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The view of Cuba from Michigan

Jack Lessenberry

When President Obama announced last week that we would restore diplomatic ties with Cuba, it wasn’t that big a story in Michigan. For one thing, we were still waiting to see what our lame-duck legislature would do about the roads. And there aren’t many Cuban-Americans here.

Less than ten thousand, in fact, compared to well over a million in Florida. Growing up in Detroit, the only Cuban-American I knew about was Desi Arnaz. But some have built new lives here, and one is Luz Calio, who came here in her twenties, seven years after Fidel Castro took power.

She came from a family of doctors, and while they weren’t fans of the corrupt dictator who preceded Castro, Luz had no use for the Communist regime. She refused to fake enthusiasm or volunteer to harvest sugar cane, and knew she was going to have to leave, or end up in prison.

Years after she first applied to get out, the militia showed up one day and took Luz and her mother to the airport and deported them.

They came to Michigan, because an uncle was a doctor here. She learned fluent English, worked, raised three successful children, one of whom has been fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone. When in her forties she studied journalism at Wayne State, where she was student of the year. Eventually, she became a realtor.

This weekend, I talked to Calio about President Obama’s decision. As I suspected, she told me, “I wasn’t thrilled about it.” She hates the Castro regime, with good reason.

Now seventy-one, she’s never been back since they shoved her on a plane in August, 1966, and says she won’t set foot in Cuba as long as the Communists are in power.

“I will not give them a penny of my money,” she told me. “They have destroyed the Cuban people,” and left a once prosperous nation starving and impoverished. She thinks President Obama is naïve.

However, she also admits she could be wrong.

“I have to say it is true that what we have been doing for more than fifty years” – the trade embargo, a complete freeze on relations --- “hasn’t worked.”

If somehow this opens up things and makes life better for the Cuban people, then she feels it will have been worth it.

Yet it bothers her that this doesn’t seem to be a main focus.

“Everyone is talking about how great it will be for the rich to buy Cuban cigars or go lie on the beaches. I don’t care about that,”

Calio said.

“I care about a people who have been ruined and have no freedom.”

She isn’t optimistic that things will change much after the Castros pass from the scene; she thinks top members of the party and the army have too much at stake to allow change.

Maybe not.

But it is worth remembering that Mikhail Gorbachev said much the same thing when he took power thirty years ago. Seven years later, communism and the Soviet Union were only a memory.

We had diplomatic and trade relations with his nation then, but not with Cuba, where fossilized communism still exists. It will be interesting to see whether it can survive the light of day.

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