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Author: Cuban Dissidents Feel Betrayed By Obama's Action


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama's announcement that the United States and Cuba will open diplomatic relations and ease some of the trade restrictions that have been in place for more than 50 years has started a range of reactions across party lines. We want to turn now to a noted author. Carlos Eire won the 2003 National Book Award for his memoir "Waiting For Snow In Havana: Confessions Of A Cuban Boy." Mr. Eire was one of 14,000 children who were airlifted out of Cuba after the revolution without their parents. He grew up in Chicago. He's now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale. He joins us from New Haven. Thanks very much for being with us.

CARLOS EIRE: Thanks for inviting me.

SIMON: I can think of nothing more clever to ask than how do you feel about this?

EIRE: I feel terrible. I've been reading all the statements made by the dissidents in Cuba and just about every single dissident has said the same thing. They feel betrayed because the way they see it, there were no stipulations placed on this deal. A State Department official when asked, are you going to tie the issue of human rights to the process of re-establishing diplomatic relations, said no. Human rights is not on the table.

SIMON: What about the argument though that we don't really hold a hard line on human rights with China, but we have relations with them. We don't - really not even with Russia, but we have relations with that government, too.

EIRE: What upset me most about President Obama's speech was that he brought up China and Vietnam as examples just as you have now, right? Which means that basically Cuba at this point in time is being relegated to the same future as Vietnam and China, which are still very repressive states.

SIMON: I wonder - may I ask how do your children feel about this? Or, younger members of your family?

EIRE: They've asked me. I've told them how I feel, but they haven't given me their opinions. That's kind of normal, I think, you know, what happened to Dad happened so long ago. And there's no Cuban community in New Haven. So they've grown up knowing their dad is Cuban and their strange grandmother spoke no English, but she lived in Chicago and they didn't see her that often. So their Cuban-ness is kind of missing.

SIMON: Do you think there's a generational difference on this?

EIRE: It's quite possible that there is a generational difference in two ways. Not just the older exiles of the children and grandchildren, but also the recent arrivals. They have a completely different view of things because many of them, if not most of them, were born after Castro took over and they have no memory of the previous Cuba. I had a very interesting meeting with a group of Cuban exiles in Paris about 10 years ago. All but one in this fairly large group had been born after Fidel Castro took over. And the conversation reached a point where I thought I was at some Baptist church meeting where everyone was relating their conversion experience. And one by one, they went around the room and spoke about how they woke up to the fact that everything they had been taught at school was a lie. One of them was Zoe Valdes, a well-recognized Cuban author. Her turning-point was that she had won a prize in Europe for one of her novels and when she came back, the government took her prize. That was her conversion experience (laughter).

SIMON: What about the overall argument that President Obama - and for that matter Senator Flake, who's a Republican from Arizona - made that obviously 50 years of a trade embargo and no relations haven't worked.

EIRE: It's worked in some ways. The dissidents in Cuba, that was made possible by the trade embargo. In other ways, it hasn't worked because we're dealing with a totalitarian regime that has full control of the island. Cuba has been trading with the rest of the world for years and years and it's been hosting mostly European tourists, last year over 2 million. And this influx of people from democratic nations and the diplomacy hasn't brought about any change. There've been more arrests of dissidents this year than in the previous five years. So I have a hard time seeing what the U.S. has to gain.

SIMON: Carlos Eire is a Yale professor and author of the award-winning memoir "Waiting For Snow In Havana: Confessions Of A Cuban Boy."

Thanks so much for being with us.

EIRE: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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