MIAMI — Cuban Americans, both young and old, many of whom have built their lives in this city a short distance away from the island, share a common wish for a democratic Cuba with free elections, freedom of speech and more human rights protections.
But differences quickly emerge when they describe what they think will be required for the country to get there, and whether President Obama’s historic visit will help or hurt those efforts.
Here in Miami, the half-century of isolationism against Cuba is more than just long-standing U.S. foreign policy. It’s a kind of personal retribution for losses suffered by their families. Whether or not they agree with the approach, many people here had family property seized by the Cuban government after the 1959 revolution. If they weren’t political prisoners themselves, they are the children or grandchildren of people who were, or they are close to someone with that history. And many here follow news from Cuba as closely as they follow the daily weather forecasts. Reports of dissidents being beaten or arrested are part of the regular dialogue.
On Sunday morning, more than 200 protesters took to the streets in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami to march against the president’s trip. They waved Cuban flags and showed support for the Ladies in White, a group of dissidents in Cuba who protest for human rights. Many in Miami held signs displaying the names of people who have reportedly been beaten or imprisoned in Cuba.
Some young Cuban Americans think that it’s time for the United States to try a different approach with Cuba. They support the recent changes announced by the Obama administration that chip away at the strict embargo that has been in place for decades by making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and for Cuban immigrant families to send remittances to relatives back on the island.
For this group, Obama’s visit — the first to Cuba by a U.S. president in nearly 90 years — is monumental.
“It just sets expectations even higher that we are really in a new era,” said Ric Herrero, executive director of #CubaNow, a nonprofit group that supports improving relations between the United States and Cuba and one of 16 Cuban Americans who met with Obama last week to talk about his trip.
But for others in Miami, the president’s visit is viewed as a betrayal, a sign to the Cuban government that it does not need to hold free elections or change its harsh human rights policies in order to do business with the United States.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was born in Havana and immigrated to Miami when she was 8, issued a statement Friday condemning the president’s visit as a move that legitimizes the Castro regime.
“President Obama promised to extend a hand to dictators if they were willing to unclench their fists — that has not happened in Cuba,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Leading up to the president’s trip, pro-democracy leaders have already been detained, arrested, and are even being prevented from leaving their homes.”
After Obama landed in Cuba on Sunday with the first family and a group of U.S. lawmakers, his agenda was to start with some sightseeing, including a tour of Old Havana, and end with a baseball game between the Cuban National Team and the Tampa Bay Rays.
But in addition to meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro, Obama will meet with human rights activists and dissidents and address the Cuban people on Tuesday from the same theater where President Calvin Coolidge spoke during his visit in 1928.
It’s those meetings and that speech that will be watched closely by Cuban Americans in Miami and elsewhere to gauge the effectiveness of the president’s visit.
Tomás Regalado Jr., who left Cuba as a child in 1962, said he never imagined he would live to see a U.S. president visiting Cuba while a Castro was still in power. Regalado (R), the mayor of Miami, said from his office in city hall that in a dream world, Obama would be there to celebrate more concrete changes on the island, such as the introduction of free elections.
“It’s very frustrating because it’s like the United States has moved a mile and Cuba has not moved an inch,” he said.
But Regalado still hopes Obama’s visit can have a positive impact. It will all come down, he says, to what message he sends during his remarks. A lukewarm show of support for dissidents could cause some Cubans to feel trapped and lose hope that there could soon be change on the island.
But a speech that calls for a free Cuba could spread hope.
“I want to see what every U.S. president has done in the past when he goes to a country that has a totalitarian regime: That he uses his bully pulpit to advocate for freedom, for freedom of expression, for human rights,” Regalado said. “That is what the leader of the free world is supposed to do.”
Some of the Cuban Americans who support ending the embargo say the changes the administration has implemented so far have already made a difference in Cuba by helping to support people with small businesses and by encouraging greater communication with relatives in the states.
Obama’s visit could accelerate those efforts and encourage Cubans, particularly young people on the island, to push for change, they say. “He has a way about him of filling others with hope,” said Felice Gorordo, 33, whose parents left the island as children.
Gorordo, co-founder of Roots of Hope, a nonprofit group focused on empowering youth in Cuba, was among the people who met with Obama last week. He said he asked Obama to speak to young Cubans and encourage them to fight for better opportunities in Cuba. “I think he has an incredible narrative to share with young people on the island,” he said.
Still others remain skeptical that the recent changes will do anything to help improve the treatment of Cubans who speak out against the government or protest for greater rights.
Miguel Saavedra, president of Vigilia Mambisa, an organization of Cuban exiles working to improve human rights in Cuba, said that by going to Cuba, Obama is shaking hands with the enemy.
Saavedra, 67, left Cuba as a teenager in 1965 and has no interest in going back until the Castro regime is gone. “Cuba has to have liberty, justice and human rights,” he said in Spanish outside of the Versailles restaurant, a popular meeting spot for Cuban exiles and the location of a protest he is planning for Monday morning against Obama’s visit. “Without it, Cuba will stay exactly how it is.”
Correction: Miami is about 230 miles away from Cuba. This article previously said it was 90 miles away.