“I’m going to tell you a few stories,” Miguel Martinez Saenz said to a crowd in the William Street United Methodist Church.
Saenz shared a few narratives with the goal of conveying that the story of Cuba is “much more complex than [Americans] hear.”
Saenz, the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Otterbein University, described himself as Cuban-American, though he was born in Georgia. His topic for the Great Decisions lecture series on Friday was titled “Cuba and the United States,” and covered the complex relationship between the countries.
Saenz’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1961, but it was not easy. By September of that year, when his family had planned to leave, the visa process had closed so his newborn older brother did not have a visa. As a result, Saenz’s mother gave up her visa so her husband and son could make the trip to the U.S. She stayed in Cuba, eventually immigrating in 1967. Saenz was born later that year.
Saenz related his family’s experience to the story of Elián González, who made it to the U.S. but was orphaned in the process. His father’s efforts to have his son returned to Cuba, eventually successful, garnered worldwide press attention.
This happened under the “wet foot, dry foot policy,” which was a 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. The policy essentially says that anyone who flees Cuba and enters the United States on land would be granted automatic asylum and allowed to pursue residency a year later. Immigrants stopped off shore are returned to Cuba.
Saenz said in the case of González, the news media represented Cubans as fanatics and looked over the human condition, the reasoning behind their strong reactions to the story.
On Dec. 17, 2014, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the biggest diplomatic shift in the countries’ relations in decades – the renewal of diplomatic relations.
Saenz said more than a year later, still no one knows what that means. However, with Obama recently announcing plans to visit Cuba, he believes the visit is a good idea despite that view being unpopular among Cubans. He said Cubans lean toward Republican views because of the outcome of the Bay of Pigs invasion under the John F. Kennedy administration left them distrusting Democrats.
“The notion that we are going to continue isolating the island and expect a different outcome is a very odd thing to me,” he said.
Saenz said Cuba has an embassy now but they don’t have an ambassador, which is an ongoing issue.
Issues of voting came into play when Saenz described his mother.
“She sees it as a duty and a responsibility as a citizen, one previously denied to her [in Cuba],” he said. More broadly, Saenz said Cuban-Americans do not understand some Americans’ apathy toward voting. Saenz said the Republicans know the outcome of Florida, as a swing state, resides with the Cuban vote. That is why his mother, who resides in Miami, gets a lot of propaganda in the mail.
An audience member asked Saenz if he ever plans on visiting Cuba. He replied that he has considered it but ultimately will not for the sake of his mother. “She would not be able to sleep, so out of respect for my mother, I will not.”
Blake Andrews, a pre-professional zoology and sociology major at Ohio Wesleyan University, attended because of his interest in the country. Andrews completed an independent study about Cuban healthcare policy.
“I think it is an interesting paradox,” he said, “that a country that we, as Americans view as so poor, has such an elaborate health care system that they have developed under a complete embargo.”
Hearing Saenz speak today was valuable to Andrews because Saenz has a direct tie to what is happening in Cuba and offered something other than the American perspective.
Andrews will be visiting Cuba in early March with one of the OWU spring break mission teams.
“[The talk] opened your eyes up to the fact that not all Cuban people view Cuban politics the same way,” Andrews said.
Wallace F. Life, another audience member and a resident of Delaware, reflected on the 21 years he spent living in South America and how that prepared him for the team he led to Cuba in 2006.
The team delivered burn medicine as well as other donations to people in the mountainous regions of Cuba.
Life said, in terms of the future of Cuban-U.S. relations, “I hope there is gradual and an eventual thaw in [Cuban-U.S. relations] and a reciprocity in various areas, such as education.”
Robert Gitter, professor of economics at OWU, will be the next Great Decisions speaker. His topic, “Mexican Migration to the United States,” will be discussed March 4 at noon at the William Street United Methodist Church, 28 W. William St.