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COMMENTARY: Cubans have been failed by Cuba. America must not fail them, too

Over more than three decades of writing about immigrants and refugees, I’ve been called all sorts of names by both conservatives and liberals. Yet I can say with certainty that one thing I’ve never been called is “adorable.”

Until last week. That’s when — eager to learn about the current unrest in Cuba, which is experiencing its largest protests since the 1959 revolution — I called an old friend who happens to be a Cuban American living in Miami.

Even as a Mexican American who was raised in the Southwest, I have always felt a special kinship with Cuban Americans. It began in the 1980s when I noticed that the white racists who were pushing “official English” (read: anti-Spanish) laws in California were doing the same thing in Florida.

I felt it again in 2000 during the international custody battle over Elián González, whom fishermen found floating in an inner tube off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. The 5-year-old boy escaped Cuba with his mother, who died during the journey. Elián’s father, Juan Miguel, wanted the United States to hand over the boy. Many Mexican Americans supported the father because they value family. But many Cuban Americans thought Elián should remain with relatives in the United States because they value freedom. I sided with the latter.

And, in 2006, I once again felt an affinity for Cuban Americans when their patriotism was questioned by then-Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. The openly nativist, anti-Mexican lawmaker took aim at the Cuban American capital of the United States. “Look at what has happened to Miami,” Tancredo told the conservative digital news site WorldNetDaily. “It has become a Third World country. … You would never know you’re in the United States of America.” Tancredo also claimed that many residents didn’t speak English or consider themselves American. Many Cuban Americans were furious. So was I.

Now, as Cuba erupts, I again find myself throwing in with Cuban Americans. They’re right to scoff at claims by the U.S. media that Cuban protesters are driven by worries about inflation, blackouts, COVID-19 and food shortages allegedly caused by the U.S. embargo. Surely, we are told, Cubans could not be hungry for something as inconsequential as “libertad” (liberty).

You bet they are, insists Emilio Estefan. The successful Cuban American music producer and businessman, who left Cuba at 14 and lived the American Dream, is releasing a new video for the song “Libertad” in support of the protesters on the island.

The music mogul, who is married to Cuban American singer Gloria Estefan, told NBC News: “Gloria and I pray for Cuba each day.”

I pray for the Biden administration, which is shaping up to be horribly inhospitable to refugees.

Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris went all the way to Guatemala to tell desperate Central Americans planning to head north: “Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders.”

And this month, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — who was himself born in Havana — warned Cubans not to leave the island and head in this direction: “If you take to the sea, you will not come to the United States.”

Keeping out undocumented immigrants is one thing. Turning away refugees “yearning to breathe free” is quite another.

That’s where my friend, an anti-Trump Republican who has worked in Washington, jumps in.

“You’re such an idealist,” he says. “God bless you! I love that you feel the way you do. But the fact that you think this is still a nation that takes in refugees and welcomes immigrants, well, it’s adorable. We stopped being that years ago.”

My friend argues that — while many Americans could be persuaded to look favorably on Cuban refugees from the 1960s to the 1980s — the tide turned in the 1990s as a wave of nativism washed across the United States.

I’ll plead guilty to idealism. Too often throughout history, America gave into fear or indifference and turned her back on desperate people fleeing violence and oppression. The Cubans, some of whom are waving the Stars and Stripes during their protests, are just the latest example.

Now the Biden administration is so afraid of its own liberal shadow that it wants to continue the shameful tradition of keeping the doors locked.

What kind of heartless country have we become? At the very least, we’re going to need to rename the place. Because it bears not even a faint resemblance to the magical sanctuary formerly known as the United States of America.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.

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