I recently promised a new friend that I would write about Cuba. But what can I say about Cuba? It’s been said – everything. Fifty-eight years, a half century of that bizarre mix of sensational propaganda and blinding silence.
How many Cubans do you know? I don’t mean Cuban-Americans like Senator Marco Rubio and Gloria Estefan. I don’t mean the Cubans from Little Havana. I’m not saying that in a disparaging way – please hear me out. The wonderful folks who still have the island beats pounding through their veins, “La Conga” energizing their nights in exile. Who can still smell with every breath the wafting perfume of seas atop the delicate breezes of the Caribbean. A gaze that sees more deeply, salted with sadness, looking out and beyond – over the waters. Living reminders of a place long ago that is still out there that they cannot wash away, even if they would. Folks who are just as Cuban now as they were in the days when their daddies strung together used tires and some flotsam they found cluttering the beach to build their escape crafts.
Cuban in an old way – before the tyranny sucked away initiative and imbued terror. From a time of rum and travel; hearkening to an old movie, an epic novel. Cuba Libre. And Cuban in a new way too, infused now with the entrepreneurial, free-craving spirit of America; an America that has also changed, and for the better, as she embraced her sea-born arrivals.
But when I ask how many Cubans you know, I mean Cubans who travel on Cuban passports (if they can travel at all), who run island businesses or work at island hotels. Chances are you probably don’t know many. Neither do I. We often lament the enslavement of the islanders; speaking of them in plural and in the third person, like we do the North Koreans or the Burmese. “Those poor Cubans,” we say, shaking our heads, “when will they find their liberty.” Pity; condescension masquerading as concern peppered with futility. And of course we are worried; naturally we care. The fight for freedom – for ourselves and others – is in the American DNA, put there by successive generations of immigrants fighting for their right to exist unmolested: Immigrants from Ireland and Sudan and Syria, and Cuba.
But have you ever stopped to consider what that means for us, too; the world that has been robbed of so great a treasure? Can we not feel sorry for ourselves as well? We all know of the great ballplayers like Jose Abreu; dancers like Alicia Alonzo and musicians like Chucho Valdez. Writers and poets: Carlos Alberto Montaner, Julian del Casal; painters like Pedro Alvarez Castello. These are the lucky few who “made it”; who found their way despite crushing poverty and overpowering tyranny, who sometimes lowered their heads to their communist overlords – What else could they do? But what of the others? What of the thousands of ballplayers who would have made our great game better – had there been little leagues and minor leagues and work leagues to hone their talent? How many poets were never discovered, because there were no rebellious coffee-houses where they would be ‘discovered’? How many comedians were forced from the stage forever, after an off-color joke insulted the regime? How many musicians did not find an ear in the revolution, because they refused to play ad-nausea those whiny, pouty “trova” protest songs? How many new types of cuisine were not discovered, because they were not compatible with a ration card?
I love Latin America – I love her culture. Her literature, her music – her food and her beauty and her sense of struggle and freedom. And I can’t help but feel that our great region is somehow a little less rich, a little less grand, a little less glorious – because so many Cubans have been denied their chance to add to her their portion.