Back in August 2006, while I was covering the reaction of "the Cuban-American street" to the news that their devil incarnate, Fidel Castro, had ceded power and was possibly on the verge of death, I got a teensy taste of the incredible euphoria -- sometimes bordering on hysteria -- built up over 47 long, frustrating years. SUV's gassed up at Hugo Chavez' Citgo stations and raucously honked their way down Southwest 8th Street, their passengers wildly waving Cuba's red-white-and-blue and beating pots and pans. Activists propped up a gruesome effigy of Fidel in a coffin in front of Little Havana's iconic Versailles restaurant. Telemundo and Univisión news constantly broke into the telenovelas (soap operas) with the latest updates. And Mayor Manny Diaz -- who himself rode to office on the Elián González mania of 2000 -- ironically begged for "calm and patience."
Patience, indeed, because what happened afterward was...not much. Well, at least on the surface. Gaga Fidel and his intestinal woes have been gradually, gingerly maneuvered aside as his younger brother Raúl gathered up the reins of the dictatorship, yet daily life in Cuba, Miami, and Washington DC continued much as before, with embargo supporters ceding nary a smidgeon of a fraction of an inch. But now, a year and a half later, tantalizing hints of change are leaking from the palmy police state 90 miles south of Key West. Earlier this month, the BBC and CNN broadcast an astonishing, nearly hour-long video of Havana-area computer-science students grilling parliament boss Ricardo Alarcón about, for example, why they aren't allowed to go abroad and why political candidates are always unopposed ciphers who never campaign. The snappiest comeback the old geezer could manage: "Well, imagine, if the whole world, its six billion residents, were able to travel where they wished, the congestion in the planet's airspace would be enormous!"
Meanwhile, in the state-run media, another parliamentarian, well-known singer Silvio Rodriguez, declared himself in favor of freedom of travel and against Cuba's tourism apartheid, while minister of culture Abel Prieto said he supports same-sex marriage (Raúl's own daughter, Mariela Espín, runs an organization promoting gay rights and tolerance). Oy, what a concept. And of course in the latest rubber-stamp elections, on January 20, Raúl shored up his position as Big Dog, supposedly nailing 99.37 percent of the vote against Fidel's piddling 98.26.
In a political system like Cuba's, of course, these sorts of openings, however tiny, rarely happen spontaneously or by accident. Granted, it seems one of those uppity young pups may have been briefly arrested, and he and several others later appeared on a régime videotape claiming there was no arrest and that the foreign media had twisted the first encounter. But most such leaks tend to be trial balloons of sorts -- meaning it's looking like Raúl may be readying his long-suffering public for some big changes, changes he has to know are necessary for the régime's long-term survival -- changes perhaps following the lead of America's bosom trading partners, Communist China.
As for change here in the "Empire," as the Castro régime calls us, none of it particularly impresses the Cuban exile dinosaurs and their enabling gringos, who've kept a Cold War stranglehold on U.S. Cuba policy for most of my life. Did you know that arguably a majority of Cubans in Miami Dade County now favor junking the travel restrictions? Not only are the intransigentes dying off and the more sensible younger generation pushing onto the stage, but more recent Cuban immigrants have been added to the mix. These folks are certainly no fans of the Castro gang either, but want to be free to visit their families and realize it's a no-brainer that a key to reform is more, not less, contact with the outside world. (I'll never forget how my group's entry into Havana's chichi Café de Oriente in 2002 ticked off two elite policemen guarding the door, one muttering to the other, "man, wouldn't I rather be eating lobster in there than eating mierda out here").
You wouldn't know it, though, to hear the same-old same-old bloviations of Capitol Hill's "Gang of 3." Lincoln Díaz Balart, brother Mario (both related to Fidel, by the way), and their gal pal Ileana Ros-Lehtinen -- Miami Republicans all -- have for years made their careers on being the Hill's strident, relentless whips of the counterproductive embargo and prime trough-feeders in the embargo-industrial complex typified by the millions lavished on pork like TV Martí (which almost nobody on the island can see).
But wait...could it be? This November these characters are finally facing races that are...gasp!... competitive! Lincoln's being challenged by popular former Hialeah mayor Raúl Martínez (on whom Ileana's D.A. husband tried to pin a corruption rap back in the 1980's), while Mario's facing the Dems' respected county chairman Joe García. Ileana meanwhile, is less of a one-trick pony and has also lucked out by drawing a political newbie, Colombian-born businesswoman Annette Taddeo. Could the Gang of 3 conceivably lose? Repubs are a whole damn sight less popular down here than they used to be -- the "W" stickers have been disappearing mighty fast, Bush lost Miami Dade County to John Kerry even back in 2004, and I now get anti-Bush e-mails and even DVD's from various Cuban Republicans supposedly rock-solid for the embargo.
If even one of this trio becomes part of the expected GOP Congressional meltdown this November, the bipartisan Hill coalition that comes closer and closer every year to scrapping the embargo just might manage it the next time, a major plus for U.S. policy in a Latin America where Cuba allies like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and possibly soon El Salvador have been on the march. Of course there's always a possible pro-embargo President McCain or Clinton to worry about (Obama's position: keep the trade ban for now but allow family travel; an Obama foreign-policy advisor told me they're taking an "incremental" approach).
So the glimmerings of glasnost on both sides of the Florida straits finally offer hope that some degree of loosening on the island may be in the cards, along with a common-sense loosening of the U.S. policies that since JFK have helped keep the bad guys in power, the embargo-industrialists in clover, and Cuban-American families in pain and suffering. Several analysts I know pooh-pooh that. But golly, wouldn't it be a blow for libertad all around...