For decades Cubans have come to the United States to start a new life. Although they’ve established new roots here, many still feel invested in what happens in their home country. It’ll take time for Cold War tensions to thaw between the U.S. and Cuba, but support from Cuban Americans could speed up the process.
Last month, a quick flight from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara broke a half-century hiatus of commercial flight from the U.S. to Cuba. The rest of the routes roll out between now and December.
“All the major airlines are flying to Cuba. Spirit got some routes, Frontier, Alaska, even some smaller players like Silver airways,” said Jeff Klee, CEO of cheapair.com.
He said there’s been a huge, pent-up demand from Cuban Americans for commercial flights, and soon it will be a lot easier for them to travel back and forth.
But Manuel Cias doesn’t think he’ll get on one of those planes anytime soon.
“For me in this case, nothing has changed,” Cias said.
Cias came to Phoenix from Cuba 11 years ago with his wife and infant son. They were refugees, and he says the organization that resettled them gave him two options, because Miami was too full.
“They gave us a cold place, and this hot place here. And we prefer the hot because we are from Cuba. I don’t like the snow,” Cias said.
Now they run a restaurant and bakery.
“It’s not Miami food, it’s Cuban food,” Cias explained.
Cias said he could visit Cuba. But he’s not jumping on the bandwagon right now because he doesn’t think the Cuban government is really open to change.
“It’s a country that’s been dominated by communism for 50 years, and I don’t think they’re going to give up their power and their authority,” Cias said.
And that’s an opinion shared by many other Cuban Americans, even after the restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba. A poll released by Florida International University on Wednesday shows 41 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami believe that major political changes in Cuba will never occur.
“It’s always a very pessimistic environment that we encounter,” said Guillermo Grenier, one of the pollsters at FIU’s Cuban Research Institute.
They’ve been doing the same survey for 25 years. He said despite that lingering pessimism, there’s a rising trend among Cuban Americans who support increased relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
“There seems to be a widening recognition that normalization, if you want to call it that, or at least engagement, is what’s going to be happening in the future,” Grenier said.
A majority of Cuban Americans in Miami support expanding business relations between the countries; 74 percent support unrestricted travel by all Americans to Cuba, and 63 percent want to end the embargo. Grenier said that’s the highest they’ve ever seen.
Manuel Cias belongs to those majority opinions, too. He said he wants others to discover Cuba and connect with it.
“I would recommend that anybody wants to go should go. In this moment it’s a very safe place. The government takes good care of the visitors, because they’re a source of money,” he said. “Maybe better than they take care of the people who live there.”
Grenier says the newer Cubans are to the U.S., the more positively they respond to increased travel and other engagement policies. And he thinks those opinions will make waves on the island, too, with the increased contact and connections.
“The direction, the trend you’ll see – you can bet on this – that if the Cuban government is going to survive it will change. Perhaps in measured steps, but the sign for change is now very real among the Cuban people,” Grenier said.
It’s clear Manuel Cias has held on to his personal connections to Cuba. He handmakes the Cuban pastries and sandwiches in his restaurant every day. But he points out if he’d stayed, he probably wouldn’t have the means to own his own business.
“Thanks to this country I have my house, I have my cars, my business,” he said. “This is America.”
And he’s happy to be here. But with enough change, he says that one day he hopes to take his son to Cuba to show him where their journey began.
Annika Cline, KJZZ
(KJZZ’s Matthew Casey contributed to this report)