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U.S., Cuba embark on a new future

U.S., Cuba embark on a new future
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD MWHITEFIELD@MIAMIHERALD.COM
01/17/2015 7:00 AM 01/17/2015 11:39 PM

Ripples of change are sweeping over Cuba and Miami as delegations from
Washington and Havana meet in the Cuban capital this week to begin
discussing a new relationship for two countries that have been hostile
neighbors for half a century.

In the South Florida exile community many are still struggling to come
to terms with the new reality that the United States and Cuba will have
diplomatic relations and soon an American flag will fly over a U.S.
Embassy in Havana.

For some, there’s almost a sense of vertigo, of disequilibrium because
they never thought a move toward normalizing the troubled relationship
would come with a Castro still in power and the Communist Party holding
sway. The dream of returning triumphant to Cuba before relations were
renewed dies hard.

Others embrace the policy shift, agreeing with President Barack Obama
that engagement is the way to influence democratic reform on the island
and better support the Cuban people.

“This really upset the apple cart,” said lawyer Pedro Freyre, who has
long been involved in Cuba-related matters. “Miami Cubans will need to
rethink a lot of things. That whole narrative about Cuba as the
forbidden land or the dark side of the moon has been turned on its head.
I think a growth industry in this community will be psychiatry.”

Things got very different very fast on Dec. 17 when Obama and leader
Raúl Castro unveiled their new relationship. Even though the embargo is
still in place, Obama announced openings on trade and American travel to
the island, and Castro offered to free 53 political prisoners whose
names the United States had given to Havana over the summer.

For the past month, Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits have
been trying to sort out what it all means.

In South Florida, there’s no monolithic opinion about the new policy.

A flash poll done just after the president’s announcement by Bendixen &
Amandi International of 400 Cuban-Americans living in the United States
showed they were almost evenly split on normalization of relations with
Cuba with a slight edge going to those against the policy. Only 35
percent of Cuban-Americans living in Florida, however, agreed with the
policy change.

The poll conducted for the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and the Tampa
Bay Times also showed a split in the Cuban-American community with
younger Cubans and those who came to the United States after the 1980
Mariel boatlift much more supportive.

Even within many Cuban-American families, it is a divisive issue.

During a Christmas Day gathering at the home of one large Cuban-American
family, for example, the older brother, a Bay of Pigs veteran, was
unleashing vitriol against Obama in the kitchen and his younger brother
was holding forth in the yard, answering the questions of nieces and
nephews and cousins about going to Cuba and what the changes might mean,
according to a family member who asked not to be identified.

There’s increased curiosity among Cubans on the island, too.

“Everybody loves their own country. Do we want to travel? Yes. I would
love to go to that Mango[’s] disco in Miami [Beach], but I would always
want to come home,” said Lazaro Lopez, who makes wicker furniture in his
own shop in Havana. He said better U.S.-Cuba relations are long overdue
and that he would love to export his chairs and tables to the United States.

Under new U.S. guidelines released last week, goods produced by private
Cuban entrepreneurs can now be imported into the United States.
Commercial exports from the U.S. to help Cubans develop small businesses
and repair and build homes also are allowed.

But during an appearance in Miami on Friday, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio
scoffed at the idea that increased trade might create an opening in
Cuban society.

“The history of economic openings leading to political change is not
very good,” he said. “And as we’ve seen in China, Vietnam, Burma — there
is no modern example of a country that’s changed democratically because
of an economic opening with the United States as long as that tyranny is
reluctant. And the Cuban tyranny is reluctant.”

A new nationwide Pew Research poll showed that while 63 percent of
Americans approved of the decision to reestablish ties with Cuba, only
about one-third thought it would lead to greater democracy on the island.

Raúl Moas, executive director of Roots of Hope, which connects young
people in Cuba with their counterparts abroad through technology, is
looking forward to changes that would allow unlimited humanitarian
remittances to be sent to the island and U.S. companies to export
consumer communications devices and participate in the upgrade of Cuban
telecom systems.

In many ways, those provisions dovetail with the work Roots of Hope is
already doing, he said. Under its Tech for Cuba program, it sends
donated cell phones — new, used and broken, USBs, laptops and tablets to
the island.

“We’re hopeful that under the Obama plan that the new spaces created
will help us increase our impact,” he said. “What we hear all the time
from young Cubans on the ground is that they want to join the 21st century.”

With the new guidelines “it’s more likely U.S. companies might feel more
confident going into Cuba,” Moas said. “But I also don’t think the Cuban
government will be rolling out the red carpet.”

“Our hope is the changes will result in Cubans more freely exercising
their rights and rebuilding civil society,” he said.

In 1981, when Jorge Mas Canosa and Pepe Hernández, an anti-Castro leader
and veteran of the Bay of Pigs, founded the Cuban American National
Foundation, they thought exiles would be the protagonists of change in Cuba.

But now, more than 30 years later, Hernández has changed his point of
view. Those in Cuba are the ones who will bring about change, he said.
“We are here to help.”

Still, Hernández, the CANF president, feels frustrated that the
Cuban-American community was cut out of the formulation of Obama’s new
Cuba policy.

“That was a huge mistake because the Cuban-American community is a
resource,” Hernández said. “But we aren’t going to complain about how
this was done — because it’s done. Our mission is the same, but we think
with the new policy, we’ll have more opportunities to support civil
society in Cuba.”

Carlos Saladrigas, a prominent Cuban-American businessman, wants to give
the new policy a chance. “We have opened the door to change,” he said.
“This is how it begins, like a snowball going down a hill. All you have
to do is start in a small way.”

He, for example, has contributed to a Cuban Catholic Church program
called Cuba Emprende, which provides business training for budding
entrepreneurs. Despite obstacles, he said, so far 2,200 Cubans have been
trained in Havana and Camagüey and soon the program will start in
Cienfuegos.

“Engaging is the way to go,” Saladrigas concluded. “We’ve been waiting
for 55 years for the old policy to work and it hasn’t. Now, it’s time
for change and to take a risk. Of course, this new policy will take time
to produce.”

But Rubio doesn’t want to give it any time and is trying to roll back
the normalization policies. “Are the changes they’re making legal in
light of existing law? We believe that a lot of them really skirt the
law,” Rubio said in Miami.

From the floor of the House of Representatives, Florida Republican Rep.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also delivered a plea for her fellow lawmakers to
“do everything we can to prevent these disastrous policies to go into
effect.” Cuba, she said, is still “an avowed enemy of the United States.”

But Andy Gomez, a Cuba adviser to the Washington law firm Poblete
Tamargo, said things are different now than they were before Dec. 17.
“Members of our congressional delegation are in front of a big losing
proposition,” he said.

Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program for the Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington, suggests the
Cuban-American delegation might have to moderate its stance somewhat.
“They have to be careful,” he said. “The North of this argument has
shifted.”

Their point of view has been the dominant voice on Cuba for decades,
Meacham said, but now there is another point of view that has emerged
among those who want to see change in Cuba.

Lawmakers from the farm states, “the bread basket of the United States
really, really want a commercial relationship with Cuba,” said Meacham,
who was formerly the senior Republican staff member on the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee. This month, they joined more than 25 food
and agricultural companies and federations to form the U.S. Agriculture
Coalition for Cuba whose aim to is to lift the embargo.

Going forward, Meacham said, the Cuban-American delegation “may have to
become more inclusive in their views.”

Asked to respond, Ros-Lehtinen said: “My position on Cuba has always
been based on respect for human rights, release of all political
prisoners, and free, fair, transparent and multi-party elections. The
new concessions by the White House do not help the people of Cuba and we
must hold accountable the murderous Castro regime and speak up for those
yearning for democracy and freedom on the island.”

Ninoska Pérez, an outspoken talk show host on Radio Mambí, said the new
reality hasn’t altered her views in the least. The president’s policy
isn’t about change, she said. “Where is the benefit to the Cuban people?”

It’s “extremely naive,” Pérez said, to think that engagement will lead
to meaningful change in Cuba. “I don’t see how Americans with their
mojitos in hand and their Hawaiian shirts will bring about change,” she
said. “It does nothing but bail out the regime.”

But 59-year-old Nancy Lopez, a self-employed upholsterer in the
Jaimanitas neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, is eager for the
Americans. On a recent weekday, she was fixing up her ocean-side home
with the hopes of either turning it into a hostel or selling it.

“I would love to stand here on my porch and be able to wave hello to
American tourists going by in a boat,” she said. “We have to have faith
that Obama and our president can meet and work things out. Some day
something good has to come out of all of this.”

But in Miami, Pérez said the people who call her Spanish-language radio
show have been “surprised, outraged” by the policy change. She admits
having trouble adjusting to it herself. “It’s so unreal,’’ she said.

So how will change come to Cuba? “Change will only come when the Castros
are not there, when that system that has prevailed for so many years is
gone,” she said.

“Some people still want to extract revenge and some people also feel
betrayed,” said Carlos Sanguinetty, an economist who worked in economic
planning in Cuba until 1966 when he fled to the United States.

Cuban-Americans, he said, are still grappling with what to do about the
new situation.

The prospect of U.S-Cuba diplomatic ties is especially tough for many
exiles who lost family members, were jailed or saw their livelihoods and
properties disappear during the revolution.

But Sanguinetty said, “The community isn’t well-organized in terms of a
game plan. Many are spectators waiting for the best to happen.”

Although he said the White House didn’t get a good enough deal in its
negotiations with Cuba, on the positive side “it’s a game changer that
got us out of the stagnation we’ve been in for decades.”

Now the important things, Sanguinetty said, are rebuilding Cuban
institutions and recovering “from the total collapse of Cuban civil
society over the past 50 years.”

Inside Cuba, some have already pushed the envelope to see if a new
relationship with the United States might bring about more tolerance.

In the last days of December, Tania Bruguera, a Cuban installation and
performance artist who lives and works mostly in the United States and
Europe, returned to her homeland to stage a performance about free
speech in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

Cuban authorities prevented it from happening and she was arrested and
released and then detained two more times. Her passport has been
confiscated.

And some of the newly released 53 political prisoners wasted no time in
lifting their voices. A week ago Sunday, they marched with the dissident
Ladies in White to Gandhi Park where they waved pink gladioli and
shouted, “Libertad, libertad, libertad!”

In a Twitter post, Hablemos Press reported that two of the newly
released prisoners had been rearrested last week.

Obama has said the United States intends to “continue to press on issues
of democracy and human rights.” An important test will come in April
when Obama and Castro attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama. The
administration has said that it plans to highlight human rights.

Still, the Foundation’s Hernández said he isn’t expecting too much from
the Cuban government “unless it is pushed to respect human rights and
give more space to civil society.”

“The question now,” Meacham said, “is whether engagement will be a more
effective tool to deal with repression.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Jim Wyss contributed to this report.

Source: U.S., Cuba embark on a new future | The Miami Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article7265873.html

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