By Clara-Meretan Kiah
In a visit to FIU that gained the university national attention July 31, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton rallied for an end to the embargo on Cuba, saying that lifting the economic blockade would mend relations with the island nation and bring new freedoms to its people.
Clinton chose FIU to deliver the major policy speech on Cuba as part of her 2016 presidential campaign.
“It’s a delight to be at Florida International University. I can really feel the energy here,” she said from the stage of Wertheim Performing Arts Center. “It’s a place where people of all backgrounds and walks of life work hard do their part and get ahead. That’s the promise of America that has drawn generations of immigrants to our shores, and it’s a reality right here at FIU.”
The embargo on Cuba has stirred heated debate throughout the university and South Florida, as well as nationwide, for decades; but, according to Clinton, it’s entering a “crucial new phase.”
“America’s approach to Cuba is at a crossroads, and the upcoming presidential election will determine whether we chart a new path forward or turn back to the old ways of the past,” she said. “We must decide between engagement and embargo.”
Although Clinton originally supported the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 that strengthened the embargo against Cuba, she said she now feels the best way to push for change in Cuba is to continue the effort President Barack Obama began last year to re-establish diplomatic ties.
“Engagement is not a gift to the Castros. It’s a threat to the Castros,” Clinton said. “An American embassy in Havana isn’t a concession. It’s a beacon. Lifting the embargo doesn’t set back the advance of freedom. It advances freedom.”
Protestors outside the WPAC voiced their opposition to this sentiment, calling her foreign policy a concession to the Castros.
One protestor, FIU parent Laura Vianelo, came to the United States as a child after her father sent her, along with her sister and her mother, to be safe from the regime. She said she was speaking out against the Clinton proposal to end the embargo because she did not have the right to speak out against the government back in Cuba.
“The Helms-Burton law calls for lifting the embargo only when the Castros are not in Cuba and there’s free elections—really fair and free elections—and also, when some democratic measures are taken. The basic liberties: freedom of speech, what I’m doing right now; freedom of assembly, what we’re all doing here; freedom without any fear of being repressed by the Communists,” Vianelo said. “Cuba, after 56 years, represses everybody who tries to talk against the government. That’s repression of your basic human rights.”
Recounting stories of Cuban-Americans who have been displaced from their families and their homes in Cuba in search of a brighter future, Clinton said: “This is not an intellectual exercise. It is deeply personal.”
The story of a man in Miami’s Little Havana who opened a business in Havana, Cuba, hit home for Student Government Association President Alexis Calatayud.
“That was beautiful because as a second-generation American the idea of being back in Cuba is heart-breaking. It doesn’t feel like something I’ll ever do,” she said. “There’s no freedom there. My grandparents have such a strong tie to the idea of not going back until there is freedom in Cuba.”
For Brian Fonseca, director of the FIU Applied Research Center and adjunct professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations, the American policy that’s been in place for decades to isolate Cuba has only reinforced the Castros’ control over the island.
“This policy is not about changing the Castro regime today,” Fonseca said. “This is about planting the seeds to change the regime’s face tomorrow, and giving the people and society in Cuba the opportunity to sort of effect that change.”
Calatayud added that Clinton’s visit to this community creates open forums of discussion between the older population and millennial groups, who tend to have differing views regarding the embargo.