New Orleans native Cristian Miguel Soler never imagined his trip to Cuba two summers ago would one day be mentioned in a speech by President Barack Obama.
Soler, 22, went to the Caribbean nation in 2014 as an international relations student at LSU, primarily to meet relatives and learn about the country his grandparents fled after Fidel Castro took power almost 60 years ago and established a communist regime.
It was a transformative journey for him, but he could not have predicted that a world leader would invoke his tale in a push to improve relations between two long-estranged countries.
That’s what happened, though, when Obama stepped into Havana’s Gran Teatro last month during the first visit to Cuba by a U.S. president in 88 years.
Obama identified three people who he said showed there could be reconciliation between “the children and grandchildren” of Cuba who sought asylum in the U.S. following Castro’s takeover and those who remained on the island of 11 million people.
One of the three, Obama said, was “Cristian Miguel Soler, a young man who … (after) meeting relatives for the first time … said, ‘I realized that family is family no matter the distance between us.’ ”
Soler’s initial reaction upon learning from his father that Obama had quoted him by name during an internationally televised address was excitement, he said. But that gradually wore off, he said, and he felt something deeper: a yearning for the start of law school at LSU in the fall so he can begin mastering international law and equip himself to do whatever he can to help the U.S. and Cuba develop a meaningful partnership.
“This is a huge time for the U.S. and Cuba,” said Soler, who is interning at the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office while awaiting the beginning of law school. “And I want to be in the mix … helping the people. The people are the most important thing that need to be helped.”
The Soler family made its way to New Orleans a few years after Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959 and closed the medical school where Cristian’s grandfather, Francisco, who lived in Havana, was studying to be a doctor.
Francisco Javier Soler then went to work at his father’s import-export business, but he and his family lost that to Castro as well. Finally, at the end of 1961, Soler, his wife and two of their children headed to New Orleans.
The Solers had more children as Francisco worked at two jobs to put himself through Tulane University’s School of Medicine; eventually, he became the chief surgeon at Chalmette Medical Center. One of his U.S.-born sons, Miguel, and Miguel’s wife, Cindy, both schoolteachers, had two children: Madeline and Cristian, who graduated from Stuart Hall School and Jesuit High School before enrolling at LSU.
The U.S. for decades has imposed a trade embargo on Cuba, hoping to weaken the Castro regime and pressure the island toward capitalism and democracy. The Cuban government until recently forbade virtually all forms of private enterprise, making it difficult for ordinary folks to support themselves.
Meanwhile, Cristian Soler said, his family raised him to stay connected with his Cuban roots, and he had focused his international relations studies on Latin America when LSU offered a summer study-abroad program in Cuba, facilitated by Obama’s decision to ease restrictions on travel there for purposes such as academics.
Soler seized on the opportunity and was rewarded with an unforgettable experience.
He said he met aunts and cousins who immediately made him feel “right at home” even though they had never met before. They shared stories about how committed his grandfather was to ensuring his family did well.
“I just got to have a picture in my mind of my grandpa which I never had before,” said Soler, who was 4 when his grandfather died. “It was great.”
Everyday scenes there illustrated to Soler how crucial it was to expand the ways in which people in the U.S. could send money — remittances — to loved ones in Cuba. They also made him realize how beneficial it could be for the two countries to establish travel routes offering people employment opportunities or simply chances to catch up with family.
Things have come a long way in a short time. A few months after Soler returned to Louisiana, the U.S. and Cuba announced they would restore diplomatic ties.
That prompted Soler’s father and his aunt, Ana, to travel to Cuba last year for the first time and visit relatives, as Cristian had. A well-received Yahoo! News article — which quoted Cristian as saying that his time in Cuba taught him that “family was family no matter the distance” — documented the Solers’ trips.
But the decades of antagonism between the U.S. and Cuba have taken a toll.
Many Americans and Cuban exiles in the U.S. were unhappy to see Obama show up in Cuba in March intent on normalizing relations with a regime that has been cited repeatedly for human rights violations.
Additionally, some Cubans resent that exiles sought refuge in a nation they believe has long been aggressive toward the island.
Soler said all that explains why he was gratified that someone on Obama’s staff apparently read the Yahoo! article and was struck by his comment in it. It also fuels his aspirations for law school and beyond, he said.
His father was equally delighted.
“I’m proud the president … connected Cristian’s name and his trip to a possible solution to a problem that’s been around a long time, with implications for this area of the world,” Miguel Soler said. “And for him to someday be part of the solution would do great justice to our heritage.”