Pedro Freyre remembers well the Havana of his childhood – a time before Castro when the capital of the island nation was dynamic and prosperous, with a thriving middle class.
Freyre was 11 when his family fled to the United States years later, his brother-in-law was killed and his older brother captured in the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.
Today, when Freyre returns to his homeland – as he does frequently – his heart breaks for all that has been lost.
A Miami lawyer who teaches at FIU’s College of Law, Freyre has become an unlikely advocate for the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations and the ending of the 53-year-old trade embargo.
Just days after he attended Obama’s historic speech in Cuba, Freyre helped kick off an event at FIU designed to foster discussion about the implications of that visit.
“(Obama) spoke truth to power and he spoke of reconciliation,’’ Freyre said. “We cannot ignore our very real differences. But change needs to happen so that the Cuban people can forge their own destiny.”
The community conversation on Obama’s visit to Cuba was sponsored by FIU’s Cuban Research Institute (CRI) and the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center.
Moderated by Jorge Duany, director of CRI, the event drew more than 100 students, faculty and community members. The discussion was peppered with applause and cheers on both sides of the issue.
Orlando Guttierez Boronat, who leads the Cuban Democratic Directorate and is a frequent critic of U.S. policy in Cuba, said one good speech by a U.S. president “does not a good policy make.”
He described support for normalizing relations with a “bloody dictatorship” as morally ambiguous and a “victory for the Castro regime.”
“We cannot ignore the vicious human rights violations and crimes against humanity that continue today,’’ said Boronat, who said he knew political prisoners who had lost limbs – and some who lost their lives – to the militaristic regime’s repression.
“My hope lies with the Cuban people,’’ he said. “We must empower the civil rights movement and chip away at the power of the military apparatus that will do anything to stay in power.’’
FIU law professor Jose Gabilondo noted that Cuba has been in a state of “suspended animation” for decades but that the “frozen feeling” is beginning to thaw, in part due to changing U.S. policy.
“Guns are important and tanks are important but so are rising expectations among the Cuban people and that is what we are seeing starting to happen,’’ he said.
Former FIU President Modesto A. Maidique attended the event and described the Castro regime as a “family-run business” that will do anything it can to remain in power.
“They care not a whit about the health, the well-being or the civil liberties of the Cuban people,’’ he said to loud applause.
Tackling these tough questions and serving as a clearinghouse for global ideas is the perfect role for FIU and the Green School to play, said John Stack, founding dean of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
“This is exactly what we do every day at the Green School,’’ Stack said. “We want to be a place where people can come and discuss new ideas and new ways of thinking about the tough issues our world is facing.”