All of the feelings,” I posted on Facebook yesterday, in an uncharacteristic act of vaguebooking, along with a link to a news story about the changes made by the Obama Administration to the U.S.-Cuba policy. And the only phrase that really rang true from President Obama’s speech yesterday ran along similar lines. He said, in a stilted accent, “no es fácil”—it isn’t easy. There isn’t much that’s easy about the situation with Cuba. And being the child of Cuban exiles (my conservative father would never say “immigrant”), raised in the U.S., and having never visited Cuba, makes it even more personal and complicated. The emotional worlds I straddle constantly split me in two, especially on days like yesterday.
My progressive politics tell me that U.S. policy toward Cuba has made little sense, and is harmful to pretty much everyone it affects today. The policies of these past 60 years, particularly the severe limitations on travel and exchange of money and goods by Cubans in the U.S. with Cubans on the island, have made life much more difficult for many. And it’s the beginning to an end for the foreign policy that provided fuel to the Castro Administration’s fire and clearly did little to change the political reign held by the family for going on 64 years.
But my roots, the stories that bathed my ears growing up spending summers with my abuelo and abuela in their house in South Miami, also say there is a lot of pain, loss and injustice in that story, however ill-addressed it is by this particular foreign policy.
Yesterday also would have been my abuelo’s birthday (he passed away more than a decade ago). He was born in Cuba and was running a successful family import/export business when the revolution happened. He left, with my grandmother, my father and his three siblings by boat—a proper boat, not the dangerous rafts of the later decades—to Miami to wait out the political unrest. He ended up selling used cars for a living and dying in Miami decades later. He and his family had amassed significant wealth and property in Cuba—all of which was lost, save a small amount he had in a U.S. bank account, which he used to buy the house in South Miami. There is a rumor in my family that someone still has the deed to his house in Cuba, as well as for his business.
For me, there is little about Cuba that feels uncomplicated. It’s an island that has shaped my life in so many ways, big and small, yet I’ve never set foot there. I’ve visited Key West with my family, stood on that spot where on a clear day you can almost see the outline of the country in the distance, only 90 miles away. And, of course, I was surrounded by the memories, the stories, the people, the food and the culture—mostly when I visited my grandparents where they lived in Miami, alongside most of the rest of the Cubans in the U.S. I always knew it was only a visage of Cuban culture, an abstraction of foods and language and music and memories, which in some ways was also still stuck back in the early sixties when my family on both sides left the island.
My parents, who were 11 and 13 when they left, haven’t been back. Some of my cousins and aunts and uncles have visited over the years, but for reasons that are a mix of political, emotional and financial, I’ve yet to go. Everyone on both sides of my family left within a few years in the early sixties, which makes them part of the first wave of immigration, and also shapes the impact of these new announcements on us. We haven’t been sending money back to loved ones for years. We haven’t been rationing our family visits based on U.S. policy. News of a thaw changes our relationship to the idea of Cuba, to what Cuba can be as it leaves behind the legacy of an entire generation of Cubans who left. It is an ending of sorts. Not the beginning of normalcy, as President Obama has deemed it, more like the beginning of a different Cuba. It’s a Cuba that actually began so many years ago when my family and thousands more left, but has been frozen in time and memory for so many.
It happens pretty much every time I meet someone new and they find out I’m Cuban. Have you been? is usually their first question—generally just a way to attempt a transition to their own inevitable Cuba visit story. I brace myself for these stories, plaster a polite smile on my face, and try to change the subject as quickly as possible. Many of them come with a sentiment similar to Jeremy Scahill’s tweet yesterday—a kind of perverse, nostalgic desire to witness things “before they change.” I can’t keep track of the number of times someone has recounted this sentiment to me. Last year, it happened at a weeklong training I was participating in, and it was the first time there was another Cuban-American present, with whom I could exchange a weary, knowing glance.
I’m sure there are hundreds (thousands?) of people right now trying to figure out if they can visit Cuba before the inevitable surge of change. Miss seeing the crumbling buildings? The fifties-era cars? The Castro government propaganda? I’ve never understood these sentiments. I find them to be so tone-deaf, like this place that has shaped my entire existence is just a type of disaster tourism, a fun stop on a political nostalgia to-do list. They’re sentiments that gloss over and negate all the suffering and loss that has shaped what Cuba is today.
I’m very glad I was able to visit Cuba several times before US tourists try to turn it into Cancun
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) December 17, 2014
My mostly conservative, Cuban family doesn’t understand wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt (they’ll tell you he was sent to South America by Castro for being too violent). They question whether access to free medical care in Cuba is really so great when patients have to buy their own medical supplies (gauze, needles, etc) on the black market. They scoff at the idea of traveling to a country where tourists have access to amenities that Cubans do not (like internet—something this new agreement will supposedly change). Where, until recently, the citizens themselves couldn’t travel freely off their own island.
My desire to visit Cuba has never been about witnessing the country before “the change.” It happened way before I was born, before my parents met. And my life wouldn’t be possible here without the change. In actuality, for most Cubans in the U.S., the rhetoric about visiting was not until things changed—until the Castro government left. My desire to visit Cuba has been more about the symbolic act of stepping onto my motherland, of translating years of stories and memories and tall tales into smells, and sun on my face, and the wind on the malecón.
My mom used to tape the Cuban radio station when we’d visit family in Miami, bringing those cassette tapes back home with us to North Carolina, along with huge boxes of pastelitos (Cuban pastries). These days I can use the internet to listen to a similar kind of music, and it’s pretty much all I listen to—salsa, merengue, bachata, reggaeton. Not exactly the music of my childhood, but the stuff born of it. I don’t have to go all the way to Miami to find some of the foods of my childhood, either—I impulsively buy Goya food items at the grocery store in Washington DC just because I can. I wear a chain every day around my neck; it’s probably my most prized possession, because it came from Cuba, one of very few things that left the island.
The emotions that pour through me when I write about this issue (something I’ve only done twice), the emotions that are making my hands shake at the keyboard right now: I know they cloud my judgment. They’re the reason I’m not a political scholar on Cuba, the reason I only took one Latin American Politics class in college, the reason I usually choose to just not engage with anyone who wants to talk about their visit to Cuba.
But clearly things are shifting. My grandparent’s generation—the ones who left behind fully formed lives—is gone. My parent’s generation has lived most of their lives here. Yesterday’s move was the biggest shift of my lifetime, but it’s really just moving the needle on what has been in slow process for half a century. I would like to visit Cuba someday, and hopefully with family. But there will always be that complexity, loss, and challenge attached to this tiny island with a monumental role in politics, and in my life.
Photo: Luz Maria Firmat Martínez de Pérez, 12/24/1940, Havana, Cuba