4 Cuba Experts Have Differing Views on Island’s Future
Josh Siegel / @SiegelScribe / February 12, 2015
MIAMI—When Sebastian Arcos steps back to evaluate President Obama’s move
to normalize relations with Cuba, he tries to forget his own experiences
with the Castro regime.
But it’s difficult for Arcos to have a clean perspective because the
Cuban government’s imprints are all over his life—he spent a year in
prison, and was kicked out of school, for trying to escape repression.
“My experiences have everything to do with the way I feel about it,”
said Arcos, now the associate director of the Cuban Research Institute.
“I feel like I have a better grasp of the nature of the regime than the
people changing the policy. They don’t know Cuba the way I do. They can
look at it more objectively.”
Arcos was one of four experts on Cuba to speak at Florida International
University last week at an event hosted by The Heritage Foundation.
Their diverging opinions on Obama’s effort to engage Cuba, in some ways
framed by their personal experiences, reflects a larger divide on the
Ever since Obama announced a policy change that opens up the
communist-ruled island to expanded U.S. travel, trade and financial
activities—and restores diplomatic relations—public opinion on the move
has been mixed.
The divide is especially true among Cuban-Americans, whose opinions
reveal a generational split.
A survey of Americans with Cuban heritage conducted by Bendixen & Amandi
International found that 44 percent agreed with “Obama’s announcement to
begin normalizing relations with Cuba,” while 48 percent disagreed.
The survey, sponsored by El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald and the Tampa
Bay Times, showed that 64 percent of U.S.-born Cubans support Obama’s
policy and 53 percent of Cuban immigrants opposed it.
Take One: ‘Messing With Cuba’
Arcos, 53, who spent the first 30 years of his life in Cuba before
coming to Miami, takes Obama’s policy shift personally.
“I am an American now,” Arcos told The Daily Signal in an interview
after the panel. “My children are American. But my priority is also
Cuba. When the president is messing with Cuba, he is messing with my two
countries in the world.”
Arcos’ passion for human rights, and his future life path, was molded in
While he was in prison—sent there when he was 20 years old for trying to
escape Cuba to Miami on a boat—Arcos acquired a thirst for political
Through fellow inmates, he learned about the Cuban Committee for Human
Rights, and after his release from prison, Arcos joined the group, which
was the first such committee on the island.
Before he was kicked out of the University of Havana—forced out because
of his criminal record—Arcos wanted to be a marine biologist.
Such ambition has limited potential in Cuba.
Arcos spent his early working years employed by the state, as a breeder
of tropical fish for export.
That work did leave some legacy. Arcos takes meticulous care of the many
fish tanks in his Miami home.
“I am quite proud of my fish tanks,” Arcos said.
But today, and ever since relocating his dreams to the United States,
Arcos pursues a different passion: international politics.
In this new life, Arcos holds a nuanced position on Cuba’s future.
“I understand that the old policy [the 54-year-old trade embargo against
Cuba] was not getting us anywhere,” Arcos said. “But the policy is
unfairly criticized. It was not created for regime change, but it has
been judged as if it was. I am OK with opening up diplomatic relations.
The benefits are more than the costs. But not in the way it was done.
You have to talk to your enemies, but you don’t have to give your
Though Obama has the right idea, Arcos argues the president’s approach
“Their approach is ideological,” Arcos said. “Obama is doing this
because he believes U.S. policy is the reason Cuba is the way it is. The
new policy permits the flow of more resources. But the government
controls most of the private sector. The Cuban elite will be stronger
under this policy.”
Acros added: “My fear is that the change in policy will make the
transition to democracy (after Raúl Castro retires in 2018) more
difficult. I could be wrong.”
Dr. Jose Azel, a Cuban exile, left the island in 1961 at 13 years old as
part of Operation Pedro Pan, a refugee movement involving unaccompanied
Azel, a scholar at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and
Cuban American Studies, believes that engaging the island—and the people
who live there—will not necessarily lead to political change.
“The Cuban government controls 80 percent of the economy,” said Azel,
who was a panelist at the Heritage event. “This policy by definition
will strengthen the regime. How exactly does strengthening that regime
lead to political change? We are now saying it is OK to be a
dictatorship. You can repress people and it’s OK with the U.S. I don’t
see a path how that leads to political change.”
Take Two: ‘Engage Cuban Society’
Dr. Frank Mora, a Miami-born Cuban American political scientist and a
panelist at the Heritage event, contends that the United States’ prior
policy of “embargoes and sanctions” against Cuba will never work.
“Whatever engagement has been in the past, it’s about time we decide on
an agenda besides hiding behind isolation and estrangement,” said Mora,
a Cuba scholar at Florida International University and a former Pentagon
official for Latin America in the Obama administration.
He says that it’s wrong to view Obama’s policy shift as an endorsement
of the Castro regime.
“This is not about the Cuban government,” Mora said. “This is about
finding ways to engage Cuban society. What are Cubans going to do [with
He also says it’s incorrect to view the move as a deal between two
parties: Obama and Castro.
“This was not a negotiation,” Mora said. “In was in fact, a unilateral
decision. We didn’t want anything in return.”
Dr. Eduardo Gamarra, a Bolivian-American professor at Florida
International University and a panelist at the Heritage event, defended
Obama’s ability to act alone in easing the embargo.
Only Congress can fully lift the embargo.
“Obama is simply carrying out his mandate,” said Gamarra, noting that
before he became president, Obama had promised to liberalize relations
with Cuba. “That is what democracy is all about.”
Mora views Obama’s pivot to Cuba as a larger strategic initiative in
He noted that Latin American leaders across the spectrum welcomed the
changes, from hard-line leftists in Venezuela to more pro-American
countries such as Mexico and Colombia.
As part of its policy shift, the Obama administration has said it will
press Cuba to improve human rights.
While critics doubt the Castro regime’s willingness to appease the
Americans on human rights, Mora believes the United States is smart to try.
“We have to continue to pressure human rights,” Mora said. “The
administration has done that. We can do both of those things. We can
have normal relations and continue to insist on human rights and
democracy, like we do so many other countries.”
Shared Stake in Cuba’s Future
Though the experts disagree on what the result of Obama’s policy change
will look like, they all care deeply about Cuba’s future—and understand
its significance to America.
“I have spent the happiest years of my life in America,” Arcos said. “My
parents sacrificed everything for me to be here. I owe them this. I owe
them to hope for the best future for Cuba.”
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