Cuba is coming off state terrorism list, but debate still rages among exiles in Little Havana


President Obama says he intends to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of governments that sponsor terrorism, a huge step in rebuilding diplomatic ties between the two nations.

But not everyone is convinced that’s a good idea, especially among the increasingly divided Cuban exile community living in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

“Who knows the answer to that question here?” asks Cuban native Lazaro Sosa, 75, when asked whether he thinks it’s a good idea to remove Cuba from the terrorism list.

“Nobody,” responds his friend, who declined to give his name.

“But everyone has an opinion,” says Sosa.

Sosa and his friend are standing in a popular plaza in Little Havana. They both came to the U.S. in 1980, during the Mariel boatlift, a period of time when Fidel Castro allowed people to leave the island, prompting some 125,000 people to come to Florida’s shores by boat. The Marielitos, as they’ve come to be known, share a different perspective on US-Cuban relations than members of the older guard of Cuban exiles, who left in the late 50s and early 60s.

Overall, the Marielitos, and those who came after them, are far more comfortable with the prospect of engagement with Cuba than their predecessors, who are fervently right-wing and anti-Castro.

“It’s a good decision,” says Sosa.

“It’s a good decision,” repeats his unnamed friend, who, it should be added, is missing a thumb and a pointer finger. Before he came to the U.S., he explains, he spent time as a political prisoner. Fidel took his fingers from him, and he doesn’t want anyone to recognize his name in print.

“I don’t care about my fingers, they’re gone,” he says. “Let’s open up, take them off the list, then let’s see what happens.”

He gestures down the street towards the far end of Little Havana, towards the popular restaurant Versailles, where the older, more conservative members of the Cuban exile community always gather. “But then you have them, the viejos— those ridiculous, arrogant people, up to here with unreal sentimentality, who came in the 50s and 60s.”

“They are all Republicans no matter what!” he says. “Obama says it and they protest.”

This is when the argument starts.

“Listen to me,” yells 92-year-old Maximo Del Llano as loud as he can in his tremulous, tobacco-scratched voice. “Those people don’t have anything left, mi hermano, you’re talking about me. We are people who have been here for 56 years, who have lost everything. Everything is dead for us but the dream of a Cuba without Castro.”

Del Llano arrived from Havana in 1959, he says, and he has never been back to his country. To him, dropping Cuba from the list is a bad idea.

“Are we ridiculous?” he asks. “Fuck it, what are we going to lose?”

“And then there’s people like you,” he adds, gesturing to Sosa, “who stayed for 20, 30 years, working government jobs and applauding the communists until you couldn’t take it any more and then one day you had to leave.”

Sosa pauses for a moment, and takes stock.

“Yes, it’s different,” he conceded. “Because people like me lived a long time under [the Castro regime], and we have a different understanding of how it works, but also a better understanding of how changing the economy by opening up would help.” He admitted that he worked in Fulgencio Batista’s government for a few years until he was 20, and then in Castro’s revolutionary government until he left in 1980 — a taboo admission in many Cuban-American circles.

Down the street at Versailles, there’s a group of men getting Cuban coffee at the take-out window. A few of them don’t want to talk about Obama’s anticipated announcement, but some offer a few thoughts.

“I’ll tell you: I look down the road and I can see more communists coming here, more infiltration into the U.S. coming from Cuba, and that much I don’t like,” says Frank Rodriguez, 60, who left Cuba when he was three-years-old. “[Cuba is] a bad influence in the region and we shouldn’t be warming up to them.”

Another man, 44-year-old Masiel De Armas, was born in the U.S., but raised by his grandparents in communist Cuba. At this point, though, he hasn’t been back to the island in 20 years.

“I tell you, this is all to [Raul Castro’s] benefit. He and his brother are getting ready for bed, and they want to say they won something before they knock out,” he says. “We’re gonna come out like the fools here.

“But, I also know that economic changes can bring about social and political changes,” he says.

“So on the one hand it’s hell no, but on the other, it’s a maybe.”

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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