Cuba: Navigating Reconciliation in a Sea of Dangerous Memories – Ramón Luzárraga

Catholic Social Ethics

The Spanish daily El Pais opened its headline story about President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, based on months of secret negotiations with that island’s Communist, totalitarian government, by stating “The Cold War ended in America, yesterday.” The article proceeded to describe the United States embargo against Cuba, and lack of formal diplomatic relations with that island, as “one of the last anomalies” of our nation’s foreign policy.

This headline is already misleading, because it suggests that the United States’ Cuba policy is an antiquated relic based on realities that no longer exist in their entirety. While many parties in the United States, including many in the Cuban exile community, agree that new initiatives should be attempted to move Cuba to freedom, to ignore the voices of the exile community and their dangerous memories of lives marked by suffering, loss, and sacrifice carries the strong potential to scupper any attempt at true reconciliation.

On the ground here in Miami, where I write this post, there is vigorous debate and much anger among Cuban-Americans about the decision Obama made, and the role Pope Francis had in encouraging this change in U.S. policy. Much of this debate and anger is personal and extends to encompass the whole of my own family. I am a Cuban-American, part of the first generation of my family born in the United States. My mother and father were born and raised in Cuba. They and generations that preceded them knew Cuba as home, a home that they lost forever.

The Cuban exile community is a diverse group, and each person and family carried to the United States their own stories of suffering, loss, and sacrifice. To understand the anger of many Cubans in America over recent developments, one must have a concrete appreciation of what they did lose. I’ll use my own family as an example. Compared to other exiles, they were lucky. None of them died or suffered direct physical harm at the hands of the Castro regime; ours was among those whose property was nationalized. However, that property was the product of two or three generations of hard work by two very entrepreneurial families who left Spain for Cuba in search of a better life. My paternal grandfather, the first Ramón Luzárraga, arrived in Cuba in the 1920s, developed a successful dry goods store, and parlayed the money earned there into the purchase of a bankrupt sugar mill – Portugalete – which became a cornerstone of a panoply of family-owned businesses ranging from sugar processing to being the Cuban importer of Dewar’s Scotch whisky. My maternal grandfather, Tomás Garcia, experienced similar success, becoming a leading cattle rancher and investing in other agricultural interests. Other family members experienced similar success doing everything from owning and operating a successful private school in Havana to being the sole importer and seller of White cars and trucks. Cuba was their country which they helped build. Because they owned their own businesses, my family felt a concrete sense of having agency and direction over their own lives. Within the course of a couple of years, despite being well-educated and bilingual, they became strangers in a new land, working for others instead of for themselves.

A routine, condescending insult leveled at the exile community by their fellow Americans is that they deserved their fate losing their haciendas and their lazy lives sipping mojitos because their success in Cuba came on the backs of the labor of the poor majority on the island. It would be naïve to say that all Cuban business owners were paragons of virtue, or to romanticize pre-1959 Cuba as a paradise on Earth (as many in the exile community are wont to do). On the other hand, most Cuban businessmen worked hard for their wealth, worked side-by-side with their employees, and as Tom Gjelten wrote in his book Bacardi and the Long Flight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause, many (though by no means all) of them treated those same employees well (My family included, and yes I believe their stories.). Few ever owned a hacienda, never mind lived in one. To say that the 1959 Revolution shook off an economy dominated by United States business interests ignores the complexity that those companies were often managed by Cubans locally (My grandfather and father traveled in those circles, so they knew that for a fact.). The Cuba they built had an urban standard of living which was among the highest in Latin America, approaching Western European standards, boasting advanced technologies like direct-dial telephony before the United States had the same. The tragedy of 1959 Cuba that spawned a revolution which divided a people was the rural poverty that ranked among the world’s worst, and a stunted political culture and civil society that was unable to bring about the necessary political and social reforms democratically.

Today, we have this initiative begun by President Obama, one which may proceed too far and too quickly, ignoring all this suffering, loss, and sacrifice. The Castro brothers, who are gifted in the art of survival and shrewd political operators, may exploit this opening to ensure the perpetuation of their regime with little benefit being translated to the Cuban people. Remember, if normalization of relations occurs and the embargo is dropped, keep in mind that the property in Cuba investors in the United States and other countries would invest in was confiscated from Cuban citizens who are now citizens of this country, property that was earned through risk and toil by people who saw Cuba as their land of opportunity. Will Cubans on both sides of the strait be able to invest in their common ancestral homeland themselves? The suffering and sacrifice of these exiles threaten to be swept under the rug, forgotten in a new wave of investment and tourism which, like the tourism before 1959, would be confined to beach resorts with few people getting to know the reality of Cuba. The pushback by the Cuban exile community in the United States is a call to receive their just due. I hasten to add that those who read these words who may be tempted to tell Cuban-Americans to “get over it”, I ask would you say the same thing to other victims of history: Jewish families seeking Holocaust reparations, Vietnamese seeking justice for their own suffering and sacrifice following the 1975 Fall of Saigon, or African-Americans concerning slave reparations or justice for acts of police-brutality?

The challenge of reconciliation is marked by the complexity of the situation now. The attitude of Cubans who experienced the 1959 Revolution directly has all the marks of a blood feud. It is a point of pride to not seek reconciliation with an enemy who is seen to be politically or ideologically short-sighted, or worse, and hurt your family. A family member once told me he supported the embargo as a means to punish Cuba for its stupidity in betraying our family and others like us who possessed the know-how and initiative to develop and sustain Latin America’s leading economy. The people on the island chose to make their bed with the Castros, and should lay in it, serving as useful idiots to their Soviet masters. People in Cuba historically viewed the exile community as rapacious exploiters who left for the United States to do more of the same thing they did when home, serving as useful idiots for U.S. imperialism. Despite media reports of the softening of attitudes on both sides of the Florida Straits, which have much truth to them, they gloss over the fact that these older militant attitudes have not died away, but have been taught to a new generation.

This complexity is compounded by the fact that pre-1959 Cuba won’t come back. Any scheme to return property and reparations after all these years may be impossible. If by some bizarre chain of events I received my share of the eight sugar mills my family owned outright or in part, I would not know the first thing about operating them, not being a chemical engineer. Most Cuban-Americans have their established, usually prosperous lives in the United States which we cannot simply leave behind. Many Cuban exiles have been in the United States and other countries for so long, they in effect have no ties to motivate a return, beyond a visit.

Despite the challenges and complexity, the recent relationship between the United States and Cuba, including the embargo, has failed to dislodge the Communists from power and bring democracy to the island, and has contributed to the impoverishment of the Cuban people (On that last point, I hasten to add that primary blame rests with the Cuban government and its corruption and failed policies.). The embargo itself is fraught with hypocrisy. The very same Cuban exile community that stands opposed to Castro, and many of whom want to maintain the embargo, prop up Cuba’s economy by sending remittances to family members there. This is openly done in Miami. A casual drive down Calle Ocho features store after store offering the service of “envios a Cuba” (the sending of money and parcels) and travel to Cuba. This embargo resembles more a leaking sieve than a trade barrier. On the other hand, will the Cuban government admit to the failure of its economic policies, swallow its own pride, and reach out to the Cuban exile community as partners? Will Cuba open up politically and economically to allow such involvement?

The Catholic Church and other churches (who have long histories in Cuba due to U.S. influence and European immigration) can be part of the beginning of a solution to bring about reconciliation which remembers the sacrifice and suffering of Cuban exiles while bringing true justice and freedom to the island of Cuba. What will that look like? It is a good thing that Cubans on both sides of the straits are a hard-working, entrepreneurial people, because we are about to be presented with the opportunity to engage in an unprecedented joint venture with cultural, economic, and political dimensions. Fortunately, we can look to how the Catholic Church in Vietnam, or Christian churches in the former Communist eastern bloc have facilitated opportunities where exile communities can bring their investment capital and emotional interest in their respective homelands to bear. Perhaps Cuban-Americans can do the same, and transfigure our anger and pain into compassion and energy to help Cubans on the island transform our common ancestral homeland for the better. This is easy to say, sounds all-too-romantic, and will be very hard to do. There is so much dangerous memory to transform into a common vision.

Ramón Luzárraga is Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University – Mesa in Mesa, Arizona, where he is also Chair of the Department of Theology. His interests include political theology, and Hispanic and Caribbean theology.

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