Cuba was still in mourning last Tuesday when passengers for the first United Airlines flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to Havana were preparing to depart.
The stark contrast of emotions was symbolic of the divided opinions of many Cuban Americans — those who are excited for the potential of the future, especially after the death of Fidel Castro last week, compared with those who believe the United States is invariably infusing cash into a communist country.
New Jersey is home to the second-largest Cuban-American population, and some in the business community, as well as Cuban-American U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), are upset with the effort by President Barack Obama to improve diplomatic ties that were announced last year.
In October, Obama relaxed the longstanding trade embargo and allowed import of Cuba’s famous cigars and rum. But that hardly matters to some Cuban-Americans.
Reinaldo Martinez, manager of the West New York Home Center, said there is nothing that Cuba is producing that Cuban-Americans would want, so the U.S. is actually getting the raw end of the deal.
“To tell you the truth, the way Cuba is, it helps the business here because a lot of people who are residents in the United States, usually they go to Cuba every year, and they buy things here to take over there,” Martinez said. “I smoke cigars from Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and, once in a while, Cuban cigars — no big difference. Once in a while, I get my Havana Club; it’s a rum, and people bring it to me as gifts. It doesn’t make a difference.”
This existing under-the-radar transfer of goods and products is exactly why many criticized Menendez and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), when they took a stance against allowing commercial flights to Havana.
The two senators argued it would be unsafe for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, but, in reality, charter flights — including some from major U.S. airlines — have been going to the island for years. Not to mention the dozens of other countries, including Canada, which could take U.S. visitors to Havana.
But the lack of enthusiasm wasn’t always there.
Carlos Medina, a Cuban-American and chair of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he was initially hopeful.
Chef Ronaldo Linares is the son of a Cuban immigrant who spent three days in jail under Fidel Castro’s rule, but he represents the enthusiastic and optimistic younger generation of Cuban-Americans.
“My father was held at gunpoint by Fidel Castro, they interrogated him pretty much, and he gave his honest answers, and they let him live,” Linares said. “So, that’s the only thing I’m grateful for about Fidel Castro. That he didn’t kill my father, because without him, I wouldn’t be here having this conversation.”
Linares, who owns a restaurant in Somerville that serves “pre-Castro-style cuisine,” said he sees that as proof that the dictator was not all bad.
“There’s obviously some kind of goodness in these people,” he said, adding that his father never spoke badly of the country.
Linares acknowledges he has never experienced the anger and loss that his father’s generation did.
“There’s so much negativity, like, I obviously didn’t go through all that. I have borrowed anger and some borrowed sadness from his family that actually experienced it,” he said. “But let’s not forget it, but let’s somehow get together, come up with solutions to make a better Cuba and work with whoever we need to work with to make that happen.”
He is eagerly awaiting a chance to visit Cuba, emphasizing there is more to the country than Havana.
“I hope I get to go to Cuba next year,” Linares said. “What I’ve heard is that they do have a Cuban Culinary Federation there, so chefs are given the opportunity to cook and to create and work with people from Europe and Peru. The culinary repertoire has grown.
“One of my goals is to be able to go down as part of a TV show, a traveling show, and really showcase those talents, to showcase what’s going on on the ground.”
Linares also sees hope for the future after seeing the minimal changes, and willingness to open up discussions with the U.S., from Cuba in the last few years.
“So, why not have that optimism?” he asked.
“We have to keep an open mind, we have to forget about the past and move into the future. Hopefully, with Fidel Castro’s death, they see their legacy is not that good at all, so hopefully they are able to wake up from that and start investing in their Cuba,” he said. “I want them to fix the little towns. There’s so much more to Cuba than Havana.”
“I was more optimistic when Obama made the changes, but I can sit here today and say I’m disappointed at the pace of human rights and other improvements that I would hope would have moved a little quicker,” Medina said.
On the Obamas’ trip in March, women peacefully protesting, known as the Women in White or Las Damas de Blanco, were rounded up off the streets and jailed for the duration of the trip, according to a Voice of America report.
“I was hopeful that business and entrepreneurship would push that needle, but it doesn’t seem to have,” Medina said.
Martinez said, in fact, that the opposite is true: The business ties will only serve as a benefit for the Cuban government.
“The same people in power back in 1959 when the revolution (took) over, is the same people running the country today,” Martinez said. “So the business opened by the Obama administration with the Cuban government is only good for the Cuban government.”
“The opening that we really want is good for the United States, because it’s our country today, good for the Cuban people, (so) they don’t (have) to go in a boat and keep crossing the Florida canal, dying every day,” Martinez said.
His words echo Menendez, who believes the U.S. is supporting the dictatorship.
“The reality is there is much ballyhoo about opportunity and less reality,” Menendez said. “Cuba is a country that still owes debt to other places in the world. It’s a country whose economy is not growing, it’s a country that’s on life support, but now that life support is given by us.
“In Cuba, unlike other places in the world, if you invest with the small businessmen and -women, that would be a good thing, but in Cuba it’s only the government — the dictatorship — that runs the show. They have two major entities that you have to do business with — the tourism side or the agriculture side. Both are run by either Raul (Castro)’s son or son-in-law. So, when you are doing business with (small businesses), you are not doing business with the Cuban people, you are doing business with the regime and the military that controls the people. I think that’s pretty horrible as it relates to our reputation on democracy and human rights.”
In addition, Menendez is concerned with the potential harm Cuba’s well-known pharmaceutical industry will have on the U.S. industry.
“The other thing is that I fight all the time to protect American trademarks, to protect American intellectual property rights, and to protect Americans from having their intellectual ingenuity stolen. And here, the administration … is doing quite the opposite,” he said. “Beyond Cuba, it’s a dangerous message to send to the world, that you can confiscate intellectual property and fiscal property and pay no consequence, and, in fact, the opposite — we will do business with you. I’m sure in New Jersey, many of our pharmaceutical companies — this is one of the new regulations, business with pharmaceuticals in Cuba — our pharmaceutical companies are private, the Cubans are owned by the government. Does our pharmaceutical industry want to compete with the Cuban pharmaceutical industry that has government infusions of money? That’s not fair.”
In October, the FDA announced it will begin trials on a lung cancer vaccine Cuba has developed and that is currently in use in other Latin American countries.
But the health care industry is one of the few aspects of Cuba lauded by the global community, including the United Nations World Health Organization, which called it a model for the world in 2014.
What’s most intriguing about the success of the industry is its development in the absence of the top tiers of the socioeconomic ladder in Cuba.
Many wealthier individuals were the first to flee after the revolution in 1959, and slowly but surely the tiers whittled down, Martinez said.
Medina explained that, despite being college-educated or professionals, these upper-class Cubans faced problems in being accepted in regulated fields such as medicine or law, and instead ended up opening small businesses that offered food, entertainment or professional services for the community. These are the individuals who created the foundation for Latino neighborhoods and commercial districts in areas like West New York.
Martinez is one such example of that. He left the country in the 1980s at age 25 and had been studying to become a meteorologist.
“I ended up here in a hardware store selling screws and nuts,” he said. “But I did well. I worked so hard in the beginning, but this is a great country.”
But those unlucky or unlikely to leave Cuba will continue to suffer, he said.
Though reports highlight a difference in attitude between the younger and older generations of Cuban-Americans, Menendez said there is no true divide.
“There’s two generations in Cuba; there are two generations here in the United States. The old-school, Castro and that regime, that are hardcore communist and (more resistant) to change, just like Raul. But as younger Cubans are more open to democracy and want freedom, they may still be held back by the old-school communists. I think the death of Castro will help the healing process (for many Cuban-Americans).”
Martinez added: “The No. 1 thing, they have to call for elections. They have to make sure that, the Cuban people, that’s the government they want. If the people in Cuba re-elect this government, keep going, fine. But people have to have a right to express themselves.”
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