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Human Rights in Cuba: Choosing our priorities

‘Has the embargo removed the leadership in Cuba? Has the embargo returned democracy to Cuba? Has the embargo allowed a free press to flourish?’
Mike Fernandez is a major Republican Party donor and CEO of MBF Healthcare Partners, a private equity firm in Coral Gables, Florida. He traveled to Cuba last month to support president Obama’s Cuba policy.
US President Barack Obama delivers a speech in Havana on March 22, 2016. Crédito: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

The ship of unreasonableness has left the harbor, its sails full with the winds of change. The great opportunity is ahead. Surely, unless we manage our old emotions and focus on building a future relationship between our two nations, we are doomed to live decades more of entrapment.

We (yes, myself included) have criticized the President as a socialist and a leftist. Yet in a 46-minute speech in Havana, he did something magical that no President — Democrat or Republican — has been able to accomplish: He uplifted the Cuban people who seek what we all want -- that is, a realistic hope for a better life and a better future for all of us and for our families. He called for mutual respect on both sides of the straits.

I was proud of our President's words in Havana, reminding me that 64 years after my birth (in Manzanillo, Cuba) I am as much Cuban as I am a proud American.

The Cuban leadership will have to adjust to the reality that we are not the “scum” the once called us. We, too, will have to adjust. Our South Florida elected officials need to be reminded that the President did more good and more healing in fewer than 60 minutes than our home team has done in almost 60 years.

Anger will not heal. Hate will not build. It's past time for those who get elected by reminding our parents and us of the saddest days of our lives. Sowing sadness and anger is not leadership. Those we elect to serve us need to lead our community by offering a vision where all Cubans begin a process of reconciliation. We are, and need to be, one family, one people.

Leaders lead with a unifying vision of hope. Great leaders — Abraham Lincoln and Jose Marti being superb and splendid examples — take those who don't want to go, to where they need to go. Ultimately, those who push hate and unhappiness are destined will be replaced by those who offer calmness and clarity.

Real leaders offer a vision of a better tomorrow. And they don’t wait for others to make a move before reciprocating. They take charge of the moment.

We in America are mostly blessed in this world in turmoil. In exile we found how strong we were, how resilient we could be. We have been tested, and we have prevailed. One day soon as laws change our contribution to our second home will be needed to help heal and embrace those who stayed in our place of birth.

We were blessed to land on the shores of the greatest nation that adopted us and gave us shelter and opportunity. America educated our children, including in the lessons of charity and the beauty of giving. We, the exiles and the children of exiles, are respectful and grateful to a great country's wisdom and capacity to evolve and adjust. Is it not our turn to show our brothers and sisters what has been shown to us? In our own circumstances, our sacrifices made us better people, better parents, better sons and daughters.

As President Obama spoke to the Cuban leadership, with millions watching on television, he made it clear that the Cuban people have nothing to fear from us ... that we can and should live together in mutual respect. Let us Cuban Americans who have contributed much toward the growth of our people and the places where we live, send a similar message: that we can, and will, help the Cuban people. Let us say it with conviction; it has to be more than just "talk."

President Obama conducted a masterful conversation in diplomacy and in the spirit of a good neighbor. We need to do the same. What are our choices? Do we keep the old wounds from healing?

Do we keep an embargo serving as the excuse for everything that’s wrong in Cuba? Has the embargo removed the leadership in Cuba? Has the embargo returned democracy to Cuba? Has the embargo allowed a free press to flourish? Has the embargo stopped a 3-year-old child from crying because there is no powdered milk to drink? Has the embargo prevented the poor souls who perished at sea from leaving the shores?

We have to change and perhaps we should begin by trying to place ourselves in the shoes of those we left behind.

That means getting our priorities right and, as President Obama said, not “imposing” solutions on our Cuban brother and sisters. We all want them to have the same democratic rights that we enjoy here, but we also have to recognize that we are witnessing a historic process of gradual change, and there is no instant gratification.

Sure, let’s call the Cuban government out on human rights abuses, but let’s not make it a zero-sum-game.

Instead, let’s do all we can at our end to fuel the process of change, accelerate it. We need to start by demanding that our Congress lift the embargo against Cuba.

Critics will say that economic opening to China and Vietnam has not brought the individual freedoms and democracy we desire there. At the same time, we have to recognize the progress in those countries.

Has anyone asked, as I have, Cubans at street corners in Havana to choose what they thought was best for them?

I ask them which of these options do they value most?

  1. A way of life where they are free to say and do whatever they please?
  2. The right to organize politically and select candidates from different political parties?
  3. An opportunity to find a better paying job, perhaps become self-employed, in order to provide a better life for their families?

Ask yourself the same question and you may be surprised. It might just be the same response I heard in Cuba, over and over: “The last one! The third one,” or in Spanish: “¡El último! El tercero.”
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