Opinion
Mariana Bazo / Reuters / Landov

US-Cuba policies are wasted on the old

The Cuban embargo doesn’t split along ideological lines, but along age

June 26, 2014 12:00AM ET

Every May 1 from 1961 to 2007, Fidel Castro gave a version of the same speech to much the same crowd, lauding Cuba’s independence from Yankee imperialism, its historic mission, and his citizens’ forbearance in the face of often-unbearable deprivation. In the crowd of hundreds of thousands of Cubans, the most visible band of people — those just behind the seated generals and the foreign dignitaries, pressed against retaining rails not far from Fidel’s podium — was a crush of university students in red shirts. Every year, students gathered on the quad the evening before May Day to listen to music, pass around bottles of rum, make signs and dance.

And as they marched from the university to the Plaza de la Revolución a few hours before dawn, a pulsing river of merry red-clad young people flooded the city streets, collecting more and more students at every block. At the plaza, they settled into a designated space at the front of the crowd. They were granted visibility because they were university students, yes, and Cuba’s free education system has always been one of Castro’s calling cards. But more important, they were photogenic, energetic and — most crucial of all — young. Whether they supported Fidel or not was beside the point. Appearance at these marches was mandatory, because their presence proved to the rolling Cuban TV cameras and the foreign press photographers that the revolution was not, as the rest of the crowd behind them often was, as old and gray as Fidel himself became.

Young people were symbolically important, but they were not invited to effect change in Havana. And a similar pattern is emerging here in the U.S. when it comes to American policy on Cuba. In the past few months, a volley of new polls has proved that the only demographic that supports the 54-year-old trade and travel embargo — which, despite the fall of the USSR, has not borne the sought-after fruit of regime change on the island — belongs to Fidel’s graying retiree generation in Florida. 

Failed policy

A slight majority of the United States as a whole considers the embargo a failed policy: 56 percent, according to a February Atlantic Council poll, favors dropping it entirely. For the first time Cuban-Americans agree, as a new FIU Cuba Poll, the longest-running survey of South Florida’s Cuban-American population, shows. Fifty-two percent of respondents, in contrast with 44 percent in 2011, said the U.S. should end the embargo. The only group that disagrees, the numbers reveal, is the oldest age group polled. Where 68 percent of total Cuban-Americans favor re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, numbers drop to 41 percent among respondents 65 and up. In contrast, the two youngest segments, 18–29 and 30–45, support engagement at 88 and 78 percent, respectively. The same trend follows for economic liberalization and freedom of travel: overwhelming support among the young, a slight majority among the 45–65 demographic, skepticism among the over-65.

The Cuban embargo and its boosters mirror the Castro regime: aging, ossified, unwilling to admit errors and resistant to change.

That only a quarter of respondents identified as Democrats proves that support for the Cuban embargo doesn’t split along the lines of left-wing or right-wing. It splits along the lines of age. Older Cuban-Americans, many of whom came to the U.S. in the first waves of moneyed, politically savvy migrants from Castro’s Cuba, hold considerable political and economic clout and control the narrative of American policy on Cuba. And so, as time moves on and the embargo reaps no effect, the policy and its boosters in Congress mirror the Castro regime: aging, ossified, unwilling to admit errors, unable to examine blind spots, resistant to the changing mores of the country behind it and claiming support that’s increasingly difficult to prove. 

That only a quarter of respondents identified as Democrats proves that support for the Cuban embargo doesn’t split along the lines of left-wing or right-wing. It splits along the lines of age. Older Cuban-Americans, many of whom came to the U.S. in the first waves of moneyed, politically savvy migrants from Castro’s Cuba, hold considerable political and economic clout and control the narrative of American policy on Cuba. And so, as time moves on and the embargo reaps no effect, the policy and its boosters in Congress mirror the Castro regime: aging, ossified, unwilling to admit errors, unable to examine blind spots, resistant to the changing mores of the country behind it and claiming support that’s increasingly difficult to prove. 

Forever young?

Change is inevitable. In Cuba, Fidel Castro stopped giving May Day speeches and handed the presidency to his brother, Raúl; the students of two decades ago have aged, moved away, married, divorced, opened businesses under the economic policies of the past five years, bought and sold homes — the inevitable rooting that takes place between 20 and 40. But the students at May Day festivities are always the same age, always fill prominent areas in front of the podium. Speeches contain near-identical rhetoric whether given by Fidel or, these days, Raúl or a union leader.

Similarly, the strategy of American foreign policy shifted enormously between the embargo’s inception in 1960 and today; the Cold War is long over and our country and our elected officials have changed. Even the outlines of the embargo itself have swelled and contracted as its regulations have tightened and loosened under different administrations. The embargo itself does not change, nor does the rhetoric that argues for its necessity. Vocal pro-embargo congressmen refer to popular support that has, as the FIU poll proves, dissipated. Vitriol against Castro blinds them from seeing their constituents clearly. But young Cuban-Americans don’t vote in large numbers, nor do they hold the political influence of the older members of their community. This is why new organizations such as the #CubaNow advocacy group and the Roots of Hope youth organization push for engagement and provide tools with which Cuban-American youth can shift from mere symbolism into a force for change. Because until policy follows popular support, the relationship between our two countries will be defined by the power struggles of a controlling generation resistant to change, more alike on both sides of the Straits of Florida than different. 

Julia Cooke is the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba. Her writing on Cuba has been featured in the New York TimesVirginia Quarterly Review, Condé Nast Traveller, and the Best American Travel Writing 2014 anthology, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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