Changing From Within

January 12, 2015

On the morning of December 17, I was in my office responding to e-mails when my assistant of almost 25 years sauntered in saying something sotto voce about Alan Gross having been freed. I don't always interrupt what I am doing when she comes in, but this time I mumbled something in acknowledgement. I turned away from my computer screen and stole a glance at the paper in her hand. Soon my "huh" turned into "Oh my God!" I read that President Obama had instructed Secretary of State Kerry to begin a process to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba. I read on and realized that, through executive action, the President was implementing measures that, a few months back, I and 45 other signers of an open letter had urged him to take. My computer screen lit up -- this was no hoax.

My friends asked, Eduardo, what do you think? Thumbs up, thumbs down? Eduardo, I know you are supportive, but my Cuban friends in Miami are very upset, and those that are not upset are quiet because those that are upset are very upset. Why is this the right path?

I don't know where to start. My family fled Cuba in 1960. At age 11, I went north to an English-style boarding school in New England and my parents went south to Argentina. At 47, my father had to start all over again and he willed his way to success, like many of his countrymen. I, too, have done okay, so it is easy for me to say: turn the page, give it up. After 53 years, let's try something else. Forget about the regime; forget about restitution. It is all about the 11 million victims of the Revolution trapped inside Cuba in a world Kafka never imagined. If we could tighten the screws, the gilded cage will still not yield. The Venezuelans melted away but there is always someone to take their place. And if nobody does, then the people will be told to just go back to eating the cats, like they did when the Russians left.

None of my relatives were executed or incarcerated. My family was not separated. I did not clean toilets or mow lawns. Personally I have only so much to recriminate.

I have been back to Cuba once, in early 2013. Leaving the Havana airport, there is a T-intersection with a billboard denouncing "El Bloqueo." In Cuba, it is not called an "embargo," it is a "blockade." That was the first of many "Aha!" moments during my four-day sojourn.

The official purpose of my trip was to visit Cuba Emprende, a school for micro-entrepreneurs that a group of us helped establish almost three years ago through the Catholic Church, with the assistance of Pro Empleo, a Mexican organization that has been doing the same in Mexico for more than 20 years. Cuba Emprende has graduated more than 1,000 men and women who aspire to a better life. At the school, I met many of the students. Katriska, her name a vestige from Cuba's Soviet past, wanted to found a cooperative to provide technical-consulting services to the construction industry. Fernanda imagined an online-tourist and travel agency. Anabel thought of a private secondary school. Gladys and her brother owned a single peanut tree that, in their minds, constituted the seed of a full-fledged peanut business. Gaby, an unemployed 42-year-old psychiatrist and single mother, explained that her father was a medical doctor who had been stationed in South Africa for 16 years. Like all doctors who are sent abroad, her father was paid in Cuba, ensuring his eventual return.

During my trip I had lunch at my old home, residence of the Portuguese ambassador to Cuba. I had seen multiple pictures over the years taken by my parents and sisters on prior visits, so visually I was prepared for how small the house seemed and how much the vegetation had grown in 53 years. But the overwhelming overall impression was one of sameness, of how little had changed, and of unreality at actually being there, transported to a place that could not possibly still exist. 

During my trip I also visited our run down beachfront summer home in Varadero, two-and-a-half hours by taxi from Havana. Two people together in a car for many hours develop a kind of intimacy, and I learned a lot about my driver (though I'm withholding certain biographical data to protect his identity). After one stretch of silence on our return leg, he spoke slowly and deliberately, having clearly been deep in thought. "You know, I am 40-something years old and I know nothing about the world." During a discussion about the country's much vaunted health-care system, he shared a recent conversation: "I am a trained nurse and I want to know why we are exporting hospitals to places like Bolivia and Peru when the hospitals in this country are an embarrassment and a threat to the health of their patients. The hospital where I worked was filthy, there was human waste in the hallways and the men in charge of cleaning were never to be found."

A great deal has already been written about this seminal change in U.S.-Cuba relations. But the best and most insightful piece will reach only a miniscule audience. It was written by a Cuban journalist and writer who reminisces about how full and happy his childhood was in the fold of a Communist family. His essay is entitled "The Tribe Buries Its Dialect." He expresses a profound sense of pending disorientation, of a realization that the exhortations to accept poverty and discontent as the price of independence have lost their resonance. The rallying cry around which the entire psyche of a nation has been shaped no longer has any meaning. The Cuban people are about to embark upon a process that will be nothing less than traumatic. Cubans are late to the recognition of their own reality, of the acceptance that what used to be sacred has turned out to be a sham. Cubans have only a mirror to look at, and their future is being delinked from their past. 

Change, to be lasting, has to come from within. This is the path forward and it is the Cubans themselves who have to find their own way. Our best opportunity is to empower and support the Gladyses and Gabys and Katriskas of Cuba. The U.S. cannot cajole, prod or insist if it does not have a seat at the table. The most isolated country in the world -- North Korea -- has proven that it is also the most immune to outside influence. And to those who revile at the thought of propping up the Castro brothers, take comfort in the fact their global relevance -- the illusion that they had stood up to the imperialist from the North -- will soon dissolve without a trace.



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