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The Coming Shift in U.S.-Cuba Relations

January 25, 1998|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

HAVANA, CUBA — What attention the world could spare last week from the sex scandals in Washington went to the historic papal pilgrimage to communist Cuba. Havana's bustling hotels were crammed with reporters from the United States and elsewhere, all busily smoking Havana cigars and speculating on the political and religious meaning of the trip. But the drama of the papal progress through the island obscured a slow but far more important movement: the gradual trend toward normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.

That movement is coming from two directions. In the United States, Cuban Americans, long the main source of U.S. hostility toward the Castro regime, are mellowing as a younger generation looks for new ways to engage with the island. In Cuba, the growing awareness of the need to attract tourists from abroad and to reintegrate the island in the world economy is also pushing politicians toward the politics of reconciliation.

Ironically, Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba may do more to promote this reconciliation than to rebuild Catholic faith on the island. I saw that firsthand as I flew into Havana on one of the charter flights bearing pilgrims from the United States who wanted to participate in the pope's ground-breaking journey. Some of the travelers had tears in their eyes as the airplane circled over Havana's Jose Marti Airport. The pope's visit to Cuba offered a rare legal opportunity for Americans to travel to Cuba, and the New York-Havana flight, sponsored out of the archdiocese of New York, carried many Cuban Americans, some going back to Cuba for the first time since childhood.

"My mother didn't want me to come," said one woman, whose family fled the Castro regime before her first birthday. "We had a terrible fight about it. But I had to come; I couldn't stay away."

She could have been speaking for a whole generation of Cuban Americans--the children of those who fled Cuba in the early 1960s. Her parents' generation was the group from whose ranks came the violent opposition to Fidel Castro: the foot soldiers of the Bay of Pigs; the "freedom fighters" who trained in the Florida swamps for the return to Cuba, and some of whom participated in terrorist activities in the U.S. and on the island. For her mother and those of the older generation, the pain and bitterness remain too deep for compromise or even subtlety. The woman on the plane, who supports Helms-Burton but favors an end to the embargo on food and medicine, says she only came to Cuba after a long process of soul searching.

Later, on her first night in Cuba, I saw her sitting on the Malecon, the famous sea wall that extends along Havana's waterfront. Soft guitar music floated over the ocean as two young Cuban men were serenading her with traditional songs. "I'm having an out-of-body experience," she said. "I can't believe this is happening."

The Cuban Americans I talked to on the flight and in Havana represented very different points of view. Some support Helms-Burton, the 1996 law that freezes the U.S. embargo on Cuba into law and seeks to punish foreign companies that invest in Castro's communist island. Others oppose it, some reluctantly, some organizing lobbying efforts against it.

But what they all appeared to share was a profound sense of connection with a tropical island that many could not even remember. They were coming home, and if that home remains divided and unhappy, there is still no place like it.

Where their parents looked for ways to confront Castro, this new generation of Cuban Americans looks for ways to make a positive contribution to Cuban national life. That doesn't mean they are pro-Castro or pro-communist, far from it. But, increasingly, they see the Cuban Revolution as a fact of life, something they need to move beyond and get over as they seek to help Cubans on the island achieve a better, freer life.

Another value comes through loud and clear: tolerance. The Cuban Americans I met on this trip are mostly, not all, political conservatives. They are mostly, not all, devout Catholics. But they are also something else: small-"d" democrats. Free speech, toleration of diversity, compromise. Unlike many of their parents, they soaked up these values from the American milieu in which they grew up. Where their parents--at least a small minority--threw bombs and boycotted political opponents, the new Cuban Americans want to sit down and talk.

This slow evolution of opinion among younger Cuban Americans has its counterpart on the island. Cuba's economy today is run largely by men in their 40s, too young to remember life before Castro. They may not be any more eager to give up socialism than younger Cuban Americans are to embrace socialism, but economic logic is pushing them, too, toward a normalization of the Cuban economy.

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