MIAMI — Christmas Eve dinner just got a little more interesting in this South Florida city.
As Cuban-Americans soak in the news that the United States is re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years, it’s rekindled a deep divide in the community — even within families — over the best way to deal with the Castro brothers and their Communist regime.
Dagoberto Garces was a teenager in 1959 when Fidel Castro’s revolution overthrew the Cuban government. He watched as his father’s medical clinic was seized by the new government, claiming it was needed by the revolution. He saw the family’s home ransacked, their savings taken. Things got so bad that in 1962 his parents put Garces and his two younger siblings on a plane for the United States, part of a wave of children who came over in a program called Operation Peter Pan.
That’s why it’s hard for Garces to hear younger Cubans support President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, establish an embassy in Havana, allow more Americans to travel to the island and encourage more commerce to flow into it.
“They didn’t suffer what we suffered, so they can’t feel what we feel,” said Garces, 71, a surgeon in Miami.
Raúl Moas was born and raised in Miami after his parents fled Cuba in the 1960s. He was ecstatic when Obama made his surprise announcement because he has long felt that the strategy of isolating Cuba has done nothing to overthrow the Castro regime.
Moas knows that older relatives in his family are having trouble accepting the president’s decision, and Moas’ support of it, but he also understands why they think that way.
“I don’t have the scars of exile,” said Moas, 26, president of Roots of Hope, a group that helps young professionals in Cuba. “I’m able to empathize with that. I’m able to slip on their shoes at times and, through their stories and pictures, live that for a moment. But I’m also able to remove myself from that and see it from a different perspective.”
The divide between Garces’ and Moas’ generations is striking. Earlier this year, 88% of Cuban-Americans under the age of 30 said they support re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to a poll conducted by Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. For Cuban-Americans over 65, that support drops to 41%.
Those numbers are easy to verify on the streets of Miami.
Jose Menendez, 76, who left Cuba by himself when he was 24 and later helped the rest of his family escape, said he was shocked to see that the Cuban government was not required to make any structural changes to its system of tight government control as part of the deal Obama made with Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raúl, who has ruled the island after his ailing sibling stepped aside.
“What did they give? Nothing. What did we give? Everything,” complained Menendez, a retired ExxonMobil administrator.
What about Raúl Castro agreeing to release 53 political prisoners as part of the deal?
“That night they probably arrested 53 more,” said Julio Velasco, 77, whose family left Cuba in 1956.
Garces called the deal “a crime.”
“But coming from this president, I’m not surprised,” he said.
Despite that deeply held animosity, many Cuban-Americans say there has been one change in South Florida. In years past, merely mentioning the end of the economic embargo on Cuba or pushing for more diplomatic ties with the island would get you shouted down in Miami. Now, Natalia Martinez says, that rage has given way to more nuanced, and quieter, conversations.
“I’ve seen a lot more of that rather than just yelling and being crazy,” said Martinez, 28, who was born in Cuba before coming to the U.S., where she graduated from Harvard University and then received a master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University. “I very much commend them for being able to have that conversation.”
Ricardo Suarez knows very well how older Cubans feel right now. He was just embarking on his career in Cuba when Castro’s revolution triumphed. He admits he was sympathetic to Castro’s cause at first, but quickly changed his mind once he saw how it was rolling out.
And as soon as he started speaking out against the new regime, he was fired from his office. So he took his new wife and left the country, never to return.
Now, he hears all the talk from younger Cubans who are thrilled over Obama’s decision to re-open discussions with the very regime that forced him into exile at such a young age. And while he disagrees with them, saying the changes by the U.S. won’t change a thing in Cuba, he’s willing to hear them out.
“We have different histories, so I understand,” said Suarez, 74, a retired banker. “But we all want the same result in the end. So in the end, I sympathize with any Cuban who wants to end that government.”
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