MIAMI — For so long, many of the exiles believed they would go back to Cuba in battle gear. They would vanquish Fidel Castro by any means necessary. “Next year in Cuba!” they would say when making a toast. Some trained in the Florida Everglades for the invasion that would surely liberate their homeland from the communists.
“Unfortunately, those who trained in the ’70s and ’80s for an invasion, now they have to use a walker,” says Tomás Regalado Jr.
He is the mayor of Miami and 67 years old, one of the many Cuban Americans for whom Castro’s revolution has been a multi-generational existential crisis.
Regalado last saw Cuba when he was a boy, in 1962. He was put on a plane to Miami, supposedly a temporary measure while his parents stayed to fight Castro. His father, a journalist, spent two decades as a political prisoner. Father and son reunited in 1980 when Tomás Jr. was already a grown man with a wife and children. The mayor says he would go back to the island only if the country became fully free and democratic, and he doubts that that will happen in his lifetime.
Yet no one really knows anything for sure now. So much changed at midday Wednesday, when President Obama stunned Miami’s Cuban Americans by announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Suddenly “Next year in Cuba” isn’t as implausible as it was a week ago.
The exile generation is not about to forgive the actions of the Castro regime, now led by Fidel’s younger brother Raúl. Disputes over private property continue; many exiles were elites on the island and have filed legal claims over property seized by the communists.
Many older exiles view Obama’s actions as an appeasement and believe recognition of the Castro government will tighten the communist grip on an oppressed populace. A coalition of exile groups organized a protest march Saturday in Miami’s Little Havana.
“Horrible. Horrible. What he did was repulsive,” Ana María Lamar, 70, who left Cuba in 1970, said the day after Obama’s announcement. “Obama said Castro was no longer a terrorist. Come on!”
Miami has evolved, though, and the most prominent exile organization, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), conspicuously greeted Obama’s announcement with mild expressions of concern but no condemnation.
“It’s been gut-wrenching. It has reopened wounds in this community,” said Jorge Mas, the chairman of CANF. But then he pointed out the window of his 12th-floor office, which looks straight down SW 8th Street — Calle Ocho — to the Versailles restaurant, a landmark gathering place for Cuban exiles.
“Look at the reaction two days ago — 20 people there, protesting,” he said. “Hialeah, there were celebrations. Our community has changed. I never say it is divided. It has just changed. There are 15 to 20,000 people arriving every year who have a different life experience than my parents’ generation.”
People are calling him up, dismayed, furious, heartbroken by the diplomatic thaw. He tries to calm them. He agrees that the diplomatic move gives Raúl Castro a stature he does not deserve, but he sees positive elements in the change in policy. For example, changes in telecommunications policies will give Cubans on the island greater access to the Internet.
“Our tactics have to change, but the endgame doesn’t change,” Mas said. “Ultimately, what I tell all of them is that we will prevail. We will soon be witnessing a free and democratic Cuba. Ultimately, freedom prevails over oppression.”
Mas is 51 and U.S.-born. His father was Jorge Mas Canosa, a co-founder and the chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation, and a man who under certain circumstances might have returned to the island as president of a post-Castro Cuba.
The elder Mas died in 1997. It was around 1995 or 1996 that he realized that there would not be a sudden collapse of the Castro government, his son said.
Co-founder and president of CANF Francisco “Pepe” Hernández, 78, remembers traveling to Moscow with Mas Canosa in December 1991, after the communist bloc had disintegrated. Leaders of the new Russian Federation were eager to meet with the anti-Castro exiles, and they told Hernández and Mas Canosa, “Cuba is going to be next.”
But Cuba wasn’t next. Despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union as his patron, and despite the continued U.S. embargo, Fidel Castro hung on to power. In 2006, ailing, he passed control of the government to his brother Raúl.
Hernández, like Regalado the mayor, doesn’t expect to go back to Cuba unless the Castros are completely gone. And the Cuban government certainly would not welcome him under the current regime: He said he’s considered a terrorist because of his decades of anti-Castro activism.
Hernández is a veteran of the ill-fated 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and he served time in Cuban prisons before going into exile. He said he was once told that if he stepped off a plane in Cuba, he would be shot at the airport.
The rapprochement between the United States and Cuba caught him by surprise.
“Fidel Castro must be dead, in a coma or completely absent from reality,” Hernández said.
The diplomatic moves by the two countries signal that the transition in Cuba will be conventional and peaceful, said José Gabilondo, a law professor at Florida International University and an expert on Cuba. And there is no going back to the way things were before, he said: “You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
There are hard-liners who will never soften their stance. Frank de Varona is one of them. He calls Obama’s actions “a travesty.”
Not even out of his teens, de Varona was captured in the Bay of Pigs invasion. He remembers the day that the legendary revolutionary Che Guevara toured the prison. He quizzed de Varona about the property of his father, which had been seized by the government. How many acres did he own? The youth told him his father had owned 3,300 acres.
“He stole it from the sweat of the peasants,” Guevara said.
More than half a century later, standing outside the Versailles restaurant, de Varona said, “You see how fat I am? I came out of Cuba weighing 120 pounds.”
The older generation recognizes that for younger Cuban Americans, the Bay of Pigs operation is something from the distant past, like Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill.
“A lot of the young people don’t know any better. They haven’t gone through what we went through,” said Pedro Bello Jr., 57, who has a cigar shop on Calle Ocho. His 85-year-old father, Pedro Sr., spent two decades in Castro’s prisons and now often can be seen sitting out front with a cigar.
Would the younger Bello, who came to the United States in 1970, go back to Cuba, now that tensions are easing?
“Why would anyone want to go back?” he said. “You want to keep moving forward.”
Miami has always been a city of the future, perpetually under construction. Mayor Regalado’s office in the old Miami City Hall — originally it was the Pan American Airways seaplane terminal — has a long line of windows facing north, and in the distance, past the yachts and sailboats, he can see the city’s booming downtown. He said the city has billions of dollars in construction projects underway.
He remembers a different era, when Miami was a temporary refuge for the exiles. They would arrive in the city and keep their luggage packed, tucked in closets, ready for the trip back home.
Surely Castro wouldn’t last, they thought. And then the years passed. The exiles built new lives in Miami. They raised their children and became prosperous in business, and when their grandchildren came along, they spoke to them in Spanish so that they would know the tongue of their elders.
Regalado says the transition to a free Cuba will come with time, inexorably, as young people take power on the island. Fidel Castro will die, and so will his brother and the old generals of the revolution, the mayor said. And so will the old exiles, he said.
“The way to have a new Cuba is biological,” he said. “At least two or three generations have to disappear before everything is forgotten. Until nobody cares what happened in Cuba.”