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The news of the “spy swap” and resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba took Miami’s Cuban-American community by surprise Wednesday. While it is remarkable that negotiations had been going on for 18 months with not a word leaked to the press, it is not at all surprising to know that Pope Francis himself was the instigator of this rapprochement. “Pontifex” fittingly means “bridge builder.”
The Vatican confirmed Wednesday that Pope Francis got the bilateral discussions underway by writing directly to President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro. Thereafter, Holy See diplomats facilitated the negotiations in both Canada and the Vatican.
The Vatican diplomatic corps could also prove helpful in keeping the peace at dinner tables throughout Miami-Dade County this Christmas. Wednesday’s historic developments exposed a deep “generation gap” between the attitudes of Cuban exiles over 65 (old enough to have experienced the 1959 revolution and flight into exile) and their grandchildren.
Local news coverage focused (predictably) on the Little Havana neighborhood through which Calle Ocho (8th Street) runs, where “los veteranos” hang out, sipping cafecitos at Versailles or La Carreta, playing Cuban-style dominoes in the Maximo Gomez Domino Park and volubly arguing politics. On Wednesday, the conversations were often punctuated by shouting matches.
A reporter asked a young adult in the crowd why he thought the veteranos were so angry about the spy swap and the agreement to open an embassy in Havana. The young man shrugged his shoulders and suggested that "they might still be upset about facts that affected them 50 years ago." There’s a lot of truth in that statement because, despite initial hardships, most have prospered in their new country. Versailles and the La Carreta chain, in fact, symbolize Cuban immigrants’ rag-to-riches story in America.
Politicians, from local mayors to Members of Congress and, most prominently Sen. Marco Rubio, also hastened to make their opinions known throughout the day.
The Mayors of the City of Miami, Tomás Regalado, and of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Giménez—both prominent second generation Cuban Americans—made impromptu appearances where groups of veteranos were gathered and expressed pessimism about Cuba’s future if “the Castro regime” is not required to grant concessions in exchange for US aid.
But, Archbishop Thomas Wenski pointed out in his statement to the press:
Apparently, the majority of south Florida residents agreed. WSVN, the local FoxNews affiliate, announced results of its (unscientific) poll Wednesday evening: text messages ran 63 percent in favor of the resumption of diplomatic relations and 37 percent opposed.
And tweets from the younger generation have been overwhelmingly favorable. For example, “J Andrew Z” tweeted earlier today: “Normalization with #Cuba is the right thing to do, for both moral and economic reasons.”
Sara Carter illustrated the generation gap and the more hopeful outlook found among younger Cuban Americans in a tweet Wednesday morning: “My mother fled Cuba on Johnson freedom flight. She passed away a US citizen. Never returned. I hope American values flood island 4 future.”
Silvia, a paralegal, pointed out that there is currently only 5 percent internet saturation in Cuba, so any US assistance in setting up telecom and communications within Cuba could be great for the Cuban people.
On the other hand, increased tourism, which is not yet permitted, might not benefit the Cuban people because all the major hotels are owned by the Cuban military.
Elaine A., a Miami grandmother, vividly remembers fleeing with her parents to the United States in 1960. They entered on tourist visas and immediately sought asylum, having left everything behind except a week’s worth of clothes in their suitcases. She revealed that she’s often thought “maybe it’s time to lift the embargo so that Cubans will know that their terrible poverty is due to the failure of communism, and not to the embargo.” If they knew that, she reasoned, they’d be more likely to overthrow the regime and install a democratically elected government with freedoms guaranteed in a new constitution.
Lifting the embargo is up to Congress, of course, and the measures described by President Obama on Wednesday could not go so far as to reverse the embargo or eliminate the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba as tourists, although they may visit under a long list of exceptions.
Others pointed out that Chinese communist leaders are possibly even more brutal than Cuba’s communist leadership, yet the US allows Americans to travel to China and do business there, on the ground that exposure to freedoms and democratic ideals will encourage change.
A parochial vicar at a nearby parish (who asked not to be named) pointed out that the close generational ties within Cuban American families will not change as a result of the new U.S. policy. But he believes grandparents view the Cuban government very differently from their grandchildren. For them, the repression, the confiscation of property, the incarceration, torture and killing of dissidents touched every family that escaped and every family that remained behind, forever separated from loved ones. Some of the older generation have reflected on these wrongs for 50 years and carry them around in their hearts like a stone. They have chosen not to forget and not to forgive the very great wrongs done to them and their loved ones.
But in the eyes of their grandchildren, he continued, their grandparents’ trials and sufferings seem remote, historic. They are stories without the emotional impact. Younger Cuban Americans think of the Castros as no better or worse than scores of brutal dictators around the world—many in countries with which the US has diplomatic ties and many in countries we even consider to be allies.
Cuba’s future is uncertain. We can’t know if the Castro regime would have fallen soon, as some claim, from having lost significant financial support from Russia and Venezuela, whose oil-dependent economies are taking a beating. Others think that by moving in the direction of dialogue, humanitarian aid and infrastructure support, the US will be propping up a failed dictatorship while not improving the lives of impoverished Cubans. We can’t be sure of that either.
But there is one certainty: anger, however righteous, and bitterness, however justified, over the decades’ long oppression of the Cuban people will never produce peace and happiness on either side of the Florida straits. Offering forgiveness, mercy and charity is the only certain path.
Susan Willsis a senior writer for Aleteia.org.