Listening to Cuba

April 12th, 2008

My father, a successful Cuban lawyer in the 1950’s, listened to Castro and like my mother was persuaded to support the revolutionhe ran guns for the insurgents. In 1959 he was offered a position in the new government but turned it down when he realized his mistake: there would be no new democracy as promised. This led him to help with the Bay of Pigs invasion and ultimately cost him his life. My mother escaped to the US with only her four children and the clothes on our backs. Like many Cuban refugees we started with nothing but each other and a bitter lesson in the dangers of listening to Castro.

Asked about Cuba’s new president during the last Democratic debate, Mr. Obama said he was willing to meet with Raúl Castro “without preconditions”. Mrs. Clinton said “I would not meet with him until there was evidence that change is happening.” At a Town Hall Meeting in Rock River Ohio, Mr. McCain said “I don’t know why in the world you would want to sit down with Raul Castro under no conditions for it. I have no idea what that would do except perhaps enhance the prestige of a guy who was really the enforcer for Fidel Castro for long periods of time.”

Whatever prestige the Castro brothers have enjoyed since turning Cuba into a communist state has not been due to any U.S. presidents being willing to meet with them and listen. It’s never happened. Arguably, rebukes such as McCain’s and Clinton’s have only fueled the regime’s propaganda machine. For nearly fifty years we’ve stood our ground, refused to listen, and where has that left us? At the same impasse we were at in 1960.

When we lived in Ohio in the early 1960’s every Sunday after church our family would meet in the church hall with the small community of other Cubans who lived nearby. The highlight for me was when the adults would organize all the boys in a line, drop the needle on a 45 rpm record player, and start us marching by the Cuban flag as Cuba’s national anthem blared from the tiny speaker. Like my brothers who marched with me I silently swore, as I saluted the flag, that I would win our country back by force. There was no point in listening to Fidel. He lies.

Anyone who knows anything about the science of conflict resolution knows that a willingness to listen is the first step to resolving conflict. Disagreements and lies are inevitable. Sorting through them is not that hard if you are clear on what you need. Over time, I have been on both sides of this debate. In my personal experience Cubans in the US today are as divided on this issue as are the candidates for president. But most Americans think all Cubans feel as McCain does.

I feel very differently today because of what history and experience has taught me. As a psychologist I have helped people and organizations break what seemed like impenetratable impasses, but only after there was a willingness to listen to one another. If we’re going to change Cuba we have to engage Cuba. And the first step is to invite its new leader to the table and listen to what he has to say. Raul Castro is no longer the “enforcer” he’s now the “decider” (sorry couldn’t help myself). We may or may not like what we hear, but one thing is certain. Continuing to not listen won’t break the impasse.

If the son of a man who was killed by the Castro brothers is willing to listen to Cuba’s new president, why shouldn’t our new president?