Cuba seeks to move closer to its emigrants

The author’s address to the Fourth International Coloquy of Latinos in the United States, held at Casa de las Américas. Mr. Gómez is the former president of the Cuban-American Committee in Washington and a member of the Antonio Maceo Brigade.


HAVANA — Today I decided to comment on how new efforts for rapprochement between the Cuban émigré community — such as those made at one time by the Antonio Maceo Brigade — could be promoted.

To do so, let us look first at the period of greatest activity by the Brigade, from 1977 to 1988. A Cold War was ongoing, along with armed struggles in Africa and Central America. There was even the threat of military intervention by Reagan’s first Secretary of State.

The Cuban diaspora was not really a traditional or economic emigration but rather resembled an “exile” community whose majority supported the policy of blockade and even military intervention. The Cuban migratory policy was based on factors of national security; emigration was seen as treason, which reflected the intensity of the class struggle within the island and the conflict between Cuba and the United States.

The visits of émigrés to the island were prohibited until 1978 and their definitive return was banned until very recently.

At that time, farming was practically the only private sector. Remittances were insignificant in their relation to our country’s economy. The U.S. was going through a period of major social changes and the Revolution inspired deep sympathy, even among a minority of the young Cuban émigrés. The fact that Cuba had shut itself off also increased their nostalgia for their motherland.

And, of course, there were only Special Interests Sections, no embassies, and even those steps forward were interrupted by the Mariel boatlift and Reagan’s election.

That reality can be contrasted with the situation today. There is no Cold War or armed struggles with Cuban support, and the United States doesn’t even have a pretext to say that Cuba represents a threat to its national security.

Ever since Mariel, the Cuban emigration has increasingly resembled an economic migration. And the surveys say that slightly more than 50 percent of those migrants approve the changes in policy initiated by Obama, with a higher percentage among the young. Even though they don’t sympathize with Cuban socialism as a whole, that majority wants to maintain its ties with Cuba, opposes the blockade and rejects an aggressive policy toward Cuba.

In Cuba, the private sector numbers more than 500,000 self-employed entrepreneurs. Even though in the United States there is not a climate such as existed during the days of the Brigade, the nostalgia and patriotic feelings remain strong, especially among the young.

Above all, at least the way I understand it, the Cuban government’s strategic policy is to improve relations with the émigré communities, although the implementation of that policy has its ups and downs and vestiges remain of the old premise that “all emigration is treasonous.”

Since 2013, almost all Cubans enter and leave the country whenever they want; they can emigrate without sanctions. Remittances pay an extremely important role in the nation’s economy. They’re estimated to range between 2 billion and 3.5 billion dollars a year, a net income comparable to the revenues from exports, services, and tourism combined.

Trips by émigrés to the island number more than 350,000; about 150,000 Cubans travel to the United States every year. Thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans are seeking repatriation.

So, the world today is very different from the way it was when the Antonio Maceo Brigade was at its apogee. The interaction between the two shores of the Florida Strait has multiplied enormously. What experts call “transnationalism” is gaining rapidly among the émigrés.

Any attempt to move closer to reality demands different viewpoints and mechanisms. I believe that four factors are among the most important to take into account to achieve a new rapprochement.

  1. Cuba wishes to normalize relations with its émigrés.
  2. For a long time now, the émigrés have been changing their origins, their motivations and their relations with Cuba, even though they don’t share all the tenets of socialism.
  3. The blockade remains almost intact.
  4. Although diplomatic relations exist, Trump is regressing to a policy of “regime change” with evil intent, instead of “good intentions,” as Obama proposed.

At least the first two factors would help to strengthen the émigrés’ ties with Cuba, to a certain point independent from the state of relations between the two countries. If so, we might ask: What are some of the objectives of new efforts of rapprochement today?

On the part of the emigrants, they would need to multiply their voices, networks and organizations toward a broad participation, including many who, although they don’t share the entire Cuban political project, respect it and want to contribute to the country’s development within that project.

Much work is needed so the new Cuban policy toward emigrants is made irreversible.

We must also demand a lifting of the blockade, the greatest obstacle to Cuba’s normalization with the diaspora. Among the emigrants, the context for this is potentially more favorably today than before, despite Trump.

In addition, we can pursue joint projects in terms of the nation’s development, with the explicit and public participation of groups of professionals, artists, musicians, scientists, athletes and other émigrés.

It is also necessary to establish a dialogue with Cuba regarding the rights and duties of the émigrés. Now that Trump and the Republicans are in power, it remains to be seen to what degree these possibilities can become reality within the émigré community.

On the part of Cuba, I’m going to be a bit more daring. I believe it essential for Cuba to persist in “normalizing” its links to the emigrants. And to do so as independently as possible from the conflict with the U.S. and the “militancy” (so to speak) that the emigrants may demonstrate against the blockade.

It’s not a question of trying to be “good” with ourselves; it’s because I believe that this normalization is inevitable and necessary for Cuba in the long term and that the better it is channeled, the better it will be for the country.

As a Cuban émigré interested in participating in the life of my native country, I dare to suggest some ideas (perhaps a bit idealistic or premature) that the Cuban authorities might ponder, such as:

• To pay greater attention to the émigré community. After all, there are more than 1 million Cuban-born people in the United States and hundreds of thousands in other countries (not to mention their descendants) with great influence in the life of their nations.

Emigration is a fact and will continue to be so. It seems to me that this requires more centralized state structures to meet the needs and expectations of the émigrés and to suit them better to the nation’s interests. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I ignore the limitation of resources inside and outside Cuba to pursue this objective.

• To continue to erase the idea that all emigration is treason.

• To settle the issue of dual citizenship by amending the Constitution.

• To continue to advance in the legal definition of the rights and duties of the émigrés, as much as possible, with some consultation with or the participation of the émigré community, thereby increasing the clarity and transparency of the criteria and regulations that rule the issues of interest for the émigrés.

• To reduce the cost of the administrative paperwork done by the emigrants.

• To open new spaces to facilitate the State’s collaboration with groups of emigrants with broad participation; for example, joint projects that support the nation’s development, including support for remittances or investments. Though unlikely with the United States at present, pilot projects could be done with Spain, Mexico and other countries right now, if space could be made to participate in the life of the nation.

These spaces could be, for example, forums about issues like the implementation of the Guidelines or the rights and duties of the emigrants, exchanges with the mass organizations or the municipal or provincial governments. There’s even the possibility of placing observers in the National Assembly.

To summarize, the reality in the era of the Antonio Maceo Brigade’s apogee was very different from the reality today. And to repeat our efforts of rapprochement to Cuba, new approaches are needed.

Trump notwithstanding, two factors favor such efforts. First, Cuba is committed to a policy of “normalizing” relations with the diaspora; second, the majority of the émigrés now favor a rapprochement, even if they don’t sympathize with the entire Cuban political project.

For these new efforts to impact on U.S. policy, or for a closer relationship between Cuba and its émigré community, initiatives are needed, inside both the community and the island.

Photo at top: Manuel Gómez/ Carlos Ernesto Escalona Martí (Kako).