Joe Garcia was born in Miami Beach, in October 1963. He is the son of Cuban immigrants. He was educated in a bilingual environment and in the love to Cuba. Today he is Congressman for District 26 of South Florida, one that has the highest concentration of Cuban Americans and Cuban residents statewide.
He was Executive Director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and claims to be a connoisseur of the Cuban reality, be very informed on the everyday life in the Island, out of talking with newcomers before they forget what living in Cuba is really about.
OnCuba talks to a Congressman in the middle of his campaign, with the risk that this entails. We know he won’t waste the opportunity to announce his agenda, to divert the interview into the comfort zone of his speech.
He comes with the jacket in hand and straps that draw attention. Congressman Joe Garcia hails as he has known you a lifetime, speaking Spanish without the Anglophone accent of people born here who learned to speak Castilian after English. Throughout the interview he varies, sometimes he goes in campaign mode and sometimes he seems away when he speaks of a Cuba that he does not know but is present in everything he says.
“My family is from El Cotorro, on the outskirts of Havana. Both my mom and my dad are from there. My maternal grandfather, surnamed Acosta, was a driver of Route 7, Havana -Cotorro, so he told me, I never took Route 7. My grandfather on my father’s side was Captain Garcia Mari, who was an officer of the Army, and veterinarian. He was a professor at the Military Academy and died in Cuba, under house imprisonment. His wife, my grandmother Eulalia could come here in 1961 with my dad. “
“My process in the Cuban issue has been trying to learn. In Miami you live a lot that “Sweet Nostalgia”, the positive memories. Also one is in a place where there are many victims of the Cuban Revolution and people who were displaced by the violence and the events that occurred on the island
My mother came here in ’62, she met my father and a year later I came along. My knowledge of Cuba is third hand, I could never go to Cuba, but obviously people close to me have done so.
When I took the leadership of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) one of the things I realized is that our policy was led by a generation who loved Cuba but they were out of that process, then my interest was precisely to relate as much as possible with people who had come more recently because the Cuban culture adapts very easily to the foreign one. The English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Americans were in Cuba; on a Friday the Cuban is the Head of the Committee in his neighborhood and when he comes to Miami he becomes a GOP member, they go from one extreme to another without going through the middle.
It is ours to be fleeting in our attitudes, customizable. One sometimes has to catch the Cuban when he just arrived, before he learns how this country works to understand what happens in Cuba. I did this because what I wanted when I was executive at CANF was not to influence in Miami. I wanted to influence in a positive change in the island
One of the things we found is that some policies were not working, so I tried, as Director of the CANF, to redirect our attention. For a long time we were focused on Washington as the way to get to Havana and what I noticed is that the solution of Cuba was in Cuba in understanding the mentality of Cuba, and to know who had more recently arrived had it clearer “I set as my task, from the Foundation, to meet weekly with a newcomer.
Joe combines political activism with nostalgia. We talked about the easing of U.S. policy toward the island, the need to facilitate trips for Americans and to favor bonds between the two shores. His face changes, he looks away and all nostalgia disappears:
Haven’t I done that?
Before Obama came to power 80 thousand Cubans traveled to the island, this year we will reach 630,000. There are 11 flights from Miami International Airport, plus 7 from Tampa. It has been loosened, it has opened, and opportunities have been given. Before there were restrictions on remittances, now you can send any amount.
From pizzerias, paladares, restaurants, sandwich places that exist in Cuba, most of the money invested in these facilities comes from Hialiah, Doral, Coral Gables, Little Havana. That is being flexible and fulfills what has been my goal: helping the people of Cuba and its civil society.
The last five years of this administration and its policy towards Cuba, more has been achieved than in the previous fifty, and it’s because we promote an open and flexible policy, dedicated to promoting civil society, to promote the values we have in common but the same time we must understand that there are limits to this policy”
Limits as the inability of Americans to travel and invest in Cuba, or that it does not exist, as with the case of travel, a license for Cuban Americans to invest in Cuba…
Practically we have a travel policy open to Cubans. That space has been won, and I´m telling that today, if flights are canceled here or in Cuba, there will be revolt in Cuba, and in Miami.
We have created an important link in the Cuban family. One thing we will not do is something the Cuban Revolution did for a long time; divide the family. Cuba did that for long, and so did the policy we had in the United States. I think that is over.
It seems to me that the love of a mother to a son, a brother, a cousin, or a friend, to their counterparts in Cuba, it should not be controlled or dictated by government policies.
We have also achieved that the visa they give Cubans is for five years. Some of the Cuban community opposed it, but they are not people who know what it means for a relative to go to the Interests Section, wait four or five hours in the sun to be told “you have to come tomorrow” or not getting the visa. We have now adopted a process where the Cuban can travel and return several times”
He speaks with confidence. He doesn’t hesitate and plays perfectly with the sentimental, the figures and the practical. Again, it is not possible that an American citizen is limited in its right to invest anywhere in the world, including, again, at least one license for those of Cuban origin, after all there is one for travel and we are talking about their country.
“That is governed by a law in force. The problem of the Cuban economy is not an American problem; it is a matter of Cuba. The whole world has been able to invest in Cuba and decided not to, because there is no investment guarantees, no banking system, no feasible currency, no gambling laws, Cuba cannot meet a serious investment criterion .
What is clear is that the Cuban-American community has been willing to invest in their family, because all that money that is calculated between three and four billion dollars a year, would not have entered Cuba if they did not think it is a way in the worst case, to help their loved ones.
The U.S. Government is willing, but Cuba also has to be willing. For example, the Cuban government has one of the most expensive passports on earth why? Why a Cuban national has to pay almost $ 500 for a passport and renew it every two years to visit his own country?
It seems absurd to me. The Government of Cuba has its reasons, with which I disagree.
It seems to me that the more exchange we have the easier and cheaper it is, the more opportunities will be created. We have also seen that, in a sense, the Cuban government has opened some space for dissent and then closes it. Why Cuesta Morúa cannot leave Cuba? Why cannot Yoani publish a newspaper on the internet that I can see?
Openness is not a little by little. We have a policy of promoting civil society. If the government of Cuba is interested in participating in a comprehensive manner and with a vibrant civil society, and that means from Yoani to a hairdresser, from barber to a doctor, and that space needs to be filled by civil society itself.
On the part of the government that I represent, we have been making moves in favor of that and we have seen growth in some aspects of Cuban politics but there is no rule of law or a banking system, and the possibilities to find long-term solutions that benefit the Cuban society with a wider opening.
And as Cuban-American, I will do what is in the interests of the American nation and that will b working for human rights to be respected in Cuba; for the Cuba’s government to be democratic and allows participation at all levels, both from favorable as to from contrary positions. That’s a democracy and what we aspire for Cuba
I interrupt him: You however have distanced himself from the rest of the Cuban-American lobby “or they dissociated themselves from me” he smiles wryly, and continues to campaign
“What is clear is that I will do what is in the best interests of those I represent in my community and the United States. Now, I do not want the U.S. interests to be contrary to the interests of the Cuban people. We try to do things that make sense. I once said that if my mother died and her will was that we bury her in Havana, to Havana is where my mother is going to go.
So I favor to not be limits on remittances. The other day I met someone who has invested in a family business and that receives money from Cuba through Western Union. The money no longer goes to and fro, comes from Cuba to the United States. They have made an investment and they have done well. I hope he is paying taxes, complying with the Law”
The phone rings. I take the chance and introduce the subject of the letter that forty personalities have sent to President Obama, the statements of Charlie Crist, and the former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on the need to lift the embargo.
“My position is that the embargo is a current law and therefore I support it until there are the necessary conditions for change. At this time there are no enough votes to remove the embargo. Politics is the art of the possible, and currently it is not possible to lift the embargo. Therefore I advocate a policy that is real, efficient and flexible to achieve what we want”
Joe is serious; the question does not bother him but makes him tense. Again, when you say to represent American interests you also include the Cuban community, which is majority in the district you represent?
“Undoubtedly. We have to encourage a policy that favors Cubans, my constituents and the American nation. “
Joe takes a deep breath, looks at the time and I can feel he is ending the interview. Just as he is about to rise I make him listen to me, would you like to go to Cuba?
“There are very few people in South Florida, of Cuban origin who would not like to go to Cuba if conditions merited it. If conditions were conducive to improving the lives of civil society I would like to. But obviously my going to Cuba has political significance”
Joe has left the campaign, again his eyes shine as if speaking of something that hurts him or he loves, takes his time, for the first time he seems to think what he will say.
“Like many people I have no family in Cuba. Our family, almost all, could go out, one by one, and that marks the position and this is why you have to meet with people who travel there because they have a sense of reality, of what is on the table, in that ” right there “of what is happening in Cuba.
If you look it up on the internet I am one of those who has most talked about Cuba. However I am expert in a place where I could never go, a place that I had to study through others, my person has been and is one of the most attacked by the government of Cuba, in its news, the Round Table and sometimes by extremists here in Southern Florida “
I will continue doing what I think is right. And if I find that the policy I favor is not conducive to a better life for Cubans and civil society, I will change it. The policy is to be practical, flexible in a face of a reality to achieve a goal.
My goal is that everyone can enjoy the good things in a rich, free society that respects human rights, democracy. I have been very fortunate to live in this country, I know my family feels the same and I think that Cubans were not coming in these quantities here if they could find those things in Cuba, because after all, the Cubans want to live in Cuba”
He takes off the jacket, and returns to the familiarity and smiles. We feel we were in two different spaces. One is intimate and personal, of someone brought up in that same “sweet nostalgia” that he mentioned. Another is of Joe the politician, immersed in a campaign that will decide in November whether he continues as Congressman Garcia. Who knows if after November when he doesn’t need the stands he will give us another interview, and I do not know why I imagine that these same questions would have very different answers, I am almost certain.