I don’t agree with him, but I can’t blame him either.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart wants to legislate a return to the Bush restrictions on Cuban American travel to avoid what he calls the “abuses” of people who travel too much or carry too much money and goods to loved ones in Cuba.
Senator Marco Rubio goes further. “How do you argue that you’re an exile,” he asks, “when exile is supposed to be people that can’t return for political purposes?” All the back-and-forth to Cuba “threatens the exile status of the Cuban community,” he says.
Well, it certainly demonstrates that el exilio is only part of the Cuban American community. Those who are filling about 50 flights per week to Havana do not consider themselves “exiled” and don’t consider it a political act to get on the plane.
“If he had family like me,” a Miami woman told Channel 51 in reaction to Rep. Diaz-Balart’s initiative, “we were twelve and now two of us are left, and all of them died on me while I was here – then he would not do that, he would not restrict trips to Cuba.”
So why restrict the trips?
Why not say it’s a free country, some will travel and others will not, and that’s ok?
My guess is that it’s not just the contacts and the dollars, and it’s not just about defending the idea and the identity of el exilio.
I think there’s more. What is in danger of unraveling is the whole strategy that el exilio has built so painstakingly over the years to press and contain the Havana government that it abhors.
The core of that strategy is to guarantee that normalization – with the United States, the Cuban American community, and their collective capital – occurs only under certain conditions. The long list of conditions written into U.S. law in 1996 is el exilio’s signal political achievement.
Ignoring all that, many Cuban Americans are undertaking an unconditional normalization of their own as they rebuild connections with their island.
Family visits and remittances are now virtually unrestricted. With Cuba’s opening to small enterprise, many new businesses are starting with seed capital from family abroad. Remittances used to just pay for tía’s cooking oil; now they are family-level investments.
With new rules allowing entrepreneurs to hire employees, this is no longer strictly a micro-enterprise sector. The businesses may get bigger still as Cuba works to add 1.8 million workers to its private sector by 2015. New rules will allow formation of private cooperatives, which will amount to medium-sized service, repair, and light manufacturing businesses.
Remittances are one way to support these new businesses. The Cuban government might come up with more formal ways to accept foreign capital in this growing sector, depending on how serious it is about its desire to expand foreign investment.
Then there’s housing. The government has promised new policies by the end of the year to allow simple sales of homes through streamlined processes. Cuban Americans will participate in this market by financing purchases of homes by their relatives on the island – perhaps with room enough for those from Miami to visit, or to retire.
New policies to expand Cuba’s housing stock have been promised but not yet defined. Ideas include facilitating construction by private entities, and increasing supplies of construction materials to the public. Cuba could even enlist foreign investors in new residential construction. Depending on price, potential buyers would include Cuban nationals, foreign businesses or residents, or Cuban Americans seeking a place for themselves, or for family in Cuba.
That last idea sounds far-fetched, I’ll admit.
But one has to wonder what Raul Castro had in mind when he spent part of Monday’s speech explaining why Cuba should revise anachronistic consular and immigration norms that affect Cuban émigrés. If rumors are true that foreign nationals who buy resort real estate will be offered something akin to resident status, then a similar arrangement could easily be made for returning Cubans too.
Barriers are breaking down. Concertgoers in Miami are hearing the sounds of their youth performed by bands from Cuba. Cuban hotels and resorts, off limits to Cuban nationals until 2008, now ring with the sounds of Cuban guests. Merchandise bought in Miami is stocking new private retail businesses across Cuba. Visits across the straits are easier, in both directions.
One can imagine a sector developing in Miami that supports businesses in Cuba, owns property indirectly, travels back and forth, and has roots in both places. These Cuban Americans will acquire a material stake in the success of reforms and the health of Cuba’s economy. They won’t want sanctions against their own country because they are bad for their people and bad for property values.
All of this is veering so far off the old script that it’s not even funny.
This new Cuban dynamic is not the “transition” envisioned in the Bush Administration, and it has nothing to do with the conditions and ultimatums imagined by designers of U.S. sanctions. It won’t repeal the embargo, but over time it will make some bargaining chips crumble. And it won’t come from organized political effort, but rather through individuals’ free decisions to relate to their patria and family as they wish, at a time when some new options exist in Cuba.
Cuban American legislators respond by reaching for more sanctions, this time to curtail the freedom of fellow Cuban Americans. Talk about a modelo agotado!
But I can’t blame them. There’s a lot at stake, and it’s all they’ve got.