Analysis: What is changing, and what is not

By José Manuel Pallí

The Latin Quarter in Miami and its adjacencies is a place akin to what novelist Michael Crichton would call Jurassic Park, or old timers among us Shangri-La, the place in Tibet that time forgot.

Last week I attended a panel discussion in Miami over Peronismo and its impact on Argentina, a discussion built around the question: “What is Peronismo”?  Despite the presence of four panelists – all of them journalists and all of them excellent in their one-sided dissertations about the nefarious influence of Juan Perón — the discussion felt more like a monologue, and it was unable to answer the question as to what the movimiento peronista was all about.

I would have begun by asking the question to someone who identified himself as a peronista, but all of the panelists were hard core anti-peronistas, and I doubt there were peronistas in the audience either.

This generalized attitude of turning what should be dialogue or debate into monologues has come to define Miami (Cuban Miami, originally, but the attitude has branched out to Venezuelan Miami, Ecuadorean Miami, and most other communities in our Latin Quarter) as a place where people (many of them self-appointed “experts”) come to fight — from afar — those governments in their homelands they disagree with, without having to confront the opinions of their fellow countrymen who have a favorable view of those same governments.

The first time I heard the epithet dialoguero thrown at someone (35 years ago), I heard it from a good and very distinguished friend of my father, who was referring to a mutual friend (of his and of my dad) who had dared to go to Cuba and meet with Fidel seeking to free a number of political prisoners. It is still used today, Shangri-La style, to demean, disqualify and demonize those who dare to confront their own ideas with those prevailing among the Cuban establishment in the island.

That is why, in Cuban Miami, many can still live in a Jurassic Park where time has stood still for almost 60 years and where, by definition, nothing can change, neither in Miami nor in Cuba.

A recent column by a well known Cuban-American journalist “explains” why the changes Cuba is going through are not changes at all: because a guajiro that sold him some plants for his house’s landscape years ago told him (back then) that Cuba would never change … The journalist seemed to have little interest in asking anyone in Cuba whose life was changed by the ongoing changes how he or she felt about them; he just “knew” there was no change at all (guajiro dixit)…

Well, I am afraid I am going to have to spoil the day for the Jurassic crowd.

I just spent a week in Cuba, my first visit there since, shortly after Cuba’s last use of a firing squad and the imprisonment of a large number of dissidents back in March 2003, I decided there was no purpose in my visiting the island.

I was wrong when I made that decision because it is obvious that the only way anyone can have any kind of impact on any given society is by interacting fluidly with it. I do not pretend that I can, by myself, change anything in Cuba – or even here in Shangri-La — but I believe that the erosion the disposition of many of us to engage with Cuban society (with its civil, as well as with its “uncivil” side) may cause on even the most hardened views held by the Cuban “establishment” should, eventually, have a beneficial impact in Cuba. That is why dialogue with “official” Cuba is far from being anathema to me.

And since I cannot take seriously our “experts from afar” claims that nothing will change in Cuba until after a number of funerals take place, I accepted an invitation to speak before a large Cuban audience (close to 400, mostly young, mostly women, mostly lawyers with a smattering of economists among them) and tell them my views on Cuba’s foreign investment law.

I spoke about the kind of changes I would make to it. For instance, eliminating the impediment on foreign investors hiring Cuban employees directly, and allowing foreign capital in to help solve the housing shortage in the island.

I also said I hoped the next time I faced such an audience in Cuba it would include some of those “independent” or “dissident” lawyers who have a critical view of Cuba’s legal system. I extended an invitation to those present to come to Miami and engage in a similar exercise in which they could defend their own views on their legal system.

They listened to what I had to say, they applauded politely, and some of them refuted and disputed the validity of my line of thought. But NO ONE tried to shout me down, or even call me any kind of names (capitalista de m….. comes to mind).

But what I was able to say in public pales when compared to what many of the speakers who followed me – all of them local Cubans, with a single exception, a Mexican lawyer who spoke about international trade contracts — said, and with some of the questions the audience asked, things I never thought I would hear said in public in present-day Cuba.

My views on foreign investment — nurtured in experiences I had while living in developing countries — felt more restrictive than those held by some of the brightest legal and economic minds Cuba has and who spoke in the same conference. Most of them swear by the need to welcome foreign investment as the only possible way to sustain Cuba’s needs in terms of economic growth and development.

Because, you see, today’s Cuba is not what we read about in most American newspapers, always quoting our “cubanologists” who practice a “science” that seems grounded in slogans, self-delusion and wishful thinking rather than on any kind of empirical knowledge. Today’s Cuba is ever evolving in the minds of these very bright and educated young professionals in the audience I faced, who are not just the scions of any ruling elite.

What I heard and experienced tells me that Cuba is fast changing beyond the many measures already taken to enliven the daily lives of Cubans. The change includes a change in culture and in ideology that is beginning to erode some basic tenets of the Cuban Revolution. If we fail to see this and react accordingly, engaging to the extent we are allowed to (by the Cuban authorities and by our own misguided and fossilized policies towards Cuba), we will see our role in Tomorrow’s Cuba even more eroded than those Revolutionary tenets will likely be.

While we adamantly cling to our collective state of denial (which is a “state of fear” as well), Cuba is rapidly changing, believe it or not.

José Manuel Pallí is president of Miami-based World Wide Title. He can be reached a

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