They call themselves ABCs: American-born Cubans. Well before Cuba and the United States began to normalize relations this year, a crop of younger Cuban-Americans were working to engage the communist island.
Many Gen. X-ers, in particular, have challenged their parents and communities' wishes in an attempt to lift what some artists and writers have been calling the “emotional embargo” on Cubans on and off the island.
Most young Cuban-Americans think democracy cannot happen without engagement, according to a recent poll conducted by Miami-based research firm Bendixen & Amandi International. About 51 percent of the 400 Cuban-Americans polled favor engagement with Cuba.
Three ABCs living in Miami – a belly dancer, an activist and a lawyer – have charted different paths toward the same end goal: a more normalized future in a place that’s close but can still feel far away.
'Havana, My Sweetheart'
Like many people who live in Miami, Tiffany Madera is the daughter of Cuban immigrants. Her parents left Cuba after Castro took power.
The 42-year-old discovered what her parents had left behind when she first visited Cuba in 1979.
“I felt a sense of loss, and I internalized it,” she says. “And I think in my adult life, I’ve been looking for ways to heal or bridge or re-code that.”
Madera, a professional folkloric and belly dancer, got the chance to form such a bridge in 2003, when she went on an artist exchange to Cuba. Madera met a group of women who wanted to learn to belly dance, which was considered very exotic at the time.
“There was a real interest and there wasn’t a fountain of information,” she says. “All the women had was a couple of music videos – Shakira music videos.”
This led to a project called Havana Habibi – Arabic for “Havana, my sweetheart.” Since then, Madera has traveled to the island more than a dozen times.
Lately, Madera has been focused on finishing a documentary, due out later this year, about her experience with Havana Habibi.
She showed an early cut of the film to her family in the spring. She says the film moved her mother, but that they didn’t speak for a week afterward. Her father called the film “brave” but said, “Some things are best left in the dark.”
At one point, Madera stopped visiting Cuba for several years because of the emotional and logistical struggle. Ultimately, though, she decided to go back.
“I think part of what an artist does in society is go into maybe difficult places and shine a light there,” she says.
Unlike Madera, John Suarez has only visited Cuba once – in 1980. He remembers “a very oppressive atmosphere” and the sight of people dressed in military uniforms.
Suarez’s most vivid memory from that trip, however, was when he “freaked out” his family by imitating Castro on camera.
“Even as a child I sort of had a precocious sense of humor,” he says.
But his family didn't find it funny.
“They stopped the recording. They eliminated my humorous attempt to imitate the comandante,” Suarez adds.
This early experience helped fuel Suarez’s hardline stance against the regime.
The 46-year-old human rights activist helps run the Cuban Democratic Directorate, a pro-democracy nonprofit in Miami. Suarez monitors human rights violations on the island and reports them to international organizations, such as the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Council, in hopes of informing the broader English-speaking public.
Suarez believes in assisting the Cuban people as long as that assistance doesn't benefit the regime. He says the Cuban Democratic Directorate has supported sending remittances and providing humanitarian relief.
“We’ve always had a willingness to assist Cubans directly,” he says. “But what we try to do is minimize the funds and the currency that will go toward shoring up the dictatorship.”
Suarez's parents continued to visit Cuba every couple of years until 2000. With each passing year, they had a harder time seeing their homeland continue to deteriorate.
“For them, going to Cuba was a painful process,” he says. “To see the destruction of the buildings and of the people was heartbreaking.”
Suarez hopes that his dogged fight against the Cuban government will lead toward a more democratic future for the island.
“My end goal and what got me into this … is to see a nonviolent, democratic transition in Cuba [and] the restoration of a system inside the island based on the rule of law,” he says.
Much later than Madera and Suarez, Augusto Maxwell traveled to Cuba for the first time in 2002, when a Tampa farmer sought out the Miami-based lawyer to help him sell cattle on the island.
“I saw an opportunity to play a constructive role in Cuba’s future in a way that was different than my parents,” Maxwell says.
Before he could buy his plane ticket, Maxwell, 51, had to convince his parents. Both his mother and father were supporters of the 1959 revolution, but fled after they felt Castro betrayed its ideals. After coming to the U.S., Maxwell's father even trained to fight at Bay of Pigs but never landed.
Though Maxwell sympathized with his parents, his curiosity about the island had been growing since the 1980s, and he jumped at this opportunity to visit. But he needed to break it to his father at the right moment.
"When my sister gave birth to her first son," he recalls, "that’s when I attacked him and asked for his blessing."
The day before he left, Maxwell's father called him over. Expecting him to try and dissuade him from going, Maxwell was surprised.
“He had a long list of places I had to go visit,” he says. “We looked at a map of Cuba and Havana, and a lot of the stories he had always told me as a kid started falling into a place that was more realistic.”
Maxwell now leads the Cuba practice at the Akerman law firm in downtown Miami. He has traveled to the island about 50 times in the last decade.
Maxwell supports engagement and believes his work contributes to normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S.
“I think Cuba has not benefited from this oversized role that it plays in American politics,” he says. “I think that Cuba and the Cuban people would benefit from being viewed more normally and to treat it like you would any other country.”
Still, Maxwell respects his parents’ history.
“I get what the history was. It still is an authoritarian government that isn’t the democracy my father fought for or my mother hoped for,” he says. "The idea that I have and others have is that it's a different means to a better place."