The United States dissolved diplomatic ties with the Republic of Cuba in 1961, enforcing a crippling and widespread economic embargo. President Obama reversed this policy on December 17. In an address to the nation, Obama outlined the reopening of diplomatic relations and lifting of the embargo – including lifting many travel restrictions and outlining plans for an embassy in Havana. The announcement has thrown the political world into a frenzy, but I spoke to one Cuban refugee who said the new policy is “smartest way to approach the island.”
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) December 19, 2014
As the U.S.-Cuba deal flooded my news streams, I read many negative critiques of the President’s diplomatic deal, many coming from Cubans in America. I thought it couldn’t be possible that so many Cubans could be so wholly opposed to a deal I believe holds such potential for the island nation.
Because I work in a refugee resettlement agency, I work closely with many Cuban asylees, parolees and refugees daily. I decided to seek out a Cuban woman named Carmen Luisa Arias Pérez, who I knew would speak her mind. Her stories of Cuba and opinions on the diplomatic policy helped to shed a hopeful light on the deal.
Pérez is a 34-year-old biologist from Holguín, Cuba. She presented herself to the United States on the Canadian border on July 27 as a political asylee. She originally moved to Charlotte, N.C. to live with a friend but later moved to Louisville, K.Y.
Carmen left Cuba for two reasons: first, to study in Canada and Mexico as part of her Masters’ program; second, she said, because she did not agree with the Cuban government, and that meant her professional development would have been stopped in its tracks.
Carmen is considered a political dissenter. After completing her initial graduate program in biology, Carmen’s activities in Cuba began to alert the government. She began speaking and meeting with people already known for dissidence and rejected her invitation to join the Communist Party, which all Cubans of the youth Communist organization are expected to join at the age of 30. At a meeting with party members, Carmen spoke out against many policies of the nation including education, civil and gender rights and low salaries. One week later, she received a letter informing her she was dismissed from her career.
Carmen was also involved in signing a petition of rights, which she believed was very neutral about potential improvements in Cuban civil society. Unfortunately, the petition was a trap, a sort of hunt for dissenters by the Seguridad del Estado en Cuba (essentially, Cuba’s FBI).
Carmen decided to leave, and had her friend in Mexico arrange her papers for a Masters’ program in Canada and Mexico. She left for that program, and once it was complete decided to stay in the United States.
Carmen is clear that the Cuban state was neither openly violent or even particularly forthright with its people. Instead, the government enforces sublte and psychological repression.
“You are not prosecuted for thinking differently,” she said. “But they will construct a crime and get you for that… [Cuba keeps] us healthy, peaceful, ignorant and busy.”
Despite her feelings towards the Cuban government, Pérez is optimistic about Obama’s plans for Cuba, describing the policy as the “smartest way to approach the island, to penetrate the dictatorship, and to make the Cuban people more able to communicate out.” She believes this new policy and a U.S. embassy in Havana will finally give the people a voice. Most positively, she is confident this policy will greatly help to lessen the censorship on information.
“It is stupid to keep Cuba blocked,” she said. “You aren’t damaging the Castros. The embargo had no positive effect.”
She believes the embargo furthered troubles of the Cuban people: hunger, lack of information, poor education. It is not a flame for revolution, as some have suggested, but rather it “humiliates” the people.
“You’re taking the strength of the people to fight against the government,” she said. “They are only focused [economically] on survival.”
Pérez said the economic blockage was used as the main blame for all the troubles of Cuba. Every fail was justified by the embargo, which helped to build up hatred towards America. But now this leaves Cuba with no justification. This new policy, she says, “will open eyes blinded for 50 years.”
Carmen also believes that the United States will benefit from the deal. She said while Russia’s Vladimir Putin has long been a strong voice in Cuba, the new policy will allow the United States to edge in on his territory. And while she said that many Cubans will continue to come to the U.S. as political asylees, the number will curb as the economy of Cuba improves.
This is also a way to keep the enemy close, she said: “The enemy of the U.S. government is the same of the Cuban people: the Cuban government.” She believes this isn’t a show of support for the Castro dictatorship, but rather a “way to let the Cuban people breathe.”
As for Cuban President Raul Castro, she believes this is his ticket to altering international opinion of Cuba. Castro, she said, knows the tyrannical government won’t last much longer. This way he can have a hand in supervising and negotiating the transition, all while making himself a place in history for normalizing relations.
Carmen believes the people of Cuba will find themselves with choices to make that they’ve never been confronted with before. The environment and integrity of Cuban society will fall into the hands of the Cuban people as the U.S. looks to economic development and investment within the small nation.
“It’s possible people don’t know what to and not to protect,” she said. “It’s a social experiment… [There must be] cooperation of Cubans in and out of the country with a patriotic obligation to protect Cuba from bad change.”
Most importantly, Carmen highlighted the need for improvement in the education system, saying that reduced teacher salaries have lead to a “mediocrity” of instruction.
“We have to reeducate people – the people who will rebuild the country in 10 to 20 years,” she said.
While Pérez is confident about the future of the Cuban people, she isn’t happy with her past and described herself as a “coward.”
“We don’t stay or try to make the change [but] fight and protect yourself outside of the country,” she said. “We just can’t forget.”
While I sympathize with her point, I have to disagree. Pérez is far from cowardly. The Cuban people are extremely courageous in the face of oppression, and their love for their nation runs deeper than Castro’s hands of power. Given their bloody past, they desire a peaceful transition into Democracy, and new diplomatic exchanges will only clear their eyes further.