Many Cuban Americans mellowing to new Cuba policy

By Pascal Fletcher

MIAMI (Reuters) - Smiling Cubans pose for photographs on a scuffed seafront wall against the backdrop of Havana's historic Morro castle and a glittering azure sea.

But the Morro backdrop is a brightly-lit glossy colour poster and the artificial wall carries the scrawled slogans "Down with Fidel!" and "Down with the Castro Dictatorship!"

This is Miami, not Havana, and the Cubans are from the 1.5-million strong exile community in the United States, many of them lifelong opponents of communist rule.

The fake Malecon seawall loomed large at a "Cuba Nostalgia" festival in Miami this month that showcased images and memories of life in Cuba before Fidel Castro's 1959 Revolution. Fidel Castro stepped aside because of ill health and last year was replaced as president by his younger brother, Raul Castro.

Despite the occasional anti-Castro slogan and an exhibit by veterans of the failed 1961 U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, politics at the Miami event mostly took a back seat to bittersweet reminiscence.

This could reflect a softening mood in an exile community long seen as a Republican bastion and whose disproportionate political influence in the United States has helped keep Washington's sanctions on Cuba in place for decades.

But with a new Democratic president in the White House offering a "new beginning" with Cuba, many see Miami's Cuban American community migrating from its traditional "no surrender, no dialogue" posture towards Havana to more engagement and contact with the homeland they left behind.

Observers say that as the diehard anti-Castro generation grows older, and younger exiles have arrived since 1980, many Cuban Americans are more pragmatic and more influenced by the needs of relatives still in Cuba.

Miami businessman Carlos Saladrigas says that while the 47-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba remains an important symbol of exile anti-communist resistance, support for a retooled Cuba policy is growing among Cuban Americans.

"So with a president who is willing to bring some leadership into this issue, I think we can move that needle significantly in the right direction," said Saladrigas.


Pledging to "recast' U.S.-Cuba ties, President Barack Obama last month eased restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances to Cuba and on U.S. telecommunications business with the island. But he urged Cuba to reciprocate by releasing detained dissidents and allowing greater political freedom.

Havana has so far shown little inclination to give anything in return. Fidel and Raul Castro say the U.S. government should go further and lift the embargo, which is widely criticized around the world.

Shortly after the easing, an opinion poll by Miami-based Bendixen & Associates showed a 67 percent favourable rating for Obama among Cuban Americans and 64 percent of backing for this softening of the embargo. But participants were divided over whether the overall embargo should be lifted, with 43 percent in favour of ending it, and 42 percent saying it should stay.

Saladrigas is part of a study group sponsored by the Washington-based Brookings Institution that recommends that Obama further ease Cuba sanctions, boosting "people-to-people" contacts -- without waiting for Havana to make reforms first.

"I was myself a hardliner years ago," Saladrigas said, adding he now believes opening up to Cuba rather than isolating it would be the best catalyst for change.

American food and farm exporters, who sold more than $700 million of products to Cuba last year under an embargo exemption, are lobbying hard for a bigger relaxation which they say could boost sales to the island to over $1 billion a year.

U.S. hotel and travel companies, sidelined while countries such as Spain and Canada dive into Cuba's growing tourism market, are also pressing for a slice of the Cuba pie and bills are before U.S. Congress to lift the ban on Americans travelling there. Currently travel is restricted to Cuban Americans, with some exemptions for groups such as journalists and academics.

Even the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), for years the leading anti-Castro exile group, now backs the idea of a reworked Cuba policy.

CANF board member Joe Garcia says while hardline exile leaders still rail against the Castros and oppose any easing of the embargo, younger Cuban Americans are increasingly sending money to relatives on the island and travelling to visit them.

"You're seeing the success of the president's policy right now, you're seeing people vote with their feet," said Garcia, adding that air charter companies serving U.S.-Cuba travel were already experiencing a surge in business since last month.


Not everyone favours an easing of policy.

Luis Mejer-Sarra, public relations secretary of Cuban Cultural Heritage, an organisation that seeks to preserve the memory of Cuba's pre-1959 history, sees himself as part of the "historic' exile community.

"We're all vehemently anti-Castro, anti-communist ... For the regime to fall, Fidel Castro has to die," Mejer-Sarra said, standing among Cuba Nostalgia exhibits showing pre-revolution photographs, books, cigar-bands and rum bottles.

"My advice to Obama is, yes, open up to Cuba but don't give them even a finger, unless they give a finger too," he said.

Exile diehards, like anti-Castro broadcaster Ninoska Perez, believe that easing or lifting the embargo will only "reward a 50-year-old dictatorship" in Cuba.

As for the shifting mood in the exile community, Perez points out that in the 2008 elections, Florida voters returned to Congress Cuban American representatives who strongly oppose any unilateral softening of U.S. pressure on Cuba.

She scoffs at suggestions that lifting the ban on travel by Americans to Cuba will help to undermine communist rule.

"Please, an American tourist in a Hawaii shirt with a mojito in his hand is not going to change Cuba," she said.

(Editing by Frances Kerry)

Article Published: 19/05/2009