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In one family, a generational divide over Cuba

Three generations of the Couriel-Castaneda family express widely varying opinions on U.S.-Cuba relations — fault lines reflected in much of the community.

MIAMI BEACH — To go or not to go: That was the generational fault line.

Elena Couriel remembers the malecon, the sea wall in Havana, flooding and converting their yard to a shallow pool for her to swim in as a child. But having left Cuba at age 6, Couriel, 49, has vowed never to return to the country again.

“That would be a dishonor, to go back after my mother did so much to get us out,” she told msnbc at her family’s apartment. “Not unless it’s free or democratic.”

Couriel’s mother-in-law, 83-year-old Imelda Castaneda, cannot hide the fury in her voice as she reacts to the news of the Obama administration opening relations with the country she fled. 

But her 28-year-old, U.S.-born granddaughter Elena Castaneda has felt an irresistible pull. She first visited in 2012, went back with her father and sister in 2013, and is now planning the next trip with a bigger group of family members. “I had dreamed of Cuba for years,” she said. “Cuba is everything.”

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The range of opinions seen in the Couriel-Castaneda family is reflected in much of the Cuban-American community. In the most recent Florida International University poll on Cuban-American attitudes, 90% of younger respondents backed restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, compared to 68% overall.

It’s not that Elena, a healthcare consultant, and her 25-year-old sister Regina, a social media strategist, reject their parents’ and grandmother’s views outright. Going to Cuba, they said, made them more sympathetic than ever to the anger and disappointment the exiles felt.  

“I grew up knowing — even if it wasn’t discussed — knowing what that separation of families did to my family, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” said Regina. She added, “History will repeat itself if we don’t listen to our elders.”

But many members of the younger generation believe passionately in engaging with those in the country.

The Castaneda sisters are active with a non-profit called "Roots of Hope" that seeks to empower young Cubans still on the island. And most of all, they're thrilled that Alan Gross, who under the terms of the deal returns to the United States after being imprisoned in Cuba, is home. The sisters point out that they, too, distributed cell phones and explained the Internet to young Cubans when they were there.

So they are most excited about opening up telecommunications and making the island more accessible — what Regina calls “increasing connectivity” with the country.

“I’m optimistic that this will help real exchange, especially among travelers that decide to do their homework before they go to Cuba,” said Elena. That is, if they don’t copy Ernest Hemingway, she said. “At the end of the day if they go to at a European-owned hotel, take a taxi from the airport to the hotel and back, that does nothing for Cuba,” she said.

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Their father, Javier Castaneda, 57, recognized that the younger generation is less angry about the Castro brothers, more curious about Cuba and shrugging off the embargo. “They’re less understanding of the history and the situation,” he said, “and of how evil these people in power are.” 

He’s visited Cuba — but he hasn’t changed his mind.  

“Tell her what they did to your house,” Elena urged her father. The facade had been torn, and the house had been converted to five units.  “We saw it,” said Regina, “and it looked like a bomb got dropped.”

She is anxious to hold onto the memories and what’s left of her family’s mark on Cuba. “The connection is lost,” Regina said. “Memories fade away.”