‘Cuba Libre’

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florida-state-universit/" class="creditline">LISM JULIAN
FS View
Florida State Universit

Pablo Neruda wrote, in one of his better-known love sonnets, that a naked lover was like the blue of a Cuban night.

There’s just something perennially mystical and alluring about Cuba, the island nation that sits a mere 90 miles away from the Florida Keys, but has, nonetheless, become all but isolated from, and forbidden to, American eyes.

Before the ascendancy of Fidel Castro, the country was a vibrant and flourishing hotbed of social and intellectual activity. CafZs were open all night, and parties didn’t die until the sun rose. When the Communists took over power in 1959, the traditional freedoms and routines of Cuban society were stifled, and in the 45 years since, Cuba has been seething with desire to break out from its long period of oppression. It’s too bad that those making decisions in Washington and Tallahassee don’t share that goal.

History illustrates, quite plainly, that the best way to bring personal freedoms and quality of life to a people long-repressed is through cultural and economic engagement. Capitalism can work wonders. It’s no coincidence that Chinese citizens have experienced such an incredible increase in individual rights at the same time as Wal-Mart opened in downtown Beijing.

But for some reason, this lesson doesn’t seem to carry over to Cuba. We continue to isolate this neighbor, we continue to ignore the myriad failures of the embargo, and we continue to accept policies toward Cuba that are motivated, wholly, by venal, political considerations.

Take a stroll down Calle Ocho in Miami and, believe it or not, you’ll be walking through one of the epicenters of U.S. political activity. Don’t let the shoddy storefronts and elderly domino players fool you; this is the place where political careers are made and destroyed.

Although Cubans account for only about 0.5 percent of the U.S. population, their centrality and location in South Florida has bestowed upon them power that far outweighs their numbers. Added to this is the piercing hatred for Fidel Castro that courses through the Cuban exile community and dominates their political dealings. In Miami, those who wish to see dialog or negotiation with the Communist government, even in minute ways, are derided as “traidores” and “espias” (traitors and spies). When it comes to the Cuban situation, free speech and the exchange of ideas are not respected, and those with different opinions are vilified.

Politicians have seized upon this community and have tried, with varying degrees of success, to court the exile vote. Although research shows that most Cuban-Americans value the social platforms espoused by Democrats, the vast majority are registered Republicans. Their staunch allegiance to the Republican Party is based largely on the GOP’s hard-line stance against Castro and upon continued anger with Democrats over (seriously) the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Bill Clinton tried to reverse this perception. In 1996, after years of unabashedly wooing Cuban voters in South Florida, Clinton was able to win 70 percent of the Cuban exile vote. That same year, he signed the Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened the embargo and required, among other absurdities, that sanctions could only be lifted when a transitional government was established and free, multi-party elections were held.

But the Cuban-Democrat dZtente was short-lived, and it all came to a crashing halt when the Clinton administration forcibly returned Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba. The exile community in Miami rose up in outrage, and they guaranteed that Al Gore could forget about winning Florida, or the presidency, in 2000.

They kept their promise. Alex Penelas, the Cuban-American mayor of Miami-Dade County, sensed the incredible Cuban exile antipathy toward Gore. Worried about his own political future Penelas, a Democrat, blatantly distanced himself from Gore and was noticeably absent from the vice president’s South Florida campaign rallies and parties. It was reported that, during the period immediately following the election, Penelas was in constant contact with Republicans, and he refused to publicly support Gore’s efforts to institute wider vote recounts.

The Bush family is no stranger to Cuban politics, either. Jeb majored in Latin American studies, he speaks fluent Spanish, and he spent years, starting in the early 1980s, cultivating business and political connections with the Cuban community in Miami. It’s not an accident that he, and not Janet Reno (who oversaw the Elian situation), is the governor of Florida, and it’s not an accident that George W., and not Al Gore, is the country’s president.

So it really isn’t that surprising to read that travel restrictions to Cuba are being tightened yet again, but it’s sad that such a foolish strategy of isolation toward Cuba continues to be America’s official policy. The embargo doesn’t weaken Castro; it strengthens him. It allows him to continue his rhetoric of victimization by the capitalists, and it casts the United States as that insensitive and uncaring giant to the north.

So who loses? The Cuban people do, as they are deprived of their human rights so that American politicians can make short-term, electoral gains.

Hopefully, American voters will wise up soon and demand an end to this unconscionable and undefendable political quid pro quo. Hopefully, in the near future and with American engagement, Cubans will have an opportunity to begin writing and speaking freely and to start enjoying profitable jobs and markets.

It’s long past time to end the charade. We should all be able to experience our own, blue Cuban night.

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