By Joel Achenbach,
MIAMI — They were lining up Thursday midday for the flights to Cuba. Non-stops. This is normal. This is Miami International Airport in the second decade of the 21st century. The departure board showed World Atlantic at 12:15 p.m., Falcon Air at 1 p.m., American Airlines at 2 p.m., all to Havana and all On Time.
It’s not exactly a shuttle situation: The passengers have to show up at the airport as much as four hours before their departures. They move glacially toward the check-in counter, pushing carts laded with shrink-wrapped gifts, flat-screen TVs, and other consumer goods that are scarce on the island. You can get to Cuba if you have patience, the right passport or a U.S. government-sanctioned reason for going.
In the long line Thursday at Concourse G there was no one complaining about the diplomatic thaw between the U.S. and Cuba announced a day earlier by President Obama.
“It’s good. It’s good for the two countries. And the people, too,” said Julio Arjona, 47, a telephone repairman traveling with his wife and daughter to see his family back in Cuba. He was on the Sun Country 4:30 p.m. direct flight to the Cuban city of Holguin, on the eastern wing of the island.
The stunning news that the U.S. is moving to normalize relations with Cuba has incited a mixed and strikingly undramatic reaction here in Miami. Politically this city has been, since the early 1960s, a powder-keg of anti-Castro sentiment, and there has been much verbal fury unleashed on the president since his announcement. But so far, masses of protesters haven’t materialized.
Some agitators have found the TV lights like moths to a flame, but what hasn’t happened seems more significant than what has. The biggest change in U.S. policy toward Cuba in half a century, a historic rapprochement — the end of the Cold War! — has not yet incited organized outrage at the level where people start pouring onto Calle Ocho. Something has changed here over the years — and the decades.
One of those changes is visible at the airport. There are thousands of people in Miami now who came to the U.S. only in recent years, and who maintain close ties with Cuba. They are often younger and less ideological than the exile generation. They are more likely to want to see the embargo lifted, to help boost the standard of living among the people they visit regularly.
“It’s really bad over there. You know how here, we have supermarkets, we have aisles and aisles of food. Over there, they have one little rack of food. Technology is virtually non-existent,” said Rodrigo Martinez, 28, who teaches second grade in Miami and who was in line for the Sun Country flight to Holguin, on his way to visit his father.
Five years ago, Obama loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba by people with Cuban passports. Previously, they could go only once every three years and bring a limited amount of money. Now they could go every day if they wished.
People can also go on humanitarian missions, and for journalism, and to serve religious causes, and all told there are 12 categories of people allowed to fly to the island, said David Nesslein, the CEO of Havana Air.
The last time he checked, he said, the eight air carriers who are licensed to fly to Cuba had 15 flights a day to the island. He said the diplomatic thaw will likely boost that number higher, though he is unclear on what immediate changes there may be on travel restrictions.
“As soon as the president spoke, my e-mail just got bombed. Everybody asking me, ‘When can I go?’ I just don’t have a specific answer,” Nesslein said.
Cuban American political leaders, including possible presidential aspirant Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), have denounced Obama’s moves. They have variously called him a betrayer and the appeaser in chief. The Senate is shifting to Republican control and is expected to vigorously oppose the lifting of the 54-year-old embargo. This is an evolving story that could play out in a number of ways, notwithstanding headlines such as the one bannered Thursday morning in USA Today: “Cuban Crisis Ended After 56 Years.”
The anti-Castro community remains politically strong and vocal, and dominates Spanish-language talk radio. But ideas about U.S. policy toward Cuba, and the best strategy for bringing democracy to the island, are more diverse and nuanced than they were 20 or 30 or 40 years ago.
A Florida International University poll of Cuban Americans conducted earlier this year showed that a majority favored ending the embargo against the island country. And more than 2 in 3 favored restoring diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“Gradually there’s been a change in attitude across the board,” said Francisco Mora, 50, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at FIU. Mora, whose parents fled Cuba in 1961, served in the Obama administration in the Department of Defense. Most older Cuban Americans continue to have a hard-line attitude about relations with Cuba, but those under 35, particularly ones who came more recently to the United States, have closer ties with the island and favor the diplomatic thaw.
“My own family members used to be very hard line and have increasingly moderated themselves over the last few years,” Mora said.
“We want to represent a change of consciousness in the Cuban community. We want to inject some new voices into that stagnant atmosphere,” said Jorge Parellada, 24, a student at FIU who, along with three fellow students, showed up at Thursday at the Versailles restaurant (“The World’s Most Famous Cuban Restaurant”) to join in what has been a running conversation, protest and media scramble directly in front of the take-out window that faces Calle Ocho.
Frank de Varona, 71, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, stood a few feet away, denouncing the Obama move as a travesty. His boat was sunk and he was imprisoned by the Castro regime before being released more than a year later, going into exile in Miami. His views haven’t changed, but Miami has, he said, because of the influx of people who are not here as political exiles but merely to have a better standard of living.
“You have a lot of people who have come from Cuba recently. They lived in communism for 20, 30, 40 years. Some of them even like Castro. They come here for economic reasons,” de Varona said.
Since Obama’s midday Wednesday announcement, Versailles has been the go-to place for anyone wishing to engage the media. But the crowds have always been small, rarely spilling onto the sidewalk, much less into the street. This has been in striking contrast with the throngs that clogged the streets during the Elian Gonzalez controversy 15 years ago, when Cuban Americans were infuriated that the Justice Department under President Clinton had intervened in a custody case and was forcibly repatriating the boy to his (communist, Castro-governed) homeland.
Most of the people giving interviews were decidedly hostile to the diplomatic thaw. But a few said this was inevitable — and welcome.
“It was bound to happen sooner or later. The way I look at it, the embargo hasn’t done anything,” said Juana de Diego, 67, who was born in Cuba and came to America on a “freedom flight” in 1966. “Nothing has changed in 50 years. Evidently it didn’t work.”
It hasn’t worked, say people like de Diego and her husband, Jose de Diego, 69, who were heading to dinner at Versailles. Jose de Diego came to Miami from his Cuban homeland in 1963. He said the thawing of relations puts the onus on the Castro regime to prove that its struggles are not due to U.S. policy. The ball, he said, is now in the court of the Castros.
Medical technician Olga Sanabria, 59, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1969, said she worked all day Wednesday without hearing the news, then in the early evening at her mother’s home saw the protest at Versailles. She immediately drove there, furious about Obama’s move.
“He’s a socialist at heart,” she said.
Yurihe Goicoechea, 32, who came to the U.S. from Cuba at the age of 18, said, “We do not negotiate with terrorists. Never. At all. The Cuban government will have more money to oppress the Cuban people. I support the embargo.”
He went on: “I grew up in the system. I know how they are. They used to tell me how to dress, what to say, how to cut my hair. In Cuba there is no freedom.”
Sisay Balcia, 35, a construction worker, became agitated as he spoke. “Obama has betrayed us,” he said. “I want people, the young people to wake up. The young people are the ones who are going to take Castro down. We have to wake up! Wake up!”
Away from the TV lights, Enrique Acosta, 52, who came in 1991, and Armando Sotolongo, 65, here since the age of 9, talked about Fidel Castro, the man who never seems to die.
Sotolongo remembers that his family originally supported Castro, but then realized he was a communist.
“When they came down from the mountains, my father said, ‘It doesn’t look good. We gotta get out,’ ” Sotolongo said.
That was more than five decades ago, and Fidel is still there, an old and frail man who ceded his power to younger brother Raul. Why doesn’t Fidel die?
“We believe he has some kind of relationship with the demon. The devil,” Sotolongo said.
“He don’t die,” Acosta said.
“He don’t die,” Sotolongo echoed.
“Or maybe he died a long time ago and we don’t know,” Acosta said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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