MIAMI (Reuters) - For a handful of Cuban-Americans, President Barack Obama’s new Cuba policy wasn’t much of a shocker.
For months, they quietly advised the White House in hopes of shaping a new policy towards the communist-run nation.
“A lot of what the president announced is what we, and others in Miami, have been doing for a long time,” said Felice Gorordo, co-founder of Roots of Hope, a non-partisan group of Cuban-American university students and young professionals.
Their mission: closer contact with the island to build mutual understanding - a point of view that’s often at odds with their parents and grandparents.
But they offer much more than policy advice. Obama is counting on this organization, and others like them, to help pave the way for his new policy that includes measures from promoting private sector entrepreneurship, to modernizing the island’s telecommunications infrastructure and restoring access to U.S. banking services.
“There is a clear understanding in the White House that politically they are going to have to focus on and cultivate the younger generation of Cuban-Americans who are mobilized and out there supporting the president’s decision,” said Frank Mora, a Cuba scholar at Miami’s Florida International University, and a former top Pentagon official for Latin America in the Obama administration.
Obama is going to need that support as he faces opposition from his Republican rivals and the Cuban-American political establishment that opposes closer ties with Cuba.
Gorordo co-founded Roots of Hope in 2002 while studying government affairs at Georgetown University after a visit to Cuba where he was inspired by the number of educated youths hungry for change. The group first gained notice in Miami in 2009 when it got behind a controversial peace concert in Havana by Colombian rocker Juanes who lives in Miami. Now, it says, there are some 9,000 members, a Miami office and three staffers.
As far as politics is concerned, the organization said it is bipartisan. Indeed, its leaders added, not all its members support normalization of relations with Cuba. Members include second-generation Cuban-Americans born in Miami, as well as recent arrivals from Cuba.
“We are not here to push political agendas. We are seeking to be a platform for anyone who cares about a better future in Cuba,” said Raul Moas, the group’s director.
Still, while respectful of their parent’s bitter memories, they say it’s time to move on.
“The pain is real,” said Gorordo. “We inherit this baggage and carry it like a backpack. It gives us the ability to empathize with our parents’ struggle, and we also know when to take off that backpack in order to see the change we all desire.”
Roots of Hope’s main focus is what they call “people-to-people connectivity” with the island. It sends smart phones to Cuba. It encourages Cuban-Americans to visit the country and reconnect with lost relatives and discover their heritage.
They have also worked with Silicon Valley executives at Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple to improve digital services in Cuba, where the Internet is strictly limited by the Cuban government. It was, for example, instrumental in helping Google win U.S. permission in August to make its Chrome browser available to users in Cuba.
“In order to be able to advance you have to be able to engage,” said Gorordo, 31, a former White House fellow in 2011-12 who is also chief executive of Clearpath, a tech company for online immigration filings.
The Obama administration confirmed its involvement with Roots of Hope. It has consulted with the organization on “the kinds of action they thought might contribute to greater openings in Cuba,” said Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the National Security Council, the president’s advisory body on foreign policy.
Roots of Hope, as far as young Cuban-Americans are concerned, aren’t the only game in Miami. In an email Meehan also credited another Miami-based group, CubaNow, with urging the White House “to focus on helping improve conditions for Cuban citizens,” while continuing to promote human rights and democracy.
CubaNow, launched in April, is backed by a handful of deep-pocketed benefactors, including Ralph Patino, a Miami lawyer and Democratic party fundraiser who contributed $78,800 to the Obama campaign in 2012.
“We have to do everything possible to ensure these gains survive the next election and work with Congress to see how we can continue updating our policy to Cuba,” said Ric Herrero, 36, CubaNow’s director. The group describes itself as a political advocacy organization led by young Cuban-Americans. It has urged Obama to use his executive authority to refocus Cuba policy away from punishing the Cuban government to empowering the Cuban people.
The White House outreach began shortly after Obama visited Miami in November last year for a fundraiser at which he said U.S. Cuba policy might need an “update.” But Wednesday’s announcement was met with scorn from many older Cuban exile leaders who strongly oppose relaxing pressure on the Cuban government which they believe is on its last legs.
In addition, the new groups are largely dismissed as bit-players by the well-heeled, conservative Cuban-American political establishment.
U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart said media reports have talked for decades about “a change in perception,” but he noted that no Cuban-American has been elected who supports normalization. “So where are all these people? You might want to interview them.”
Other older Cubans are even less flattering. “It’s sad that young people can be so ignorant. They must be communists,” said Laura Vianello, 68, a Cuban exile with the hardline Miami group Vigilia Mambisa.
That point of view, though, seems to be softening. Street protest in Miami were small this week, a sharp contrast to the large demonstrations in 2000 when the Justice Department ordered a 6-year-old rafter boy, Elián González, returned to his father in Cuba.
Recent opinion polls show a marked shift among younger Cubans, as well as a growing group of middle-aged Cuban-Americans frustrated with 50 years of failed efforts at regime change in Cuba.
A poll released Friday showed Cuban-Americans evenly split over Obama’s new policy. About 52 per cent of Cubans under 65 support normalization, according to the poll by Bendixen & Amandi International, with 67 per cent of those over 65 opposed.
“For more than 50 years we’ve tried it one way. The time has come for a different approach,” former Miami mayor Manny Diaz, a Democrat, declared in an email blast this week. Diaz, 60, whose father was a political prisoner in Cuba, is a former hardliner who led the legal effort to keep Elián in the United States.
But it is the young Cuban-Americans who have most at stake.
“It’s been an ecstatic week,” said Maria Carla Chicuen, 26, the daughter of an electrical engineer and a doctor, who left Cuba with her family in 2002 when she was 14. After only four years in high school in Miami she was awarded a near full scholarship at Harvard to study history, before earning a masters at the London School of Economics.
“Cuba is full of potential and very talented professionals,” said the education specialist who returns frequently to Cuba. Last year, she married a childhood friend from her old barrio in a ceremony at Havana’s cathedral.
“Given the opportunity,” she added. “They can do wonders.”
(This version of the story was corrected to reflect that CubaNow says it is bipartisan in paragraph 18.)
Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson; Editing by Hank Gilman and Eric Walsh