2012 is shaping up to be a watershed year in Miami’s Cuban exile community, though its hard to tell if you’re not paying attention. Connect a few dots and it’s safe to conclude that this is the year Cuban-Americans all but officially left the hardliners behind. First, let’s get a couple things out of the way. All Cuban-American congressmen and woman maintain a hardline position toward Cuba and most are all but guaranteed to be reelected (even though their reelections have little to do with their positions on Cuba). Also, they’re still doing a decent job at keeping the embargo intact. This is all well and good, but several times this year they’ve had the opportunity to flex their civic muscles and show the world our community is UNITED behind their intransigent stance (!)…and every time they came up limp. I’d say these guys are losing ground faster than the Arctic Shelf. This has been a slow growth trend - el exilio esta cambiando, pero no lo apures - yet the change has never been more palpable than it is today. Let’s look beyond what the politicians will have us believe, and take a look at scenes from the real world over the past 6 months:
- MARCH: Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba. The Cuban exile community’s reaction to the Pope’s visit was tepid, certainly in comparison to its outcry against Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998. That year, more than 10,000 people, including many prominent business and civic leaders, held a protest rally in Little Havana, forcing the Church to cancel its plan to send a cruise ship to Cuba carrying pilgrims from Miami. This year, no such protest materialized. Instead, approximately 800 Cuban-American exiles, including many of the same business and civic leaders, made the pilgrimage themselves and even participated in a mass at Havana Cathedral held by Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski. While many exiles had mixed feelings about the Pope’s visit, most were supportive. There were some ramblings against the trip on AM radio, assorted local TV stations, and a poorly written email chain forwarded to me by my father-in-law, but these efforts had zero impact. I can barely even remember them. For those who like to keep score – Religious interests: 1. Cuban families: 1. Hardliners: 0.
- APRIL: Ozzie Guillen’s death wish. When new Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen famously blurted “I love Fidel Castro!” to Time magazine, everyone in America (including me) braced themselves for an epic shitshow in Little Havana. Surely, we would not be satiated until Ozzie’s head hung from a spike at the county limits like an episode of Game of Thrones. Pack the kids, we’re going to Versailles. Esto es Elian and the 2000 election all over again! Instead what did we get? A quaint 30 person protest outside of Marlins Stadium, a laughable 5-game suspension for Ozzie, and a home crowd happy to put the episode behind them by the time he returned to the dugout. To be sure, todos nos cagamos en la madre de Ozzie esa semana, but we did so on facebook, or over a beer with our buddies. Save for a couple of politicians (election year!) calling for “decisive steps“, the community did not respond with “great vengeance and furious anger”, as our grandparents surely would have back in the day. In fact (and this surprised everyone) some of the usual suspects, from sprightly radio-jock-slash-freedom-fighter Armando Perez-Roura, to Babaluser Henry Gomez went as far as to make excuses for Ozzie and quickly forgive him for the sake of – get this - baseball. I’m sure Radio Mambi’s contract with the Marlins influenced Perez-Roura’s appeasement, as much as Mr. Gomez’s support for the Marlins stadium deal had something to do with his own. Business interests: 1. Hardliners: 0.
- MAY: Odebrecht, Rick Scott and anti-Cuba trade law. Not even a month after Ozzie, an unprecedented papelazo left several prominent Cuban American legislators (and more than a few opportunists) wiping away a mixture of egg and tears of rage from their faces, while the rest of us shook our heads and laughed. The occassion was the signing by Gov. Rick Scott of a “controversial law” (meaning unconstitutional and anathema to all economic, legal, and common sense) banning local Florida governments from doing business with companies that also operate in Cuba. The main target was Odebrecht, the Brazilian infrastructure giant tasked with drilling a tunnel to the Port of Miami. The stage was set in front of the Freedom Tower, all the Cuban American luminaires were there mugging for the cameras, press releases had been sent and AM hosts were declaring for the nth time that “ahora sí se cae aquello“. It was all pro-forma theater until Governor Scott, ensconced in the private plane flying him back to Tallahassee, issued a signing statement stating the law he had just signed would not be enforced because it conflicted with federal law. Pandemonium ensued. Politicians cried foul, AM hosts railed against Scott as if he was the second coming of JFK, and David Rivera rushed to the nearest available microphone to declare his intent to sue the state of Florida. (Even Babalu’s main honcho issued a starkly hysterical open letter). Meanwhile, back in the real world, Miami-Dade’s county attorney advised the county government not to follow the newly passed law, and Oderbrecht –represented by no other than Cuban American dynamo, and Jeb Bush-appointed former Florida Supreme Court Justice, Raoul Cantero– won an injunction against the law in federal court. Business interests: 2. US Constitution: 1. Hardliners: 0.
- JUNE: Nothing happened. We were all too busy sipping mojitos and jammin‘ to Pitbull out in the Keys to concern ourselves with the troubles of the modern world. Dale!
- JULY: Cargo Service between Havana and Miami resumes after 50 years. And not a peep from the community. Apparently everyone was still in the Keys (or no one cares). Ileana Ros-Lehtinen reacts by sending a letter to OFAC asking that the cargo company be investigated to see whether it is in compliance with U.S. law. That’s it. A letter. After dropping off its first shipment of humanitarian goods in Havana harbor, the Ana Cecilia returned to Miami and is now making weekly trips to deliver more supplies. Business interests: 3. Cuban families: 2. Hardliners: 0.
- AUGUST: Paul Ryan for VP. The congressman voted repeatedly against the embargo and travel and remittance restrictions from 2001 to 2005. He even argued that the ”more we have a free exchange of people and ideas and customs, the more the people of Cuba will be exposed to the values of freedom and liberty.” Yet everyone from Mauricio Claver-Carone and Ileana, to future President of Cuba Lincoln Diaz-Balart, were quickly tripping over themselves to reassure us that Ryan is “good on Cuba” and a “strong ally” of the hardliners. They cite as proof Ryan’s 2007 vote against Charlie Rangel’s bill to ease trade restrictions with Cuba (coincidentally the same year Republicans became the minority party in Congress), yet conveniently leave out that as recently as 2008, Ryan still held on to common sense, asking the Milwalkee Journal Sentinel, “if we’re going to have free trade with China, why not Cuba?” As for the rest of Cuban-American Republicans, their love-fest with Ryan has been nothing short of Beatlesque, and few seem to care whether Ryan, a lifelong free-trader, has truly changed his mind on this issue. Business interests: 4. Political interests: 1. Hardliners: 0.
- Historic low fundraising numbers Pro-embargo Lobby: Ti Noel said all you need to know on this subject. In short, the US-Cuba Democracy PAC’s fundraising numbers for this cycle are almost as sad as David Rivera’s (and the PAC’s not even under federal investigation). Business interests: 5. Cuban families: 3. Hardliners: 0.
- Historic high travel numbers between Miami and Cuba: Oh, and we’re all flying to Cuba these days. Travel numbers have steadily increased every year since 2009, and it seems like lately you can’t throw a rock in Miami without hitting some middle-age Cuban-American couple who just went back after 50 years to visit their old neighborhood in the island, and probably took their kids along with them. Also, visits by Cuban artists, academics and clerics are the new norm in Miami, with rarely a protester in sight to spoil their interactions with everyday Cuban-Americans. Business interests: 6. Cuban Families: 4. Hardliners: 0.
So what does this all mean? Some think that Cuban-American developers, long the financial spine of the local GOP establishment, battered after the real estate downturns in Miami and Spain, are poised to start actively lobbying against the embargo in an attempt to take their Miami-style high-rises and suburbs to Cuba. I’m not sure we’re there yet, but find the idea plausible in the intermediate term.
I would argue that the Cuban-American middle class has effectively distanced itself from the hardline and seem to be in a holding pattern – not rising against the embargo, but not caring for it either – doing as they wish within the limits of the law, waiting for old people to die in the island, or for their political counterparts to come around and do what they’re paid to do: lead.
It seems like the only people in Miami who continue to espouse hardline views toward Cuba are within the political class, from U.S. Senator, to congressional aide, all the way down to city councilman, and their spokespeople in the local media. They hold on to the promise of the embargo the same way the Eastern Bloc held on to the promise of Soviet-style communism, fearing that if just one amongst them gives in, their entire house of cards will come tumbling down.
I’d also argue there’s an opportunity for those willing to take the opposite approach. Imagine a courageous Republican candidate (or a Democrat, though it would be tougher to win over los viejitos) who calls the embargo for what it is, a perennial loser, and instead proposes a policy coherent with the opinion of the majority of Cuban-Americans, the American population and indeed the world. A policy that recognizes the political realities and reform process in Cuba, stops making the U.S. a convenient enemy for propaganda purposes inside the island, stops wasting money in patronage and ill-advised programs, favors engagement to benefit the incipient civil society in Cuba, aligns with U.S. business interests, and stands up for human rights. It’s how we deal with every other dictatorship in the world, rarely to worse result than our 53-year approach to Cuba has produced. I predict that such a candidate would not only differentiate himself from the tired rhetoric of the hardline machine, but will also attract significant support from Cuban-Americans, who have all but abandoned their support for an intransigent Cuba policy and are living their lives as if the hardliners no longer existed.