Our Cuban wall has fallen, and I am pleasantly shocked. It was the right thing to do. But there will be no fireworks. My celebration is a muted one.
On December 17, President Barack Obama announced that diplomatic relations with Cuba would be reopened. He stopped short of lifting the trade embargo; only Congress can do that. And it will eventually, I suspect — the profits are too good to pass up, especially among Midwestern Republicans who have been lobbying for years to lift sanctions.
Everyone has an opinion on Cuba and my generation of Cuban-Americans is cursed to hear it. Our lives have been caught between the hard line at home that brooks no dissent and a liberal American elite prone to fetishizing Cuba’s poverty and isolation. Neither side understands the other.
My family buried four grandparents in exile. My uncle, now pushing 80 and happily living in Miami, was betrayed by a close friend in the early days of the revolution and spent four years as a political prisoner in Fidel Castro’s jails. My maternal grandparents – themselves from immigrant families to Cuba – lost a lifetime of hard work after the revolution. They were not wealthy land owners. They were middle-class professionals, as I am today, and this is not the ending they had imagined.
Codified under President John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, and maintained by Cold War conservatives, the “embargo” long ago degenerated into a tragic spectacle. At the height of President George W. Bush’s administration, U.S. Cuba policy allowed corn farmers to travel to Cuba on open visas while family members of Cubans had to wait three years between trips. Despite the embargo, goods continued to move. Hotels continued to be built. And even if the restrictions had been ironclad, the suffering of exiles could never be assuaged by proxy.
All the while, the canny Castro brothers reaped a propaganda victory. The regime could continue to contract for millions in U.S. goods (and enjoy $3.5 billion in family remittances annually from those “intransigent” exiles) while blaming the “blockade” for the economic conditions wrought by their own backward policies.
For my parent’s generation, now in their 70s, the embargo long ago stopped being a tactical tool. Even they can see after 50 years that it had not worked. Instead the embargo was much more. It was a metaphor and a promise. It told them that the United States — particularly Republicans — cared for them. It acknowledged their suffering. And it tasted deliciously of vengeance.
Obama has put an end to the charade. Most Cuban-Americans, according to polls, are with him. And despite what you may hear from Marco Rubio, Florida’s Republican junior senator from Miami, so are many Republicans.
In its decrepitude, the U.S. Cuba policy served only the hard-liners' political ambitions. The main joke was on elderly exiles in Miami — those who had lost and suffered the most. Republicans made them feel special, while behind the scenes, party members worked to dismantle their beloved sanctions.
In 2007, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act was introduced not by a Democrat, but by a Wyoming Republican, Sen. Michael Enzi. One of its co-sponsors, Larry Craig, Republican of Idaho, also thought U.S. companies should be allowed to look for oil in Cuba. As for the embargo, “He thinks it’s a failed policy of four decades,” Craig’s spokesman told me in 2007.
I agreed then as I do now, though for very different reasons. I have no money to make in Cuba. The island represents neither profit center nor romantic abstraction — the two extremes that seem to represent the extent of American opinion on the subject. Cuba for me is simply the beautiful and often violent land where my parents were born and from which they were forced to flee. As a journalist, writer and teacher, I believe in the free flow of information, and I have long argued for greater engagement with Cuba as a matter of principle. The fact that now a lot of people stand to make a lot of money, does not diminish the moral soundness of the move.
Old ideas are dying. In Cuba, Fidel is already a ghost. In Miami, too, time is extinguishing the voices of the elderly exiles one by one. On Wednesday, journalists outnumbered protesters on the streets. I disagree with the hard-line exiles on nearly every point. And yet, I am sad to witness their twilight. Their mad idealism was a check against too much political pragmatism. And amid the deafening clamor for profit, their voices sounded a simpler register, that of agitators on behalf of the wrong cause for the right reasons.