This was the first text message I got. Confused, I replied, “?”
And then suddenly, my phone was exploding with text messages. So many people came to me, a Cuban-American musician, to get my take on President Obama’s new Cuba policy. I went online to find a range of opinions, from angry takedown pieces that were essentially rants against right-wing Miami Cubans, to hopeful ones, to skeptical ones. What did I feel?
After two albums filled with political commentary on Cuba, immigration and more, lots of people came to me, wanting to hear my feelings on the day of the big news. And it was this:
Don’t get me wrong. I’m genuinely glad to see Alan Gross back, but try to understand: he’s back only after suffering and deteriorating in a Cuban prison, losing sight in one eye, threatening suicide, etc. And I’m more than pleased to see that 53 political prisoners have been released, but that’s only after having been harassed and arrested in the first place. And it makes me wonder how long it will be until they’re jailed again for their opinions. Travel restrictions were lifted last year, but only after thousands upon thousands have died in the sea, trying to escape on flimsy rafts because they couldn’t leave the country legally.
So I ask myself, why does every silver lining in Cuba have to have such dark clouds?
Maybe I’m being a pessimist. Some friends tell me that it’s a small step in the right direction. And I understand they may have a point. What if they’re right? But for me, it’s hard to celebrate small & incremental victories when I’m so acutely aware of the massive injustices that they are only slightly improving.
This is how it all seems to me: it’s like someone putting you in a chokehold for a really long time and then they slightly loosen their grip. What do you say?
I guess it’s better. But I’d rather not be in the chokehold.
The day after the big news, I ask: How must Alan Gross feel, or those lesser known Cuban dissidents, about the fact that they are being let out of prison? Glad to get the hell out, I’m sure. But I can’t shake the awareness of the circumstances that got them there in the first place.
A good friend of mine said, “Cuba isn’t black or white, it’s a thousand shades of gray.” So that’s why I balk at simplistic pronouncements like the following:
Finally, things will change and tourism will bring new ideas into Cuba.
To me, I’m a little skeptical, as most American tourists are looking for no more than a party, such as these tweets:
Should I start smoking Cigars again? Naw, I’ll just drink the Rum and Dance to the great Cuban beat!
— Danny DeVito (@DannyDeVito) December 18, 2014
I’m so suave. The Cuban girls aren’t gonna know what’s hit em when I go to Cuba and start speaking fluent Cuban. #myboyObama #stuntonem
— Josh Owen (@hsoj100) December 17, 2014
Tourism dollars! Rum and babes!
I mean, when was the last time you had a deep discussion about the pros and cons of Marxist theory with the bartender at your resort in the Bahamas? When was the last time you left the luxury of your all inclusive resort and spent time with the people?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of sharing ideas, and it’s a great thing to have more contacts and communication between the people of the U.S. and Cuba. But it’s not just about tourism, rum and womanizing. There also needs to be the ability for Cubans and North Americans to speak freely and have authentic conversations with Cubans, without the Cubans having to look over their shoulder to see if someone’s listening to “counter-revolutionary” conversations going down. This is the reality today. So I think change primarily has to come from within Cuba.
Some fear that greater exchange will erode Cuba’s culture, or somehow “ruin Cuba.”
One story today on American media lamented the possibility of a McDonald’s near the iconic Malecón. Are you kidding? The Cuban people live in the country with the least Internet access in the world and the most censored web (other than North Korea). They are dying for greater contact with the outside world. If anything has “ruined” Cuba, it’s lack of access to the outside world, not fast food.
Plus, Cuba’s culture has been, for hundreds of years, a melting pot of African, European and indigenous cultures, with huge cultural exchanges (both ways) with the U.S. up through the early 1960s and (gasp) even through today. Look no further than Cuban hip-hop, Cuban metal, Cuban skateboarders and so on. It’s a fallacy to think that Cuban culture won’t continue to co-evolve with U.S. culture. And that’s a good thing.
Communication is evolution.
So to me, it’s condescending to want to think Cuban culture is powerless in the face of American enterprise. Do you want to keep Cubans in the dark, unblemished by Hollywood or Starbucks, like zoo animals to stare at, relics of a time long gone? Or do you want to see what Cubans end up creating when they have the chance to access the world’s information?
And here’s my Cuban-American friend’s incisive reply to that McDonald’s story: “I’m sure that the old and kindly security guard who worked at my elementary school —who had half of his hand chopped off with a machete while being held as a political prisoner— would agree: we’ve tapped into the crucial issue. McDonalds!”
“It’s progress!” people tell me.
Some are wide-eyed optimists. It will lead to more change. Maybe it’s a first step. But I’m not so sure that this alone will make much of a difference. Will having more diplomatic ties lead to more U.S. influence in Cuba? I doubt it. The Cuban government has done whatever it has wanted, including turning an economic embargo into justification for censorship and repressive policies. Having an embassy open up may move the needle, but only slightly, in my opinion. Real change has to come from within Cuba, not as something the U.S. imposes.
Marco Rubio and many Cuban-Americans believe that opening an embassy legitimizes the Castro regime. But currently, the U.S. has an “interests section” in Havana that acts much like an embassy. So is this a groundbreaking change? I’m not seeing it that way. And I’m just being honest here, but has cutting off diplomatic relations changed the minds of the world? No, because every other country has an embassy in Havana and trades with Cuba. So I’m not seeing how the “legitimizing the regime” argument really works. That ship has sailed. Which leads me to my next point…
It’s the elephant in the room: the embargo.
At this point, I will distinguish those who are anti-embargo because they feel increased trade is a tool to bring about positive change in Cuba (let’s call them the “earnest” ones), and others who are anti-embargo because they believe that Cuba is a socialist ideal come true, while callously disregarding the censorship and hardship that ordinary Cubans face. I’ll disregard this latter group because of their massive hypocrisy: how can you consider a country that criminalizes speech, criminalizes political parties, has squashed labor unions, criminalized homosexuality (yes) and until recently, banned cell phones and even prohibited leaving the country, to be a “socialist paradise?”
So there’s the earnest anti-embargo contingent, and there’s the pro-embargo side, who believe that we’re better off not sending our dollars to a repressive government, regardless of U.S. policy in other countries (and who’s to say that U.S. foreign policy is consistent in any other scenario?). Which is really just a principled stance, and I’m not sure that the two sides will ever reconcile.
To me, this has always felt like an unwinnable argument, at least until the Cuba Study Group came up with a brilliant and refreshing idea: let’s loosen the embargo when it comes to independent Cuban entrepreneurs. After 50 years of trying one approach, I’m willing to try a new one. Support non-state Cuban startup businesses. That to me is the biggest glimmer of hope I’ve seen in a bleak landscape, and maybe a way that the American people can actually help support the Cuban people—buying Cuban-made goods, helping some dude put some better meals on the table for his family, or buy that iMac he’s been wanting, which will help him grow his business even more. Independent business in Cuba—that’s the kind of change that comes from the Cuban people, and we can help without imposing our ideology.
So that’s the context I’m coming from: 50 plus years of exile, of boatlifts, of political prisoners, of firing squads, of longing, loss and heartbreak. There is no better expression of this community’s feeling than in this song:
40 años de dictadura, de cárceles y amargura …
Que largo es el son que canta mi desmembrada generación
So do I jump for joy? No. Maybe we can try to make some effort to take that tiny step. But the road is long.
And maybe my reaction comes from this: I recently lost my mother to cancer. She was not only my first music teacher, but she was the one who imparted upon me a gift more valuable than anything dollars or pesos could buy—the treasure trove of Cuban culture. And knowing that she won’t set foot again on her beloved island, knowing how she suffered in Cuban labor camps and watched as family and friends were imprisoned for their beliefs during the Cuban Revolution, fills me with an impossible sadness that I don’t know how to reconcile.
And I can’t believe to imagine the sadness of all those people who will never set foot again in Cuba—those who died in Florida, or New Jersey or anywhere outside of their beloved island.
Perhaps I can take some comfort believing, or choosing to believe, that they’re all still somewhere to be found, by us, in the rays of sunlight that shine down on the sugarcane fields, in the breeze of the ocean, heard somewhere in an A major chord on played on an old piano, in that last sip of a glass of rum, in a laugh, in a dream. They’re in there, somewhere in the most beautiful dream of all: a pluralistic, open, democratic Cuba.
Dave Sandoval is a Cuban-American musician.
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