One of the lines in Obama's speech stated that most Americans were not alive when the current policies, embargoes and restrictions were enacted. I happen to be one of those Americans who was alive. I happened to be alive in Florida at the time. I also happened to be going to school in a Catholic diocese and parish that took in Cuban refugees in the 1959-61 time frame. Several Cuban kids were sent to my elementary school. Most of them didn't speak any English at first. There was one of them in particular who was my age and we became friends. He had to wait for the bus to take him back to the refugee camp and I wasn't in a rush to go home on my bike after school. The bond was baseball. It started one day after school. The bike rack was near the softball field. I had my baseball glove with me. This Cuban refugee was by the backstop. I noticed him and waved. He approached me and said in broken English "I pitch, you catch?". That phrase has often come to mind when I think back to my school days or hear stories about Cuba. I nodded yes and we went to the field. For the next 20 or 30 minutes we played catch, him on the pitchers mound and me behind the plate. We repeated this routine on many other afternoons. He learned more English, I learned some Spanish and we both figured out more gestures and hand signs. Then one day he wasn't there, I never saw him again. I don't know what happened. Sometimes the refugee kids got transferred to a new place, sometimes they got reunited with their parents and moved on. To be honest, his leaving didn't make a big difference in my daily life but it obviously made an impression since I still have vivid memories of those days. They were good times.
My next remembrance of Cuba was the missile crisis. I lived in North Florida and was surrounded by three US Navy bases. We were pretty sure that we would be a target. There was a giant sigh when that crisis was averted.
Over the years the Cuban refugees assimilated into the US society. The Castro regime faded from the news for the most part until this week.
Now we have major changes coming. After 50 years we are going to try a different approach in dealing with Cuba. I say it is about time. The whole country was pretty much in agreement with the original embargo and sanctions. The hope was that we could starve Castro out. That didn't work. Cuba is still a communist country and still surviving. The Castro brothers and the rest of the ranking Cuban government members are doing fine. The average Cuban citizen is living at some level of poverty. How is that an effective policy against an oppressive regime?
I know that there is opposition to the easing of the restrictions. There are still many Cubans in this country who had to flee the Castro coup. Most stayed in Florida. Miami has the second largest Cuban population of any city. Only Havana has more. That generation of Cuban-Americans has mostly been in favor of US policy of isolating Cuba diplomatically and economically. They supported the embargo. I understand that viewpoint in 1960. They wanted to punish Castro and quickly get their country back. I'm sure they still want their country back but the quickly part is long past.
There will of course be political opposition and blowback. It has already started. Part of it will be sincere difference of opinion and most will be to simply oppose anything Obama does.
It seems to me that as the Cuban people are exposed more to the outside world and democracy they will demand more freedom. It is my hope that increased tourism, trade and changes to monetary policy will help the population more than the leaders.
We deal with countries and regimes all over the world that we don't agree with or like. We certainly should deal with one of our closest neighbors, one we have much in common with. Having diplomatic relations and trading with a country does not mean we support them.
Let's give Obama's plan a try. Let's lift the embargo. Let's reunite the families that have been broken apart. Let's celebrate the new relationship with a fine cigar and a glass of rum.