Cubans in Miami torn on eased U.S. relations

Jeannie Regidor
Miami, Fla.

Cuba’s troubled relationship with the United States has been playing out like a bad movie for a long time. It’s been 55 years since 1960, the year America placed a trade embargo on the island, and 56 years since 1961, the year all diplomatic relations ended. Now the plot of the movie has taken a dramatic turn, with President Obama’s July 1 announcement that the U.S. and Cuba are restoring relations with each other. In the wake of the announcement, the Cuban immigrant community in Miami is torn about whether to celebrate — and with good reason, because there are strong arguments on both sides.

Miami’s Cuban community is made up largely of those who have fled the Castro regime over the decades. The regime left many people in poverty, except the very elite, and imprisoned anyone who opposed it.

According to CNN, at the height of Cuban migration to the U.S. in 1980, 124,000 Cuban migrants entered the country. This number does not include all the Cubans who tried to make the dangerous 90-mile journey — only those who touched land. Many were intercepted by the coast guard and sent back, while others died at sea from drowning, dehydration, starvation, hallucination, or shark attacks.

The migration rate is no longer as high as it was in 1980, but it is not insubstantial. Recently, The New York Times reported that 25,000 Cubans arrived by land and sea between September 2013 and September 2014. This is double the rate reported two years ago. “I came because there’s nothing to do in Cuba,” says Yohan Almeida, a 17-year-old Cuban immigrant who arrived in November 2014. (Almeida was one of seven people — friends and others, all Cuban-born immigrants — who I spoke to recently about the end of the embargo.) “It’s really bad over there. The U.S. is giving me more opportunities.”

My conversations with immigrants revealed a range of arguments and opinions about the opening of relations with Cuba. “I think it’s great and it’s a step forward to taking out communism from Cuba to make it more democratic,” said 17-year-old Willian Rodriguez.

Heilin Suarez, 17, agreed. “I think it’s good. I think it’s been a really long time and the old system wasn’t really working,” she said.

Massy Infante, 20, was a bit more bit more conflicted in her assessment of the deal, but still argued that there would be benefits. “I think it’s gonna make an improvement in the general economy because of more tourism and more jobs and more opportunities for the Cuban people,” she said.

Indeed, among the four young immigrants I spoke to, opinions tended to be supportive of the new policies, including lifting the embargo and allowing tourism. Meanwhile, sentiment among three older Cuban immigrants I spoke to was more mixed. “I don’t think the U.S. should have relations with Cuba. The only thing Cuba is doing is utilizing America,” Bermaida Fajardo, 60, told me.

“The money that’s gonna be coming in won’t help the people,” Maruja Gonzalez, 42, said. Though she has complicated feelings about the deal, she suggested that the government could levy high taxes to prevent business owners from profiting. And she argued that the new policy may affect areas such as Havana, Cuba’s capital, and the coast, but wouldn’t really have any effect on the “smaller towns that are really in poverty.”

One older immigrant who I spoke to was, however, enthusiastic about the new policies. Leovel Diaz, 63, said, “The Castro regime has tricked the Cuban people, and once they see the lies it will open their eyes.” Allowing more tourists to come to the island and reopening the U.S embassy in Cuba, he said, might cause the perspective of Cubans to change. As of now, the film is still far from reaching its end.

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