Monday, September 10, 2007

Sopo's Grandmother: 'Those crazy people out there' [in Miami]

The Wall Street Journal

Original title: In Little Havana, Cuba Sí, Obama No

Mr. Sopo Discovers Support of Democrat's Call To Ease U.S. Embargo Stirs a Generational Rift

September 10, 2007; Page A6

MIAMI -- Giancarlo Sopo's grandmother was horrified when the Barack Obama campaign invited him to ride in the official motorcade during a swing through Miami late last month.

The 86-year-old walked to her bureau and handed Mr. Sopo a small, palm-frond crucifix and a picture card of Jesus for divine protection. "Be careful, my son," she warned him. "There are many crazy people out there who may want to harm you and the senator, because of your opinions."

The crazy people she was talking about are fellow Cuban-Americans. The opinion she was talking about is Sen. Obama's view that the U.S. should take small steps to ease its economic embargo of the island.

Just days before he rode in the motorcade, Mr. Sopo had created a small Cuban-American group called Unidos con Obama (United with Obama). His grandmother's worst fears haven't come to pass, but Mr. Sopo is discovering that being a fan of the Illinois Democrat in Miami's Little Havana can mean a break from old friends and acquaintances.

"If you deviate slightly from what is the traditional hard-line approach to the Castro regime, they will publicly call you a communist on local radio and TV stations, humiliate you and your family, and accuse you of terrible things," the 24-year-old says.

For decades, U.S. presidential candidates from both parties have made pilgrimages to Miami to pledge their toughness toward Fidel Castro, hoping to score Cuban-American votes. In 2000, when a few hundred ballots in Florida determined the presidency, both Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore came out against the Clinton administration's decision to take a motherless 6-year-old boy, Elian González, away from his Miami relatives and return him to his father in Cuba.

In a forum of Democratic candidates on Spanish-language Univision last night, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, one of Mr. Obama's main rivals for the nomination, said the Cuban people "deserve liberty and democracy," but avoided any suggestion that she would tinker with the trade embargo.

Mr. Obama, for reasons of principle, policy and politics, is betting that a younger generation of Cuban-Americans might go for a candidate promising new tactics when it comes to Cuba -- a situation made even more urgent by the declining health of Mr. Castro. In a recent Miami Herald op-ed, Mr. Obama said he wants to relax rules that limit how much Cuban-Americans can travel to the island and how much money Cuban expatriates can send back to their relatives.

"My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: liberty," Mr. Obama told supporters at a Little Havana rally last month.

But he stopped short of calling for an end to the U.S. economic embargo until change comes to Cuba. In his op-ed, Mr. Obama wrote that "it makes strategic sense to hold onto important inducements we can use in dealing with a post-Fidel government, for it is an unfortunate fact that his departure by no means guarantees the arrival of freedom on the island."

Mr. Sopo was at the Little Havana rally, with his sister, mother and grandmother. Compact, earnest, fiercely admiring of Warren Buffett and other captains of capitalism, Mr. Sopo says in elementary school he memorized JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" address and Gordon Gekko's "greed is good" speech from the movie "Wall Street."

Mr. Sopo's anti-Castro pedigree is impeccable. His grandfather was a Cuban Navy officer who died in a Cuban prison after the revolution. His father, Edgar, who had studied at Georgetown University, was jailed by the Castro regime in 1959, but he fled to Miami after a friend secured his release. In Florida, he joined fellow exiles plotting Mr. Castro's overthrow and went ashore in Cuba with an infiltration team ahead of the failed American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. He escaped capture by taking refuge in the Venezuelan Embassy in Havana. Félix Rodríguez, the Central Intelligence Agency operative who was present in Bolivia at the 1967 execution of Mr. Castro's Argentine comrade Ernesto "Che" Guevara, was on Edgar Sopo's team during the Bay of Pigs invasion and spoke at his 1999 funeral.

The younger Mr. Sopo was proud to shake Mr. Bush's hand at a campaign rally in 2000, but the war in Iraq soured him on Mr. Bush, and in 2004 he worked on Democrat John Kerry's presidential bid. He first heard about Mr. Obama in 2003 and volunteered to do low-level campaign work earlier this year.

The eureka moment, however, came in a movie theater when Mr. Sopo's BlackBerry buzzed with an Internet alert notifying him that Mr. Obama planned to propose easing travel and remittance restrictions to Cuba.

The next day he decided to organize Cuban-Americans and other Hispanics to support Mr. Obama's presidential bid. Within a few days he had 10 members and was holding forth on Channel 41, a local Spanish-language television station.

He was also attracting the attention of those for whom relaxing the embargo is considered a betrayal of the Cuban cause. The first call came from his friend Melanie De Armas, a 21-year-old student at Florida International University who works a day job in a mortgage company. "Hey, Mr. Obama," she said in a message left on Mr. Sopo's voice mail, according to Mr. Sopo. "I saw you on the news. I want to talk to you about this."

When they did speak, Mr. Sopo brought up a recent Florida International University poll showing that more than 60% of Cuban-Americans in Miami support freer travel and remittances. He said he disagreed with those who call Mr. Obama naive for thinking that more contact between the U.S. and Cuba will loosen the regime's grip.

Ms. De Armas responded that she doesn't believe the polls. "I wasn't polled, and nobody in my family was polled," she says.

Radio host Ninoska Pérez-Castellón, a fixture among Miami exiles, went on the air to condemn Mr. Obama's Cuba stance, adding that it was a "provocation" for the candidate to schedule a rally in the same Little Havana auditorium where Ronald Reagan gave a famously anti-Castro speech in 1983.

Ms. Pérez-Castellón, 56, had called Edgar Sopo a "Cuban patriot" in a radio broadcast after his death. The following year, Ms. Pérez-Castellón, Giancarlo Sopo, his mother and his little sister were among the Cuban-Americans who gathered around the Elian González house to try to prevent him from being sent to Cuba.

But Ms. Pérez-Castellón, whose husband spent 28 years in a Cuban prison, has nothing good to say about the younger Mr. Sopo's alliance with Barack Obama. "If Giancarlo feels that way, it's fine, and even though it's a totally opposing view from what his father's view was, that's fine," she says. "But does he represent the majority of this community? No."

The conflict was evident at Mr. Obama's Little Havana rally. Outside the auditorium, Mr. Sopo, wearing a white guayabera, with his 19-year-old sister, Giannina, and their young allies waved signs that read, "Cuban Americans Support Obama."

On the other side of the street were a few dozen older protesters waving signs that read, "Helping Castro Is a Crime" and "Cuba Sí, Obama No."

Inside the auditorium, the candidate vowed to fight for freedom in Cuba -- in his own way. "Until there's justice in Cuba, there's no justice anywhere," Mr. Obama said. The Sopos gave him a standing ovation.

Afterward, Giannina gestured across the street at the angry anti-Obama demonstrators. "They're too old to change," she said.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at

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