It all began with a chance encounter between two men with a bad habit.
Officially, Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba on Sunday is the culmination of almost three years of intense diplomacy between former Cold War foes. Behind the scenes is another more human and less well known story, of a rising black politician and a Cuban American exile who met for the first time over a cigarette break at a 2003 Chicago fundraiser.
At the time Obama was still an unknown figure in American politics, at least outside his home state of Illinois, and was preparing a bid for the U.S. Senate. The other smoker – both were trying to give up the habit – was Joe Arriola, manager of the City of Miami at the time.
When the two men stepped outside to light their cigarettes, Obama got his first taste of an emerging new current in Cuban American exile thinking.
“He said ‘tell me about the Cubans in Miami,’” Arriola recalled.
“I told him not to listen to the crazy right-wing exiles … that my kids’ generation thought differently from us older guys and were ready to try a different approach,” said Arriola, 69, interviewed over coffee at the Riviera Country Club in Coral Gables where its well-heeled members include some of Miami’s Cuban American elite.
The large Cuban American community makes up 34% of Miami-Dade County’s population, and traditionally was a solid Republican Party voting bloc, largely due to the failure of the John F Kennedy administration to fully support the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles.
“I explained to him there was also a whole new generation of Cubans who have been coming over more recently, who unlike most of my generation have kept their ties to the island. They have relatives there who they send remittances to,” he added.
“The embargo has got to go,” Arriola insisted, referring to the five decades old trade and economic embargo against Cuba.
“It just plays into the hands of the Cuban govenrment,” he said. “It gives them an excuse for everything.”
Source: Univision | David Adams @dadams7308