Ending Insular Thinking

When I was a child, I learned a phrase that comes in handy during moments of stress. It is a Cuban-American mantra. It is simple, catchy and can be applied to any circumstance -- from accounting for the actions of a wayward child to explaining why you forgot to take out the garbage: La culpa de todo la tiene Fidel, Fidel is to blame for everything.

As with all oversimplifications, it contains a kernel of truth. Fidel Castro, now in open dotage, is the prime architect of the monumental calamity that has been visited upon my lovely little island for the past 55 years, and of the angst suffered by those of us who made away across the Straits.

Don't get me wrong, I am not laying all the responsibility upon his bearded head. Lord knows that there were, excuse the mixed metaphor, plenty of other cooks in the kitchen; crooked politicians, bloody dictators, ham-fisted American diplomats, imperialistic Marxists, starry-eyed lefties, hard-charging, butt-kicking right wingers, Latin American populists...the list goes on and on. It also includes, I am sorry to say -- and I will include myself in that definition -- the people of Cuba themselves. So here we are, after all these years, which have seen some seismic changes in world politics, and we find ourselves looking at one of the last extant examples of almost pure Communism so close to the U.S that if you are flying over the Florida Keys, you can see Miami and Havana in one sweep of the eye.

If you are a Miami Cuban of a certain age -- another category into which I will place myself -- you view this scene with a mix of sadness, nostalgia, frustration and more than a little anger. If you are a member of my generation -- the last generation to be born in Cuba prior to the Revolution -- you have a unique set of perspectives, experiences and biases that shape your reality; a narrative fashioned by memory and myth, fight and flight, betrayal and loss, and by a unique mix of Cuban birth and American values. It is this generation, the Last of the Mohicans, that have largely shaped the Cuban-American worldview, and to a large degree, U.S. policy toward Cuba.

As I became embroiled in that lamentable episode involving Elian Gonzalez (now a leading Cadre in the youth movement of the Cuban Communist party), I realized that Cuban-American views were difficult for others to understand, and like other ethnic and national minorities with narratives of loss and flight (African-Americans and the Jewish people come readily to mind), our collective pain did not generate automatic empathy in others.

So it is that we have built our own little insular world, structured around these all-important memories and overarching myths. However, in our case, by hard work, astuteness and plain dumb luck, we have been able to control one minuscule aspect of the vast power of America and for 55 years we have hung on to a theory of what is necessary to change the Cuban reality.

A substantial portion of Cuban-Americans (whether a majority or not is a subject of massive debate among followers of the Cuban reality) believe that maintaining the U.S. Embargo on Cuba is not only justified, but is a good strategy. Another considerable portion, a number that is very close to 50%, believe that the Embargo (or large segments of it) is at its best useless, and at its worst, counterproductive. I count myself among this latter group. While Cuban-Americans may be split on the embargo itself, we are absolutely in agreement that the Cuban government needs to stop repressing dissent, open itself to democratic change, and continue loosening its grip on the economy at a very rapid pace. With this in mind, it is not surprising that President Obama's announcement of renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba and a relaxation of the Embargo received quite a mixed reaction in Miami.

Viewed from a distance, the embargo does not make a lot of sense. If the purported intent of maintaining it is to foster democratic change in the island, then, as the Romans used to say, res ipsa loquitur; the thing speaks for itself. We sound downright silly when we argue passionately for maintaining an Embargo that is considerably tougher than the one imposed on North Korea (George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 2008...say whaaattt?!). Spoiler alert: Americans can travel freely to the Hermit Kingdom, where they run the risk of getting arrested for bringing a Bible along, but they have to jump through hoops and pay serious bucks to do a 90-mile trip under the auspices of "people to people travel" to get to Cuba, just to have a couple of mojitos while reminiscing about Ernest Hemingway.

The point is not to compare the relative merits, or lack thereof, of the North Korean regime v. the Cuban regime. The point is simply to understand that some Cuban-Americans have become trapped in their own reality, worthy as it may seem. Upon hearing the recent news, many of our elected representatives and community leaders have immediately jumped on the betrayal bandwagon. They hammer President Obama with epithets such as "appeaser in chief." This reaction is predictable, but nevertheless disappointing. It is a reminder of the fact that the so-called leaders of the Cuban-exile community have been singularly unsuccessful in adapting to a changing world and equally unsuccessful in using the tools of access and information to help Cubans on the island build a better future.

It is more comfortable, and more politically expedient, to be a mirror for a decrepit Marxist regime and stay fossilized in the 1960s than to dare to take steps in the direction of being hard on the problem and soft on the people. All of us -- those on the island ruling by intimidation and manipulation, and those across the Straits, clinging to a failed, counterproductive policy -- now need to move on and free ourselves from the tight little box of insular thinking.

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.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com (subject line: "90 Miles").