Roots of Hope Charts a New Course for Cuban-Americans and Cuba

Print Share on LinkedIn More

September 26, 2011; Source: Associated Press | The Cuban community in the U.S. is no longer the monolithic political opponent of the ruling regime in Havana. A single-minded opposition to Castro, as typified by the late Jorge Mas Canosa and the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), no longer accurately reflects the views of the Cuban exile population of Dade County in South Florida or of Hudson County, New Jersey. 

An example might be the nonprofit Roots of Hope (“Raices de Esperanza” in Spanish) which helped Latin pop star Juanes put on a “peace concert” in Havana in 2009 that was the largest non-governmental event in Cuba in several decades. Both Juanes and Roots billed the concert as non-political, a key characteristic of the organization’s approach ever since.

Roots of Hope was created in 2003 by college students and young people from the Miami area. One of them, co-founder Felice Gorordo, has just been named a White House Fellow. The organization believes in contact and communication. One of its activities, according to co-chair Tony Jimenez, is to send cell phones to Cuban teens. Cell-phone calls from Cuba are expensive, but receiving international texts is free. Roots is also working on plans for “responsible travel” to Cuba as the Obama Administration begins to lift restrictions on educational and cultural trips to the island nation. 

The point of sending cell phones and promoting travel, according to the Associated Press, is “to create meaningful exchanges—more than simply vacations or casual conversations, but dialogue about ways to improve the realities in Cuba.”

The young students at Harvard and Georgetown who helped found Roots decided to make the organization non-political in part because they are now decades distant from the 1959 revolution, the emigration of anti-Castro Cubans to south Florida, and the Bay of Pigs fiasco (in which CANF’s Mas Canosa had volunteered to fight). A student from Georgetown, Ben Tyler, told the AP, “I used to think about Cuba as just a political issue I couldn’t do anything about . . . [but] [n]ow I see you can work around the politics, and that’s where you can get things done.”

The organization has gotten celebrity support. One of its marches, following the death of a Cuban political prisoner, was led by singer Gloria Esteban. AP reports that a tweet about Roots by gossip blogger Perez Hilton generated so much web traffic that the Roots of Hope website crashed. 

But what does “non-political” really mean? A march protesting the death of a Cuban human rights activist sounds pretty political. Obviously the best-known and most popular Cuban-American politician right now is freshman Republican Senator Marco Rubio, much discussed as a potential vice-presidential candidate, and a sponsor of modifications of travel policies that would restrict Cuban-Americans to “only one visit to immediate family every three years.” Rubio’s policy ideas and position as a national candidate will challenge Roots of Hope’s non-political stance.

Nonetheless, give credit where credit is due. Roots of Hope is an example of a nonprofit created by young people not as a fad or a “thing to do,” but to make a point and promote a program that reflects the values and beliefs of a large number of young Cuban-Americans.—Rick Cohen