Last week, I had the incredible opportunity of joining the Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) on a trip to Washington DC where we met with congress people from around the nation in an effort to educate them on the need to engage with the island nation on key issues such as Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, the expansion of people to people travel, and the issue of Alan Gross and the Cuban 5.
I am a Cuban-American who was born in Cotorro, in the outskirts of Havana, and came to the U.S when I was six years old. I grew up amidst the hard line rhetoric of the Miami exile community, the deafening sound of anti-Castro fanfare, and the hysteria of pro-embargo legislation; an evidently counterproductive policy that has failed to topple the Cuban government and instead harms the average Cuban citizen. I never understood why that wasn’t obvious. That is of course until it became increasingly clear that the fuel that fed the fire of these hardliners was a contagious, calcified disdain for the government of Cuba, not love or respect for the Cuban people or the average US citizen. Last March I set out to find a group with a genuine desire to fix severed ties, with a clear understanding of contemporary Cuba, and a deep respect for the citizens on either shore. I found these qualities in CAFE.
As a new member, I had no idea what to expect. In retrospect, I can’t imagine a better experience than the one I had. CAFE is a group that advocates for an end to the isolation policies in place by the US toward Cuba for the last fifty years. It is a wonderful group of volunteers of all ages, who come from all walks of like, represent a full spectrum of political inclinations, stem from all ethnic and national backgrounds, and are driven by their desire to see change in US-Cuba policy.
CAFE’s mission is pragmatic, their reasons logical (a hard combination to find when the topic of conversation is Cuba), and their passion is fueled by love and respect for both the people of Cuba and United States. At the heart of their message is the need for dialogue, to sit down at the table and proactively solve the many issues that have torn a rift between our nations, issues that are becoming less and less relevant as the island continues to surprise the world with their changing socio-political and economic climate. To this end, we met with not only our representatives on Capitol Hill, but also the Cuban Interest Section and the European Union’s headquarters.
One of the most rewarding aspect of this trip was the opportunity to make new friends with genuinely interesting people. The diversity in the group and the generational spread among members makes for a rich amalgam of personal perspectives and histories. There was Alice, from Seattle, Washington, who grew up in Germany and traveled through Europe before settling down in the states. She manages a Latin dance group and takes her members to Cuba to meet their counterparts through the People to People program. There’s Paul, a charismatic, outspoken Texan who has traveled to Cuba countless times working with the Catholic Church, and is being treated for Alzheimer’s on the island. And then of course there’s Jeff, an entrepreneur with a vast social conscience, who heads a non-profit “organopónico,” a Cuban inspired, community-centered farm that provides the poorest members of the community with fresh, affordable, organic produce. The list goes on and on, from businessmen who are taking advantage of trade with the island, to individuals who recently immigrated to the US from Cuba and want to personally attest to the positive changes they see and the need to promote them.
The truth is that for most representatives on the hill, Cuba is not a priority. Very few Cuban-Americans or Americans in general meet with their representatives to discuss their perspectives. As a result, the anachronistic, tired rhetoric of the hardliners who support the embargo, Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and restrictions on travel for American citizens, continues to dictate congressional decision-making. If there’s one thing I learned from this trip is that changing hardline political perspectives will require a loud moderate voice.
The generational trends we are seeing on either side of the Florida straits point to a different logic: we are all tired of dragging out the failed policies of the 1960’s. Both Cubans and Americans are looking for reconciliation, to find common ground and move forward with what we agree on, and work on finding compromises on the things we still don’t see eye to eye on. Most of all, we’re tired to simplifying a country and a people to the government that represents it. It’s time that our policies reflect our concern and respect for the people of Cuba, not our disagreement with its government.
Cuba is not a threat to the U.S. but a country in transition just ninety miles away from our shores. If I could transmit just one point is the need to act. National and state polls show that those who thirst for reconciliation, pragmatic policy-making founded on the Cuba of today, and an end to the alienating doctrines championed by a handful of representatives, comprise the definitive majority. The people of Florida, the hub of the Cuban community in the US are not being represented by their congressmen/women on the issue of Cuba and it’s time we speak up. Writing to your representative, knocking on their doors and bringing up the issue of Cuba as often as possible was a driving point from our meetings in Washington. Whether you are Cuban born, descendent, or just fascinated by the subject, speak up. It’s about time we bring the Cold War to an end.