“On Cuba, Hope and Change” was published on December 23rd, 2014, by Translating Cuba, the platform that publishes the blogs that are banned by the Cuban government. (Here you can read the essay in Spanish.) Alexis Romay of the NA Language Department is the author of two novels and a book of sonnets. He blogs on Cuba, literature and other tropical diseases at http://belascoainyneptuno.com.
On Cuba, Hope and Change
President Obama, a man who actively promotes the audacity of hope and based his presidential campaigns on the idea of change, has combined both concepts in his long gaze at Cuba: he hopes Castro will change. However, that option isn’t remotely possible in Cuba. Back in 2003, Castro Bros. added to the Cuban Constitution that the socialist character of the Cuban revolution is irrevocable.
Lest you think the Cold War is over, and it’s time to move on, Raul Castro is there to remind you not to forget. Both Castro and Obama had agreed to announce the news of a new dawn for Cuba-USA relations, simultaneously, at noon on December 17th, a day that has particular significance in Cuban lore, as it celebrates San Lázaro, the patron saint of the needy, the one who brings hope to the people.
Obama conducted his press conference standing up in a properly lit room. He’s a young man, during his second presidential term, talking naturally. Castro, a player from the Eisenhower era, was sitting down in an obscure mahogany time capsule. He read from several sheets of paper (paper!), with the affected tone reserved for a grandiloquent speech, the only tone with which he has always addressed the Cuban people.
Obama, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, was wearing civilian clothes. Castro showed up in his military uniform with all the medals he has bestowed on himself over the years (he’s been the head of the Cuban Army since he and his older brother took power in 1959). That choice of attire was carefully considered.
Raul Castro appeared between two black-and-white framed photos. In one, he poses with a comrade in arms who died fighting the previous dictator —not Fidel, the one before him. The other photo shows Raul with his late wife, the most powerful woman in Cuba in the last half-century. As much as the president of the United States wants to move forward, Raul Castro is a man living in the past.
But if the retro look wasn’t enough, then Castro opened his mouth. These were his first words: “Since I was elected President…” That’s exactly the moment the educated audience should have known this is a complete farce: Raul Castro has never been elected.
The agreement to open an American embassy in Havana was preceded by a quid pro quo mambo in which an American spy serving time in Cuba was traded for three Cuban spies. (According to the trophy-of-war selfie Raul Castro took with them upon their arrival, his spies were well fed in their American prisons). The USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who lost most of his teeth and over 100 pounds in his Cuban prison, was released on “humanitarian grounds” after five years of wrongful imprisonment for handing out laptops and cellphones to the Cuban Jewish community.
Additionally, Obama announced he wants to revisit Cuba’s standing in the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Yet, the same day of this exchange, the long tentacle of North Korean repression reentered America’s collective consciousness by dictating to Sony Pictures (and its global audience), that if Sony releases “The Interview,” there will be terrorist retaliations.
Nothing has changed in Cuba since July 2013, when the Chong Chong Gang, a North Korean ship, was caught in Panamanian waters carrying 240 tons of weapons concealed under sacks of sugar. The ship and the weapons were coming from Cuba, from the same regime that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the early sixties, the same regime this new development is trying to appease.
In his inaugural speech on January 20, 2009, Obama hinted at the Castro dynasty: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” But Castro’s fist is as tight as it has ever been.
On the morning of December 20th, 2014, the news of a Cuban Coast Guard sinking a vessel, carrying women and children, that was fleeing the island started to reach English media outlets. So far, one passenger has been reported missing. Expect more snubs to the US government (and the Cuban people) where this came from.
There’s a parable that illustrates the doomed relationship between Obama and Castro. A man sees a scorpion drowning in a puddle. He weighs the outcome of his actions, but decides that his nature is to nurture, so he picks up the scorpion. The scorpion’s nature is to sting. The man reacts to this venom by opening the hand, which drops the scorpion back in the water. With his limbs beginning to swell and about to hallucinate, the man sees a scorpion in a puddle. And he feels an urge to save the creature.
“Voices: Invisible in Cuba, In U.S., Not Cuban Enough” was published on January 4th, 2015, by NBC NEWS. (Here you can read the essay in Spanish.)
Voices: Invisible in Cuba, In U.S., Not Cuban Enough
The first time I was included in an anthology of poetry was in the summer of 1997. I was living in Cuba at the time, and the book had been released in Spain. Until that moment, I had only appeared in obscure literary magazines, read only by the immediate family of the editors and two or three groupies. This book would later prove crucial in my eventual plans to escape the island, but I couldn’t have imagined how at the time. I was just thrilled to see my name and poem within the covers of a beautifully bound paperback edition.
When the book reached me in Cuba, it was delivered with a note listing the eight Cuban poets that had been included in that wonderfully international kaleidoscope of verse. I had counted nine in the table of contents, but didn’t make much of the lack of mathematical skills of the cultural apparatchik who had written the letter with the numeric typo.
Two of the anthologized poets had jobs in cultural institutions in their towns. That explains why, by January 1998, we had arranged a sort of tour that took us all the way to the easternmost part of the island to read and give talks at a festival of poetry and song. We were paraded around town like the second coming. The otherwise tranquil city of Guantanamo lit up with cultural activities for about a week. And since most of us were coming from Havana, the capital, walking around the streets of one of the most underserved populations in the island gave us a certain rock star status. Our poems were set to music within days. We were taken to a local TV station to read poetry —I repeat, read poetry— on camera. I remember standing awkwardly next to a troubadour who had set my poem to song, while I mumbled the lyrics that somehow, with music gained and lost meanings. There is a video of this TV show. I dearly hope it never reaches Youtube.
In 1999, I managed to flee the island, and I began my new life. I started writing fiction the minute I set foot on American soil. Having been freed from the gag of governmental censorship and the paralyzing effect of fear, I wrote my first novel (Emergency Exits) with relative ease, particularly for someone who had never experimented jumping into the murky waters of prose.
Exiles, Therefore Invisible
In 2001, I met the ninth Cuban poet from the poetry anthology. She had escaped to Spain right before the publication of the book. She and her husband became friends, colleagues and family.
Together we figured out the mystery of her omission during that poetry tour that had constituted our fifteen minutes of fame. It didn’t take long to crack the code: she had left. She had fled. She had betrayed the country. According to the cultural institutions, she was no longer Cuban. The exile condition had made her invisible.
She was erased from the public record. Her work was no longer a patrimony of the nation. The irony of it was that her poem was precisely a nostalgic questioning of that ultimate decision. “Was it right to leave my place?” she asked in verse. By the time we met, we already knew the answer.
Some Of Us Are Cuban, Others Not Cuban Enough?
Last year, I discovered myself saying that I am originally from Cuba. When did I insert the adverb in that statement? I used to be from Cuba. Now I am originally from that island. A decade and a half of assimilation in the United States has turned my past into my origin.
Almost ten years ago, early on in my first publishing job in New York City, I met Leslie. We had many things in common, but I’d highlight name and birth place. We were, and still are, a peculiar combo: two male Cubans with names traditionally perceived as female in this country. We became fast friends. He was born in Cuba but had been raised in Boston, where he arrived with his parents at the tender age of three.
Our friendship was complimentary in many ways: we each had experienced the Cold War from opposite sides of the Sugar Curtain, so we could compare notes. English was his native tongue, Spanish was mine; we’d correct each other when we butchered our second languages. Leslie was crucial to my learning many expressions from the American vernacular, while I would pass on to him phrases that wouldn’t find a proper place at the dinner table. We’d also translate cultural contexts for each other; we’d jam to the tune of his Hendrix-infused guitar playing and combine it with my syncopated Afro-Cuban rhythms. It was a perfect association.
One afternoon before leaving the office, I found myself chitchatting with his supervisor. I spoke with an accent that was hard to place. (When people guessed, I used to get an array of potential homelands: Israel, Morocco, Peru… The list goes on.) So his former boss had to ask. When I responded that I was from my forsaken Caribbean island, she was elated.
She started asking the questions that well-meaning East Coasters ask runaway Cubans. Some of those questions, by the way, cannot shake off colonialist, even racial, undertones. The same goes for the phrase: “I want to go to Cuba before Castro dies.” But that’s another topic. Feel free to read my books if you’d like me to expand on it.
Before our conversation took a nosedive into politics, I pointed out that if she was so interested in my native land, she could always talk to my friend, who actually worked with her. He had been silent during that exchange, standing right next to us. I wanted to amend the exclusion.
She gave him the once-over. He had grown up near Fenway Park. He was probably a Red Sox fan. He was white. He didn’t have on his forehead a neon sign flashing Other.
“Well,” she said, “he’s not a real Cuban.”
This was followed by a very awkward elevator ride, and one immediate conclusion: according to our colleague, my friend didn’t exist. He wasn’t Cuban enough. He was invisible because he was lacking that Cuban condition.
For the past five and a half decades, the Cuban condition has been a prerogative of the Castro family. This dynastic bloodline has decided who is and who isn’t Cuban. You leave the island: you’re done. You’re a dissident: no longer a patriot. This is salt in the wound. To the injury of having a tyrant decide your national origin, you have to add the insult of hearing from people outside Cuba that you’re not Cuban anymore. Or Cuban at all.
But neither Castro nor his censors nor patronizing folks and their romantic ideas of my homeland can define who I am. I am a Cuban. And a runaway. And I approve this message.