By: Tannishtha Pramanick
Since the time of Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, after overthrowing the corporate-minded and corrupt Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the country has seldom been on positive terms with the United States. Castro’s Marxist-Leninist policies were not to the taste of the United States, and rightfully so.
In theory, Castro looked to promote a higher standard of living for Cubans, as well as liberation from the consequences of the wealth-gap that had originated under the power of the sugar plantations and corrupt businessmen. In practice, these policies only served to deteriorate Cuba’s economic conditions, leading to a decline in the quality of life of most Cubans. Despite Castro’s regime operating under communist policies, the United States did, initially, recognize the nation and its government. As time wore on, Castro started increasing trade with the Soviet Union, as well as nationalizing businesses, mainly American-held ones, and increased tariffs on US imports. In retaliation, the United States began a series of economic sanctions, each one more severe than the last. The process began with banning US exports to Cuba, as well as banning Cuban sugar imports, and concluded with a full-scale trade embargo, complemented by strict travel restrictions, all implemented by then-President Kennedy. Eventually, the United States severed diplomatic ties entirely in 1961 with the island nation as a precursor to pursuing covert operations in order to overthrow the Castro regime. They have not succeeded with doing so, as their most infamous attempt, the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, culminated in both near catastrophe and failure.
Recently, and for the first time since the Carter administration, the United States and Cuba have had a thawing in their relations. On December 17, 2014, Barack Obama announced his intent to re-establish diplomatic ties with Cuba. This development was met with aversion or support in the Cuban-American community, depending on which side of the divide members are on. Republican Cuban-Americans are against the move, as they feel that by bargaining with Castro, Obama is acting like an enabler for his communist government. Democrats are more open to negotiations, as they feel that by focusing on current conditions in Cuba, they can help citizens of the island nation eventually attain a better standard of living.
In a three-part interview with Cuban-American activist and law student, Carlos Estevez, The Foreign Observer gets an in-depth look what life is like in Cuba and what it means to be both Cuban-American, and have to deal with issues involving Cuban-American relations from a personal perspective. Carlos was previously a politics op-ed writer during his undergraduate studies at NYU at the Washington Square News, and was president of the Cuban American Students’ Association. He currently studies at Columbia Law School, and lives in New York City.
Part II of this interview discusses the hardships Cuban families often face when attempting to leave Cuba – Carlos shares his own personal story, followed by a brief discussion on the repercussion of Barack Obama’s new policy towards Cuba, Cuban-American opinion and the consequences to American politics.
Tannishtha: How was it coming here? What was the process at that time? It must have been in 2003, seeing as you were eleven.
Carlos: That’s correct. At the time, it was forbidden to leave the country. The way they would do that, was in order to leave, not only did you need a visa to go somewhere but also a permit from the Cuban government to leave the country.
Tannishtha: The exit visa, yes?
Carlos: Correct. They would essentially deny it to anyone. They feared that once you left, you would never come back. And that was rightly so, as almost everyone would defect after leaving. My dad is an artist, and artists have a special privilege, as they can travel almost anywhere freely. The government wants them to go abroad and have shows, and show the world how great the art and music is in Cuba. My parents really wanted to get me out of the country. We got permission to go to Switzerland for two weeks, as my dad is a high-profile artist and this seemed legitimate and something they wanted to do and sponsor. What they didn’t know is that my dad had been talking to the French government and that he had a fellowship in Paris. Once we got that exit visa, we were able to leave the country, and then with the French visa we were able to stay in France for the whole year. Once you’re abroad, they have no way of getting you back.
Tannishtha: Wow. So, there was that thing about, as far as I know, that people who manage to leave Cuba, they have that expedited process for getting your citizenship, and getting your visa. Did that apply to you or, since you were coming from France, was the situation a bit different?
Carlos: Right. Because the situation is so difficult in Cuba, and the US has always had this policy kind of against Cuba, they allow Cubans to get to the country to have a green card within a year, and apply for citizenship within five years, and that’s exactly what we did when we got here.
Tannishtha: So that held up even in 2004, which wasn’t that long after 9/11? They still honoured that?
Carlos: Oh yeah, and it’s still active now. The Cuban Adjustment Act– it’s still ongoing. I think a big question now under Obama’s new policy is what’s going to happen to this Act. Since by allowing Cubans to leave, and with Cuba being such an oppressive regime, along with that expedited process. But now, since there’s no exit visa anymore, it’s easier to leave the country. It makes you question ‘should the policy to give Cubans the fast track to citizenship still exist’? Or should the US treat them like any other South American country?
Tannishtha: Right, because now that the process has been relaxed on Cuba’s end, the US could potentially end up with an influx of immigrants from Cuba. But do you think that would actually happen? Do you think more people would actually leave Cuba now that they don’t have the exit visa anymore, and the US is still holding that policy?
Carlos: I think more people have been leaving Cuba. The major hurdle is financial – the money to get a plane ticket, the money to get paperwork, etc. So, it’s still extremely difficult to leave Cuba. I think that it’s unlikely they would repeal The Cuban Adjustment Act, just because there are a lot of politicians in congress who are Cuban, and that support it. There is a large voter base of Cubans in the US who also would be against that.
Tannishtha: Yeah, they would lose the vote; they would completely disappoint the lobby. It would create a huge mess to do that at this point. I don’t think it would go a long way towards winning the Cuban public over either.
Carlos: If they did though, I would put my money that that would be the time a mass exodus would occur. As all of a sudden Cubans on the island would realize that they could leave now and still manage to get that fast-track, or they could stay in Cuba and essentially never be able to go to the US, as they would be illegal immigrants.
Tannishtha: Right, and then it would be a total shock to the system, pretty much, having that mass exodus occur. From the US’ end, it makes sense. One of the other things you mentioned was that there are two waves of immigrants. There’s the group that came at the beginning of the revolution and they realized that the situation was getting really bad, and they needed to get out of there. Then, there’s the group that came in the 80s and 90s. Could you potentially give our readers an explanation of the ideological differences between the two?
Carlos: Well, for the group that left in the 60s, they didn’t just leave because things were getting bad, as some people were forced to leave. A lot of them were fleeing because their lives were actually in danger. People who left then lived in a very different Cuba. There were a lot of problems, as you can understand. There was Batista, but still, it was a capitalist nation. It was very, very, very different. Those people lost property, they lost homes, they lost businesses. All the major owners of property in Cuba had to leave. So, they are mostly very conservative. That’s the reason why polls have mostly placed the Cuban population as 90 percent Republican.
Tannishtha: 90 percent?
Carlos: Well, old polls. I’m not sure as to what it is now.
Tannishtha: Okay, because that’s really high.
Carlos: That’s until the last decade or so. That was 90 percent Republican. Cuban-American.
Tannishtha: And by the last decade, do you mean the 2000s or the 90s?
Carlos: I’m pretty sure up to then, the 2000s, it was still 90 percent Republican.
Tannishtha: Okay. That’s surprising.
Carlos: It’s a very strong voting bloc for the Republican Party. So those are the people who mostly support the embargo. Those people elect politicians in Congress who are Cuban-American, so they hold those views. They’re kind of hardline ideologically. They do not want any negotiations with Cuba unless things change. Some of them want to recover their property still. Very few of them want to go back to Cuba if things open up, and people are allowed to do business with Cuba. A few of them want to go back and run businesses there again as well. For the most part, that group is pretty conservative and against dealing with the Castro government.
Tannishtha: And the group from the 80s and 90s is more open to negotiation?
Carlos: Well, a lot of them are conservative, because they also fled the regime and they’re very mad about their experiences. But I do think that for the most part, people that have been getting here in the last 20 years or so are more open to negotiations.
Tannishtha: So, you worked for Obama for America. How were your views affected, or not, by the rest of the Cuban community that you know in the US?
Carlos: The Cuban community has been really divided. I personally have supported Obama always. I am a very liberal person, and I usually follow the Democratic Party. I have always wanted them to end the embargo. I am very excited to hear the news that he is open to doing that. People from the older generations, they feel very betrayed by Obama. They feel he just backstabbed them and completely disregarded their views. To them, he is dealing with a dictator and he is going to help Castro stay in power, and that’s what you see from people like Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, who is a high profile Democrat, but is Cuban-American, feels that way. Regarding the Cuba issue, he is definitely pro-embargo. You have to remember, these are people who built their careers on running against Castro, saying Castro is awful and to not deal with him. And Castro IS awful. But now that the relationship between Cuba and the US is changing, they will have one less point on which to run on. For example, Marco Rubio, his family left before Cuba. He claims they left during Castro, but they left years before.
Tannishtha: Yeah, there was basically a field day in the media when they found that out.
Carlos: And that’s a huge part of his rhetoric. That’s a huge part of the reason he was able to get elected in Florida. He was able to excite the Cuban voters. And now that won’t be as much of an issue anymore.
Tannishtha: So he is going to lose a huge chunk of his foundation, his image, as a conservative Cuban-American politician by showing that Fidel Castro is not open to negotiation?
Carlos: I mean eventually, as the embargo has a potion that is mandated by congress. So, he can still say ‘Elect me because I will keep voting for this, I am going to make sure this stays this way.’ But if eventually, they do change things through Congress, which will become a huge problem for him. I think that younger Cubans are excited about the prospect of being able to travel more freely, being able to send more money to Cuba, having more open relations with Cuba. They are more optimistic, as they see more possibilities for Cuba.
Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity and content. The original interview took place on, and was recorded on, December 30th, 2014.
Tannishtha Pramanick is the Editor-in-Chief of The Foreign Observer, and a student at the University of Toronto studying Economics, Statistics and Political Science.