Sometimes those of us who live outside Cuba forget that the country remains a dictatorship. But for the 11 million people living on the island, forgetting is impossible—they live the consequences every day.
But the thaw between Washington and Havana that began last year has dramatically shifted the conversation in the U.S. For instance, when covering Cuba these days, the media no longer focuses on the lack of freedoms, economic shortages or human-rights violations. Rather, the news is dominated by the reopening of the American embassy, the growing number of tourists visiting Cuba and a potential end to the decadeslong U.S.-imposed embargo. Some daring commentators even envision that the American-controlled facilities at Guantanamo might one day soon be handed back to the Cubans.
However, the Castro dictatorship still holds power. Almost 10 years ago, after decades in charge, Fidel Castro hand-picked his brother Raul to succeed him (Fidel will be 90 in August; Raul is 84). The Castros reign over a country where there are no pluralistic elections or a free press, and where dozens of political prisoners remain locked up for speaking out against the government. Essentially, the regime still rules with fear.
But don’t just take my word for it. Ask any of the thousands of Cubans who continue to flee the island any way they can.
Many are traveling to Ecuador, then trying to cross Central America by land in order to make it to the U.S., which has led to regional immigration troubles. Some 8,000 Cubans are currently stranded in Costa Rica, unable to get transit visas to Nicaragua because Nicaragua has “closed its border and stopped the traffic that was going on normally, albeit run by traffickers, for many years” Luis Guillermo Solis, the president of Costa Rica, told me in a recent interview.
Other Cuban migrants risk a perilous ocean journey on small boats in order to reach Florida. On Christmas morning last month, about 15 Cuban migrants showed up in the parking lot of a drugstore in the Florida Keys, still soaking wet from their journey.
The ultimate goal of many Cuban migrants is to reach the U.S. no matter what because policies here generally allow them to stay and become residents after a year. According to government figures, more than 40,000 Cubans came to the U.S. last year. Cynical critics will say that the reason for this influx of migrants is fear that thawing relations between the U.S. and Cuba will mean that Cuban immigrants won’t receive special status much longer. But the cynics are wrong. The real fault lies with the Castro dictatorship that forces them to flee.
That the U.S. accords Cubans a privileged status has long been a sore spot for many Mexicans and Central Americans. Undocumented immigrants from those countries are in constant danger of being detained and deported. Cubans don’t face such a threat. However, I do think that we should continue to protect Cuban refugees who arrive in the U.S.—at least until the Castro dictatorship disappears. We should always protect victims from any dictatorship.
As for the Cuban-Americans who vehemently oppose the Obama administration’s current initiatives with the Castro regime, I understand their apprehension. I wouldn’t want to shake hands with someone who took away my house or my job, who killed or imprisoned a family member, or forced me to flee my country. But I suspect that behind this diplomatic rapprochement lies a hidden goal.
President Obama is not naïve—he can’t come out and say that the purpose of his policies toward Cuba is to remove the Castros. But Cuba will change, and once the democratic winds begin to circulate there again, I’m sure that we will know many more details about the closed-door meetings in Washington where the country’s fate was discussed.
In the end, only Cubans can change Cuba. But they should realize that they’re not alone. The Internet is on its way to reaching every corner of the island, despite government restrictions and a price that remains prohibitively high for the average Cuban. But Cubans know that change is happening elsewhere—notably in Guatemala, Argentina and Venezuela. And Cuba is next on the list.
Nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.
Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is the host of Fusion’s new television news show, “America With Jorge Ramos,” and is a news anchor on the Univision Network. Originally from Mexico and now based in Florida, Ramos is the author of nine best-selling books, most recently, “A Country for All: An Immigrant Manifesto.”