The San Carlos Institute’s directors in Key West have written to President Obama against the president’s Cuba initiative. There is no doubt some substance to the complaint. Barack Obama, however, is a lamer-than-lame duck and will not be on the national scene much longer. Cuban nationals as well as Cuban Americans, like many of our friends and local residents in Key West, will now be able to grab the ball and run with it. Take the special interest politicians out of the mix and a lot of good can and should come from normalizing relations with a tiny country only 90 miles from America. As is the case here at home, the people of Cuba must find a way to take back their country from the government.
Tony Yanez, the burly, white-bearded city commissioner, is one of Key West’s best-known Cuban politicians.
What he says is repeated often around town: Before the completion of the federal highway in 1938 linking the Florida Keys, Key West felt more like a province of Cuba.
“People actually tell me, old-timers tell me about even taking the ferry boat to Cuba to go to the dentist, to go to the doctor,” Yanez says. “You cannot separate the histories and the cultures of the two islands.”
Yanez was born in Havana, emigrated with his parents after Fidel came to power, and holds a visceral love for his homeland.
“When I first heard the news on television of President Obama saying that this dream that Cuba was going to open up, I bawled. I cried like a baby for a long time,” he says. “And of course I started calling relatives and friends, and they were all crying.”
He gets emotional again. “It’s over half a century of dreaming of something,” he says.
Yanez stands inside one of the most famous buildings in Key West, the San Carlos Institute. It’s here where the Cuban national hero José Martí came in 1891 to whip up support for the Cuban war of independence against Spanish colonial rule.
Opposition To Obama Policy
Yanez loves his Cuban history — and so does Rafael Penalver, though they’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Penalver is a Miami lawyer who also fled Havana with his parents as a child. He’s director of the San Carlos Institute. He and Yanez butted heads a couple years ago when Yanez invited some diplomats from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., to lay a wreath at the Martí statue. Penalver refused them entry.
“I told Tony Yanez, to come here, as a showpiece, to put a wreath in front of the statue of José Martí, that, to me, was unacceptable,” he says.
Earlier this week, they clashed again. The board of directors of San Carlos, led by Penalver, wrote a caustic letter condemning President Obama’s new Cuba policy.
“This is an agreement between economic interests of the United States and the interest of a Cuban dictator that wants to stay in power,” Penalver says.