During a routine trip to Cuba in 2014, I was more than skeptical when a street performer I’ve known since the 1990s told me that Barack Obama and Raul Castro were going to make a joint announcement regarding improved relations between Cuba and the United States. I mean, Roberto Gonzalez is a nice guy, but you have to consider your news source, particularly when it’s something truly unthinkable. The notion of such a thing has been literally unheard of since the Eisenhower administration. Perhaps if I hadn’t made photos of Gonzalez with plastic buck teeth and reindeer antlers or made videos of him coaxing his dachshunds to act like gun-toting mafiosos or baseball commentators, he would have been more believable, but I have.
Sure enough, though, about 30 minutes later, seemingly every television in Old Havana was tuned in to Cuban President Raul Castro’s speech about joint meetings between the two nations. Aided earlier by the Canadian government and strongly encouraged by Pope Francis, a 56-year policy of isolation began to change. The United States agreed to free members of the “Cuban Five” which was a group of alleged spies, one of whom was a civilian, public works employee working at NAS Key West. In return, the Cuban government released both an alleged spy along with American aid worker, Alan Gross.
About 14 months later, on March 20, 2016, a hulking, blue and white Boeing 747 roared over the small villages surrounding Jose Marti International Airport and for the first time in 88 years, a sitting U.S. President touched Cuban soil. The only other sitting president to do so was Calvin Coolidge in 1928. In 2002, despite significant resistance by the Bush administration, former President Jimmy Carter first came to the island and returned again in 2011.
Significant signs of change continued in August of 2016 when embassies reopened in both Havana and Washington, D.C. Travel restrictions have loosened, too, and last week, to the surprise of few Cubans I know on the island, President Obama repealed the United States’ “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy, a facet of the 1966 “Cuban Adjustment Act.” The 1995 law, enacted by President Bill Clinton, said that any Cuban who can make it to dry land (dry foot) would be eligible for residency in the U.S., while those interdicted at sea (wet foot) would be repatriated to Cuba. So, basically, if a Cuban person was willing to risk his or her life at sea, and got lucky enough to make it to shore, they were almost invariably allowed to stay and file for citizenship a year later. This Cuban-only policy has understandably been considered highly unfair to refugees from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
I must say that, after photographing the vessels, or “chugs,” over the years on Keys beaches, I cannot imagine how scary it would be to make the crossing on such rickety, Styrofoam-filled boats, some powered with no more than a lawnmower engine. Hopefully, now that simply showing up at Fort Zachary Taylor Beach at sunrise no longer guarantees citizenship, fewer, or, hopefully no more Cubans will be lured out into the Atlantic Ocean, endangering not only their lives, but the lives and well-being of the U.S. Coast Guard, who have far better things to do than play coastal goalie for another failed Cuba policy.