At age 12, Ricardo Gonzalez was exiled from his native country of Cuba following the rise of Fidel Castro. But even though he ended up making a life for himself 1,500 miles away in Madison, the longtime owner of the Cardinal Bar has always maintained a strong connection with his home.
Gonzalez — who describes himself as "fiercely independent" and "politically radicalized" — has long been a gatekeeper for Cuban music and culture in the area, celebrating everything from jazz to cha-cha both at the Cardinal and on the airwaves of WORT/FM 89.9. He's been involved in the Miami-based Cuban Committee for Democracy, and helped establish Madison's sister city relationship with the Cuban city of Camaguey.
On top of that, Gonzalez has been an active force in the Madison community. He's served on the city council, playing an instrumental role in the creation of the Monona Terrace Convention Center, has been an outspoken advocate for the city's LGBT community.
When President Barack Obama announced in 2014 that the U.S. would begin to "normalize" its relations with Cuba, Gonzalez was among the first in Madison to publicly applaud the decision. For him, the change was a long time coming.
I wanted to talk with you about the U.S. normalizing its relationship with Cuba. Looking back over the past one and a half years, how do you think the process has gone?
Overall, I maintain optimism, because normalization of relations is the right thing to do. There's no doubt about that.
The 800-pound gorilla here is the embargo. And let's face it: as long as the embargo is in place, as long as the law books have legislation that calls for the overthrow of the Cuban government, as long as we have that kind of a situation where the destiny of Cuba is being cooked up in the halls of Congress in Washington D.C., there's not going to be normalization.
Granted, we don't know what's going to happen in November. Everything that's being done right now, that's been done under the executive authority of the president. A lot of what's going on right now could be just turned back.
Do you foresee that happening under any of the presidential candidates that are in the race?
There were two or three candidates in the Republican Party who were advocating to do exactly that — Rubio, Bush, and Ted Cruz. Trump has indicated that he's not going to be changing anything. He agrees in principle that we should open up with Cuba, we should have normalized relations. But he would do it "differently."
His claim to fame is that he's the great negotiator. I think when it comes to Cuba, he's going to find that the Cubans will be tough to deal with, because they are defending their sovereignty, and they are very conscious of their history with the United States.
What about the current president's recent visit?
I agree that he should have gone, but he was meeting with dissidents. He was speaking in a way that was encouraging people to dislike and to work outside of the system that is established. There was a very thin line there that I think that the president crossed a couple of times.
I wish he would have stayed away from that. That's a Cuban affair. We have to accept with Cuba that for relations to be truly normalized, we have to stop acting as if some right to tell the Cubans how they should act, what kind of a system they should have.
As The New York Times recently pointed out, there are still thousands of migrants making the dangerous journey to the U.S.
The Cuban Adjustment Act gives Cubans the privilege to arrive on these shores and be admitted pretty much without question … What's happening now is that many Cubans are concerned that as part of this process of normalization, the Cuban Adjustment Act is going to be repealed, and that opportunity is going to be closed, and they will not be able to just come to the U.S. and be admitted.
I don't agree with the Cuban Adjustment Act. I think it encourages immigration from Cuba. The people who are leaving Cuba are the young professional people that Cuba needs now as they try to rebuild their country.
You've said in the past that normalizing relations will be the impetus for internal change in and of itself.
Without a doubt, because Cuba has been a very closed system, a very closed society, for over 50 years. And as this opens up, new economic sectors begin to grow.
Mayor Paul Soglin has actually visited Cuba, and the city has a sister cities program with a Cuban city, Camagüey. Would you say there's something special about Madison's relationship to Cuba?
The history of Cuba and Madison goes back many many years. There were professors at the University of Wisconsin who were very sympathetic to the Cuban revolution right from the start, and they developed programs and they created links between Cuba and Madison — not official links, but they had relations in Cuba.
As the War in Vietnam radicalized many young Americans and many students at the University of Wisconsin — among them, Mayor Soglin — a new progressive left developed. Cuba was in the middle of all of that. Cuba was an ally of Vietnam. Cuba was an example of this conflict that was going on between right and left politically. There was an interest that was developing here, and when Paul Soglin became mayor, he carried out those interests. He turned that interest into action by taking an opportunity as early as 1975 to go and visit Cuba.
The interest in Cuba — not a relationship so much, but an interest — is what leads to the formation of a sister city relationship with Camagüey. Why Camagüey? Camagüey is Cuba's dairyland, same as Madison. Camagüey happened to be my hometown. It has a university and 300,000 people. Camagüey has rolling hills, rolling meadows, and a lot of attitude, just like Madison. So it was a good fit.
You served on Madison's Common Council in the 1990s, right?
As Soglin used to call me, I was the alderman of all the people. I was truly the one alder who bridged factions. I could work with the left, I could work with the right. The Republicans liked me because I was a businessman, the left liked me because of my social conscience.
I could have gone on to higher office very easily. I was poised. But I came to the realization that to move forward in politics, I was going to have to take money from people I didn't like.
What do you think about the ways that Madison has been changing since you've left the council?
I'm concerned by the cost of living in Madison, the development that's going on, and how the poor people, the workers who work downtown, are finding it almost impossible to live downtown anymore.
Downtown is being developed at such a rapid pace along very upscale lines. One of the things that was beautiful about Madison, I thought, was the diversity of its residents, and especially, the idea that people who work downtown could live downtown. That was the whole point of revitalizing downtown Madison.
You've put the Cardinal up for sale, but it's still yours for the time being. What do you want to do with the time you have left with it?
I'm still thinking ahead, I'm still planning to do things with it. I just hired a new manager. There's a little kitchen there that's not being used right now — it may finally be the time to put out some food that satisfies the demand of our clientele.
There's a possibility that in two years, when it's time for me to renew the lease agreement that I have with myself and my partner in the building, that I'll be renewing that for another three years. If the place is successful, if we're making our payments, if I'm making a living, why get rid of it? But obviously, I also want to be free of the responsibility, because it's a lot of stress owning the place.
What would you do if you sold the bar?
I've been thinking about writing ... I have an idea for a novel, a historical novel, that uses as the main character, an ancestor of mine. My great-grandfather, who fought on the side of the Spanish Army in Cuba — he was quite a character.