Cuba in Focus–Again
by Henry Butterfield Ryan on May 7, 2000
Elian Gonzalez has focused Americans' attention on Cuba again, even
on Fidel Castro, whom most of us had almost forgotten — most, that is,
except the million-plus Cuban-Americans. Not only do Cuban-Americans
remember him vividly, but also, during the last 20 years, in the face of
overall American apathy, they have virtually dictated U.S. Cuba policy.
So who are the Cuban-Americans? Not simply assorted nuts, as many
Americans think. They are approximately 1.2 million people, some 800,000 in
and around Miami, some 80,000 in New Jersey's New York City suburbs, and
the rest scattered, mostly in large cities.
Their migration to this country began when Castro overthrew
dictator Fulgencio Batista, who fled Cuba on New Year's Day 1959. It has
continued unabated. Many of today's most prominent Cuban-Americans arrived
in the years immediately after Castro's takeover. Some of them, like
Florida's two Cuban-American members of Congress, were children then.
Castro put many of the ancien regime to the wall; the rest fled.
Many others escaped also then, people who had hoped he would bring
democracy to Cuba. They include such figures as Andres Nasario, a former
guerrilla leader in the Escambray Mountains, who helped Castro overthrow
Soon the exiles and the U.S. government joined in a powerful common
cause to dump Castro, who, in the peak Cold War years, had allied Cuba with
the Soviet Union. But the exiles' relationship with Washington began badly.
Outstanding among the CIA's many futile efforts to get rid of Castro was a
disastrous invasion effort at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 using Cuban-exile
troops. The memory still rankles with Cuban-Americans, who feel President
Kennedy did not support them nearly adequately.
Furthermore, Washington never tried to invade again with any kind
of force. Kennedy promised the Kremlin he would not do so if the Soviet
Union would pull out its missiles in the 1962 crisis. Successive
administrations renewed the promise. So when Miami's Cuban-Americans
stomped on U.S. government toes over Elian, their shenanigans contained an
element of payback.
Cuban-Americans have not been able to reverse Washington's
hands-off-Cuba stance, but they have spearheaded its policy of isolating
Castro. The powerful and conservative Cuban-American National Foundation,
the political heavyweight of the many Cuban-American groups, has guided
them in that effort.
As interest in Cuban matters waned in the U.S., the foundation's
influence on Cuba policy increased. When President Clinton in the last two
years eased restrictions slightly on contacts with Cuba, the foundation
opposed his moves, even though Cuban-Americans were the main beneficiaries.
A spokesperson said the foundation believed there should have been some
kind of quid pro quo.
Slowly, however, the view of the Cuban-American community is
changing, partly because Cuban immigration has changed. Many arrivals since
the early 1980s have shared the motivation of thousands of fellow migrants
from other Latin American countries — economic betterment. Compared with
the earlier exiles, whose families would be running Cuba today were it not
for Castro, these recent arrivals have lost less in property and status.
They are more willing to countenance links with Cuba.
Meanwhile, new Cuban-American organizations have been formed, such
as the Cuban Committee for Democracy, which despise Castro but encourage
improved links between the United States and Cuba. Like a growing number of
Americans, the committee opposes the 40-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba,
pointing out that it has neither toppled Castro nor turned him to
democracy, and that it hurts the Cuban people. The National Council of
Churches and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce share that opinion, the latter
for obvious reasons. Castro has opened Cuba to foreign private investment;
Chamber members would like to take part.
Meanwhile, although Americans still need U.S. government permission
to visit Cuba legally, many go illegally through third countries. Cuban
authorities, eager for tourists, don't stamp their passports. And more and
more are going, approximately 200,000 annually, of whom about two-thirds
are Cuban-Americans. Many Americans go on tours of all kinds — to study
the ecology, for example, or the architecture, or to attend Spanish courses.
Our policy has had 40 years to effect a change in Cuba and has
failed. Today, it has no reason to exist. From a security standpoint,
Castro is no threat without the Soviet Union propping him up, as formerly,
with billions of dollars every year. From the standpoint of helping the
Cuban people, Washington's policy has not done so yet. Quite to the
contrary, it makes their lives worse, as embargoes usually do.
Ironically, Cuban-American efforts to keep Elian here have focused
many American's attention on our bankrupt Cuba policy, which may help relax
its restrictions — to the chagrin of Elian's Miami relatives. Meanwhile,
Washington's policy makes everyone's life harder except possibly Fidel
Henry Butterfield Ryan is a writer for the History News Service. He is also an associate of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge.