Yasmin S. Portales Machado

The “US/Cuba Relations in the Second Obama Administration: Dialogue and engagement” conference in Miami.

HAVANA TIMES – I left Miami airport, starving of hunger as usual, not because of the 45 minutes flight, but because of the three hours I spent at the airport in Havana, plus another hour standing in line at the US customs control. All in all, four hours on top of the actual travelling time. International flying times may be short but it just goes to show how much time is spent on security in the post-September 11 world.

Now I have nothing against aviation security, but I do object to prices in the cafeterias at the José Martí airport and I would also appreciate a hot dogs at the little stalls – with their soft drinks and vegetarian options – at the US border control. Maybe Washington could make use of the money for its war on terrorism.

The difference was that this Friday, March 14th I got to stay in the city and was nervous about the engagement I was sharing with my fellow passengers: the publishers of Espacio Laical: a conference in Miami against the Blockade organized by the groups CAFE, FORNORM, Generacion Cambio Cubano, Cuba Educational Travel with the support of the Latin American Working Group.

Geoff Thale (WOLA), Tony Zamora (FIU), David Adams (Reuters), Tony Martinez (US-Cuba PAC)

Miami, as we all know, is the operating base of the wealthiest, most conservative sector of the Cuban community in the United States. The fact that the CIA cooked up many of its covert operations against Cuba here goes without saying. The Cuban Adjustment Act has also benefitted locals trafficking in contraband goods and people when not milking the funds provided by the Federal government to “promote democracy” in Cuba.

But Miami above all is a place where political intolerance is on a par with political intolerance in Havana, where the Miami Herald babbles incoherently like Granma, where Ileana Ros tries to upstage Fidel and Vigilia Martiana tries to outdo the CDR in controlling the population.

Once settled into the Sofitel hotel, we had time to catch up on the last-minute changes imposed on the program. On Thursday afternoon, the State Department denied a visa to Arboleya Jesus, invited as a specialist on bilateral relations; at the last minute permission was also refused to the Cuban Head of Mission in Washington to travel to Miami. I do not think the latter would have contributed much to the debate, but I condemn the authorities for the waste of time and money just to remind you that the will of the people is secondary to the power of government.

We spent the night cutting out cards with the names of those registered and stuffing them into envelopes. We also reviewed the menu, my paper, apparel and comments on the conference on the internet.

Nelly Santamaria, owner of Tinto y Cafe, Miami Jose Manuel Palli, President of World Wide Titles, Miami

I must confess I did not expect so many people to turn up with a positive attitude: over a hundred! One man dropped off some flyers denouncing us for supporting the “Castro dictatorship” and left. The organizers respectfully left the flyers for anyone wishing to read them, a practice I have noted for future use.

The presentations covered a wide variety of themes: from the  history of the Doña Eutimia restaurant – recommended by Newsweek as one of the 101 best places to eat in the world for its takeaway food – to how the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) made a deal with Ronald Reagan to finance its terrorist activities in exchange for supporting him in his covert operations in Nicaragua.

We also discussed academic exchange, Cuban artists, the importance of registering voters and raising funds so politicians can see for themselves the benefits of improving relations with Cuba and even reconciliation following on the such traumatic events as Operation Peter Pan.

Comments on the people-to-people exchanges and the role of the Cuban-American community were highly illustrative. Collin Laverty,  Hugo Cancio, Silvia Wilhelm and Geoff Thale took stock of their values, the legal limits of these initiatives and possible resources required to expand their application frameworks. There was consensus on the fact that the goal ultimately is to ensure the restrictions disappear entirely and that the policy of blockade be broken through the proliferation of travel. The more people travel between Cuba and the US, the more absurd the blockade becomes.

Most instructive for me was what Guillermo Grenier had to say on the results of the survey of Cuba – US relations conducted for the Atlantic Council in January 2014 by the bipartisan team of FM3 (Democratic polling research agency) and Public Opinion Strategies (biggest Republican pollster in the country).

Guillermo Grenier (FIU), Maria Isabel Alfonso (CAFE), Arturo Lopez-Levy (CAFE), Abiel San Miguel Estévez (Paladar Doña Eutimia), Hugo Cancio (Generacion Cambio Cubano), Elena Freyre (FORNORM), Tony Zamora (FIU), Silvia Wilhelm (Puentes Cubanos), Geoff Thale (WOLA).

I was given a new angle on things; nothing to do with sentiments, desires, experiences or tales of the intrigues and machinations of the powerful. Here we had numbers, facts, research carried out methodologically with calculable margins of error. Something concrete and up to date. Professor Grenier also accompanied his exposition with tables accompanied by simple explanations of the processes involved and based on his personal experience as a researcher of Cuban-American political attitudes since 1991.

Personally, what touched me most was the participation of Antonio Zamora. I am the daughter of a former member of the Marina de Guerra Revolucionaria, pupil of Eduardo Heras León and Fernando Martínez Heredia whose lives were changed by the Bay of Pigs. I was thunderstuck to realize I shared the platform together with certain objectives with a member of the 2506 Brigade [who attacked at the Bay of Pigs] and founder of the CANF.

Zamora explained that he left the CANF after the Cuban regime survived the collapse of the USSR and its satellites. The survival of the regime threw the basis of his analysis and its assumptions overboard so much so he was obliged to totally revise his thinking about Cuba. After visiting the island in 1994, he concluded that he knew nothing about the real Cuba.

There was plenety of debate both inside the hall at the various panel discussions and outside among the groups interested in specific topics and issues. Most of the questions I heard were very thoughtful and respectful. As usual in meetings of a general nature, most of the discussion was about geopolitics and less about the problems of minorities – religious, racial or sexual. There was also a constant line of concern on how to articulate human rights for everyone in the light of the economic changes that are coming.

Yasmin (l) with Lenier Gonzalez and Roberto Veiga from the publication Espacio Laical.

We ate at the world’s most famous Cuban restaurant, the Versailles in Miami, which says much about about the Cuban situation.

On Sunday, under the weather with a cold, and inspired by the excellent imperial rice of the Versailles, I published the paper on my blog and answered a questionnaire on my experiences for Sandra Alvarez for On Cuba magazine.

I returned home to Havana on Monday, amazed at the service at Fort Lauderdale airport and Xael Charter Co.

So far so good. What marred the idyll was the media silence. Voice of Russia, Reuters and other international news agencies were there but for reporting the news to Miami we only had Progreso Semanal and Marti Noticias whom I am grateful for the seriousness of their report. Later the Miami Herald published a totally distorted account.

Where were Univision and CNN in Spanish? Why ignore a conference on Cuba if Cuba is the burning topic of the day in South Florida?

Meanwhile, CubaDebate and Juventud Rebelde published a 318 words news report of Prensa Latina without mentioning the fact that three of the people referred to live in Cuba or taking exception to the fact that a visa was denied to Arboleya!

CubaDebate shamed itself by inserting a photo of an act of solidarity with Cuba in Madrid – the incongruity was denounced by one commentor under the name of “Gilberto” and the photo was deleted. They have now included a video, for reasons that are beyond me, starring Daniel Keohane of FRIDE, the European think tank.

I spent the weekend in Miami and we talked about Cuba, about the evils and the futility of the blockade and not a sign of Vigilia Mambisa. And there I was, an ex-militant of the UJC (Communist Youth), shaking hands with a man from the 2506 Brigade and agreeing that Cuba has no need of US permission to exist.

I was up in the clouds. The silence and the half-truths in the media supposedly most interested in Cuba brought me back to earth. This is a partial Spring, no doubt. But then again, when has such stopped anything from happening in Cuba?


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