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We can't cancel Russia in Cuba — so we cancel Los Van Van in Miami

Dealin' with Darth Vader: Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.
Alexander Nemenov
Dealin' with Darth Vader: Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

COMMENTARY Russia's deeper presence in Cuba is a reminder that isolating the island — and canceling its artists — risks leaving the U.S. on the sidelines when its communist comandantes are gone.

Here’s one key absurdity we now know about Cuba: the island’s failed communist dictatorship would prefer to be an economic colony of Russia, rather than make any democratic or free-market changes that might move the U.S. to ease its economic embargo.

Here’s the other absurdity: the Cuban exile community here that dictates U.S. Cuba policy would prefer to see the island be a Russian economic colony, rather than engage the country in a way that could eventually help it move toward democracy and a free market.

That’s pretty much the absurd place things stand with Cuba at this moment. The regime just inked remarkable business deals with Russia — it’s even handing Russian investors unprecedented 30-year land leases — that all but make Vladimir Putin’s Darth Vader dictatorship a major stakeholder in an island of 11 million people 90 miles off Florida’s coast.

And America just needs to be fine with that. Because Miami is just fine with that.

Miami is fine with that because this is how Miami Cuba logic works: “You see, the fact that Cuba is so economically desperate it needs to invite Russia in to all but buy the island, as if it were part of a Caribbean fire sale, is proof the regime is set to fall any day, any second now. The Russia thing is just an uncomfortable but temporary blip. It’ll be over faster than you can say Nikita Khrushchev.”

READ MORE: Exiles should welcome Cuba's baseball team to Miami. As a prop, it's a hit

Do I hope Miami is right? Sure. Do I think Miami is right? Of course not. For 64 years, Miami has never ever been right about the imminent demise of Cuban communism. It’s not likely to be any more right this time. Kremlin Crutch 2.0 will keep the Havana regime on life support long enough so that Raúl Castro, Ramiro Valdés, José Ramón Machado — and all the other fossilized nonagenarian comandantes who still make Cuban apparatchiks quake in their guayaberas — can die thinking their ruinous revolution triumphed over el imperialismo yanqui.

But how do we know, when those dinosaurs are finally extinct, that the younger comunistas who survive them will suddenly turn away from the Russians? Or from the Chinese, Venezuelans, Iranians and other rogues who coddle Cuba to hassle America? How do we know those new Cuban leaders will turn around and embrace us?

We don’t. At all. And a big reason that question is more up in the air than a U-2 spy plane is that for the past six years the U.S., on Miami’s orders, has chosen again to isolate Cuba — and effectively close channels of engagement with the 50- and 60-somethings who’ll be calling the shots.

How do we know, when Cuba's dinosaurs are extinct, the younger comunistas who survive them will reject Russia to embrace us? We don't.

I’m of course not suggesting U.S. non-engagement excuses the regime’s more recent outrages — especially locking up a thousand people for 20 years for mass anti-government protesting in 2021. Still, I do think that when a regime is holding 11 million people hostage across the Florida Straits like that, it’s helpful to have the nearest hostage negotiator, the U.S., talking to it.

Over-the-top claims

Cuban salsa band Los Van Van
Los Van Van
Cuban salsa band Los Van Van

But instead of persuasion, Miami keeps employing petulance — like canceling last Friday’s Miami Beach performance by the renowned Cuban salsa band Los Van Van.

Cuban-American Miami Beach Commissioner Alex Fernandez takes credit for shutting down the show. When I asked him what geopolitical purpose is really served by pulling the plug on Cuban artists from the island, he voiced the standard concern — that money they earn here will find its way into the regime’s pockets there. But then he went hyperbolic.

“I'd do the same thing if a pro-Proud Boys band were playing here,” Fernandez told me, referring to the violent, white supremacist hate group.

In their earlier years, Los Van Van were indeed considered too silent about Cuba’s human rights darkness. In recent years their new leader, Samuel Formell, has publicly urged the regime to allow free elections and opposition parties. But either way, asserting that the apolitical Van Van are Cuban regime henchmen, the way unhinged rapper Kanye West is a Proud Boys booster, is the sort of over-the-top claim that has always undermined Miami’s influence inside Cuba, even with regime foes.

And I fear it’ll help diminish America’s influence with those younger Cuban apparatchiks when it’s their turn to choose between us and Russia.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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