We all remember certain moments in our lives that mark us forever. Falling in love. Losing a parent. That first job. That first kiss. For myself, much of my childhood revolved around my parents' stories of Cuba: Years in exile going into decades, the many loved ones who did not live to see this day and were buried in a foreign land while that cherished bottle of champagne lingered in the kitchen cabinet. Absurdly enough, I never met my paternal grandparents due to the U.S. and Cuba's constant bickering with each other.
Aside from Fidel Castro and his handiwork on my family's world, I also remember constantly moving from place to place, thus being "the new kid in town" over and over again. I remember being asked about my funny accent, facing down young bigots in school who'd tell me to "go back to Cuba" because I didn't "belong" here. That my being born in New York City should be some kind of fluke that did not explain why I was not a "real American."
But most of all I remember my mother's stories of working in Castro's forced labor camps, where she raised pigs in broad sunlight, even as she developed skin cancer. Of having to defecate down a hole in the ground full of toads, creatures that had scared her to death since childhood. The Castro regime couldn't afford portable toilets, you see.
Or my father leaving for New York City so he could undergo polio surgery, which was not an option for anyone opposed to Castro's regime. My father left on the day the Communists arrived on his doorstep to induct him into Castro's militia and then be sent off to kill "enemies of the Revolution" in places like Angola or the Congo region in Africa. These same men once put a gun to his head, not because my father was pro-Batista, as he was anything but political. His crime was attending church as a Catholic when he was a mere 16-year-old.
Imagine living your childhood listening to stories like these. Of dire threats and intimidation. Of suicides caused by desperation among those exiles who could not deal with leaving their loved ones behind. Some eventually found success in their adopted homelands, primarily Spain and the United States. But for the majority of exiles, it has all been a prolonged and nerve-wracking wait.
You never know what you'll wake up to nowadays. Further cementing his 2008 campaign promise of delivering change, President Barack Obama has restored diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, breaking through 53 years of gridlock just as easily as he did the color barrier in taking office.
Reaction is mixed, as expected. Democrat Senator Bob Menendez, himself a Cuban, has criticized Obama for exchanging three captured Cuban spies for American hostage Alan Gross and an unnamed intelligence agent. But the Mariel generation has seemingly aged enough to shift political stances in the Democrats' favor, a fact that came through clearly during the last two presidential elections. Even older hardliners have been rethinking their views towards U.S.-Cuba policy. This hasn't stopped the Republicans and many of their Cuban loyalists from crying foul, although some of the new blood -- such as Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky -- has broken with fellow Tea Party stalwart Marco Rubio by supporting Obama's attempt at dusting off American Détente policy and Soviet Glastnost approaches. To be sure, only time will tell how the coming shifts in policy affect the Castro regime. Nobody is expecting free elections, but it's clear that the road has been paved for an economic scenario not unlike that of China and Vietnam, leaving North Korea as the lone girl at the prom that nobody wants to dance with.
It's important to note that Republicans Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger established precedents in 1972 by visiting Brezhnev's Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's Red China. Democrat Jimmy Carter later broke ties with Taiwan in order to give communist mainland China its coveted Most Favored Nation status. And I doubt that many Millennials will be aware that Vietnam was once considered such a threat to U.S. national security that we waged a costly and seemingly endless war that in the end, amounted to nothing but thousands of casualties.
Given Obama's secretive nature, this was likely a task long in the making. It amazes me that he managed to keep it under wraps for so long, but few things should surprise me regarding our 44th president. Indeed, it reminds one of the Osama bin Laden manhunt and eventual killing. Obama announced the recent historic decision on Cuba on Pope Francis' 78th birthday, which is also no mere coincidence, given that the first Hispanic pontiff played an important role behind the scenes, encouraging both Obama and Raul Castro in approaching each other.
The end results? I expect that Cuba will finally go the way of China, with little progress in regards to free elections or speech or anything remotely resembling a full democracy. The Chinese have been keeping Wal-Mart on top of the world for years now, yet they were cracking heads in Hong Kong only a few weeks back in a violent and extremely disappointing throwback to the Tiananmen Square debacle of 25 years ago. Russia has long shed its Soviet past but is now led by a Castro-like strongman in the form of Vladimir Putin.
On the other hand, I also envision the likes of Starbucks setting up shop in Havana and adding genuine Cuban coffee to its menu. In return, the imported cigar trade will boom like weed in the state of Colorado once the floodgates have opened. Wall Street will surely benefit like gangbusters. And since everything in life always comes down to money, once that particular ball starts rolling, nothing in this world will stop it.
I was born an idealist and I shall likely die as one. Every once in a while, corporate interests interlock with humanism and the results prove favorable to both parties. Imagine a Cuba with modern skyscrapers, 2015 model cars and beyond roaming newly paved city streets, and a vigorous nightlife resembling that of Monaco or Dubai. Imagine the Isle of Youth transformed into a Caribbean version of hedonistic Ibiza. The possibilities in all of these areas are endless.
In the end, it seems that Cuba's metamorphosis from a land hopelessly stuck in time (1959 to be exact) may just make a bloodless entry into something resembling a 21st century society, and less so the Third World country that has been largely ignored by most of the planet for more than six decades. This was always the only logical course of action. All that it needed was a forward-looking statesman who would give a damn about the island. Obama has proven to be that man, and his name will go down in history alongside those of McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, JFK and Carter, be it for better or worse depending on your point of view.
Spain, which is no stranger to regime change, is calling this the beginning of Cuba's equivalent of their own post-Franco Transition. Both their major right and left political parties are praising the decisions Obama has set in motion. Personally, most of what is happening has yet to settle in. Regardless, I see the first sights of a brighter future for the country of my forebears.
Fear no more the heat of the sun. The endless wait for someone to turn the page on Fidel Castro's mockery of a revolution has finally arrived. I only wish that more people who long fought for this day had lived to see it. They would likely be as shocked as I am at present, but they would also have shared something many Cubans are experiencing tonight: The encouragement of hope and the promise of change.
Thank you, President Obama. Thank you, Pope Francis.
It's a far better time to be alive now.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
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