US-Cuba thaw leads to soul-searching among Cuban expats

The US' normalisation of relations with Cuba, which were severed in 1961, offers unexpected new options for Cuban-American exiles, who once believed that choosing one of the two countries meant forever closing the option of living in the other.
A photograph of Fidel Castro hangs in a municipal building in Havana, on December 26, 2014, where miniature Cuban flags decorate the entrance. Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo
A photograph of Fidel Castro hangs in a municipal building in Havana, on December 26, 2014, where miniature Cuban flags decorate the entrance. Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

MIAMI // Cuban expatriates in the United States, including many who risked their lives to escape the communist island, are torn about whether to return after Havana and Washington formally reestablish ties next year.

In a surprise move last week, US president Barack Obama announced the normalisation of relations with Cuba, which were severed in 1961.

This development — which clears the way for bilateral trade and normal diplomatic relations — also offers unexpected new options for Cuban-American exiles, who once believed that choosing one of the two countries meant forever closing the option of living in the other.

Marisol Camarota said she wouldn’t think twice about returning to live in her homeland — provided she can make a living comparable to what she earns in the US.

By contrast, Hector Martinez — who fled Cuba years ago on a rickety raft — wouldn’t dream of ever setting foot in his home country again.

The historic thaw between Havana and Washington has led to soul-searching among Cubans who abandoned the island for a better life in the US.

Miami is home to the largest population of Cuban expats and their descendants. Numbering around one million people, they make up about half the entire exile population.

Many, like Camarota, say the sudden diplomatic changes have left them torn.

Three years after arriving in the US, Camarota says her heart is now “divided.”

“I’d like to be there, and I’d want to be here,” said the 40-year old, who works as a florist in Miami.

Camarota’s decision is complicated by the fact that her two children, aged eight and 14, are still living in Cuba and being raised by relatives.

She also misses the “solidarity” that residents on the island show for one another, especially when contrasted with Americans’ trademark individualism, which sometimes leaves her feeling isolated and a little homesick.

“If I were given a guarantee that I could have it all?” she said. “Then I would be in Cuba, with my family.”

“I’m 100 per cent Cuban,” she added. “I don’t regret coming to this country, but I remain true to my native land.”

Jorge Luis Rodriguez, 54, only arrived in US six weeks ago, and already feels the tug of Cuba on his heart.

He made the trip with his 15-year-old daughter Rachel to reunite with another of his children, who settled in the US years ago.

“That’s why I came, if not for that I would have stayed there,” said Mr Rodriguez, who said he “had no problem” with the island and otherwise would have happily stayed there.

While a number of people say they would be ready to return to Cuba, most say they’d like to wait and see how the process of re-establishing relations proceeds — particularly with respect to easing travel and sending funds back home.

For many, any decision on returning would have one condition: that neither the current Cuban president, Raúl Castro, nor his brother, former president Fidel Castro, hold the reins of power.

Some of the difference in views is dependent on age.

Older generations of Cuban-Americans — many of whom lost property and businesses, and whose relatives were persecuted by the communist government — often have a hard time contemplating any return, especially with the Castro brothers still in control.

Younger expats, however, including those who did not lose property during the revolution, or who never knew a Cuba where the Castro weren’t in charge, express more willingness to going back.

Odalis Mendoza said it’s only natural to have feelings of longing for Cuba, even after leaving nearly 25 years ago.

“It’s my land,” the 51-year-old said, adding, however, that a return to the island would only be possible after the “Castro regime” is no longer in power.

“It’s my people, it’s my family.”

* Agence France-Presse

Published: December 27, 2014 04:00 AM

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