MIAMI: When Cuba and the United States shocked the world more than a year ago by announcing they would normalize relations, reporters in Miami swarmed to one address in particular.
They were expecting protest rallies centered around a popular restaurant in the heart of Little Havana on that December 17 in 2014.
Surprising as the news itself that half a century of enmity between Washington and Havana was coming to an end.
Almost no one was protesting. Far more reporters were milling around than demonstrators.
That was unthinkable in Miami, the capital of the Cuban exile diaspora in the United States where Cubans had lived for years with their eyes trained toward their homeland, watching for any hint of change on the communist-run island and reacting to almost every tiny development on a gut level.
But the image of calm at Cafe Versailles has been repeated there and elsewhere in the city throughout the process of rapprochement, which culminates this week with President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba.
Home to more than half the two million people of Cuban descent in America, Miami has remained largely tranquil as history was made and the United States moved to bury the hatchet with a government many Cuban-Americans loath.
The change is abundantly clear at Cafe Versailles, which has been a gathering place for members of the politically influential Cuban exile community since its founding in 1971.
Rumors say its etched-glass windows and vinyl-covered seats have witnessed the hatching of failed plots to oust Fidel Castro, according to Jorge Zamanillo, director of the HistoryMiami museum.
“Cafe Versailles is a barometer that measures political activity in South Florida,” he told Agence France-Presse. “If something is happening, you know it’s happening because you go by, and with those changes that are happening today, that barometer is dropping.”
“You don’t see the temperatures rising that much anymore.”
From hot seat to cliché
That was certainly not the case fifteen years ago during a high-profile legal battle over custody of a Cuban migrant boy named Elian Gonzalez, who was ultimately returned to his father in Cuba.
The Versailles was “the hot spot in town” then, said Pedro Freyre, a lawyer of Cuban origin who traveled to Cuba with Obama’s entourage on Sunday. “It was where everything happened.”
Now Cafe Versailles has become “a cliché,” he added. “It does not reflect reality. The days of anger have passed.”
That’s mainly the result of demographic changes in the Cuban-American community, among which polls show a majority now supports the Cuban-US rapprochement.
As older generations of more hardline, vehemently anti-Castro exiles thin out, they are being replaced by younger arrivals more inclined to back the establishment of normal relations.
Jose Azel of the University of Miami says the “new generation of Cuban-Americans” — either born in the United States or recently arrived — has nothing to do with the anti-Castro fever that raged among those who came in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
‘The little window’
Owned by a family that fled Cuba after Castro took power in 1959, the Cafe Versailles remains popular, including among tourists.
It is known for its “ventanita,” or little window for takeout orders, where patrons stand on the street sipping Cuban-style sweetened espresso coffee, talking politics or sports in Cuba and America.
The restaurant’s website still touts Cafe Versailles as the best thermometer of Miami’s Cuban community and a required stop for any politician seeking Cuban votes.
The community’s changes have not gone unnoticed by the regulars here.
On a recent morning, several groups of mainly elderly people stood around the window or nearby, chatting as they drank coffee.
Among them, Richard Illa, 72 — who has patronized the Versailles several times a week since he arrived in the United States 37 years ago — admits times are different.
“The old hardline ideas have changed.”