Seeds of Change in Little Havana: Fresh Perspectives Eventually Emerge in the Cuban Exile Community

Nicky Pear, writing for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, looks at the Havana, Miami, Washington Love/Hate Triangle. Here are some excerpts, with a link to the full text below.

The Cuban exile community in the United States constitutes one aspect of a three-way relationship between Miami, Havana, and Washington. Since the revolution in 1959, the Cuban diaspora has been politically (and geographically) on the frontier of relations between Cuba and the U.S. Due to significant financial might and lobbying prowess, in addition to being primarily located in the crucial swing state of Florida, Cuban-Americans have obtained a considerable amount of political power. It is no exaggeration to suggest that U.S. policy towards Cuba since the revolution has largely been formulated in accordance with the wishes of the Cuban-American voting bloc. This has led to fifty years of confrontational policy vis-à-vis Cuba, ranging from an unsuccessful military invasion to over five decades of rigid economic embargo. These policies reflect the hard-line, anti-Castro sentiment that has been at the heart Cuban-American political culture.

. . .
New Generation, New Perspective

Historically, the Cuban exile community has been characterized as a single-issue group, with U.S. policy on Cuba dominating discourse. Politicians have traditionally been judged in Miami on the grounds of their stance on Cuba, with any deviance from a hard-line equating to electoral suicide. Consequently, potential presidents have made a ritual of taking their campaign trail to the Versailles Café in Little Havana, where hard-line exiles congregate to sip Cuban coffee, eat sweet guava pastries, and discuss the latest developments on the island. With the growth of a more heterogeneous community representing increasingly diverse political opinions, candidates are viewed through a different lens. Today, a candidate’s position towards Cuba is less significant than in the past, as other issues climb higher on the community’s agenda.

A significant reason for this development can be found in generational shifts. When the older generation casts its vote, the candidate’s stance on Cuba is likely to be in the top five, even the top three, most vital considerations. In contrast, the younger generation is more concerned with the economy, foreign wars and the environment, among other issues. U.S. policy on Cuba is not of paramount importance in informing the political inclinations of Cuban-American youth, where it might be for their grandparents. A founding member of the “Youth for a Free Cuba” campaign at the University of Miami states: “Unlike the first generation, I really don’t think young Cubans vote based on Cuba. I think it is a factor maybe, but not the main one.”13 In a poll of 1,175 Cuban-Americans by the Institute of Latino Studies, a presidential candidate’s position on Cuba is shown to be of greater importance to first generation émigrés than their children (the ‘1.5 generation’) and grandchildren:14

This survey clearly highlights the decline in importance attached by younger generations to the issue of U.S. policy on Cuba. This change in generational passion stems at least in part from an increased separation from Cuba, both emotionally and psychologically. The traumatic process of enforced immigration that the older generation went through has come to define them; accordingly, for them, the issue of Cuba will always be of paramount importance. In contrast, Cuban-Americans born and raised in the U.S., while maintaining a strong sense of Cubanidad, have also achieved high levels of conformity to U.S. cultural norms. The distinguished Latin American scholar Maxine Molyneux describes a process of transition from “exiles to ethnics” in which younger Cuban-Americans still hold on to a strong sense of their cultural heritage, but do not define themselves as their grandparents do, through a mentality of displacement.15 This has led to what one Cuban-American academic described as a move from “the politics of passion to the politics of reason”16 among a younger generation less affected by the scars of exile. As time passes, this process is likely to expand as the experiences of first generation exiles become more and more distant.

There has also been a growth in Cuban-American youth and student activism in the past decade. Cuban-American Student Associations (CASAs) have emerged on a number of university campuses both in Florida and nationwide. It is the desire of CASAs to encourage more Cuban-Americans to engage with the challenges facing Cuba. The isolationist rhetoric and ambition to invade and reclaim Cuba has been replaced by a desire to improve the day-to-day well-being of Cubans. The development of these novel approaches to the issue of Cuba may come to represent the beginnings of a new chapter in the political culture of the community. Groups like the Free Cuba Foundation at Florida International University emphasize the importance of human rights and strategic non-violence, citing Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as key influences.17 The discourse of peaceful political action could not be further from the hard-line dialogue that used to prevail in Miami. A former president of the Free Cuba Foundation, who wished to remain anonymous, highlights the generational changes that have occurred in the Cuban-American community, arguing that “the younger generation is trying to do things in a different way because they’ve noticed the way it was done before didn’t work, hasn’t worked.”18
. . .
Conclusions

Today, it would be a mistake to characterize the Cuban diaspora as a monolithic political unit. Indeed, as its demographics have evolved, traditional conceptions of Cuban-Americans are no longer valid. Today, following the arrival of successive waves of immigrants, the structure of the community is more reflective of American society in general, spanning socio-economic boundaries and reflecting a wide spectrum of political views. Hard-line Cuban exiles still exist in pockets, but the stereotype of the anti-Castro extremist now represents a dwindling proportion of an increasingly heterogeneous community. Consequently, in the past decade, the political climate has also shifted. In contrast to earlier decades, there is no longer a dominant stance on how best to deal with the Cuban regime, but rather, a number of views involved in open debate.

Recent trends have the potential to continue in years to come. Connections to pre-revolution Cuba are becoming increasingly distant, as a larger percentage of the community was born either in the U.S. or under Castro’s regime. As first generation exiles become an ever-smaller proportion of the community, the hard-line perspectives associated with early émigrés are likely to become less and less significant. As third and fourth generation Cuban-Americans enter adulthood and begin to fill positions of power in Miami, a more moderate perspective towards Cuba may well come to define the community, with an increased emphasis on engagement. It is this generation to which the politicians of tomorrow will be seeking to appeal.

In terms of U.S. policy, the developments in Miami make the prospect of a normalization of relations with Cuba increasingly possible. As the Cuban-American community becomes progressively more moderate, one of the main obstacles to a thaw in U.S. policy towards Cuba is removed. No longer is the need to appeal to a reactionary Cuban-American voting bloc a reason for the continuation of a failing policy. President Obama has made some small movements in a new direction, by lifting restrictions for Cuban-Americans on traveling and sending remittances to the island. Moreover, a bill is currently being considered in Congress that would allow all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, in addition to lifting certain controls on agricultural sales. In Havana, Raúl Castro has recently signaled his intent to move towards an increasingly mixed economy, while in Miami the hard-line hegemony of the past is fading. All sides of the three-way relationship seem to be accepting the need for at least an element of pragmatism. It is surely time for the U.S. to continue down this path and make the long overdue steps necessary to put an end to its counterproductive and highly damaging isolationist policy towards Cuba.
For the full article go to http://www.coha.org/seeds-of-change-in-little-havana-fresh-perspectives-eventually-emerge-in-the-cuban-exile-community/

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