Wednesday, December 3, 2008

It’s About Time

A poll in Miami-Dade County among Cuban-Americans indicates a marked change in attitude about the embargo and diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The poll, conducted by Florida International University’s Institute for Public Opinion Research and funded by the Brookings Institution and the Cuba Study Group, indicates that 55 percent of those polled favor discontinuing the trade embargo imposed in 1962. Sixty-five percent favor reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

”The poll has an extraordinary historical importance,” said Guarione Díaz, president of the Cuban American National Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Miami.

The results, particularly as they relate to the embargo, reflect ”the fact that the Cuban Americans who were born in the United States or left after 1980 do not have the same vision as those who came in the 60s,” Díaz said.

Ninoska Pérez, director of the conservative Cuban Liberty Council, dismissed the results.

”I am tired of these polls that mean nothing,” she said. ”The point is that three Congress members who support the embargo were elected by an overwhelming majority of the people. The reelection of these Congress members tells me that this sample is not a majority. I don’t believe this poll.”

The embargo question has been consistent since FIU began conducting the poll in 1991. Beginning in 1997, the trend showed a gradual decrease of support for maintaining the embargo. But this year’s poll is the first to show a majority in favor of lifting it. In 2007, 42 percent of those polled were in favor of ending the trade ban.

”It’s a significant jump,” said Hugh Gladwin, director of the Institute for Public Opinion Research at FIU.

”I’d give two explanations. The first one is that there’s been this continuing demographic change. The other factor is the election of Obama. There’s a process of change. People see the handwriting on the wall,” he added.

I’ve been around long enough to have seen the embargo in place from the beginning in 1962 — I was ten — and I have never understood the reasoning behind it, then and now. When I moved to Miami in 1971 to go to college and then again thirty years later, I asked some Cuban friends to explain why the embargo, which by then was clearly not having the desired effect, still had their unshakable support. The answer boiled down to “It’s a Cuban thing; you wouldn’t understand.”

Okay, well, then don’t expect me to be sympathetic to a policy that seems both pointless and harmful, and not to the intended targets. There is no doubt that the Castro brothers are thugs and dictators, but all the embargo did was give them an excuse for prolonging their “struggle,” and we couldn’t have handed them a better gift of legitimizing their regime if we had delivered it to them with candy and a stripper. The tightening of the travel and financial restrictions by the current Bush administration did nothing to Fidel and Raul, but it imposed more misery and family separation on the exile community here in Miami. And yet every time someone mentions loosening the restraints and dealing with a dictatorship on the same level we deal with all the other non-democratic governments around the world, including Vietnam, where over 58,000 Americans lost their lives (and a country that now sells us tennis shoes) and China, which basically holds the mortgage on our financial system, we hear the knee-jerk responses like those of Ms. Pérez, who shuts her eyes, sticks her fingers in her ears, and basically says that she doesn’t believe the polls.

While I may not understand the Cuban thing, one thing that’s clear to me is that unlike Vietnam and China, the Cuban embargo is based not on practical policy but on a personal vendetta that is deeply felt by every exile who blames Fidel Castro personally for their plight and everything else that goes wrong in their life. The car won’t start or the hot water heater leaks? Fidel did it. The dog crapped on the carpet? Again, Fidel. It’s as if in 1959 Castro himself marched into their home in Pinar del Rio, parked his ass on the couch, put his combat boots on the coffee table, ground out his cigar in the family portrait, and told everyone to get out and leave the keys to the Desoto by the door. And I know any number of people in the exile community who are prepared for their own version of the Rapture: as soon as word comes that Fidel and Raul have shuffled off this khaki coil they will be on the first plane back to Havana, property deeds and house keys in hand, ready to resume their life as if they’ve been off on a vacation. They carry on about how they are dreaming of a “free Cuba,” as if the previous regime of Batista was a model of Jeffersonian democracy. This, more than any economic or political logic, is the mindset that keeps the embargo in place, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that if we had flooded Cuba with McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and — most importantly — a chain of NAPA auto parts stores, the Cuban revolution’s dictatorial and Soviet-style elements would have been deeply challenged by the time we started shipping them Ford Pintos in 1972. Capitalism may have its flaws, but it is undeniably human nature to try to make a buck, and it’s awfully hard to chant revolutionary slogans when you’re listening to the Beatles on an iPod.

Perhaps with a new administration in Washington — the eleventh since Castro came to power — will come some enlightenment about the embargo. And while there will be an uproar from some on Calle Ocho if the restrictions are loosened, you can be pretty sure that some of the first in line for the first flights back will be those who protested the loudest. But then, it’s a Cuban thing; you wouldn’t understand.