two sides broke diplomatic relations. In the decades that followed, and even after the Cold War, Cuba remained under single-party Communist rule and isolated from its giant neighbour—as it is today.

Roots of Hope disagrees with this state of things. A non-profit opened in 2003, it works to help young people in Cuba reshape the island’s politics and its place in the world, fostering stronger ties to the United States along the way. Moas is its executive director, and that day he wore a shirt striped blue, white and red—the shared palette of the Cuban and American flags. With him were two men, both on the older end of middle age, leaving for a visit to Cuba the next day. Moas instructed them in the use of smart phones, and handed over one phone set to each. They planned to hand these over to people they knew on the island, for personal use.

“Until 2009, it was illegal to use the internet in Cuba,” Moas explained to me. “Today, in theory, no—but rates remain inaccessible to most citizens and mailboxes are controlled by the government.” Cuba has almost no broadband connectivity outside of a few hundred government-run establishments, where access costs the equivalent of about $4 an hour—in a country where monthly wages average around $20. Last month, the government announced plans to halve rates and install new connections, but Cubans are increasingly turning to international satellite networks and smart phones to surf free of any official control. Smart phones sold on the island, through government stores, are prohibitively expensive, so phones from abroad are welcome. “We simply want to provide young people the opportunity to connect to the world,” Moas said, “to communicate with the outside without restrictions.” As Cuba’s isolation wanes, he argued, change will come by itself.

Sending phones into Cuba from the United States is easier now than it has been for decades. In 2008, under president George W Bush, the US government relaxed earlier restrictions to permit its citizens to send phones and other personal electronics to Cuba as donations. The current president, Barack Obama, continued that policy, and this January the US department of commerce also allowed companies to sell communication hardware to the island. This came as part of a larger thaw in relations between the two governments. In December, after months of secret negotiations, Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro—younger brother to Fidel—announced a staggered plan to normalise relations and end limitations on trade, diplomacy and interchange. Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans approve. But there are also those who don’t, and they are numerous and loud. Particularly in the Cuban American community, a debate over the détente, and whether it can spur political change in Cuba, is roaring.

Among the dissenters is Emilio Izquierdo Jr, a 67-year-old coordinator for the activist group Cuban American Patriots and Friends. Especially since April, when Castro and Obama shook hands at a diplomatic summit in Panama City—the most iconic epitome of the thaw so far—Izquiero’s group has railed against the rapprochement on its Facebook page, where it has just short of 500 followers. Izquierdo has about 2,000 followers himself, and has described the thaw on his personal page as a “dirty, secret and conspiratorial pact” to bring in “selective capitalism” for the benefit of the ruling hierarchy, while the Cuban people “remain in misery, under the state terrorism and slavery of the Castro communists.”

Izquierdo is a Marielito, part of a mass exodus of some 125,000 Cubans in 1980, evacuated from the port of Mariel with permission from the Cuban government following a period of particular economic hardship. I met him one afternoon in early May at Rancho Luna, a popular restaurant in Little Havana. The neighbourhood is a cultural, social and political hub for the Miami area’s Cuban Americans, who, by a 2010 census, numbered almost a million—part of 1.8 million Cuban Americans in the United States. Izquierdo showed me his ficha delictiva—criminal record—from the Cuban government, certifying his arrest on charges of attending a Catholic church. He was imprisoned—“They put me in the Castro gulag on June 15, 1966, when I was 18, and I was released on July 31, 1968”—and, he claimed, tortured. He was 32 years old when he left Cuba, with a young wife and daughter, and has never been back since. He had not forgiven his treatment, and had no sympathy for the US government’s friendly overtures to the Castro regime. “You don’t talk with the communists,” he said.

The most prominent opponent of the détente is Marco Rubio, a Cuban American member of the opposition Republican Party, who represents Florida in the US senate. In April, he declared his candidacy for a presidential election due next year; “The next president could even be a Cuban,” Izquierdo told me, with evident pride. In a television interview in December, Rubio criticised the intent to lift controls on trade and travel, arguing that this would mean giving up any leverage the United States has for pushing the Cuban government to reform. “If you’re going to make concessions to Cuba, if you’re to recognise them diplomatically, if you’re going to have more commerce with them, there has to be some reciprocal opening on their part towards democracy,” he said. “There was none.” The new policy, he added, “is entirely predicated upon the false notion that engagement alone automatically leads to freedom.”

Whatever the merits of Rubio’s argument, indications are that most of Miami’s Cuban Americans lean towards Obama’s position. Last year, Florida International University polled a random sample of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County, which has Miami as its seat, for their attitudes on US–Cuba relations. Of the 1,000 people surveyed, almost three-quarters believed the trade embargo was “not working at all” or “not working very well,” and 52 percent opposed continuing it; 68 percent favoured re-establishing diplomatic relations, with more recent migrants, who know the effects of Cuba’s isolation first-hand, overwhelmingly backing the change.

“Older people do not know how Cubans really live because they’ve spent a long time here,” 27-year-old Samaria Martin told me. Martin arrived from Cuba aged 19, and now runs a photo studio in Hialeah, a municipality within Greater Miami, specialising in portraits for quinceañeras—grand celebrations of girls’ fifteenth birthdays, considered a transition into womanhood and traditional in many Latin communities. I met her there in mid-May, as she photographed and preened over a client—Giselle Perez, a Cuban-American teenager who spoke Spanglish and posed dressed as a nymph playing a grand piano on water. “Miami for me is like Cuba,” Martin said, smiling, “the only difference is that here there is food.”

Liudmira, Giselle’s mother, who runs a local transport company, stood by watching. She quit Cuba in 1995, when she was 19 years old, with her boyfriend at the time, and had crossed the Florida Strait to the United States on a raft. “I am in favor of what Obama is doing, because none of the previous policies have helped anything,” she said. She hoped the thaw would “help Cubans to live better, and won’t get in the way of me sending money to my parents” back in Cuba.

Even if the thaw brings some relief to ordinary Cubans on the island, though, it could mean new hurdles for those hoping to leave it. Liudmira, like all Cuban migrants, enjoyed special support in the United States thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act. Instituted in 1966, the act allows Cubans, unlike other newcomers, to apply for US residency a year and a day after their arrival, to receive work permits after only three months, and to access state welfare for the first six months of their stay. This makes the United States a tempting new home: a poll of 1,200 people in Cuba published this March showed half of the respondents eager to leave, and half of those looking to migrate to the United States. What a normalisation of diplomatic ties will mean for the act, and so for any new arrivals, is not clear.

But there is also no guarantee the détente will be seen all the way through. In late May, the United States removed Cuba from the list of states it considers sponsors of terrorism, paving the way for a reciprocal reopening of embassies in Havana and Washington, DC. A few days later, the Republican-dominated US congress blocked funding for any diplomatic facility in Cuba. This should not bar the government from designating an embassy, but could impede actually running one. Finally scrapping the legislation behind the embargo is also conditional on congressional approval, and some Republicans have vowed opposition. If the congress remains intransigent, there might be only so far Obama can go.

Moas, when we spoke in April, was convinced reconciliation was the best way forward, and could help a peaceful political transition like in “South Africa after Apartheid: truth, justice and reconciliation.” Moas knew personally how isolation can harden views, and how greater exchange with the island can lead to greater openness. “My grandparents spoke of it with pain, like something that had been lost,” he told me. “And my idea of Cuba, as well as that of many of my peers, was anchored to the past.” But when he got to university, he met recent arrivals from the island. “They told me about the Cuba of today and I started to feel the desire to go there to see for myself.” Moas made his first trip to Cuba in 2012. “My family did not react well to the news of my journey,” he said. “They were concerned, and did not understand why I wanted to go. Only my maternal grandmother, Adela, supported my decision, and asked me to go visit my great-aunt Gladys, whom she had not seen for more than 50 years. When I came back home with a picture of us together she was happy.”

Claudia Bellante is an independent Italian journalist who reports on social issues in Latin America. She collaborates with several magazines across the world, including Internazionale in Italy, Rhythms Monthly in Taiwan, and Marie Claire and El País in Spain.