The Power of Words and Feelings: Semantics of Cuban Policy

There is comfort in the cold objectivity of numbers.  Numbers are honest, stoic.  The number 53 is a value.  It can be measured, counted, defined.  But, add words and everything changes, becomes tainted with feelings.

Add to that 53: years of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba, 53 years of an economic embargo, sanctions and severed diplomatic relations, and it awakens thoughts, opinions, anger, sadness. Words matter. Unlike numbers, words mean far more than their definition. They carry emotional baggage. cuban - american flags

So when President Obama announced that he would “begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” he evoked a rapid response: shock, happiness, rage, disappointment, hope. Immediately, analysts, politicos and journalists raced to take the public’s pulse.  And, it seems that by and large the public supports the President on this.

But in Miami, it is more complicated.  Here people carry deep wounds, trauma.

My parents, like many Miami Cubans, are exiles. My father was a political prisoner that spent 20 years in a Cuban gulag.  Both of my grandfathers were also political prisoners.  One of them was executed by firing squad.

These stories are not uncommon here. And it is why there is such a vast division in public opinion.

The embargo has not succeeded in toppling the Castro regime.  It has not forced the brothers out of power.  It has not brought a move towards democracy and free press on the island.

It has succeeded, however, in providing a perfect scapegoat.

Rather than accept that the country’s poverty is due to their failed policies, they blame the U.S. for all its people’s woes. It is because of the “blockade,” as the Castros call it, that there are food shortages.  It is because of the “blockade,” they say, that medicine – ranging from Tylenol to prescription drugs – and reading glasses and bandages have to be sent to Cuba from family members living abroad.

However, the U.S. does – in fact – do business with Cuba, as does Canada and much of Europe.  According to the Census, the U.S. has exported more than $1.5 billion in goods to the island in the last five years. And Cubans receive upwards of $2 billion per year in remittances.  Obviously money does, in fact, flow into Cuba.  And tourists flood the island and stay in big hotels from which actual Cubans are banned.

I can understand the argument for easing economic restrictions.  Why shouldn’t American companies be allowed to invest?  Why, if other Western companies and banks are already there, keep a policy in place that is only partially enforced anyway?

I also understand the counter argument.  A change in diplomatic relations may not make much of a difference in the systematic oppression and human rights violations typical in Cuba.  Today, the Cuban government arrested, detained and harassed dissidents to prevent them from speaking at a rally, to prevent them from sharing their thoughts on what the future of Cuba should be.  Opponents argue that only the Castro government will benefit from increased trade.

And that may be true; but, we do business with plenty of human rights abusers around the world.  We even trade with countries that are, at least according to public discourse, our enemies.

In short, I am conflicted.  I understand the logic, like I understand numbers.  Hopefully, the flow of people and ideas and money into Havana will – eventually – bring about change.  This change will not be the result of American tourists sipping Cuba Libres while on lounge chairs on Varadero Beach.  If it comes, it will be as a result of Cubans that no longer believe that the non-existent U.S. ‘blockade’ of the island is the cause of all their woes.

This is something that Fidel Castro always feared.  It is why he worked hard to keep the embargo in place.  Whenever an American President moved to ease restrictions, like both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did, Castro swiftly sabotaged those actions.

But still, there is the problem of words.

My family were exiles, not just immigrants.  They lost everything: their businesses and careers, and not just material possessions, not only money or land; they lost their home, their sense of belonging.  And that sense of loss, of displacement, never goes away.  It is something that we, the next generation, inherit.  It is a deep-seated sense that home is a place that no longer exists.

So when President Obama said that the U.S. would “normalize” relations. That word struck a chord. I felt dizzy.  Normalize: to bring (someone or something) back to a usual or expected state or condition.  Normal?  Now things will be normal?

And then again, that too was a play on words. He said normalize, but he can’t change much on his own. He can’t unilaterally lift the embargo. He has to with Congress to make these reforms.  That won’t be easy.

None of this is easy.

Logically I understand the data.  The embargo is a relic of the cold war.  There is money to be made in Cuba.  There is the opportunity to wield influence in the region now that Venezuela’s economy is imploding and Russia is dealing with its own sanctions.

So although many polls and media outlets reflect a generational chasm in opinions on thawing relations with Cuba, I venture to guess that those answers depend on the semantics of the questions these young people were asked.

I think the only honest answer is that we, the children of Cuban exiles, are torn.  I can’t quantify my feelings, because – unlike numbers and figures — emotions are difficult to define.

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One comment

  1. What a great piece. I will share it with my Cuban and non-Cuban friends. It always helps to understand WHY the reaction is one or another. This is a perfect example and I share many of the writer’s dual feelings and confusion with regard to this move. Thank you!

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