It’s an exciting time for Cuban-Americans. Since the provisions of the embargo were relaxed, most Americans’ curiosities have been piqued by the prospect of finally being able to visit the enigmatic island. For second-generation Cuban-Americans, such as myself, it has reopened the possibility of connecting with a culture that we are only familiar with through our grandparents’ stories.
Initially, the embargo was politically reasonable. It was first imposed in 1960, two months after the Castro regime took power. The U.S. was caught in the increasingly heightened Cold War, and Cuba had suddenly leapt forward as the Soviet ally in closest geographical proximity to the U.S.
After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the embargo was strengthened to ban all imports in addition to exports. Cuba was a legitimate threat as a base for Soviet aggression merely due to its proximity to the U.S. Of course, nothing highlighted this better than the Cuban Missile Crisis. While the logic of the embargo is quite complex, it was a U.S. attempt to deal with an unprecedented global crisis.
The significance of the Soviet connection is seen in today’s Cuba, as students learned Russian in school, and Russian names even took ahold. Spanishified Russian names are seen in the few baseball players that were able to defect, like Yasiel, Yunieski and Yoenis.
However, these indications of Soviet influence are mere remnants of a no-longer-existent past in which Cuba anchored the USSR’s presence in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba is by no stretch of the imagination an economic powerhouse, but is rather an impoverished island nation ruled by a despotic regime that has managed to develop one of the most accessible health care systems in the world.
What took the U.S. so long to do this? Since Gorbachev initiated perestroika and glasnost, an ever-spiraling decline of the dictatorship led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As a result of Raul Castro’s economic reforms in 2008, 20 percent of Cuba’s workforce is now in the private sector. While its free press rankings remain near the bottom in the world, it is the closest it has been during the Castro regime to realizing substantial democratic and free enterprise reforms. The impending boom in U.S.-Cuba interactions, not just at the political level but also among civilians, will hopefully catalyze progress toward this front.
Of course, despite the USSR’s dissolution, the embargo was not loosened until Obama took office. One common theory places the blame on the electoral college. Florida is perhaps the most evenly divided state in the nation, and offers the third-most votes in presidential elections. It also has a significant Cuban-American population. Miami is known as Havana North. Given the substantial Cuban-American voting bloc and the perception that Cuban-Americans lean right, Republicans have held onto this viewpoint for its political promise.
However, the new influx of younger Cuban immigrants and second-generation Cuban-Americans lean heavily toward the lifting of the embargo. This is the path the U.S. should follow as it continues to further increase diplomatic ties to Cuba.
An understanding of the distinct communities within the Cuban-American popular is key to the direction of forthcoming foreign policy.
The older population largely came over for political reasons. Most of them prospered in pre-Castro Cuba, and some even had substantial economic or political influence. In fact, when they established the renowned Cuban ex-pat community in Miami, they came to run the region.
This influence is seen in the two Cuban-American representatives from the Miami area in Congress. In Miami, over half of the population speaks Spanish. One is more likely to find a sign that says “We Speak English” than one reading “Hablamos Espanol.” Similarly, at the Miami International Airport, every announcement occurs in both English and Spanish. Unlike other cities with significant Latin-American populations, Miami’s cultural ethos is heavily shaped by the Cuban presence.
The younger population of Cuban-American immigrants and second-generation Cubans is unfamiliar with pre-Castro Cuba. The new immigrants’ reasons for coming to the U.S. are much more similar to other Latin American immigrants. Mostly impoverished in Cuba, they came in search of a better life. Out of Miami residents, slightly over 40 percent of Cuban-Americans who immigrated between 1959 and 1973 favor reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Of those who left between 1981 and 1994, this number jumps to 65; and for those who came over after 1994, it is 80. Evidently, these more recent immigrants, who are more familiar with the modern Cuba than anyone else, think opening up relations is more likely to lead to Cuban improvements.
The younger population most interested in the diplomatic relations with Cuba is also composed of second-generation Cuban-Americans who do not have the same personal revulsion to the Castro regime that their grandparents, and even parents, may have.
To be frank, most Cuban policy is dictated by Cuban-Americans in Congress. After all, Cuba is now a politically non-influential country that gets disproportionate U.S. attention. As the older group fades out, the younger Cuban-American population should begin to dominate the political discussion about Cuba; this is the most direct path to the Cuban democracy we seek.
Contact Pepito Escarce ‘at pescarce ‘at’ stanford.edu.