Obama's Cuba Move Shows How Anti-Castro Passion Still Burns In Miami's Exile Hearts

Dec 18, 2014

OLD SCHOOL ANGER With a protest sign that could have been made decades ago, anti-Castro demonstrators break for lunch at Little Havana's Versailles Restaurant.
Credit Rick Stone

President Obama's announced opening to Cuba this week touched off vehement reactions in parts of South Florida's Cuban community. But it also exposed generational rifts that may have put time limits on the political potency of the Cuba issue.

Many in the traditional exile community believe the president caved to the Castro government and gave away much more than the U.S. would receive for opening diplomatic relations and scaling back the embargo.

But younger Cubans and Cuban-Americans seemed less troubled.

In Hialeah, Jaddrey DeArmas was getting lunch at the Tropical Restaurant. She's the U.S. born daughter of Cuban exiles. Her mother arrived in 1966.

"My dad got here a little later, I think in the 70's. He was hard-core fed up with it. He tried escaping three times and actually got jailed for it once," DeArmas says.

DeArmas, 37, sells real estate and -- like a lot of the younger Cuban generation in South Florida -- she doesn’t think normalizing relations with Cuba is necessarily a bad thing.

"Maybe I'm a little more modern," she says, acknowledging she had missed the experiences that had made some of her elders bitter and cynical. "Cubans in exile who actually came from over there a long time ago probably think along the lines - the government is going to take advantage of (the normalization of relations) and not the people."

DeArmas could have been talking about her own father, whom she describes as a typical Cuban hardliner. But even he is changing.

'Oh, let them lift the embargo, regardless.' Those were his thoughts. --Jaddrey DeArmas, of her father.

"We have Saturday backyard politics, and my dad talks about Cuba and it’s never going to change. He mentioned recently, 'Oh let them lift the embargo regardless.' Those were his thoughts," she says.

But a few miles south in Miami’s Little Havana, the familiar white-hot exile politics were on display. The Versailles restaurant is the unofficial town square where old-line Cuban exiles gather for political events. Not long after the president's speech, dozens had gathered to wave signs and shout their opposition.

"The situation is, Obama is conspiring with the Castro regime to lift the embargo," shouted Miguel Saavedra from beneath a sign that accused the president of colluding with assassins. Saavedra's take was that the president had conspired with the Castro government to end the embargo for reasons that have nothing to do with democracy and human rights. And by doing so, he said, Obama had broken the nation's rule against negotiating with terrorists.

The president's action did not lift the embargo, which only Congress can authorize. But he loosened it enough to allow some U.S. companies to sell construction and agriculture equipment to small businesses and farmers in Cuba.

Laura Vianello was unimpressed by the distance between lifting and loosening. A spokeswoman for the anti-Castro group Vigilia Mambisa, Vianello insisted the Cubans have done nothing to earn diplomatic recognition or embargo relief of any degree. She said the Castro government remains a military dictatorship that has not changed since the revolution.

"Every day, you can see women being beaten up - the Ladies in White," Vianello says, referring to a well-known Cuban opposition group made up of the wives and mothers of imprisoned dissidents. "This is just because a small group of American interests wants to make business in Cuba."

Appearing among the demonstrators at the Versailles, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado said Obama appeared to have forgotten the whole idea behind the embargo, which he understands was to pressure the Cuban government to allow free elections and respect human rights.

"That has not happened at all," the mayor said. "So, the United States has given a lot in exchange for nothing, and that's why people feel betrayed."

Regalado also worried that Cuba's release of American prisoner Alan Gross on the very day of the president's normalization announcement posed a threat to Americans traveling overseas.

"What I fear is that other countries will start arresting U.S. citizens to blackmail the U. S. and get what they want."

But, away from the demonstrations, some Cuban Americans seemed to be wondering how long the U.S. should maintain an embargo that has never worked.

"If you're on a diet for 54 years and you’re still overweight, it's time to try Plan B," said Key West City Commissioner Tony Yaniz. He arrived from Cuba with his family when he was 10 years old.

"To the naysayers I say, we've tried the other plan for a half century. Let’s try this for five years."

Back in Little Havana, there was general agreement that a new approach to Cuba is called for. But Vigilia Mambisa's Laura Vianello hasn't seen the right Plan B yet.

"Something has to change the right way, but not this way," Vianello says. "This is only for the few. This is not for the nation."

Nancy Klingener contributed reporting from Key West.