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Opinion: Being Cuban American Now is Like Walking a Tightrope

by Carmen Pelaez /
Image: A man holds a U.S. flag while gathering with others on a sidewalk near the U.S. embassy in Havana
A man holds a U.S. flag while gathering with others on a sidewalk near the U.S. embassy (not pictured) in Havana, Cuba, August 14, 2015. ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI / Reuters

MIAMI, FL -- Being a Cuban American that believes in engagement is like walking a tightrope through a hurricane. Isolation has let the Castro regime operate with impunity while blaming all its failings and oppressive acts on the United States. But we are engaging with the same men and women responsible for shattering the lives of millions of Cubans in ways most will never fully grasp. There’s an ocean of difference between hearing about the tragedy and being the one who endures it. Emotionally maneuvering this line is exhausting.

When I heard President Obama was going to Cuba in March, I wasn’t as nihilistic as some of my compatriots but also not as hopeful as others. I know how the regime operates, so I braced myself. Sure enough, as soon as the White House posted President Obama’s official announcement, Cuba’s government newspaper, Granma, declared the President’s visit is proof that any human rights critique of the Revolution is a fabrication.

Every Cuban American I know, regardless of where they stand on the issue, gritted their teeth upon getting the news. We have access to two medias. The American media which deals with "meta Cuba" and the Spanish- language media which reports on the individuals surviving the Cuba locked behind glossy revolutionary propaganda. Aside from having lived it, we get the truth, from every angle.

This short film by director Eliecer Jimenez Almeida cuts together the clips dissidents manage to get on YouTube in the never ending quest to make Cuban reality go viral.

RELATED: Human Rights in Cuba Back in the Spotlight as Obama's Trip Approaches

As I read about a few new wi-fi hot spots in Havana, I also get the news that the town of Guira de Melena hasn’t had water since November. How can I count the growth of small buisness license applications as a ‘win’ when it’s been widely reported that the majority of those licenses are going to loyal party members? As I watch American corporate interests get prioritized I also notice that Cubans are fleeing the island in record numbers. And last year, dissident arrests hit all time highs.

Add to that the fact the Castro regime hasn’t been held accountable for any of its crimes. Instead, they’ve managed the money and influence this policy shift has afforded them to their advantage. Translating any diplomatic interaction with the U.S. as capitulation by Obama to Raul. It makes this slow detente as aggravating as the gridlocked cold war attitude of yesterday and to boot, they’re going to get the honor or a Presidential visit?

Then Secretary John Kerry announced he would be heading to Havana ahead of the President’s visit to discuss human rights. I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d worried Obama’s visit would be the same choreographed spectacle as always, but even I had to concede that Cuban dissidents getting face time with an American President was something different. And extremely important.

Exiles feared his visit would legitimize the regime, but a meeting with dissidents could legitimize Cuba’s beleaguered civil society and its concerns. In Cuba, Obama’s popularity dwarfs that of any Castro. This one act could signal to the Cuban people that if they took actions towards self determination, they would be recognized in a way they hadn’t been in more than half a century. It made the trip, which I was on the fence about, palatable. But then came a new twist…

Thursday night it was announced that Sec. Kerry would not be going to Havana before the President after all. Negotiations came to an impasse over which dissidents the President would be allowed to speak to.

The Cuban government played their hand early. They had no intention of letting President Obama spread any American value other than that of its currency. When it was confirmed he wouldn’t be used, they figured they could at least embarrass him on the issue that matters most to the Cuban American community - a growing powerful block of the Florida Democratic vote - and that is the issue of human rights.

Where I was torn about the trip before, now I can’t wait to watch President Obama, who I had the privilege and right of voting for twice, bound down Air Force One, hand extended towards ‘President’ Raul Castro, who has never won or allowed a free election during the fifty seven years of his family’s tenure.

The Cuban people are watching the regime scurry about, fixing the streets they plan on leading his motorcade through, so much so that its become a Habanero joke. They know the usual suspects are being carefully rehearsed to play the ‘real Cubans’ the President will encounter. But they could care less, they’re waiting for something better.

Cubans, not only in Cuba but around the world, are waiting to see how President Obama embodies the American values he plans on promoting. They know his strength, compassion and unflinching confidence will provide a stark contrast to the control, fear and insecurity of a regime that is so weak, they can’t allow a conversation to take place without their permission.

Maybe when Cubans see their hopes reflected in President Obama, it will serve to remind them that the anemic systematic transition that seems predestined is not our only option. We’ll refuse to let fear devour our sense of what’s possible and we’ll decide how we want to create the Cuba we want to thrive in.

Only then will the clouds break and will the sun shine on an island and a people that have waited far too long for a little light. But we have to be willing to jump off the tight rope and onto solid ground. It’s a risk, but it’s our only chance. The wait is over, our time is now.

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