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    Dec. 17 a day of triumph for Cuban Americans

    Dec. 17 a day of triumph for Cuban Americans
    BY RIC HERRERO RICARDOHERRERO@CUBANOW.US
    12/29/2014 8:08 PM 12/29/2014 8:08 PM

    The most damaging legacy of the Helms-Burton Act is not that it codified
    the bulk of U.S. sanctions into law, but that it codified the way we are
    supposed to think about solving the Cuban puzzle. It zapped our
    creativity and told us we must consider only one zero-sum,
    all-or-nothing course of action to foster change in Cuba — a course that
    never had a serious chance of succeeding.

    Far worse, it codified our identity as victims. It denied us the freedom
    to take credit for the ground we’ve gained until the day the Castros are
    driven from power and there is a functional democracy in Cuba. It
    blinded us to the series of small victories that freedom advocates have
    won in Cuba over the past five years, and from recognizing the historic
    victory that the Cuban-American community won on Dec. 17:

    Cuban Americans played a key role in the negotiations

    Some claim that Cubans and Cuban Americans were left out of the
    negotiations between our two countries. While I can’t speak for what may
    have transpired in Havana, on the American side, that is not true. Over
    the better part of the last two years, Obama administration officials
    sought out the advice of prominent Cuban-American professional, civic
    and religious leaders on how to best chart a new course on Cuba policy.
    These talks often included members of distinguished organizations such
    as the Cuba Study Group, Roots of Hope, the Cuban American National
    Foundation and our own #CubaNow.

    A priority for the White House was that any new measures had to advance
    the cause of human rights in Cuba. To that end, they started meeting
    with visiting Cuban opposition leaders, including Yoani Sánchez and
    Berta Soler, shortly after the Cuban government reformed its migratory
    policy in February 2013.

    From the beginning it was clear that these officials understood
    something we all knew, but many refused to accept: Our policy wasn’t
    working. They were particularly receptive to calls for a new approach
    that advanced three objectives: empower the Cuban people so they could
    become the authors of their own destinies; place the right kind of
    pressure on the Cuban government to improve human-rights conditions; and
    promote the interests of the United States in the region.

    Those Cuban Americans and visiting Cubans who shared creative and
    constructive ideas during these talks saw their recommendations
    reflected to varying degrees in the policy changes. Those who called for
    more of the same received less attention. Perhaps if Sens. Marco Rubio
    and Robert Menendez had spent less time defending a failed “moral”
    policy and more time working with the president to develop an effective
    moral policy, they might have held more sway over the outcome.

    The Cuban government did not set the terms of the prisoner swap

    Others are complaining that the United States allowed the Cuban regime
    to set the terms of the negotiations and received nothing in return.
    Again, this is wrong. For years the Cubans called for a three-for-one
    prisoner swap as the only option, and the United States repeatedly
    rejected it. This was largely because of pressure from the
    Cuban-American community. While the rest of the country seemed accepting
    of a three-for-one, our community wouldn’t settle. Some of us instead
    called for a more creative approach, one that went beyond the fates of
    Alan Gross and the Cuban Three — one that called for a larger bargain
    that would place us on the road to better relations. There are more than
    50 years of unresolved conflicts, grievances and restrictions between
    our two nations. We said, let’s put some of those on the table.

    In the end, the Cubans did not get the deal that they wanted. Instead,
    they agreed to release Gross, plus a CIA spy and 53 political prisoners.
    They also agreed to allow the International Red Cross and United Nations
    to monitor human rights inside the island and to re-establish diplomatic
    relations, something that must have rattled their hardliners as much as
    it did ours. Had it not been for the pressure exerted by Cuban
    Americans, it is quite possible that the United States might have opted
    for the easy swap to bring Gross home.

    All eyes are now on Cuba

    What Dec. 17 has taught us is that as long as we are willing to
    recognize when something has failed and remain open to exploring new
    ways of promoting democratic values in Cuba, Cuban Americans will always
    have a seat at the table.

    It will be increasingly difficult for Havana to explain to the Cuban
    people — and to the rest of the world — why it must maintain or tighten
    its internal embargo now that the United States has opened up.

    Our job as a community is to be flexible, creative and, most of all,
    strategic. We have to explore the wealth of new opportunities presented
    by this era of diplomatic relations and expanded travel, trade and
    telecommunications flows to help empower Cubans.

    Every Cuban who is actively seeking to increase his or her autonomy —
    from artists and entrepreneurs, to religious groups and democracy
    advocates — deserves our help. As barriers continue to be lifted, let’s
    do more to contribute to their success.

    In the process, we do not have to trust Cuban officials to get them to
    take steps in the direction we’d like to see. But we must trust that
    they, too, want a better future for their children and that they can
    recognize a good deal when they see one.

    Our goal has been, and always will be, to facilitate peaceful changes
    that lead to a free and pluralistic Cuba. Let’s be smart about how we
    seize new opportunities to advance this goal. But by all means, let’s
    not give into despair and let’s shed the veil of victimhood, because
    small victory by small victory, the Cuban-American community is winning.

    Ric Herrero is executive director of #CubaNow. He lives in Miami.

    Source: Dec. 17 a day of triumph for Cuban Americans | The Miami Herald
    http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article5144940.html