The Cuba that President Barack Obama intends to visit next month could feature streets teaming with genuinely grateful and eager people – or a street show carefully orchestrated through fear by a still-oppressive and all-powerful government.

Those were the pictures drawn Friday by Ralph Patino, founder of Cuba Now and an advisor to Obama on Cuban relations; and by Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the Cuba Democracy Advocates; during a debate sponsored by the Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida.

The debate between the two Cuba polar-opposit experts and lawyers sparked into anger and name-calling at times, demonstrating the deep-seated differences that divide those who support and oppose a new American engagement with Cuba.

Obama stunned the world on Dec. 17, 2014, when he announced sweeping efforts to normalize relations with Cuba. And on Thursday he announced he and First Lady Michelle Obama would visit the country March 21-22, the first presidential visit in more than 80 years.

The Tiger Bay Club had a heads-up on the presidential trip last year, when Patino said he expected it to happen, said club president Eddie Fernandez. So Fernandez added, “It’s no coincidence we’re having this meeting in February.”

Patino, who has visited Cuba numerous times while helping secure the release of Alan Gross and to lay groundwork for Obama’s new Cuban engagement program, insisted that Cuba is ready for major change. He accused Claver-Carone of still living in the 1990s and abandoning the hopes of many of Cuba’s 12 million people.

Patino, of Miami, described a Cuba where openness is flowering, where cell phones, capable of calling Miami or Orlando, are now everywhere, and where people appeared to him to be overjoyed at the prospect that the United States would open commerce, tourism and diplomacy after 54 years of embargo.

“Mr. Castro, tear down that wall. Let us engage. Let us help your people. Let us be in economy,” Patino said. “When Obama arrives on March 21 he’s being met by 1 million Cuban people. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a big difference than what was happening under Fidel Castro in 1992.”

He criticized Claver-Carone for not visiting Cuba to see for himself how much and how quickly it is changing. Claver-Carone, though, pointed out he couldn’t even if wanted to, because Cuba would never issue a visa to a critic like him.

“What Obama’s moves have been since the Dec. 17, and what this trip will cap off is an expectation of the Cuban people for a better quality of life,” Patino said. “For those of you that are on the fence, what I would do is actually get on a plane and go see for yourself, and you reach your own conclusions on what would help the Cuban people.

Claver-Carone, formerly of Orlando, accused Patino of selling a false “hope and change” agenda for Cuba and of playing money and legitimacy into the hands of a Castro regime he said has only increased oppression and control, emboldened by Obama’s blessing.

“Why is oppression increasing? Because nobody cares,” he said. “Because essentially Obama is saying, ‘Hey you know what? The month after the most oppressive month in decades, I’m going to go down there to hang out with you.'”

He described a Cuba where fresh crackdowns on the opposition have reached levels not seen since the 1990s, where a new exodus is occurring out of panic, and where the military intelligence apparatus set up by Fidel and Raul Castro controls everything, just outside the view of visitors.

Consequently, he suggested people not bother going to Cuba to check things out for themselves.

“If you think this is, “Hey, I’m just going to be tourists, look at the ’57 Chevys, look at the people.’ … That’s not the real Cuba,” he said.

About The Author

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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