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Cuban-Americans debate the embargo

By Philippa Thomas
BBC News, Washington

Will the new US foreign policy being pursued by President Barack Obama include an end to the isolation of Cuba?

The Suarez-Gaston family pray before a meal
The family are part of a Cuban-American dynasty based in the US

That is a question which will loom large at this week's Summit of the Americas.

Mr Obama is already promoting moves to lift the travel ban for relatives, and allow more cash support to Cuban families.

So is it time for the nearly 50-year-old trade embargo to be dropped?

And why is the Cuban American relationship such an emotive issue, so many decades on?

To explore these questions, I spoke to members of the Suarez-Gaston family - a large Cuban-American dynasty based in the Washington DC suburbs.

Family gathering

When the Pope went to Cuba in 1998, it was the sign that Lala Suarez Mooney needed to go back to the homeland - 37 years after she had been imprisoned, and then exiled, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Lala Suarez Mooney
Lala Suarez Mooney cried when she recalled returning to Cuba

Since then, "Aunt Lala" has led her family's summer trips to Cuba.

There they have visited the site of an abandoned sugar-mill and met farm workers and their families. And they have helped to restore a little church that was crumbling away - now it again has stained-glass windows, funded by the Cuban-American diaspora.

I met Lala and members of her family over Sunday lunch in Silver Spring, Maryland.

This was just one gathering of one branch of the family - which they described to me as a "tribe".

The Cuban food was fabulous. Children ran in for the cookies and out to play again. A cousin who announced she was pregnant was greeted with hugs and tears.

There were tears, too, when Lala remembered the plane journey that had taken her back to Havana.

What did it feel like? "Beautiful! Of course! It was - Cuba!"

Since then, she has raised funds and raised consciousness about the plight of the many Cubans who are both poor and hungry.

And though she is deeply conservative politically, she is with Mr Obama on the need for change.

She is driven by her Catholic faith, and wants the embargo to be lifted right away.

Concessions first

For the youngest at our table, 14-year-old Cristina Hidalgo McCabe, the embargo belongs to history.

She was brimming with stories from her first trip to Cuba last summer, such as her encounter with a man who had lost his land and his farm to the revolution, and told her the past 50 years had been "wasted".

[Obama] shows no enthusiam for continuing the embargo. But does he have the heart for the political fight that will break out if he hints at lifting it?

But then she brightened up as she talked about doing a children's theatre project. She had been surprised to find those involved did not have computers or television or much contact at all with the outside world. Her view was that it is time to make those connections.

But even at the family table, as stories were swapped and photos were shared, opinions differed about how the United States should open up to Cuba.

Our host, Manny Hidalgo, nearly 40, campaigned for President Obama.

He joked that the embargo should be lifted "yesterday". But he was deeply serious when he said he wanted to see the Castro regime make concessions first, such as releasing prisoners, opening up the economy and allowing some true democracy.

Without any such concessions, he said, dropping the embargo could be perceived by many in the exile community as "insulting".

And Manny's sister, Bibi Hidalgo-Caporizzo, wanted to help me get beyond the simplistic question - lifting the embargo, yes or no?

Cuban flag
America's relationship with Cuba may be about to change

She wrote her master's thesis at Harvard on the relationship between Cubans and Miami's Cuban-American community.

She does not want the island thrown back into what she calls a "patriarchal" relationship with its bigger, richer neighbour.

If Mr Obama lifts the travel ban, she predicted, tourism will increase exponentially.

But Cuba is a "knowledge economy", she stressed, not a playground for the rest of us.

And that is the challenge for Mr Obama, as he heads to a summit where he will face demands for change from leaders across Latin America.

He shows no enthusiam for continuing the embargo.

But does he have the heart for the political fight that will break out if he hints at lifting it? And does he have a plan for transition?

There is a lot more than emotion involved in bringing this family together.

After generations of separation, how do you begin to bridge the divide?



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