This opinion piece first appeared in the December 21, 2014 edition of the Financial Times.
For a long time I kept my views on US policy towards Cuba a secret from my family.
My parents were both born on the island, and I grew up hearing tales of how their families had escaped the newly entrenched regime of Fidel Castro in 1959.
Throughout my childhood — I was born in Florida two decades after Mr Castro assumed power — I especially loved the stories of the underground network run by my maternal grandfather to help his capitalist friends flee to the US in the early 1960s, stories occasionally told to me directly by those same friends. On my father’s side two uncles were Operación Pedro Pan kids, sent to the US on flights with other orphaned children, later to be reunited with their parents and elder siblings.
I am not unusual. The first generation of Cuban-Americans born in the US to that particular class of Cuban émigrés spent its youth inundated with such stories — many true, some doubtless inflated by time and myth. With them also came our anti-Castro indoctrination, which started before we could speak.
When I reached late adolescence, and started shedding my parents’ and grandparents’ beliefs to develop some of my own, I had a hunch that I would find their views all wrong.
But my hunch was wrong because their views were half right. That the Castro regime deserves unqualified condemnation is not a belief that must be exclusively rooted in the emotional trauma of the exile experience. Objective facts point to the same conclusion.
The facts show that Cuba, more than 50 years after La Revolución, has an appalling human rights record, pays its citizens the equivalent of barely more than $20 a month, rations food, restricts property rights severely and threatens political dissidents with jail.
Unabashed leftwing apologists for the Cuban statist model are harder to find now than in the decades immediately following Mr Castro’s assent, though they still exist, most reliably in Hollywood. For example in 2008 the actor Sean Penn interviewed Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother and successor as president, for The Nation magazine – and mixed ignorance with obsequiousness into a pungent stew pot of journalistic incompetence.
Pundits and politicians are subtler but often still misguided. Acknowledging Cuba’s poverty, they nonetheless point to its gains in healthcare while failing to note the chronic medicinal shortages and defecting doctors. Or they talk about the country’s high literacy rate, ignoring the repression of a free media and the censorship of internet usage and controversial books. They blame the US embargo and travel restrictions for cutting off Cubans from the world and thus preventing contact with democratic ideas, forgetting the millions of Canadians and Europeans that visit the island each year.
And that is just the left in America — don’t ask me about the dopey hordes wearing Che Guevara T-shirts in the capitals of Europe.
But at least the left, despite its infuriating instinct to romanticise a tragedy, displays a usefully cosmopolitan bent and ultimately arrives at the correct solution for how the US should deal with Cuba: allow travel and trade, hope for the best, but expect nothing and move on. After all, relative to Cuba, how much attention does the US give to the domestic politics of, say, the Dominican Republic?
The right has the reverse problem: accurately depicting a hateful regime but stubbornly clinging to a policy whose inefficacy — either in weakening the same regime or improving the average Cuban’s lot — is beyond doubt.
Where I part ways with the right and with my family’s earlier generations — hey, I said they were only half right — is in my opposition to the embargo and the general isolation of Cuba. I have less to say about the right’s obstinacy than about the left’s inanities, but only because a more obvious rebuttal needs fewer words.
If surveys are right, many Cuban-Americans of my generation find themselves in my same position: no love for the Castros or the leftwing view that romanticises them; no love for isolationist policy and the rightwing view that embraces it; but lots of love for a colourful family that I never wanted to upset at the dinner table by revealing my anti-embargo apostasy.
For all my immense familial pride, I simply find it strange that Cuba remains a focal point of American foreign policy. During a week in which the Russian rouble collapsed and North Korean hackers stared down the American film industry, the dominant headlines were about US dealings with an impoverished, non-threatening country of 11m people.
A good enough reason to normalise diplomacy is that the issue should cease to matter. And selfishly I would like one less topic to awkwardly avoid when I visit family in the holidays.