Cuba: Realities, Dreams, Nightmares, and Possibilities

(A personal reflection upon my return from Cuba last week.)

I was not even 18 months old January 1st, 1959 when the Cuban Revolution declared victory. I was not even four years old April 17, 1961 during the Bay of Pigs. I was barely 5 years old during the October (1962) Missile Crisis. I left Cuba when I was 9 ½ years old, on December 28, 1966 to return 49 years later on December 28, 2015.

I do not remember the conversations my family had when they were deciding to leave Cuba. I know the stories – and I know why they left – but I do not remember the specific conversations.

Yet I can imagine. I imagine the frustration of their dreams shattered. I imagine the sense of betrayal felt of a revolution gone sour. I imagine some in the family saying “I told you so; this was no good from the start.” I can imagine the shouting – yes, my family is loud – and the fights about how leaving would be only temporary and surely this Castro thing would be a short lived nightmare.

I do remember we were essentially ‘guajiros’ – living in a very small (tiny?) town somewhere between Cienfuegos and the Bay of Pigs, Real Campiña. My father was a bookkeeper at a sugar mill during the ‘zafra’, the three months of harvest. The rest of the year he would make do helping out at the local bar or whatever. My mom, along with her sisters, devoted herself to raising the kids. We were by no means well off. We were not starving either. (In part because of the sense of responsibility – not necessarily kindness – of my grandfather’s brother. They owned some ‘fincas’ (farms) and provided food and shelter. My grandfather was unemployable because of an illness I’ve never quite understood.

Then I left Cuba. With my grandparents and a brother. The other, older brother had to stay because he was of military age. My parents decided to stay with him for what they thought would be a few years. That turned into 13 ½ years of separation during the time of the real Iron Curtain when talking on the phone was next to impossible, letters would all be opened by the government, and visitations were unthinkable. (It is not lost on me that my story is no different from the millions of stories of people from all over the world that have emigrated to the U.S. as refugees, exiles, or undocumented. And so I feel for the Salvadorans, Hondurans, Haitians, Africans and others that are going through the artificial hell this President has created. This could have happened to me and to my family five decades ago.)

And now I’ve gone back to Cuba. Three New Years in a row. The first time the journey was riveting. The second time I was in total awe. And this third time it was a paradoxical, simultaneous joy and sadness.

We went back to Cuba (Camagüey) this year to be with Geraldina’s extended family as they celebrated and honored the life of their matriarch, a lady that left Cuba before the Revolution – Alma Flor Ada . Experiencing this amazing reunion of an extended family from all walks of life – from international literary figures living in California to bicitaxi drivers in Camagüey – was simply wonderful. Their love for the culture of Cuba, the people of Cuba, and family was contagious. Every day was a different experience with this amazing family. Their contribution to the Quinta Simoni – and their deep roots there – has made a real difference in this masterpiece of a house that dates back to the time of Ignacio and Amalia Agramonte. And then there were the dinners, ‘puercos’, dancing, and sharing stories. (And of course, we brought essentials for our family, friends, and host (i.e.: soap, toothpaste, aspirins and such) because in Cuba scarcity rules the day. The folks were so appreciative, gracious, and wonderfully thankful.)

It was very sentimental and nostalgic to observe young people at the Parque Agramonte flirting and passing time using wi-fi – available mostly at parks at expensive rates with cards usually paid for by relatives in the U.S. This was the park where my grandmother met my grandfather about a century ago, back in the days when a father would parade their daughters in the park. Then, after making only eye contact, the young men would visit the family house and ask permission to speak with the young lady.

Camagüey is all about the arts. And art galleries are everywhere. The artists are so willing to engage in conversation! Talking with some of these artists was very revealing. It’s been only in the last few years that many of them have had the opportunity to share their art with people from the U.S. – and they are so proud of that. Their art is so different, so Cuban. Beautiful.

A quick visit to the Camagüey Chess Club was also very instructive. The Cuban chess champion is for this Club. They are rightfully proud of what they are accomplishing. We discussed the possibilities of an exchange with our area’s chess club…

And then there was the one night we were sat down at a nice restaurant only to find out that the vast majority of items on the menu (fish, ham, steak, white rice, yucca, water, colas) were simply not available. We had some congris (burnt) and ropa vieja (excellent.)  Very different experience at a restaurant by the beach where lobster, fish, and shrimp was readily available. Such is Cuba.

There was also the very complicated feelings walking down Republica (a sad attempt at a street mall); meandering through the web of narrow streets at night – so narrow that you could hear family’s conversations from their living rooms; imagining what the worn out largest urban park in Cuba (Casino Campestre) used to feel like (it is now but a snippet of its old glory); visiting gracious churches of old; and listening to music – and drinking rum – at the Casa de la Trova.

We also had the opportunity to catch up with a cousin that lives in Camaguey who accompanied us the whole time. We went to the house she was born, only to find it had been divided into seven ‘cuarterias’ – small living quarters. The beautiful columns of days gone by and the glass transoms where still barely visible. But 60 years of destruction had taken its toll.  Similarly, we stopped by the house where my grandparents lived. Similarly sad.

And we visited the cemetery. Oh how sad too. After having been to the Cemetery Colon in Havana and the cemetery in Santiago, this was simply depressing. An active cemetery similar to what you see in New Orleans, but unkept and simply degenerating to the point of feeling more like ruins than an active cemetery.

And of course, we had the blessing of visiting a ‘casa de los abuelitos’, a place maintained by the Catholic Church for old folks. The place breathed peace and love. Truly an example of what can be. (We also had a brief visit with our Jesuit friends, who are doing an incredible job in Camaguey and Cuba.)

We stayed at a ‘casa particular’ – one of the many families that have jumped on the opportunity for limited entrepreneurship renting out their homes. Where we stayed was operated by a family (and uncle and a nephew) that had grown the house to eight rooms. Every morning they would provide breakfast of whatever was available: Papaya juice, pineapple, eggs. They were great hosts, particularly considering that they have been at it less than two years. They are having to learn by the seat of their pants. (There is simply no tradition of a non-government hospitality industry in Cuba. And there is no assurance that what they are doing will be allowable next year. Such is Cuba.)

Oh, but the Cuban people! Their spirit remains unbroken. Their capacity to make do with whatever situation is thrown at them is simply amazing. Their humor, kindness, loudness, and sense of pride and worth truly amazing.

We now are living through this nightmare in the US where for the first time in our lifetime many are ashamed of the indecency of our supposed ‘leader’. As I write this, I feel in total solidarity with so many of the world’s people – including my Cuba – where good, simple, decent, honest, hard-working, god-fearing folks live in a country led by incident, power-hungry, self-serving, bad man… Yet – there and here – we all do the best we can to survive, raise a family, practice our faith, and do our daily grind… But, I also write this during the Martin Luther King, Jr., weekend. And, I do feel hopeful that reason, logic, and common sense will prevail – here and there.

Why visit Cuba? Are we condoning the system by doing so? Are we being complicit with the status quo?

In my humble opinion – and I respect others – No, we are not condoning the system or supporting the status quo. Visiting Cuba is good for our soul – and good for the soul of Cubans there and here. Spending time with the people in Cuba – regardless of their affiliation, inclination, or status – is a good thing. If we don’t know each other, it is way too easy to demonize the other. Personal relations is a prerequisite to social and cultural reconciliation.

Such are the realities, dreams, nightmares, and possibilities in Cuba and of Cubans… Anyone up for a trip next New Years?