Young Cubans Deserve to Be Heard

08/03/2015 01:40 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2016
Students march carrying Cuban flags during a march against terrorism in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Youths marched
Students march carrying Cuban flags during a march against terrorism in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014. Youths marched today through downtown Havana in protest against the United States policy towards the island nation and demanding the that U.S. free three Cuban agents imprisoned there. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

As the son of both a Bay of Pigs veteran and a mother who spent over a decade trying to leave Cuba, I have been hesitant to visit the island. But I reassessed this stance when President Obama unveiled his new policy and I learned that my family in Havana was excited by the news.

I recently returned from Cuba where for 10 days I stayed with relatives in the Havana suburb of Santos Suarez, used local transportation, and visited places frequented by Cubans. What struck me the most is how the people, especially fellow millennials, feel ignored by what they described as "the old guard" in Havana and Miami. The former wasn't surprising, but I am bothered by the impression that exiles -- who have always shined as an example of American opportunity -- are now viewed by many as detached from young Cubans' aspirations.

This sentiment should not be dismissed as merely the result of indoctrination. Rather than resort to self-serving explanations, we must align our conversations and policies with the will of the Cuban people, especially the youth.

If how you make people feel matters more than what you say, the embargo, which many in my community continue to support, is sending the wrong message. As a 20-something year-old in Vedado said, "I respect Miami Cubans, but they contradict themselves when they say they're democratic and ignore the opinions of the majority here who don't want an embargo and support better relations."

Indeed, it was ironic that the recent reopening of embassies was more controversial in Miami than Havana where -- despite half a century of anti-American propaganda -- I did not meet a single person opposed to this measure. In fact, a young Cuban even told me, "Obama is the only President to do anything for us." One can argue my experiences are anecdotal, but they're also consistent with findings by American researchers on the island.

Perhaps the Cuban people's rejection of the embargo is due to the irreconcilable disconnect between its intent and the consequences on people's lives. Embargo proponents argue it hurts Castro and not the people, but the Cubans I met said the opposite. I spoke with a group of young women at a social gathering near Calle Linea and asked them how they felt about our sanctions. One replied, "The people in charge and their kids are rich. We're the ones being hurt."

By requiring Cuba to self-democratize before economic sanctions are lifted, American policymakers have coupled a noble goal with a deeply flawed strategy to achieve it with little basis in Cuban political history or reality. As a well-regarded Cuban history professor said to me near el malecón, "We have only ever had what you would call a democracy for 12 years, and that was almost seven decades ago." If one couple's Cuba's lack of democratic institutions with the logistical challenges of such a transformation (consider for a moment the difficulties faced by the most nimble American corporations when making even modest organizational changes), it's obvious why the quid-pro-quo approach has failed. It confirms a fundamental tenet of behavioral economics: humans are likelier to take risks to avoid losing the little they have than obtain uncertain gains.

Conversely, I found evidence in Havana that the President's policy of engagement offers a better pathway forward for the Cuban people. I dined at a paladar and spoke with its owner, one of Cuba's 500,000 licensed entrepreneurs. She said that while Cuba's business regulations create hurdles, her taxes are reasonable and she welcomes more tourists because they help her and her employees live a better life -- a repudiation of the myth that visiting Cuba only benefits the government.

While it was clear to me in Havana that U.S. isolation tactics have failed the Cuban people, it was also evident that their government's tight grip over the economy is the greatest obstacle to life on the island. It was heartbreaking to hear an intelligent young man tell me that despite being in his 20s, he already hit his career ceiling because the best jobs in his field are reserved for Communist Party botellas (lackeys), rather than top performers. For years, Cuban leaders have justified these practices as necessary to the revolution's survival, but this Cold War logic ignores a simple fact: no nation can compete in a global economy if its workforce is fleeing in droves or believes its future is brighter elsewhere.

Therein lies the root cause of many of Cuba's problems: the "old guards" have become so tethered to their respective ideologies that they judge their policies on their intentions rather than their actual results. In Miami, many well-meaning Cuban Americans cling to the embargo despite the fact it hurts everyone on the island except its targets. Meanwhile, in Havana government leaders continue to obsess over control and delay economic reforms while citing a fear of "ideological diversion." This obduracy comes at the expense of the Cuban people, mainly those who had nothing to do with the events of 1959.

Visiting Cuba and speaking with the people who live there helped me realize that it's much more than an island ruled by a pair of brothers. It's a country with 11 million men, women, and children who deserve our respect because their lives, dreams, and opinions matter. The Cuban people deserve to be heard -- especially the youth -- and not just those who validate existing views.

We can always expect Havana's "old guard" to ignore them since it's not subject to elections. But if we do it too, it's not just counter-productive; it's inexcusable.