Category Archives: Cuba in Miami

Love and loathing in Latin America’s second capital (it’s Miami)

Last week, Miami Marlins’ manager Ozzie Guillén told Time magazine that he “loves” Fidel Castro, and saluted the elderly leader for his many successes at avoiding assassination. “I respect Fidel,” Guillén said. “That son-of-a-bitch is still here.” This unleashed a supposedly deafening outcry in south Florida, prompting the Marlins to suspend Ozzie for five games, and eliciting a public, very emotional mea culpa from the loud-mouthed manager to the community that he now calls home.

Right-wing bloggers in Miami are calling the public fury over Guillén’s comments evidence that the conservative Cuban-American community in Latin America’s “second capital” is as loud and strong as ever. But talk of the incident on social media indicated that this infamous constituency is, as we’ve known for a while, not the only one in Miami that cares about Cuba-related issues.

Late last week I conducted an informal content analysis of tweets posted from April 11-14 that contained references to Guillén (with and without hashtag #OzzieGuillen), in both Spanish and English. While there were plenty of tweets that berated Ozzie for being insensitive to Cuban exiles, or mockingly suggested that he probably thinks Adolph Hitler was “the best,” the majority of Guillén-related tweets took a different tone. A few people joked that, thanks to Guillén, George Zimmerman had been demoted to “second most wanted man in Florida.” Most users either forgave him for being a loose cannon, or shook a finger at the Marlins for undermining Ozzie’s right to free speech. Many called the move hypocritical. Cuba-American Miami Herald columnist Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) tweeted:

RE: Ozzie Guillen saying he loves or respects Fidel Castro, my folks brought me to U.S. so I’d could speak my mind. Others get same right.

There was not quite the groundswell around the “boycott the Marlins” or “fuera Ozzie” sentiment on which the mainstream press so dutifully reported.

On YouTube, videos of an anti-Ozzie demonstration outside of Marlins’ stadium show a group of about a hundred people milling around with “Fuera Ozzie” signs and occasionally shouting the same. At one moment, they come together and begin shouting “boycott” as fifteen or twenty cameramen document the scene. Most of the people in the video are retirement age—there is one prominent woman who appears to be in her thirties, but the group otherwise supports the notion that Miami’s conservative exile community is getting old, and that younger generations are not joining the ranks of what I have come to think of as the “old” guard.

I see no connection between Guillén’s politics and his formidable ability to manage a baseball team. Guillén has obviously done nothing wrong. But I don’t live in under a rock—constitutional and civil rights are not exactly held in high order in Florida these days, and in the Miami exile community, the rules of the game are somewhat different. As a private employer, the Marlins had the right to suspend Ozzie, and they didn’t do it because they care about his politics—they did it because they can’t afford to lose ticket-buyers over the incident. The tide may be turning in Miami, but there are still thousands of fans who are upset about this and will probably show it by giving up their season tickets this year. Local politicians can’t afford it either—the Marlins’ new stadium was built with local tax dollars, and taxpayers are perfectly aware of this.

I recognize that the conservative exile voice remains extremely powerful in Miami, but I’ve come to suspect that this power lies mainly in the hands of political and business elites, and an aging group of “hardliners”–these folks represent some portion of the population, but not all of it. When President Obama carried Miami-Dade county with 58% of the vote in Miami-Dade county in 2008, it became clear that some kind of shift is underway. I hope that what Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites showed last week is evidence that this is not just a liberal media myth, but a sign of a different generation with a different outlook towards Cuba, and towards Washington. I also hope that traditional media folks (I’m looking at you, @Inquirer_2012 and @MedillWatchdog) can heed this as a little lesson in how social media can augment and diversify their coverage of public opinion on red hot controversies like this one.

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After Fidel?

I took an extended vacation from blogging this summer,* and this felt okay until last week, when someone tweeted that Fidel Castro had died. My rational mind knew that this was probably not true. The likelihood that the news of Fidel’s death would hit Twitter before international news sources seemed slim, and false rumors of Fidel’s death have circulated in the past. But this didn’t stop the rest of my brain from zooming away into a strange, frantic oblivion where I began to sweat, as if I had a fever coming on. A friend had texted me the news and I raced to Google to find that the rumor had already been squashed. It took several minutes for my heart rate to return to normal.

What caused this to happen? I am not Cuban, nor do I live in Cuba. The effects of Fidel’s death, when it does come, will be indirect for me. They will not mean a change in my way of life, an end or a beginning in my path. It will be an intellectually overwhelming thing, and an emotional one. But it is the uncertainty of what will follow that sent me down this road.

Photo by Leon Kasparov, CC BY-NC-SA

Fidel’s death won’t be like the many events over the years that have caused Washington wonks to gather task forces on post-socialist societies, exiles to gas up their motor boats for a 90-mile trip and resort executives to pack their guayaberas up and book a seat on the next charter flight to José Martí Airport. These moments—Mariel, the balsero crisis, the collapse of the USSR—came and went, but Fidel and the revolution continued onward. Somehow, Fidel’s strange combination of shrewd and misguided policy efforts have pulled the nation along, but Cuba’s survival isn’t just about policy—it is rooted in the complex, wondrous dimension of Fidel as a political and spiritual leader.

I had the great privilege at the University of Chicago of studying with the Mexican journalist and memoirist Alma Guillermoprieto, who has written several fine essays on el comandante. She opened a 1998 New York Review of Books essay on Fidel in old age with the following sentence:

“If you are in the neighborhood of forty years old and Cuban, Fidel Castro has been at the center of your heart and thoughts, for however small a second, each day of your life.”

So what happens when this omnipresent, unavoidable leader, the father of Cuba’s national project, is suddenly gone? When that leader—whose voice has dominated the radio and the pages of the newspaper for decades, whose face appears everywhere on paper, concrete, the walls of giant cement apartment buildings and on the chests of young men proud of their leader or uncertain of how to do anything but show love for the patria by burning an image into their skin—is suddenly gone, it will be a shock. Identities, opinions, morals, life goals are all built around an idea about Fidel, whether you love him or despise him or fall somewhere in between. He has often been compared to a religious figure—he has been worshiped and loathed and mythologized in a way that is much more personal, much more spiritual, than any other political leader in recent history.

I’m not sure what will happen when Fidel dies, and I’m scared to find out. To think that  his absence will instantly give rise to a tide of liberty for Cubans is too simple. Of course I think things need to change in Cuba. I have written in the past about how difficult (and necessary) it will be for Cuba to re-structure the state so that it does not control every good and every industry and every activity down to the level of bicycles and ice cream and shoe repairmen. But I don’t see Fidel’s death as the key to these kinds of changes. There is no guarantee on this great improvement in the lives of Cubans that so many people assume will follow.

And then there is the question of identity, of what will happen to the island’s social fabric when this person is suddenly gone. Who will you spend your time hating? At whom will you direct your salute? Who will you worship? From a policy perspective, it’s going to be difficult. Spiritually, it may be even more complex.

*I spent most of this summer on an unexpected break from half-wired. I finished my work in Chicago, packed up my things, moved to San Francisco, and began a job with the Center for Democracy and Technology. July and August took more out of me than I expected. But half-wired is now officially back in action.

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All politics are local, and maybe personal too

When I met Roger, a blogger and IT specialist in Cuba, we sat and talked in a little park in Old Havana and then walked down Calle Obispo, a bustling commercial walking street. A man called out to Roger and he recognized him immediately. They hugged and talked and Roger gave him his phone number. They made plans to get together later in the week. We said goodbye, and continued walking.

“He’s an old friend,” he said to me. “He went to Germany six years ago. This is the first time I’ve seen him since. But then we got in touch on Facebook last year.” Roger talked about how for his entire life, when friends left the island, it was as if they had disappeared or died.

“You would expect never to hear from them or see them again,” he told me. This has been a common experience of Cubans for many generations. But it has begun to change as Cubans have gained more opportunities to communicate online. Friends who had “disappeared” suddenly have begun to reappear as Cubans on and off the island have built (or re-built) their social and familial connections, often with the help of social networking platforms. Roger was not the only Cuban person who told me stories of using social media to reconnect, and in some cases reconcile political differences, with friends and family members who have emigrated or sought exile to other countries.

There is no question that while Facebook remains inaccessible for most Cubans, it is another example of how technology is helping to repair connections between people on and off the island. While it’s often exagerrated in popular rhetoric, Cuba’s isolation from much of the world, and particularly the US, has had a powerful impact not only on the nation’s economy, but also on its social fabric. This has, in turn, impacted public sentiment about Cuba in a powerful way.

As families and friends find more ways to communicate and reconnect, this eventually reverberates within a broader discussion about policy, particularly in places like Miami. I understand that this isn’t seen as being important in way that the critical blogosphere is, but I think it deserves to be included in the broader discussion about how new media is impacting change in Cuban communities, both on and off the island.

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This Cold War isn’t over yet

This week on Global Voices I interviewed Tracey Eaton, a journalist and blogger who recently began the Cuba Money Project, a non-profit research and reporting initiative that aims to investigate and bring greater transparency and accountability to US federal spending on ‘pro-democracy’ programs in Cuba.

I focused on the Cuba Money Project’s Vimeo channel, a telling archive of interviews that Eaton has conducted with people on all sides of the opposition movement, both in Cuba in the US. The interviews defy the common assumption that there is a single narrative, or a black and white, to the relationship between Cuba and the US today. Cubans that Eaton interviews express a diverse range of emotions about politics on the island—there is frustration, ire, ambivalence, and among some, fervent support for the revolutionary government.

Tracey Eaton interviewing a man in Baracoa, Cuba. Posted with permission of Eaton.

¿Cambio con qué?

In practice, the majority of these funds are allotted for opposition groups, but the range of recipients is impressive—on one end of the spectrum, there are initiatives to support important causes like LGBT rights and benefits for the physically disabled, and on the other, there are Miami-based groups manufacturing condoms with the word “cambio” (change) printed on them and shipping them off the Cuba.

In another example, a youth group in Havana received help from a USAID subcontractor to organize a rap concert. I question the value of this. Scholars like Sujatha Fernandes have done well to document the political role of rap and hip-hop in Cuban society, which the government has come to accept and sometimes support since the late 1990s. In brief, she argues that these art forms function as a socio-political “release valve” or space where Cuban youth can express and share their frustrations through music, rather than through much more dangerous and controversial activities of political demonstration.

My sense overall is that some of the programs that USAID funds are fine, and probably providing much-needed resources to Cubans. Others are misguided, and reflect a significant lack of understanding of life on the island. But all of these are overshadowed by the funds allocated to opposition groups.

What is certain, and what Eaton’s research speaks to, is that programs funded by the US in Cuba are politically untenable from the start. In most (if not all) cases, it is illegal under Cuban law for Cubans to accept financial support from US government agencies, because this money is seen as a means of supporting subversive activity on the island. Government agencies can say all they want about helping Cubans to “freely determine their own future,” but the fact is that these programs have not changed very much since their express, stated purpose was to undermine the Castro government. In Cuba, ‘pro-democracy’ is just another way of saying ‘counterrevolutionary.’

“Rights come out of histories”

One of the most powerful commentaries in the Cuba Money Project interviews comes from John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for ending the embargo. McAuliff, who has worked on issues related to US-Cuba relations for over twenty years, seems to be one of few voices on the US side that understands what it may take for the relationship between the two countries to change.

[The US] seems to insist on [carrying out programs that provoke] the most basic nationalist reaction…[this] discredits the US, discredits the Cubans who work with the US…[And these programs] are tied with the legitimate Cuban suspicion that US policy is still grounded in an effort to create system change if not regime change in Cuba.

“Rights come out of histories,” McAuliff says. He talks about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, and invokes the Civil Rights movement in the US, calling on viewers to think about how strange it is that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society.

If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.

Eaton asks McAuliff how the US should proceed. We must begin, McAuliff says, by respecting Cuban sovereignty, no matter how strongly we disagree with Cuban law and policy.

You have to do it starting on the premise of their history and respecting who they are. […] [The US] has to say, ‘we’re not going to put programs in your country unless you find them acceptable.’

Opposition support as political discrimination

I can’t overstate the irony here: the supporters of these programs are desperately seeking ways to funnel money to Cuban dissidents, while we simultaneously cling to a failed trade embargo that makes it impossible for most Americans to spend any money in Cuba at all.

If we really want to help Cubans “freely determine their own future,” we may need to take the long road and find a way to lift the trade embargo. This would drastically impact the Cuban economy and the ability of all Cubans to access capital, goods, and technological tools. Right now, by sending money and supplies only to those who are openly involved in opposition work, we are stoking the anger of the Cuban government, and simultaneously carrying out a policy of discrimination.

What of those Cubans who simply want better lives? Or those who want information technologies because they want to learn more about the world, or to share information with one another? It seems unfair, and politically ignorant, to focus our efforts on a marginal sector of the population that has never been able to consolidate broad support on the island.

This would take time, but it would bring change to Cuba in a way that ‘pro-democracy’ programs never will. The US Congress should find a way to shift its focus from politics to policy: discontinue programs that send money to Cuba in violation of Cuban law, and lift the trade embargo. Then we just might be looking at a clean slate.

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It’s hard to bite the hand that feeds you

In my last post, I argued that Cuba’s lack of a real civil society creates a poor groundwork from which social movements could develop on the island. But behind this, and every potential outlet for change to occur, lies the state.

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel satisfied by my understanding of how the Cuban state operates and how it shapes Cuban society. Since I began studying Cuba, I’ve had a break through every few months, in which I feel like I’ve made progress, like another piece of the puzzle has fallen into place. But I doubt that it will ever be complete. I don’t think I’m alone in this. The people and the state share more common ground in Cuba than they do in almost any other country on earth. Continue reading

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Cuba is not Egypt (and Miami is not Cuba)

In the last few weeks, reports of Egypt’s revolution, ranging from NYT articles to the ecstatic messages of MENA region bloggers on the Global Voices author listserv, have left me amazed and heartened by what has happened in Egypt. But as far as Cuba goes, I (oddly) find myself in agreement with the Miami Herald‘s editorial page: Cuba is no Egypt.

Last week, a number of voices in the blogosphere suggested that if Cubans had access to cell phones and social media platforms, they could follow the example of Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The Facebook group, “Por un levantamiento popular en Cuba” (In support of a popular uprising in Cuba) appeared with this wave. The group has well over four thousand “likes,” but reading the comments on their wall, you feel a Floridian breeze. Of the fourteen events they have listed, only one is meant to take place in Cuba. Several are in honor of the one-year anniversary of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death, which is today.* My sense is that most of the members are in Cuban communities outside of Cuba. They remain hopeful for change—but they seem somewhat out of touch with Cubans on the island, those for whom they supposedly advocate.

This may sound clunky, but I think they are putting the technological cart before the horse of civil society.

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On Global Voices: Obama eases restrictions on travel, remittances, airplanes

President Obama signed an executive order on January 14 that will ease embargo restrictions on travel to Cuba for academic, religious, journalistic, and cultural purposes. Policies on charter flights from the US to Cuba will also be loosened, as will regulations on remittances. The new policy will allow all US residents (not just those with family on in Cuba) to send remittances to Cubans on the island, provided that they are not senior government officials, or senior members of Cuba’s communist party.

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