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Opinion: A Cuban-American’s Wary Optimism

Image: Workers cover the podium with the seal of the U.S. Embassy in Havana where the Embassy opening and flag raising ceremony will take place tomorrow, Havana

Workers cover the podium with the seal of the U.S. Embassy in Havana where the Embassy opening and flag raising ceremony will take place tomorrow, Havana, August 13, 2015. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba on August 14 to formally re-designate the U.S. Interests Section as the U.S. Embassy in Havana. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI / Reuters

For even the most ardent supporters of the U.S policy change towards Cuba, like myself, the past few months have been challenging. From the Castro apologists to to the Cuban embassy opening, I’ve been growing increasingly uneasy with the story I see unfolding. Which shouldn’t surprise me. For all its failures, the one thing Castro’s regime has always been able to masterfully control is story.

A perfect example of this was the week leading up to the Cuban embassy re-opening. The first image I came across was of state-sponsored artist Kcho holding up a ‘July 26th’ flag in front of the White House. Upon seeing it, my eye roll was so immediate and intense, I felt like a jackpot machine. July 26th marks the date of the attacks on the Moncada Barracks, a poorly planned mission where the Castros got the majority of their troops killed or captured and later executed.

Fidel and Raul would immediately flee only to get caught soon after. But Fidel would frame the disastrous skirmish as the victorious beginning of the Cuban revolution, a story that would go unchecked. And it’s fitting. Neither Castro engaged in actual battle, their comrades paid for their incompetence with their lives and even though they lost, they would claim victory. It’s a pattern of botched leadership the brothers would play on a loop through this very day. And one which nobody ever calls them out on, which makes any kind of engagement with Cuba beyond frustrating.

The embassy re-opening itself felt – basic. There was the Cuban honor guard and a small group of sycophants chanting ‘Fidel!’ as the flag was raised while Miguel Barnett, Silvio Rodriguez and Eusebio Leal looked on proudly. As a bonus, Danny Glover and James Erly gave interviews. All of these men championed the revolution at great personal gain without ever once using their status within the regime to improve conditions for the people. None of them have ever engaged with exiled or disenfranchised Cubans. And yet they were all being treated as the Cuban elite and ‘experts’ by American media.

As I’m watching this I start to question my support of this new approach. Clearly the old policy didn’t work and I didn’t expect instant change. But I did expect to see some accountability. I thought this new approach would facilitate a neutral ground where Cubans could discuss our shared history honestly in the hopes of creating a Cuba we can all be a part of.

I didn’t expect the Castros to cede power, but I did expect our new found unity to loosen their grip on the lies they’re pitching as truth. At the very least I thought the curtain was finally being pulled back and it would force a shift in consciousness and understanding. But instead, Americans are cooing over how ‘poetic’ the Cuban ruins are, business men are bum rushing Havana for investment opportunities and the people responsible for destroying the country are taking a victory lap. To see Cuban exiles once again be marginalized is incredibly unsettling. Especially considering what our part of this story is.

Cuban refugees watched as friends and family were arrested without cause and silenced without trial by firing squads. They were forced to surrender any shred of liberty and spit at as they left everything they’d every worked for behind.

They were called worms and traitors only to get urgent pleas for remittances years later from the very people that humiliated them upon their exit. And exiles answered those letters—in the billions and for decades regardless of whatever policy was in place, because they would not let their family starve.

Cuban exiles have been doing people-to-people diplomacy for years while being mocked by an International left that cared more about ideas than human beings. And still, people want us to be quiet and play nice because we don’t want Castro’s hardliners to blow up this diplomacy.

The truth is, Cuba started transitioning way before the policy change and it was thanks to our support of our families and our dissidents. There is no question that Obama’s approach facilitated our ability to do that, the same as Clinton’s and Carter’s before him. But this change people are so excited about does not happen without us. It was conceived by Cuban Americans. So why are we being left out of the conversation?

It’s not all doom and gloom. The only independent source of reporting human rights abuses inside of Cuba show that the numbers are declining. There are a few more wifi spots, although the Internet is heavily censored and the a Republican-led Senate committee has approved the lifting of the travel ban and other restrictions — which will eliminate Castro's last excuse for the siege mentality that’s so ingrained on the island.

But at the same time, the regime is ritualistically abusing specific dissidents and artists, friends of mine, with impunity and now they’re doing it as the U.S. looks away. It’s the same cheap spectacle the regime has put on for 56 years. Optics matter. And the optics aren’t promising. Out of sheer frustration I began to dig further.

Image: Tourists take pictures of Cubans flags in front of U.S embassy in Havana
Tourists take pictures of Cubans flags in front of U.S embassy in Havana, July 27, 2015. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba on August 14 to formally re-designate the U.S. Interests Section as the U.S. Embassy in Havana. ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI / Reuters

I came upon an NBC News ‘A Short Take’ from the US embassy in Havana. Reporter Gabe Gutierrez wove through tourists who snapped pictures of the boxy US Interests Section that’s been there since the Carter administration as Cubans continued to line up with their paperwork and hope in hand patiently waiting to apply for visas to visit the U.S. There were no ‘revolutionary’ celebrities or chanting.

But there was a determination that was absent from the DC ceremony. I noticed one kid sitting among the forrest of flagpoles the Cuban government erected to block the building’s digital message boards. Now flagless, they looked like barren cement trees waiting to be cleared. This kid lazily layed among them watching and waiting like everybody else. He was wearing a black t-shirt with white block lettering that said “No One Cares About Your Fantasy Team”. And that’s when I saw where the real opportunity lies.

Secretary of State Kerry did not extend a ceremonial invitation to the Cuban dissidents that pushed for travel reform, small business licenses and cellular phone service years before this policy change. But a few of the Cuban Americans that supported those brave women and men will be in attendance.

The dissidents will have their own private meeting at the ambassadors residence later day, long after Cuban American Inaugural poet, Richard Blanco has read what will no doubt be a beautiful poem. I don’t know how much real support the dissidents are getting, if they are getting it behind closed doors. But as a Cuban I know it’s my responsibility to ask.

Regardless of what our government leaders and their dictators decide, I refuse to let the cynicism of a tired regime’s narrative stop me from standing proudly with the Cubans who survived a dictatorship and came together right before our beloved country turned to dust. The time for chants and totalitarian pageants are over. It won’t be easy, but I’m doubling down on a new story.