Americas
6:30 am
Mon June 17, 2013

Why Swimming The Florida Strait Has Become A Metaphor For U.S. Relations With Cuba

Chloe McCardel
Credit facebook.com/ChloeMcCardel

The strait doesn’t wanna be swum.

Last week, for the fifth time in two years, a swimmer’s attempt to become the first human to cross the Florida Strait between Havana and Key West without a shark cage was thwarted.

The culprit was a severe jellyfish bite, but by now the reasons seem immaterial. It’s as if the strait takes umbrage at this quest -- as if that narrow but fraught channel is reminding us not only how hard it is to swim it, but how impossible it is to bridge the U.S. and Cuba, separated geographically by less than 100 miles of water but politically by more than half a century of acrimony.

The latest to fail the crossing was a 28-year-old Australian woman, Chloe McCardel, who had to give it up the evening of June 12 after 11 hours in the water. Australians are some of the world’s best swimmers, so it meant a lot shortly before McCardel took the plunge off Havana when she called the Florida Strait “the hardest swim in the world today.”

McCardel, according to the Associated Press, already made two double crossings of the English Channel, so her setback makes you wonder if anyone can ever achieve this aquatic feat.

Her disappointment also packs some symbolism, at least for Latin America hacks like me, given that she was turned back the same week that Oswaldo Payá’s family announced they’d decided to leave Cuba and settle in Miami.

Oswaldo Payá

Oswaldo Payá was communist Cuba’s leading dissident until he was killed in a car accident there last year. Something he always believed in was challenging the Castro dictatorship on the island itself and not from exile. To him, it made his democratization crusade, which embarrassed the Castros by gathering tens of thousands of reform petition signatures, more credible and effective.

“We’re the first nonviolent force for change this island has ever known,” he told me a decade ago.

But the fact that Payá’s wife and children feel the need to carry on his work in exile seems like a stinging jellyfish bite to that cause. Granted, they were experiencing harassment back in Cuba because they believe the government was involved in Payá’s death.

Still, if Payá’s heirs of all people have abandoned the fight on the island itself, it gives you the impression that perhaps his campaign really was as futile and quixotic as hardline Cuban exiles in Miami have always told us it was.

The decision by the Payá family, in fact, is one more reminder of how intractable the U.S.-Cuba estrangement remains after 54 years, largely because of a fossilized revolution on the island, but thanks also to an ossified Cuba policy in Washington that includes a 52-year-old trade embargo which has utterly failed to dislodge the Castro regime.

The decision by the Payá family, in fact, is one more reminder of how intractable the U.S.-Cuba estrangement remains after 54 years, largely because of a fossilized revolution on the island, but thanks also to an ossified Cuba policy in Washington that includes a 52-year-old trade embargo which has utterly failed to dislodge the Castro regime.

U.S.-Cuba relations are at best stuck in neutral at the moment, as Havana insists on keeping 64-year-old American contractor Alan Gross behind bars after convicting him two years ago on questionable espionage charges and sentencing him to 15 years in prison, and as Washington insists on keeping Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, despite the fact that for years there’s been scant if any evidence to back that designation.

As Cuban-American journalist Mirta Ojito quoted Harvard professor Jorge Dominguez as saying in her Miami Herald op-ed last Sunday: “Both governments have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to thaw their frozen bilateral ties. And yet Ojito and a number of other Cuba analysts these days see emerging reasons for hope.

The Payás, for example, were able to go to Miami in the first place thanks to the recent lifting of Cuba’s rigid travel restrictions. Cuban economic reforms are yielding more (though hardly enough) private enterprise on the island. Rául Castro, who took over the reins from his older brother Fidel five years ago, says he himself will relinquish power to a successor in a few years.

A New Generation

And even if Payá’s relatives are leaving Cuba, a new generation of dissidents led by internationally acclaimed blogger Yoáni Sanchez – who decided to return to Cuba after a recent world tour – seem doggedly determined to remain a force for change there instead of in Florida or New Jersey.

For its part, the U.S. is sending signals that if Cuba takes steps such as freeing Gross, it might be more amenable to at least dropping its ban on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba and continue dismantling the embargo.

Increasingly, politicos in Washington concede that engaging Cuba now is the best way for the U.S. to help democratize Cuba once the octogenarian Castro brothers are dead and gone.

But McCardel, meanwhile, has decided not to make another attempt at swimming the Florida Strait -- even though she apparently took out a second mortgage on her house to undertake this endeavor.

If someone does eventually succeed, it might inspire Havana and Washington to do a better job of reaching across the channel as well.

But for now, both they and the Aussie look to be up against one of the hardest swims in the world.