Exiles divided on plans to thaw US-Cuba relations
Posted December 18, 2014
Durham, N.C. — Roberto Copa Matos grew up in Cuba and loves his homeland, so when the Durham businessman heard Wednesday that the U.S. was restoring diplomatic and economic relations with the Cuba after more than 50 years, he was cautiously optimistic.
"I thought it was the right decision to make," said Copa Matos, who moved to the U.S. 12 years ago and now owns, with his wife, Old Havana Sandwich Shop in downtown Durham.
"There is a fact that has not changed even though the U.S. policy toward Cuba changes, and it is that Cuba has a dictatorship system. It’s a regime," he said. "There is no freedom. There are no human rights, and for somebody who thinks differently, it is very hard to make his or her own way in Cuba."
Outrage to the move has been decidedly muted, especially in Miami, where most of the 2 million Cubans in the U.S. live, with only a handful of demonstrations. Some of the expatriates known for their support of isolationist tactics even expressed support for the changes.
"I think the embargo has not been good for the Cuban people because the government never changed," said Cuban-born Raul Hernandez, 60, who has lived in Miami for 35 years and has two brothers in Cuba.
Travel restrictions kept Hernandez from seeing his parents before they died.
Copa Matos agrees, saying trying to isolate Cuba "has not produced the results that are expected."
"Total isolation has not hurt the Cuban government, and the Cuban people have been restricted from having access not only to material things but to contact with people living in a different environment," he said. "Communication and sharing of ideas is important for all human beings."
Younger generations and recent arrivals from Cuba tend to be more open to exchange and dialogue. Older exiles whose relatives were killed or imprisoned after the 1959 revolution are less likely to approve of a thaw.
But there are exceptions.
Ahmed Martel, 43, a Web designer in Miami who is too young to remember the revolution but lived under the Castro government until he left the island in 1992, is opposed to the plan to strengthen ties with Cuba.
"It doesn't make any sense to put Cuba on the same level as the United States," Martel said. "It doesn't make any sense to us to sit down with them and negotiate."
Ana Lourdes-Cuesta, 45, of Miami, said she couldn't believe Obama would consider shedding the "terrorist state" label for Cuba and normalizing relations.
"Now we're going to be friends and get dinner together, kissing babies and shaking hands? No. You can't erase history," Lourdes-Cuesta said as she waved a Cuban flag.
Copa Matos said he thinks the U.S. can open trade relationships with Cuba without supporting the government there, but it will be difficult.
"Investments coming into Cuba have only helped the Cuban government gain profits." he said. "It has not passed on to the Cuban people."
Direct interaction between Cubans and Americans would provide the best avenue to helping the island populace, he said.
"They will not only benefit from material help, but from getting to know people from other places that have different ways of thinking, that are not fearful about what they think and expressing what they think," he said.
Ramon Saul Sanchez, who runs a group dedicated to helping new arrivals from Cuba, said Obama's "radical step" will force people in Florida who are passionate about Cuba to become more engaged.
"This isn't a setback – it's actually a challenge" for an exile community accustomed to business as usual, Sanchez said.