Wednesday started as a normal day at El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain, but things quickly got exciting. With the historic news that morning signaling a new and long-awaited era in US-Cuba foreign relations, owner Nobel Garcia was flooded with media requests to comment. The restaurant has become a popular spot for Cubans in Boston to gather, a place where Latino policy issues — local, national, and international — are hotly debated.
“I’m on my day off!” Garcia practically yells at me as soon as he sees me sitting at a table with Alberto Vasallo III, another prominent local Cuban and owner of Boston’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper, El Mundo.
But Nobel, I tell him, you don’t have an opinion on what happened today?
“What, did Fidel die?” he asks cheekily. He then pulls his cellphone out to show us a meme with Fidel Castro’s picture on it: “Bicho malo nunca muere.” Bad bug never dies.
“Cuba doesn’t exist for me,” said Garcia, expressing what many self-exiled Cubans feel at heart. He has no interest in returning to his homeland. While admitting that launching a process to normalize relations with Cuba — leading eventually to a full lift of the embargo, Congress-permitting — is the right thing to do, he also can’t discard the pain that easily.
Many Cuban exiles’ memories of atrocities, oppression, and torture committed by the Castro regime during 55 years are awfully difficult to forgive, let alone forget. And that’s why Garcia’s reaction is so typical among many Cubans in the United States.
But almost six decades of economic blockade have been utterly ineffective. The embargo has not brought change to Cuba; it has only increased Cubans’ misery while giving the Castros cover.
This is increasingly evident to new generations of Cubans and Americans — and they are simply not buying such old paradigms anymore. For example, a survey earlier this year showed that 67 percent of Americans supported removing travel restrictions on Cuba; 63 percent of respondents in Florida supported a change in Cuba policy.
Still, a significant number of Cuban baby boomers refuse to let go of the suffering Fidel Castro inflicted on Cuban families.
“A lot of Americans just don’t understand the depths of the totalitarian regime in Cuba,” said another local Cuban, who in the same breath admits to being more Bostonian than anything. (He asked not to be identified.) Plus, Cuba’s influence should not be discounted, he said. “Look at Venezuela! Cuba and Fidel Castro is the root of all that. All the leftists governments in Latin America would not exist today.”
Strong feelings, indeed. But at least one thing is clear: What President Obama announced Wednesday — in a moving speech dressed up with a couple of phrases in Spanish and a José Martí quote — are very significant first steps to open up dialogue and relations. Yes, there remain barriers to freedom, to say the least, and restrictions to the free flow of information on the island. But one of Obama’s changes includes the possibility of opening up access to the Internet on the island, for example. What happens when Cuba starts reaping the economic benefits of US trade and all that it entails, especially on the tourism front? It may provide the first step toward broader freedoms.
Getting rid of the embargo — and the isolation it brought — will finally allow the conversation to focus on how to steer Cuba toward democracy. This should also (hopefully) lead to holding the Castro brothers accountable for their dictatorship and repression of the Cuban people.
Perhaps then the exiled Cubans in Boston and elsewhere can start healing and forgiving.