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Pull of Family Reshapes US-Cuban Relations

Tuesday, 22 November 2011 06:39 By Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times News Service | Report
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Miami - For two consecutive years, Stephanie Várcia, 11, a sixth grader here, has done something that was unimaginable five years ago. She has spent four weeks in Havana, playing hide-and-seek with her cousins and going to the beach with her aunts and uncles. When summer vacation ended, her mother flew out to bring her back to Miami.

Stephanie’s stay in Cuba — an increasingly common ritual among families that now includes trips to the island by unaccompanied minors — is an emblem of the profound transformation in the relationship between Cuban-Americans in South Florida and Cubans in Cuba. Her vacation signals more than just a thaw in the bitter 50-year freeze between Cuba and the United States. It is an acknowledgment, in many respects, that the passage of time and the yearning for family have begun to overcome the caustic political stalemate that followed Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959. Although South Florida Congressional members still support a hard line on Cuba, a position that plays well with older voters (the ones likeliest to vote), a majority of Cuban-Americans here have softened their attitudes. Many of them prefer to see more contact with people in Cuba, not less.

“The truth is that the driver in policy is not the relationship between the United States and Cuba, but the relationship between Cubans, and that is far stronger than 50 years of intragovernment hostility,” said Joe Garcia, a former chairman of the Miami Democratic Party. “When you remove just some of the barriers, people do what people do: help their families.”

Despite the United States’ commercial and economic embargo, imposed in 1960, ties between the two Cuban populations began to shift slowly a decade ago and have intensified in the past two years, a result of the Obama administration’s move in 2009 to loosen travel and shipping restrictions. Recent decisions by the Cuban government allowing Cubans to own cellphones and computers, open small businesses and buy and sell cars and property have further solidified these ties.

But the biggest reason for the turnaround is the change in the profile of Cuban-Americans in South Florida. There are an estimated 300,000 Cuban-Americans in the United States who arrived after the mid-1990s, mostly through a special visa program. They now outnumber aging Cuban exiles from the 1960s, said Jaime Suchlicki, the director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.

Unlike the exiles who fled Cuba in the 1960s and ’70s, losing property, family and their homeland, this younger generation’s web of immediate family members in Cuba is strong and wide.

So while they oppose Mr. Castro and are clear-eyed about Cuba’s failings, family is their priority, not politics and ideology. The same is true even among some Cuban-Americans from earlier generations who have lost patience with Mr. Castro’s longevity and a 50-year-old embargo that did not succeed in ousting him.

“The more recent arrivals aren’t going to buy into isolation and confrontation because it means shutting out their relatives,” said Fernand Amandi, of Bendixen & Amandi International, a public opinion research firm in Miami. “So the ties are much closer today, people to people.”

The United States no longer limits the numbers of flights to Cuba that Cuban-Americans with family members there can make.

Last year, a record 320,000 people flew on charter flights to Cuba from Miami, according to Miami-Dade Aviation Department figures, many of them part of a younger, politically weary generation of Cuban-Americans. This year, the number is expected to be higher. Some of these passengers fly several times a year, dropping in for weddings, birthdays and holidays. They stay in touch through cellphones, e-mail (the Internet is still tightly controlled, but some Cubans use connections at universities and cybercafes in hotels) and even text messages (which can be routed through a third country).

For the first time, Cuban-Americans can send “gift parcels,” large shipments of not just food, clothes and medicine, but a variety of items that their families in Cuba can use to run new small private businesses. The tools, tires, Nintendo gadgets, cooking oil and commercial baking supplies sent from South Florida form the bedrock of the emerging carpentry shops, tire repair places, video game parlors, restaurants and bakeries on the island. And the new law allowing Cubans to buy and sell property is expected to lead to thousands of dollars being funneled to relatives by expatriates.

“In Washington, the whole debate over normalizing relations in Cuba is dead in the water,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a policy group. “Meanwhile, in Miami, Cuban-Americans are normalizing relations one by one.”

Mr. Peters added: “They are becoming a community of immigrants, who, like other immigrants in the United States, help those back home. And they do it regardless of politics.”

The transformation is palpable in other ways, too. Once lampooned for its intolerance, Miami’s Cuban community now welcomes performers from the island, with little fuss. Ten years ago, those same musicians, confronted by protests, were forced to bypass the city. Today, Ache, a supper club across the street from Versailles — the heartbeat of exile politics, where anti-Castro sentiment is served up with cafecitos — hosts Cuban musicians. Los Van Van, a well-known band, played a raucous set there in September, mostly to old fans. In 1999, the band canceled a concert in Miami because of the furor. Versailles and the property where Ache sits are even owned by the Valls, a family of restaurateurs well known among exiles.

The same is true of Pablo Milanés, a famous Cuban singer who is fiercely disliked by Cuban exiles. He made his first visit to Miami this summer.

Even local Spanish-language television has adapted. It once featured a constant patter of hard-edged talk about Cuba and a parade of defectors and spies. But ratings began to drop recently, said Roberto Céspedes, producer of “A Mano Limpia,” a popular show on WJAN-CA, an independent station. Now the show also features reports about Afghanistan, crime and jellyfish — in others words, general news.

The 2009 changes in the law have fueled a boom in shipping companies and charter flights. Cities like Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and San Juan, P.R., have started to fly to Havana in recent months. Chicago and Houston will soon join them. Cubamax, a popular travel agency, has grown to 35 employees from 4.

The flights are filled with people like Rey Garcia, 27, who arrived in Miami 11 years ago and has gone back to Cuba 14 times. “Nobody stops me from visiting my family,” Mr. Garcia said.

Mr. Garcia had stopped by Ño Que Barato in Hialeah, a store that sells discount items and ships them to the island, to ask about sending a band saw to Cuba. He and his father own a carpentry business and are helping his uncle set up one in Holguín, Cuba. He has already shipped an assortment of tools.

“I want to send a car motor, too,” he added, with a smile.

But not everything has changed. Cuban-American members of Congress, most of them representing South Florida, would like to tighten travel rules, arguing that they enrich the Cuban government. But doing so may become more difficult.

“The majority of people don’t want to move backward anymore,” said Vicente Lanz, vice president at C&T Charters here. “They want to move forward.”


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