President Barack Obama’s decision to restore full relations with the government of Cuba sent a tidal wave through South Florida’s body politic, where opposition to the “Castro regime,” like support of the State of Israel, is required of all politicians, regardless of party. This is a personal issue for me, having been born in Havana, migrating with my family to the United States during the first years of the Revolution, growing up in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood and witnessing more than fifty years of Cuban-American politics.
To my parents, who sacrificed so much to rescue their children from Communist rule, the survival of the Castro brothers and their Revolution was an intolerable injustice. My father went to his grave still hoping to return to a free Cuba and my mother, who is still alive, will never forgive “that man” (Fidel Castro) for destroying her life and her country. Most of my parents’ generation of Cuban-Americans, those who shared their sad experience (or worse), doubtlessly agree.
My parents’ generation did not create the Cuban diaspora. Cubans have been coming to the U.S. since the 19th century, escaping Spanish colonial rulers and a succession of corrupt Cuban presidents long before the Revolution of 1959. But it was the generation that left Cuba in the decades after 1959 that made Cuban-Americans a powerful political bloc, especially in Florida. For a while Cuban exiles were pawns in the Cold War, to the extent that a white Cuban family like the Monteagudos became minor celebrities in the small South Carolina town where we settled for a while before finally moving to Miami. Blessed with a combination of (mostly) white privilege and minority status, Cuban exiles took advantage of a favorable economic environment and their own native talents to build lives in Miami similar to those they enjoyed in Cuba, but without Communism. Unlike other Latino immigrants, this first generation of Cuban-Americans became Republicans, because the GOP was more sympathetic to their cause and also because it agreed with them on most economic and social issues. Simpatico politicians like Jeb Bush welcomed Cuban-Americans into the Republican coalition he was leading to victory in Tallahassee; and encouraged ambitious young Cubanos like Senator Marco Rubio. Though Rubio’s parents came to the U.S. before the Revolution, Rubio continues to promote anti-Communism as a major part of his American Dream.
Not all Cubans-Americans agree with Rubio’s violent opposition to the Castro brothers and everything they stand for. As the first generation of post-Revolution exiles dies out, their children and grandchildren seem more willing to accept a change in U.S.-Cuban relations, though most of us of course continue to disapprove of Cuba’s one party, authoritarian government. Even so, Florida’s Republican politicians - and even some Democratic ones, like Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz - continue to mouth anti-Castro slogans. Who can blame them? Florida is a major player in presidential politics, and Cuban-Americans are major players in Florida politics. The Clinton Administration’s handling of the Elian Gonzalez affair might have given the Sunshine State to then-Governor Jeb Bush’s brother, and even last year Charlie Crist’s vocal opposition to the Cuban Embargo might have given more than a few Cuban-American votes to Governor Rick Scott and his Cuban-American running mate, Carlos Lopez-Cantera. Therefore, when President Obama announced his Cuban initiative on December 17, the old warriors who gather at the Versailles Restaurant on Calle Ocho screamed bloody murder, and politicians like Bush and Rubio readily agreed.
President Obama is right. Our frosty relationship with Cuba, and the dreaded Embargo, are relics of the Cold War that need to be overhauled. They benefit nobody except politicians who use it to get votes and money from exiles who, like my parents, wish to return to the “good old days” (which never existed). Whether we like it or not, the Cuban Revolution is here to stay, having survived more than five decades of U.S. attempts to demolish it. We have no problem trading with Communist regimes like those of China and Vietnam. Why should we hold Cuba to a higher standard, just because it is 90 miles away from Key West? Though the GOP Congress will do its best to keep our anti-Cuban policies in place, because they can, most Americans agree with Obama that his initiatives will only benefit the Cuban people and someday, perhaps, make them free.