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With restored US-Cuba ties, a long trip home for Miami Cubans

Many expected Cuban-Americans to rise up in anger at the restoring of relations. That hasn’t happened. Instead, a yearning has taken hold among both younger generations and older exiles to know the Cuba of today.

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    Edel Gonzalez got his hair cut by Johnny Alvarado at the Gamboa Barber Shop May 29 in Miami’s Little Havana.
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Raul Moas’s family has a 1982 bottle of Dom Pérignon sitting in the back of their fridge to pop the day Fidel Castro dies.

Like many Cuban exiles in Miami, they have fraught stories from the island. One grandfather was arrested and charged with counterrevolutionary activities in 1961. He fled to the United States, and it took six years before his wife and child could join him.

The revolution created deep divisions through the family of Mr. Moas’s other grandfather, a Castro opponent who left his pro-revolution mother and siblings behind in the 1960s. He never saw his mother again.

But in August 2006, when news broke that Mr. Castro was ill and had handed power to his brother Raúl, the then-college freshman watched the TV coverage with unease. As Miami Cubans celebrated on-screen, parading an effigy of Castro in a coffin, Moas thought, “That doesn’t represent me.”

“That was the first time I truly felt I couldn’t identify with my community,” says the executive director of Roots of Hope, an organization that supports Cuban youth on the island.

Today Moas has plenty of company. The mass outcry from the Cuban-American community that many expected when President Obama announced the normalization of relations in December hasn’t really materialized. The shift in thinking can be seen in Moas’s own family: While his more hard-line family members haven’t been unequivocal in their support of his media appearances, they haven’t condemned him either. 

The American flag now flies over the US Embassy in Havana, and the US and Cuba are moving toward an opening of relations for the first time in more than 50 years. Watching the events of the past eight months has been head-spinning for a community organized around a conflict that seemed completely calcified.

“I thought I had thought a lot about Cuba” before Dec. 17, says Richard Blanco, a writer and poet born to Cuban exiles who read at both Mr. Obama’s second inauguration and the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana in August.

“It took me a while to wrap my head around everything that is happening. I can only imagine my parents’ or grandparents’ generation,” he says. “One of the reasons I realized I was having a hard time is that everyone, everyone [has built their] lives around this paradigm, this idea ... whether you were for or against the embargo.... We had all lived our lives around the idea that nothing was ever going to change.”

And with that change, a new emotion is taking hold – a yearning to know the Cuba of today.

Polls have shown for years that the younger generations of Cubans in the US don’t share the visceral pain and anger of the early exiles. But the past few months also have made clear that many early exiles don’t harbor that rage anymore either.

Fiery grandparents are becoming tired and nostalgic, realizing that they may never see Cuba if they insist on waiting for the Castro brothers’ demise. Their children are freer to say they were never that angry in the first place.

At the funerals of exiles who originally swore they would never set foot in their homeland before the Castros were buried, Moas says you often hear family members murmuring, “So good he went to Cuba one last time.”

“That shift comes from facing your own mortality. You do want to see your homeland one last time,” Moas says. “You do want to see where you were baptized, married, where your kids were born.”

A post-Dec. 17 world

Since 1962, there has been one immutable fact for the Cuban community in the US: The US embargo would be there as long as the Castros were.

But on Dec. 17, 2014, the Obama administration shocked them – and much of the US. The past eight months have chipped away at that constant with a series of monumental moments: Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro, the reopening of the embassies in August, and Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The challenge for younger generations is to move the community past long-held grudges without seeming to dismiss early exiles’ pain over losing so abruptly the life they loved. They’ve long covered it up with anger, Mr. Blanco says.

“There’s more to what’s said than just political stance. It’s more than just rhetoric. It comes from a deep emotional place,” he says. “It’s easier to be angry. It’s easier to hold on to anger and to hold on to really negative emotions than to face loss and pain. It’s easier to scream than it is to cry.”

For Cuba Now, an advocacy group that has pushed for a reevaluation of US policies on Cuba, the lack of mass outcry has been vindicating, says executive director Ric Herrero, whose own family went from Cuba to Puerto Rico in the 1960s and then on to the US in the 1980s.

“We knew we weren’t the only ones. We knew the community had been coming around,” he says, calling the day of the announcement “a coming-out party of sorts.”

The false dichotomy politicians had given Cubans in the US – support the embargo or support the Castros – has been smashed, he says.

“After Dec. 17, it was no longer taboo to come out and speak your mind and say you’re a supporter of this approach,” Mr. Herrero says. “There is a general acceptance within the community that we’re at a point from which there is no turning back.”

The change is most evident in conversations around dinner tables, increasingly peppered with planning for visits back to the island. The younger generations are navigating an emotional minefield as they broach the possibility. Their elders’ fixation on material losses like ornate chandeliers disguises a deeper sadness.

“There’s pain in my grandparents’ generation for what was lost, beyond the material. What was lost was a sense of identity, a sense of dignity, a sense of belonging,” says Moas, whose organization also helps organize trips to Cuba. “Talking about traveling to Cuba for some families would almost be like surrendering.”

He estimates that about 90 percent of the people who travel to Cuba through his organization are Millennials. They are slowly being joined by parents and grandparents, acting as unofficial tour guides.

Giancarlo Sopo, a public relations consultant in Miami, says his first visit to Cuba as an adult, after the loosening of travel restrictions, was a “paradigm-shifting experience.”

His grandfather, a psychiatrist in the Navy of pre-revolutionary dictator Fulgencio Batista, died in 1959 as a political prisoner of the revolution. His father was so opposed to the Castro regime that he signed up to participate in the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was sent to Cuba as part of an intelligence team and tasked with seizing control of a key radio station in Havana.

His father, who died when Giancarlo was in high school, was “a man of his generation,” Mr. Sopo says – a “very hard-line, anti-Castro guy.”

But for Sopo, being Cuban-American meant spending 10 days this summer in the suburban Havana home where four generations of his family on the island still live.

While there, he visited La Cabaña, the fortress in Havana where his grandfather was held as a political prisoner.

More poignant, he says, was crowding around the dinner table with all the generations and the afternoon he sat on the porch with his great-aunt, bonding over their mutual love of jazz.

Cuban-American Giancarlo Sopo and his great-aunt, shown in Havana during his visit this summer. COURTESY OF GIANCARLO SOPO

He shows an iPhone video he recorded for his mother that day, swiveling the camera to take it all in. He urges his great-aunt, the family matriarch, to deliver a message to his mother. “I hope to see you before I die,” she says to the camera.

“It’s tough to ignore something like this. It’s so raw. It’s so human,” he says. “How can you refuse to go to the island and embrace someone you love?”

That message brought Sopo and his mother back to Havana only six weeks later.

Guided by her vivid memories, they explored her old neighborhood. She pointed to benches on which she chatted with girlfriends and to a tree gifted to Cuba from overseas that she and her friends used to wish on. One wished to move to the US; she lives here now.

Little had changed in the family home. The terrace where she had long conversations with her grandparents remains, and she served dinner for the whole family at the same table where her grandmother used to do the same.

Despite having visited previously, she gasped at the derelict buildings and potholed roads during a car tour around Havana. She said the street she grew up on “looked like a bomb had gone off,” Sopo recalls.

What most surprised her was the affable reception at customs upon her arrival.

“I guess they must have handed them a new script,” she said to her son wryly.

But for many of those who come back, it will be hard to see beyond the voids where lush parks, stained-glass windows, and social clubs once stood. Dissatisfaction with the Obama administration’s moves is widespread even among those contemplating returns, and the opinion that the US gave too much away is common.

“It seems the American government is giving in and giving back and feeding into everything and anything the Cuban government wants. It’s not a quid pro quo. I think it’s going only [Cuba’s] way,” says Aida Roisman, a Miami resident who came to the US in 1962 as a preteen through Operation Pedro Pan. That operation resettled an estimated 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban youths in the US between 1960 and 1962 ahead of their parents.

Her husband, Joe, an exile who spent several years in Israel before settling in the US, concurs.

“The US government hasn’t done anything about civil liberties, freedom of expression,” he says. “What the average American doesn’t understand is there is the Cuba for the tourists with five-star hotels and lobster and there is the Cuba of the Cubans and they make 50 pesos a month and they have to rely on money sent by relatives [in] the US to survive.”

Still, they’re considering their US-born sons’ request to go back as a family.

“They want to learn more of the legacy that they come from. They want to know the country in the sense of the school and the synagogue and the places that we lived and visited and were part of,” Ms. Roisman says. “I don’t want to go back just to leave American dollars in a communist regime, but I would like to go back to revisit – although what I would see now would, more likely than not, not resemble any of what I experienced or lived or knew 50-plus years ago.”

Two Cuban communities

The hard-liners still exist, and they still have an outsize voice in the conversation, says Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Amandi International, which has polled the Cuban community in the US for decades and recently did the first independent poll in Cuba.

He divides the Cuban-American community in two: those born in Cuba who came to the US in the 1950s, ’60s, and early ’70s, and those who came during the 1980 mass migration known as the Mariel Boatlift or who were born in the US.

The former are the ones the rest of the US knows best – strident anti-communists who firmly shut the door on their homeland. They’ve long had a strong political voice, but they only make up about 40 percent of the population today, according to Mr. Amandi – and the passage of time is going to continue to chip away at their numbers.

Another 35 percent are Cuban-born exiles who stayed and lived under Castro, coming here amid the boatlift, the raft crisis of the 1990s, or even more recently. These exiles still have ties to the island and know the human cost of the embargo.

Blanco’s cousin came to the US 15 years ago. On July 26, the anniversary of the revolution, the cousin called him up, chortling over local TV coverage of exiles tearing up the national flag. “Nobody here even knows what July 26 stands for!” he says.

The other 25 percent are US-born Cubans, for whom the desperate flight from the island is merely part of family history.

“It’s not that they don’t care about Cuba. They take pride in their heritage. Even they are anti-Castro ... but they just don’t have the intensity of passion on the issue because it’s divorced from their tangible reality,” says Amandi. “It’s very different when you have to leave your homeland. That’s a searing, transformative life experience.”

A flash poll conducted by Amandi’s firm the night of the December announcement found 48 percent against restoring relations, 44 percent in favor. By March, that had shifted to 51 percent in favor.

“On Dec. 16, half of this city would have said ‘I don’t want to go to Cuba,’ ” Moas says. “On Dec. 18, that same half was asking itself, ‘Is it our time? Is it right to do this?’ ”

And as the community wraps its head around the tremendous changes, Amandi only sees that number growing.

“What you realize when you go to Cuba,” Sopo says, “is that there is much more to that country than a pair of brothers.”

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