President Obama just delivered a speech in Havana, Cuba on the same stage as Raul Castro. At first sight, this seems like some sort of chemical-induced hallucination or the beginning of a humorous political jab in Miami Cuban Spanglish. It takes a moment for my brain to assimilate the images of Obama in Cuba on my television, and to register that they are indeed real.
Long buried feelings bubble up when we see the images of an American president in our former native land. As Obama said during his speech in Cuba, for Cuban Americans,“this is a moment filled with great emotion.”
As a Native Miamian, I’ve spent a lifetime being immediately tagged as obviously Cuban by other Spanish speakers. Nevertheless, I’ve never been to my mother’s homeland. The complexity of politics on both sides of the Florida Straits means that we’ve been more apt to take family trips to faraway foreign lands than to the country that forms an integral part of our identity.
Needless to say, Obama’s trip to Cuba is going to touch some nerves. If Cuba and America were in a relationship on Facebook, it would be labeled “It’s Complicated.” Obama’s visit is the beginning of a long journey toward normalization between our two neighboring countries. As Raul Castro said in his speech today, “there are profound differences between our countries that will not disappear.” Obama’s visit does not mean Cuba is now a democratic and free-market Western country, as Cuba remains a committed Communist nation.
On our end, the economic embargo is also still largely intact, and will have to be repealed by Congress. The US military base in Guantanamo is still a major sticking point for the Cuban government. Human rights are still a major issue, and will dissuade many in America from backing normalization. For the foreseeable future, the ability to conduct business and travel freely will remain somewhat restricted.
The major reason behind normalization are the mutual economic benefits that both countries stand to gain, which will hopefully nudge Cuba toward major reforms. The reality is that Cuba is a country that’s in very bad shape economically. Most people earn around $20 dollars a month and don’t have the means to enjoy what would be considered extremely basic necessities in most middle income countries. Tourism is now the bread and butter of the economy, and many observers are hoping that a fresh infusion of capital will usher in significant societal changes.
There are few topics that are as delicate as Cuba in South Florida. Havana-in-exile is very staunch about promoting freedom in our former homeland. To many Cubans stateside, this sudden rapprochement with Cuba is heresy. On the eve of Obama’s visit, the Cuban government rounded people up for protesting. Many Cuban-Americans, including the Lieutenant Governor of Florida, marched in protest of Obama’s visit in Miami.
In some ways, Obama’s visit isn’t too surprising. Slowly but surely, the normalization movement has been gaining steam. For decades, traveling to Cuba has always been a major faux pas in Miami political circles. Today, there’s a shocking amount of dissension within the Cuban community. The highest ranking Cuban in American politics, former Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez has been the face of restoring relations with Cuba for over a year.
Secretary Gutierrez is a well-respected, reasonable Republican who’s insisting that revamping our relationship with Cuba will help the Cuban people. Gutierrez isn’t alone, as other prominent people in the community have been caving for years. Sidelining their hardliner stances, many influential Cuban-Americans have extended the proverbial olive branch to their homeland.
Amidst the excitement over renewed relations, Cubans who still live in Cuba are pressing the panic button because they’re worried that they won’t be able to immigrate legally to the United States. If the Cuban Adjustment Act is repealed, Cubans will lose ability to gain legal status upon touching American soil. It’s intensely strange that while Americans want to flock to Cuba, real life Cubans are getting out of their own country as fast as they can, risking their lives in the process.
Thousands of Cubans are rushing to exit the island, and it’s becoming harder to ignore the scale of such a mass emigration. As a casual tourist, several incidents in recent years have led me confront the brutal reality of the Cuban refugee crisis. On a national park tour in the Florida Keys, we picked up a group of Cubans that had just landed. In Cancun, a makeshift Cuban refugee raft washed up on the beach where we were staying.
Just a few days ago, as Havana prepared for the first visit by an American president in nine decades, a group of Cuban refugees were intercepted by a cruise ship, the Brilliance of the Seas. An early morning sighting led to the rescue of 18 refugees, who told of the horrors of the other nine people in their group that perished on the high seas. My entire Cuban-American family was on the ship and called me to tell me the story when they pulled into port. Cuban refugees will continue to flood American shores, while Americans flood the streets of Havana armed with much needed US Dollars.
The US-Cuba relationship will remain insanely complicated for years to come and will continue to dominate the news cycle. Obama’s visit will be celebrated and vilified, and Cuban-Americans will remain in the cross hairs of our evolving diplomatic relationship.
David is the Editor of Bold. He's especially passionate about millennial economic empowerment. A former local news reporter, David is originally from the Little Havana area in Miami, and later became a pioneer resident of the Disney-inspired town of Celebration, Florida. David holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.