Changing the aroma of Cuban-American Politics

By Manuel Barcia

The story of the relationship between the United States and Cuba over the past 40 years can be defined by the economic embargo established by President John F. Kennedy in 1962; an embargo that continues to exist today. Generations of Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and Americans have discussed the efficacy of this unilateral measure. Fifty years later one thing seems to be clear; the embargo has been a monumental failure.

In spite of overwhelming evidence, old-fashioned politics often linked to the ‘historic’ Miami-based Cuban-American community have prevailed. As a result, the Cuban Diaspora in the US has been traditionally represented as a power group strongly linked to right-wing, extremist positions. For a long time, however, this has not been the case, and now a group of Cuban-Americans have stepped into the public arena in an attempt to correct this false impression.

Cuban-Americans for Engagement (CAFE) was formed earlier this year with the purpose of rectifying the course of US-Cuban relations, by lobbying the governments of both countries in search of openings that will allow improvement in their severely damaged relations.

Musician Benjamin Willis, one of its founding members, commented that behind the creation of the group lies “the need to represent the views of the majority of Cuban-Americans who believe that a policy of engagement would better serve both nations”.

For far too long the monopoly of intolerant Cuban-Americans has dictated the agenda when it comes to US policy towards Cuba. In Willis’ words, it is imperative “to deconstruct the mythology associated with the island” so that the public sees this other face of the Cuban-American community.

The term “Engagement” is central to the objectives of CAFE. Arturo López-Levy, another founding member of the group commented: “An engagement policy is the optimal policy towards a country in transition. Cuba is not North Korea in the Caribbean. There is significant democratizing potential for an engagement policy”.

The members of CAFE are well aware that they face an uphill struggle. Convincing either government to change their traditional stances will not be easy. In the case of the US, a Republican victory in the forthcoming presidential elections in November could lead to more prohibitions and obstacles, instead of bringing the desired opening. The need to foster the dialogue between the two governments, independently of who is in charge comes November, remains CAFE’s principal aim.

With this in mind, members of CAFE visited Washington last month with the plan of presenting their project to the US Congress, the State Department, and the Cuban Interests Section in the United States. Wherever they went they were cordially received. According to Benjamin Willis, US congressional functionaries seemed, “genuinely interested in the fact that there are Cuban-Americans who are not in favor of the embargo and don’t agree with the Cuban-American congressional cabal that always argues for a hard-line approach”.

As for the Cuban Government, Willis pointed out that the “officials at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington listened to our concerns and were receptive to the topics”.

To some, the welcome given by Cuban officers in Washington might come as a surprise. The truth is that, on the island, news of CAFE’s engagements and meetings undertaken during their visit to Washington DC was reported in the Cuban press. Even the newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, Granma, dedicated a section to the event.

In reality, as Lopez-Levy correctly argues, “democracy promotion should not be interpreted as regime change. Normal academic, cultural and educational exchanges have democratizing effects on their own merits”. This new strategy may go a long way into achieving some necessary changes in Cuba without losing the free health and education provision that has distinguished Cuba for the past five decades. After all, an uncontrolled economic transition a la-USSR with a fire-sale of public assets may lead to unemployment, lack of education, and to a widening gap between the have and the have nots, which must be avoided by any means.

Obama’s administration should see the creation of CAFE as a sign of the times; as a bold move from the progressive sections of the Cuban-American community to bring both countries closer than they have been for half a century; and as an opportunity to ditch old-fashioned and isolationist policies.

On the other side of the Florida straits, Raul Castro’s government should also take advantage of this opportunity and recognize that in the fast paced world we are living in, it is advisable to implement measured changes while surrounded by friends who have at heart the interests of the Cuban and American people, and not with multi-national corporations calling the shots.

The US administration, the old Cuban-American guard from Miami, and the Cuban government must all be brought up to speed to the present day. The Cold War is long since over, and so are the Eastern and Western blocs. There is no reason to continue this stalemate. Should they all listen, perhaps before long we will see Obama and Castro sitting at the same table and discussing the future of the bilateral relations between these two countries; a relationship with democracy and without embargo.