From Capitol Hill To Little Havana, Cuban-Americans Split On President's Cuba Visit

Feb 18, 2016

Back in December, in an interview with Yahoo! News, President Obama said this about the possibility that he'd visit Cuba in 2016:

“I am very much interested in going to Cuba, but I think the conditions have to be right.”

Most people thought he meant he first wanted to see more democratic and economic change on the socialist island. Since then, Cuban President Raúl Castro hasn’t announced any sort of reforms like freer political speech, multi-party elections or full Internet access.

But on Thursday Obama confirmed on Twitter that he will make a two-day visit to Cuba next month - insisting it will "advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people.

"We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly," he added. "America will always stand for human rights."

Not surprisingly, reaction here in South Florida was swift. But it was hardly monolithic.

RELATED: President Obama To Make Historic - If Controversial - Visit to Cuba Next Month

From Miami Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: “I think it’s a slap in the face to all the victims of [Cuban] tyranny." 

But from former Miami Congressman Joe Garcia: “Barack Obama gives hope to millions of Cubans who have wanted change.”

It's a slap in the fact to all the victims of Cuban tyranny. -Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Both Ros-Lehtinen and Garcia are Cuban-Americans. But they reflect the divide in that community over Obama’s year-long project to normalize relations with Cuba, which were severed in 1961.

Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, represents Florida’s 27th congressional district. She staunchly opposes Obama’s new Cuba policy - and she says his Cuba trip betrays what he suggested in December: That Cuba should offer more change before a U.S. president takes the historic step of going there.

Barack Obama gives hope to millions of Cubans who have wanted change. -Joe Garcia

“I’m really disappointed that the President is going to Cuba right now, when there’s been a massive increase in the number of detentions, arbitrary arrests," she told WLRN.

"Nothing in Cuba has changed. So I think it’s the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. We’re demanding nothing of the Castro regime.”

Nor does Ros-Lehtinen believe that the President’s presence in Cuba will help galvanize change there.

“Popes have come and gone through Cuba, and some prisoners are released," she said. "And after the popes leave, those people are re-arrested.

"And the same will happen with President Obama’s visit. Some good will come out of it, but only a temporary good, because the usual suspects will be rounded up and jailed again.”

Garcia, a Democrat, is running again for the 26th-District congressional seat he lost two years ago. He too once opposed engagement with Cuba – but eventually decided that the half-century-long strategy of isolating the island had failed.

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Garcia concedes normalization hasn’t exactly turned Cuba into a capitalist democracy yet. But he rejects the notion that Obama had no rationale for deciding it was time to go to Cuba.

"The reality is things have changed [in Cuba]," he told WLRN. "You're seeing more civil society, more space, more dissident groups and more conflict [with the government]. Things that did not happen in Cuba 20 years ago, [that] didn't happen 10 years ago or you'd get a 20-year sentence, today [they] happen every single day.

"And by the way: small businesses, entrepreneurs - and we've got to give those people more oxygen, more opportunity, so that they can carve a space for themselves in Cuba."

What's more, Garcia does believe that Obama touching down in Havana can generate the kind of momentum for change that three popes couldn’t. Especially since he’ll be accompanied by his globally popular First Lady Michelle Obama.

Cuban President Raul Castro (left) and U.S. President Barack Obama meeting at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last year.
Credit Andrew Harnik / AP via Miami Herald

“Barack Obama is 20 points more popular than any leader within Cuba – a country which has said [the U.S.] is a racist nation, that this is a country that doesn’t give opportunities," Garcia said.

"Here’s an African-American, a vibrant young president. [Cubans have] an octogenarian that’s barely holding on to a country whose economy is collapsing. Listen: Cuba has nowhere to turn but here.”

This debate isn’t just playing out in the halls of Congress. On the ground in Miami, regular Cuban-Americans are also trying to absorb the enormity of the first visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. head of state in almost 90 years.

Obama supporter Eduardo Paz pondered it while eating lunch at the El Exquisito restaurant Thursday in Little Havana.

“Like the [re-establishment] of diplomatic ties between the two countries, it’s another positive step," said Paz. "So the next administration that comes would have a harder time rolling that back.”

But John Suarez, a leader at the Cuban Democratic Directorate in Miami, disagrees.

“I think it’s lamentable," Suarez said, "because President Obama is going to be legitimizing and being received by a military dictator.”

Suarez was referring to Castro – with whom Obama will meet during his March 21st and 22nd visit, as well as dissidents and members of civil society.

But the Rolling Stones will be performing in Havana the night before Obama arrives, and the Tampa Bay Rays will play an exhibition baseball game against the Cuban national team while he’s there.

So at least he’ll have backup.

WLRN intern Kate Stein contributed to this report.