Shortly after President Barack Obama last December began to restore U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, some ex-pat Cubans who have made Acadiana their home formed Louisiana’s Cuban Club.
Club members in Lafayette and elsewhere across south Louisiana want to re-establish business and familial connections with the island nation that has been under Communist rule since 1959, club President Fernando Pérez-Viart said.
Pérez-Viart and others are hoping for that long-awaited day when the U.S. Congress lifts the country’s half-century-old embargo that shuttered American-Cuban commerce. Though Obama reopened diplomatic relations with an executive order, whether to end the embargo is a decision only Congress can make.
Some in Louisiana’s Cuban Club, part of the wider Lafayette-based Hispanic Project, are getting prepared and laying the groundwork for the embargo to eventually be lifted.
And they’re urging Louisiana’s elected leaders to establish political and cultural ties with Cuban cities and leaders.
Pérez-Viart said the goal is to help Cuba’s poor majority, who since 1962 have endured an embargo of almost all U.S. goods.
“We’re trying to empower the people,” said Pérez-Viart, who speaks with the English of a Cuban who has been in the U.S. for only seven years.
Lafayette business owner Larry Sides has traveled to Cuba many times since 2000 on a special religious visa. He said the time is right to “sit down and look at what the opportunities are.” But, he said, it all rests on Congress.
“We (the U.S.) still have the trade embargo in place,” Sides said. “That didn’t change. … Congress still holds the key to real trade opportunities with Cuba.”
Sides said he’s seen changes in Cuba between a visit he made in January 2014 and trips there this past March and April as Cuba’s government loosened some of the rules restricting a market economy.
For instance, Sides said, Cuban family restaurants — paladores — at one time were limited by the government to three tables and 12 chairs, and only family members could work at a restaurant. This past spring, family restaurants had more tables and more employees, and not all of them were family.
“They’ve got excellent restaurants; business is booming,” he said.
It remains against U.S. law for Americans to do business with Cuba, except in limited circumstances such as emergency medical aid and other humanitarian endeavors. U.S. law also prohibits Americans from visiting with a tourist visa.
There has been talk over the years of relaxing or lifting the embargo. But those conversations were squelched by loud opposition from Cubans, most of them living in Florida, who strongly oppose U.S. restoring relations with Cuba and its leaders, Raul and Fidel Castro.
Pérez-Viart, 50, said most Cubans favor the U.S. normalizing business with Cuba. He noted that the Castro regime remains in power, even after 53 years of trade restrictions.
“It’s not about Fidel anymore,” Pérez-Viart said.
Pérez-Viart was an emergency room doctor in Cuba who didn’t make much money and wanted more freedom. He won a Cuban lottery in 2002 that allowed him and his family to immigrate to the U.S., although Pérez-Viart had to stay behind until 2008 while he trained another doctor to replace him.
José “Pepin” Sanchez left Cuba much earlier, in 1964 at the age of 10. His family owned restaurants, stores and land in Cuba until Castro overthrew the government in 1959 and took the Sanchez family’s property in the name of the people.
“I would like it back,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez now runs Pepin’s convenience store in Lafayette, at the corner of Ridge Road and West Broussard Road. His specialty is the Cuban sandwich, and he’s been assimilated into Lafayette’s Cajun culture. “I sell boudin balls, too,” he said recently, as Zydeco music shared speaker time with the sounds of salsa at his store.
A member of Louisiana’s Cuban Club, he described it as a “local club with international aspirations.”
Sanchez has journeyed back to Cuba in the years since he left. He said Cuba has an abundance of natural gifts but a third-world economic system that restricts innovation. He recalled one visit back to the country where he saw oxen-pulled plows tilling some of the most fertile land in the hemisphere. There also is a lack of credit card machines that make commerce cumbersome.
“It’s crazy,” Sanchez said.
He said he supports lifting the embargo. But he said the system needs checks to make sure those who earn the money get the money, that it’s not siphoned off by the government.
“Then the people will get the opportunity to change their level of living,” Sanchez said.
Members of Cuban club believe the best way to open up Cuba is by lobbying Congress to lift the embargo and by making connections directly through its citizens.
“It has to be people-to-people,” said José Castor, who believes one way to reach them is through religion.
Castor attended a Wednesday night service at First United Methodist Church on Moss Street with others in Louisiana’s Cuban Club. Also there was the Rev. José Ramón Ruiz, of Cuba, who said he’s helped build seven Methodist churches in Central Cuba in the past few years.
“The people of Cuba always had freedom of religion, but there were always rules,” said Pérez-Viart, who also attended the service.
Sides, the Lafayette businessman, said he has encouraged Acadiana’s Cuban community to pursue ways to connect to the Cuban people, though what they can accomplish is limited as long as the embargo stays in place.
“Congress still holds the key to real trade opportunities,” Sides said.