Cuban expats see either heartbreak or hope in Obama’s diplomatic gambit

Memories of the Castro revolution have never faded away in Key West

Emelia Fernandez and her daughter Irene outside their home in Old Town, Key West. Above is a sign with the name of Emelia’s home town in Cuba, and a Cuban flag leading into a Conch shell, representing their joint heritage. Photograph: Jennifer Hough

Emelia Fernandez and her daughter Irene outside their home in Old Town, Key West. Above is a sign with the name of Emelia’s home town in Cuba, and a Cuban flag leading into a Conch shell, representing their joint heritage. Photograph: Jennifer Hough

 

He was just 10 years old when he left in 1959, but Tony Yaniz still has vivid memories of Cuba: the stunning architecture of old Havana, the iconic Malecón (seawall), a bustling city with parks and trees, and the lush greenness of Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s western tobacco- growing province.

Sitting in his office, in Key West, Florida, 90 miles (140km) across the Straits of Florida to Cuba, Yaniz, now 64, recalls his mother asking, as they prepared to depart in the wake of the Fidel Castro-led revolution, “Should we bring the photos and jewellery?”

“No,” replied his father, a journalist. “This guy won’t last six months.”

Yaniz, today a Key West city commissioner and one of the town’s most vocal Cuban-American politicians, cried when he heard president Barack Obama’s pledge to restore diplomatic relations, after 54 years.

“I was a 10-year-old who was told to get on a plane, I didn’t know that was the last time I’d see Cuba for 50-something years,” he says. “I bawled like a baby when I heard the news. My grandmother in the 1960s, my father in the 1970s and my mother three years ago, all said, ‘I guess we don’t get to go back home before we die.’ So it was very emotional.”

Because he has family in Cuba, Yaniz can go back any time, but he hasn’t yet. “I don’t know what I am waiting for. I just want everything to be perfect, like the first time you make love,” he chuckles.

Turning point

Strong historical and cultural ties link Key West and Cuba, from the romance of Ernest Hemingway, who famously enjoyed houses, women and watering holes in both Havana and Key West, to the weighty history of Cuban national hero José Marti, who came to the US in 1891 to garner support for a war of independence against Spanish rule.

Key West was often called the seventh province of Cuba. In the days before the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys, when Miami was nothing more than a swamp, it was easier for Conchs (Key West natives) to take the ferry across to Havana than go to the US mainland to visit the doctor or dentist.

Cubans immigrated to Key West in droves from the 1860s, often to work in cigar factories: the tobacco was imported from Cuba, the cigars rolled in Key West.

All of this makes Key West a unique prism through which to view the current climate.

Today, talk around the tiny key, 120 miles south of Miami, linked through a series of islands and bridges, is that people look forward to the day when the ferry is back in action, allowing tourists to have breakfast in Key West and dinner in Havana. The hope is that, one day, Cubans will also be able to visit a place that holds such historic resonance for them.

Yaniz contends that “Key West Cubans are not Miami Cubans”. But the island is more a microcosm of the wider Cuban diaspora than it cares to admit, and the prospect of normalising relations has divided the community along deeply contentious political lines.

Head

“I remember vividly the scenes of horror as my classmates awaited the execution of their parents,” he says. “They were arrested and tried on the streets, and two days later executed.” Penalver was nine when he and his parents, who had also been marked out as enemies of the revolution, fled Cuba.

The attorney believes the US has blown a “golden moment” to bring democratic, civil and human rights to Cuba. Far from opening up, as predicted by some, Penalver contends that power will remain in the hands of the Castros – Fidel’s brother Raúl having succeeded him as president – and their inner circle.

“The US could have made demands in exchange for an economic opening,” he says. “Instead, we have sent them [the Castros] a lifeline that will only benefit a few American businesses going to bed with them to keep them in power. The almighty dollar has prevailed over US honour.”

Penalver says he would be the first to be in favour of new rules, if they allowed American tourists to go to Cuba freely.

Castro will only allow what benefits him. This makes a funnel for only a few politically connected businessmen who will get licences, and members of Castro’s elite, who will benefit by exploiting the natural resources of Cuba. Cuban workers will not profit from this.

“I don’t think it will open up . . . The government [in Cuba] stays in power because of control; popular opinion does not matter.”

Both Yaniz and Penalver say that most Cubans they know share their respective views. Still, some Cuban Americans refuse to air their views in the media, such is the sensitivity around the matter.

One woman who doesn’t hold back, however, is Emelia Fernandez (79), the owner of Key West’s original Cuban Coffee Queen Cafe. She was in her home town of Villa Chappara in Cuba when the news broke on Decembert 17th.

“People went crazy. They were cooking in front of houses. There were parades, parties,” Fernandez says as her daughter Irene, half American, half Cuban, translates at times, as they stand in front of their traditional wooden Conch home in the old town of Key West.

Born in the sugar cane-growing rural region of Cuba, Fernandez married an American and in 1959 moved to the US. The couple went on to run several affluent businesses in town. As a political activist, she travels regularly to her native land.

“I never lost hope this day would come,” says Fernandez, the eldest of 11 siblings, who didn’t see her family for 21 years after leaving home.

Exploited workers

“The American companies that ran the sugar cane businesses did not educate workers,” she says. “They wanted to keep us stupid so they could continue to exploit us. Now, education is free for everyone. Anyone can become a lawyer, doctor, teacher, nurse. We cannot lose the social gains made under Castro.

“Cuba has always dictated its position and will continue to do so,” she adds. “We will work with the US to move forward for the mutual good of the Cuban and American people. Cuba doesn’t let the US put its foot on top of its head. We survived the embargo . . . the future is in our hands.”

The immediate future is in the hands of the US Congress, which alone has the power to end the five-decade embargo, as well as the Castros and powerful Cuban American politicians and lobby groups who are vehemently opposed to warming relations.

The older generation

“If the Democrats lose the White House in two years, God help the Republican who says we are going to separate the Cuban families again,” he says. “I think there is an older generation that is genuinely hurt and passionate. They lost their homes, their farms. Some lost relatives. People were put up against a wall and shot, I get that.”

But the younger generation of Cubans are saying “enough is enough”, he says, and want to move past a half century of history.

Yaniz says that improved relations will stop many Cubans making the treacherous journey across the Florida Straits.

“We won’t see as many rafts, people are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope. I think within five years, if this snowballs and Congress rejects the embargo, Cuba will be a very different country.

“People who are against this say it is about making Cuba a capitalist country, I say this: do you want Cuba to be communist or capitalist? The embargo has only separated families and hurt no one but the Cuban people.”

Fernandez agrees it’s time to move on from the dark past, for the mutual good of both Cubans and Americans. “The extreme right has been squashing people for all of these years instead of moving forward. The Cuban people will benefit from this.”

“For me,” adds the mother, grandmother and great grandmother, proud of both Conch and Cuban heritage, “it’s like bringing together two souls of one heart.”

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