Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute

Tulane University

Romi González's Response on Hearing New Cuba Policy Announcement

January 8th, 2015

by Romi González

Upon hearing that President Barack Obama had announced a major shift towards the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, my initial feeling was one of relief, as if a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders. Then my thoughts turned to the recurring question: why has it taken so long?

Just a few days before Obama’s announcement, I had run into a colleague who had recently visited Cuba with a group of New Orleans attorneys. He asked me whether I agreed with the “things that were going on down there”. Thinking he was referring to the steady stream of reforms and adjustments which should have alerted all to some type of imminent engagement between the U.S. and Cuba, I answered that I did. He then launched into a tirade against the Cuban government, echoing some of the worn and frayed soundbites which I recognized as the usual litany used by local anti-Castro Cuban-Americans to deride any notion of engagement towards Cuba.

I forced myself to walk away from the discussion.

The “burden” President Obama has lifted from many of us in the exile community has to do with freedom, particularly the freedom of expression.
This is why.

Many Cuban exiles have recognized for years and years that the U.S. embargo and travel ban are failed policies which must be ended. As I, they have recognized that these punitive relics from the cold war have done nothing to accomplish the regime change they were designed for. On the other hand, they have provided great benefits to powerful interest groups on both sides of the Florida straits and have handed Cuba an excuse for its glaring shortcomings. Meanwhile, it keeps the Cuban population in a wretched state while it awaits change. Anyone with any semblance of humanity must recognize that you cannot allow the obsessive hatred of the demonized Fidel Castro to continue adversely impacting the lives of the 11 million persons stranded on that island. Engagement with China, Russia, Vietnam and others has worked. Why not Cuba (regardless of Florida’s electoral votes)?
Although many Cuban-Americans in this country have understood this for years, they have silently “walked away from the discussion”, lest they be branded as communists” or worse.

Certainly, the curtailment of freedom of thought and expression in the exile community has rivaled the excessive measures of the most oppressive days of the Castro regime. The anti-Castro extremists in the exile community have been ruthless. In Miami pro-engagement advocates have been the object of bombings, seen their businesses and homes burned and suffered a marginalization which has savaged careers and families. In New Orleans, these tactics have been emulated. A prominent banker’s life and job were threatened when he dared to announce a trade mission to Cuba. When I was asked to speak of the historical ties between New Orleans and Havana at Spring Hill College in Mobile during a Cuba Trade Conference, my uptown residence was rolled in toilet paper two weekends in a row. Since I began visiting Cuba in the mid 1990’s, many of my Cuban friends have not spoken to me. The most vindictive even undermine the non-profit efforts I undertake.

Let me be clear, I am not an apologist for the Castro regime. I fully understand and respect that Cuban expatriates can never forgive Castro for the pain the diaspora has wrought on all of us. It has to be frustrating not to see one’s homeland, in order to achieve even some degree of closure. Some exiles are barred from returning by the transgressions of relatives, who reaped big profits backing the hated Batista dictatorship, the greed and corruption of which engendered the 1950’s revolution and gave us Castro. Personally, I have long held the position that salutary change in Cuba required a policy of open, respectful engagement between these two sovereign nations. I also recognize that the changes need to be gradual in order to avoid the chaos that sudden departures from authoritarian or paternalistic societies has wrought in other countries, from Spain to Russia and beyond. Remember, Cuba did not inherit a model of governance from the Spanish, who jealously held its colony until 1898. Since it was declared a “free” republic by the U.S. victors in 1904 (with benefits retained), Cuba has not been able to design a workable democracy, suffering through a series of less than independent governments which do not inspire praise or mention. In short, it has not been allowed to evolve as a nation.

A Cuban friend once told me that I could not comment on the Cuban condition for my family had “not lost enough” to the Revolution! Certainly, my family did not lose great wealth to the Revolution. My father was the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Cuba and my mother’s father had been the Episcopal Archdeacon of Havana. They were not in an accumulation of wealth business. Unlike the many families that fled the island after the overthrow of Batista, my parents chose to send my sister and I on to the United States but stayed behind to try to hold their beloved church together against the wave of official atheism. The embargo hurt them deeply and my father had to steer the church towards self-sufficiency when the mother church in the U.S. was forced to cut off funding. The travel ban kept us from visiting mother before she died. Only the intervention by the British ambassador in Havana allowed my father to join us in New Orleans days before his death. These losses cannot
be quantified. Excuse me if I feel a right to speak out.

As for the future, I will continue to help revitalize the Episcopal Church in Cuba, concentrating on the construction of a summer camp/conference center in central Cuba (Las Villas). I am also a member of the planning committee of the CUBA-HOY Conference, to be held in Havana next March.
The event, which has been certified for CLE credit by the Louisiana Bar Association, will address the new property law changes in Cuba, oil& gas, historic preservation and the environment. Hopefully, it will help my adopted State of Louisiana position itself for future trade and commerce with its pre-1959 #1 trading partner. After all, Louisiana has suffered as much from the embargo as Cuba has, perhaps the main catalyst of New Orleans’ loss of its historical position as the “Gateway to the Americas.”

President Obama is the 10th U.S. president who has struggled with the Cuba issue. He has taken bold steps to try to bring the people of Cuba back into the league of civilized nations with a measure of dignity. We will see what emerges from the cocoon. I hope that Cuba is given a chance to gradually evolve. I pray that the hate and hostility, which has been displayed by both sides of the struggle, subsides and a working model emerges which respects the basic human rights and freedoms treasured by every society. Cuba must sink or swim, without undue, outside influences. The results may surprise us. It may be naïve to think that Obama’s Cuba initiatives will really relieve the oppressive burden exerted by anti-Castro militants on the progressive thinking members of the exile. Nevertheless, after Obama’s focusing announcement their self-serving tantrums in the name of freedom and democracy just do not ring true anymore and the repressed segments of the exile community are letting out all the thoughts they had long repressed.

In any case, one can bet that the future of Cuba will be rocky if not tumultuous. “You can gather Cubans but never unite them”. So sayeth the satirical “Prophet” of Luis Aguilar Leon when asked to comment on the dual character of the Cubans – who “know the answer to the question before it is asked” The Prophet points out that in a discussion Cubans can not say “I do not agree,” they categorically state “you are completely and totally wrong” – this is why a Cuban knows he “can accomplish anything in this world, except gain the applause of another Cuban”! This is our Cuba and it may never change…

Now, how long will it take for Congress to lift the embargo?

ROMI GONZÁLEZ is a Havana-born, Tulane Law School graduate and a long-term friend of the Cuban and Caribbean Institute. Since being admitted to the Louisiana Bar in 1973, he has practiced law in the city of New Orleans with a general civil practice, including immigration matters, serving a local and international clientele. He has served as an advisor to numerous civic, political and educational persons and organizations on international matters and founded and presided over the first local Latin American Chamber of Commerce, which was part of the Greater New Orleans Chamber of Commerce for a number of years.