Taxes, death, and the Cuban embargo. Those have been the guarantees of life for as long as I can remember. Growing up, the hard-line stance of others always precluded fruitful discourse on el bloqueo. To endorse any notion that the blockade should come down, or even to contemplate it hypothetically, was anathema to what a son and grandson of exiles was supposed to believe. Ending the blockade meant validating or enriching Fidel, and signified surrender. Ultimately, it meant losing what became a race against time.
The status quo has been good to the hardliners, yielding a fifty-plus year run of isolationism that, despite failing, was as constant as Fidel himself. It never mattered that our politics boxed a tiny island nation into a time warp, while hypocrisy reigned supreme in our dealings with twice as communist, and twice as dangerous, nations. Rather, what mattered was the principle of outlasting the dictator whose demise eluded us all. Remarkably, that principle had me wondering whether the embargo would outlive me, and I’m only 27.
To any pragmatist, improvement, no matter how minute, should win out against a principle. Theoretically, normalization of relations with Cuba improves the economic circumstances of Cubans, the same innocent souls whose lot in life was to be on the losing end of a stalemate. But that is where outsiders and those without anti-Obama animus depart in their comprehension of just how profound America’s step towards a new beginning was. We are normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. This is a development that anyone connected to Cuba cannot rationally digest.
For younger Cuban-Americans, the pain of our parents and grandparents is at best inherited. We did not navigate the paths they took to leave home. We never left all we knew to travel to a foreign land where the language, culture, and lifestyle were entirely different from what we knew. We weren’t blacklisted from jobs, stripped of our possessions, imprisoned for expressing ourselves, or threatened with death. Instead, we grew up enjoying the fruits of the labor of individuals whose sacrifices ensured our lifelong at-bat for the American Dream. And we grew up only knowing a foreign policy based on the absurdly fast ascension, and assimilation, of an immigrant class into the influential spheres of America.
It is through this lens that the Cuba debate must be analyzed. The old guard clings to a raw wound that cannot, and will not, heal. Even if Fidel Castro were to die tomorrow, concession, albeit after over half a century, has come to fruition. That is what makes this well overdue and largely moderate reform so stunning. An entire generation of exiles is now faced with the reality that the Castro government will outlive them.
In many ways, this change has been coming for years, but that does not allay the almost PTSD that is reverberating throughout parts of Miami. American public opinion shifted its stance on US-Cuba policy shortly after Elian Gonzalez, while many second and third generation Cuban-Americans viewed the Cold War politics of our family matriarchs and patriarchs as just that: Cold War politics. This says nothing of the recent émigrés from the island, whose condemnation of the embargo is second only to those left on the island. Thus, when the news broke that diplomatic relations would be normalized, the dichotomy of Cuba, long exemplified by a generation gap, was finally exposed for everyone to see.
Yes, the thaw in relations is a surprise, both ideologically and because the news was inconceivably kept under wraps for months, but it does not change the binary thinking about Cuba. Simply, you are either pro-embargo or pro-normalization of relations. You can’t be both, and there is no middle ground. Certainly, if this helps the Cuban people, it is hard to argue against the new trail that is being blazed. If it proves the naysayers right and the Cuban government lines its pockets at the expense of its citizenry, then the policy will have failed. Nevertheless, what everyone can agree on is that the sanctions imposed were based on a principle (anti-communism) which over time morphed into another principle (revolution does not justify the expulsion of the haves). And while these principles were laudable to the majority, they never achieved what they were supposed to: democratic reform, and the death of Castro.
Over time, the principles of a growing, younger generation grappled with those of our community elders. Was the borrowed pain and political leanings of our families worth a life of little to no opportunity for those left on the island? For me, it never was, especially after traveling there. One can’t help but see what is without a doubt a third world country and question whether a new strategy is needed. And frankly, when you start moving toward decade number six of not getting what you want, amending one’s stance to reflect the quest for humans to better themselves is not unreasonable.
While I respect the true hardliners, the ones who never went back and pledged never to do so until their terms were met, I don’t agree with them. Of that constituency, I cannot and will not support those who tried to suppress opposing views, the same type of speech infringement seen in Cuba. Yet I am mindful of their pain. Cuba is not a rational topic of discussion, not for the exiles and their descendants. It is emotional and political, and leaves little room for change that is rational and somewhat apolitical. It’s a topic of discussion that has come up passionately at every domino table since 1962, and one that will remain hotly contested until the despotic figurehead of the debate is no longer here. That much won’t change in spite of new foreign policy. Instead, it will be about our principles, to the very end.