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Obama’s Cuba Announcement Continues to Send Ripples Through New Jersey

Cuban-Americans in the Garden State and their relatives on the island react to the thawing of relations

jose marti
A Cuban flag flies over a bust honoring Cuban forefather José Martí in West New York, NJ, home to a large population of Cuban exiles.

Among members of Hudson County’s Cuban-American community, the question of how the United States should interact with the Castro regime has been argued and rehashed so many times over the decades that some people even have a name for it. They simply call it ‘el tema’ or ‘the theme.’

“There are fights,” one Cuban exile said, chuckling. “It can turn violent! There are very strong feelings about Cuba and the embargo and the whole political situation on the island.”

Now President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that he wants to normalize relations with Cuba has reignited that debate in northern New Jersey -- home to one of the largest communities of Cuban immigrants in the nation -- and it’s also renewed conversations in Cuba itself.

The state’s 85,000 residents of Cuban ancestry are split, with many younger, more recent arrivals and native-born Cuban-Americans accepting of the developments, while some vocal exiles view the move with anger and suspicion. The split is less pronounced than it once was, however, with community members interviewed for this story noting there’s been a generational shift in favor of more dialogue. They say that while Cuban-Americans are often viewed as speaking with a single voice, many actually hold more nuanced positions. People agree that they’d like to see more freedom and democracy in Cuba, but the disagreement is over how to get there.

The president ordered the reopening of a U.S. embassy in Havana and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, and he eased restrictions on remittances, travel, and banking. A complete lifting of the prohibition on American tourists visiting the island and a removal of the embargo that’s existed for half a century would require Congressional approval, but President Obama has called for an “honest and serious debate” about the topic.

NJ Spotlight has been speaking with Cuban-Americans in the Garden State, and we also traveled to Cuba recently to gauge reaction to the news.

For Dr. Luis Manuel Roque Aragón, a psychiatrist in the southern Cuban city of Cienfuegos who has relatives in Newark, the announcement was groundbreaking.

“I don’t know if this is the news of the year in Cuba or the news of the century,” he said, comparing the simultaneous, televised speeches by President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro with Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon.

“It’s just one step, but a big jump for humanity.”

At 54, Roque said he was always wishing he’d live to see this moment and that he looks forward to “serious conversations that will hopefully eliminate decades of misunderstanding between the two countries.” He acknowledged that the embargo remains in place for the time being, but he’s optimistic that it’s in its final days.

“Maybe the harvest will be for my daughters,” he said, adding, “I hope to get some fruits of that harvest.”

In the colonial town of Trinidad, about a four hour drive from Havana, barber and painter Abel García León was similarly hopeful that last month’s announcement could pave the way for bigger changes on the horizon.

“I think that if there were no blockade and relations between Cuba and the United States were more natural as God intended,” he said, “many more Americans would come here, they’d make investments and improve the economy, and the quality of life for workers like myself would improve greatly.”

Some 1,300 miles away, from his vantage point in Edgewater, NJ, Garcia’s cousin Adrian Rodriguez -- who was born in the United States -- sees things from a slightly different perspective. He also supports normalizing relations with Cuba, but primarily as a means of putting internal pressure on the Cuban government.

“The U.S.’s embargo has simply given an excuse for the regime,” he said. “Something they can point to and say, ‘this is really the root for the failure of this economy. If only the embargo weren’t there, then things would be different.’ I’m not quite sure that’s the case. I mean, I really think that that failure of the Cuban economy is because this very centralized, planned economy simply doesn’t work.”

Geandy Pavón, a Cuban artist and exile living in Guttenberg, agrees.

“The embargo has been very useful for the Cuban government,” he said. “Until very recently, it was the main justification for the Cuban government not to allow the people to express themselves freely, not to have a free press, not to have free elections in Cuba. They were saying that we were in constant danger of invasion by the Americans, the enemy that was 90 miles away.”

But that’s not the case anymore, he said, adding that President Obama taking steps to forge a closer relationship between the two countries appears to be a calculated move to call Cuba’s bluff.

“He’s said, ‘Let’s be friends. Let’s get along,’ and we all start thinking, if we couldn’t speak freely because we had a big enemy 90 miles away, but that enemy’s not the enemy anymore, when is the time for the Cuban people to speak freely?”

But not all Cubans in New Jersey agree with that approach. Writing recently in the Spanish-language daily El Nuevo Herald, Cuban poet and former political prisoner Vicente Echerri -- who now lives in exile in Jersey City -- said that Obama’s announcement last month surprised, shocked, and angered large segments of his community.

“If political setbacks were worthy of mourning,” he wrote, “December 17th should be remembered among us from now on as a fateful day.”

Like many older-generation Cuban immigrants to the United States, Echerri strongly supports maintaining a hardline stance against the island nation, including keeping the embargo in place.

“To lift it would be morally reprehensible,” he said in ”Curtain of Water,” New Jersey photographer Joe Guerriero’s recent documentary about Cuba. “It would be a political mistake because it would seem like they’re giving Fidel Castro an award for these years of disaster instead of maintaining the sanctions to call attention to his illegitimate regime. I think that the embargo is a moral sanction that should only be lifted when Cuba moves towards an open society, there’s a government that’s open to pluralistic elections, there’s representation of different parties, people can give their opinion freely, and there’s freedom of speech.”

Eventually lifting the embargo would also require the approval of Congress, where it faces opposition from Republican lawmakers and staunch critics like U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), himself the son of Cuban exiles. Menendez thinks President Obama has extended an olive branch without demanding enough in return.

“The administration has the burden of proof here of showing that they’re going to be engaged in a strong advocacy for human rights, for basic fundamental freedoms, for democracy. So far, I haven’t seen it!” he said. “This is a reward that a totalitarian regime does not deserve, and this announcement only perpetuates the Castro regime’s decades of repression.”

New Jersey’s Other Cuban Legacy

Forty years ago a NJ state trooper was murdered at the side of the Turnpike. His killer is believed to be living in Cuba

As the various parties continue to battle over the future of the U.S. relationship with Cuba, Gov. Chris Christie has asked the White House to seek justice for an issue of particular concern to New Jerseyans before any normalization can occur.

He is urging the White House to demand the return of Assata Shakur -- formerly known as Joanne Chesimard -- an American fugitive who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper. Shakur is a former member of the Black Liberation Army who was charged with killing Trooper Werner Foerster during a confrontation on the side of the NJ Turnpike 40 years ago that also left one of Shakur’s colleagues dead. She was convicted and sent to prison in 1977, but escaped two years later, and is believed to have been living in Cuba since 1984. The FBI has offered a $2 million reward for her capture, designating her the first female ever on its most-wanted terrorists list.

As the Washington Post reported recently, debate continues to rage over the evidence presented in the original case. Shakur’s supporters say she was convicted by an all-white jury in a trial marked by conflicting testimony and questionable forensic evidence, and they regarded her as a political prisoner. In an “Open Letter to the Media” a few weeks ago, Shakur referred to herself as a “20th century escaped slave,” and repeated claims that she received an unfair trial.

But whether or not Shakur fired the fatal shot the killed Foerster, being an accomplice to murder carries an equivalent life sentence under New Jersey law.

In a December 18 letter to President Obama, Christie called for Washington to demand the immediate return of Shakur in advance of any further consideration of restoration of diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. Such a request would be tricky, however, given the complicated history of U.S. – Cuban relations.

"We've reminded the U.S. government that in its country, they've given shelter to dozens and dozens of Cuban citizens," a Cuban government spokeswoman told the Associated Press recently. "Some of them were accused of horrible crimes, some accused of terrorism, murder and kidnapping, and in every case the U.S. government has decided to welcome them."

Some political observers have speculated that an American request for Shakur’s extradition would likely be countered with a Cuban request for the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles, who has long-standing ties to the CIA and was convicted in Panama of a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 civilians. He’s currently living in Miami.

Despite the attention Shakur has received here in the United States, she bears little name recognition in Cuba, and several Cubans polled on the streets of Havana said they had never heard of her or her case.

The debate over how to deal with Cuba in its current form is hardly a new one. It’s been going on for over 50 years, but Adrian Rodriguez says it’s actually not as contentious as it once was. While noting that there are many in his community who are still suspicious of taking a diplomatic approach and who would view attempts to remove the embargo as a form of political betrayal by the U.S. government, he says that his generation (he’s 42) is much more flexible on the issue than his parents’ generation was, and that the more strident voices seem to be slowly fading.

“When I was a kid, we still heard that idea of return, that you would return to Cuba, and you would in some way kind of recapture lost properties and all these sorts of things,” he said. “That discourse has really gone away at this point. Really, there is nobody that’s holding out in any serious way, that option. I always think every Cuban-American exile writer at some point writes a play about returning to Cuba. In my play of return, the main character never leaves his living room. The fact of the matter is that that fantasy of return is really a fantasy at this point.”

That doesn’t mean he’s given up, though.

“I take very seriously and with great pride my Cuban ancestry and even my national identification with Cuba,” he continued. “I haven’t lost hope in the sense that I want to be committed and involved and engaged in any future political conversation about Cuba. But the notion that we can just kind of hit reset, and it’s going to be 1957 again … I think that’s foolish and has gone away at this point as a real objective for the Cuban exile community.”

As for what he thinks of the more ardent voices in his community, Rodriguez said generally admires Menendez but breaks ranks when it comes to Cuba.

“I consider it a disagreement like I would disagree with my father or with my uncle,” he said. “I think the disagreement is one of our conception of politics and strategy. I would tell Sen. Menendez if I could -- and if I see him I will -- that let’s look at this as an opportunity. And if this brings about positive changes, then wonderful, and we should encourage that, and we should always be willing to be wrong. I’m certainly willing to admit if I’m wrong,” he continued. “And if this further strengthens the regime, then I will say it was my error. I miscalculated. But if it’s otherwise, then I think that Sen. Menendez and others who love Cuba as much as I do should be willing to say, ‘You know what? Maybe we should have softened our position earlier.’”

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