When I woke up yesterday morning in Miami, the cultural satellite I live on just 90 miles from the motherland of Cuba, little did I know that everything was about to change.
My phone started lighting up early — fellow ABC’s (American Born Cubans) buzzing in through FB, Instagram, text and twitter. CNN was live in Cuba, and the NY Times was reporting, along with every other American news outlet, that Cuba was about to release U.S. Aid contractor, Alan Gross, in exchange for three of The Cuban Five.
But, there was more: President Obama was set to talk about a shift in US-Cuba relations at noon. The hair on my arms stood up; my heart started to beat a little faster. My eyes welled.
Our family had been torn apart by the 1959 revolution…[Now] we were going back to the place it was so hard for everyone to leave.
As an ABC obsessed with Cuba since childhood, Obama’s announcement could mean that we were finally going to extend a bridge from our satellite to the place we all came from.
Obama’s speech did not disappoint. He stood in front of the nation and told us that we were opening up diplomatic talks with Cuba for the first time since 1961, with a goal of re-establishing a US embassy in Havana, after more than half a century of closure. The US would soon be allowed to do business in Cuba, and Americans would be able to travel to the island more easily. The United States was, in other words, not lifting the embargo completely, but taking a giant step towards the lifting of the 54 year old trade policy.
I felt the impact of this change all the more because, just a couple of weeks ago, I was allowed to visit Cuba for the first time. Prior, I’d been an ABC that had never been to Cuba.
In later November, I landed in Havana with my mother — a woman who had committed herself to never returning to Cuba until Fidel died, until democracy thrived in her native island. After more than fifteen years of coercion on my end, fighting a familial embargo on top of the larger economic embargo, I finally convinced my mother to take this journey with me, even if she considered it dangerous, even if the bearded old leader of the homeland hadn’t yet met his grave. She had not seen Havana since she was five — a sum total of 53 years.
99% of Cubans we don’t sit around with our arms crossed anymore, you understand?
“This is surreal,” my mother kept saying at the airport, “I’m not nervous though, it’s so weird.” She seemed calm, but the rash erupting on her neck told another story. We were in a kind of alternate universe, still orbiting the imaginary land that was Cuba to us. Neither of us believing we were actually going to land in Cuba this time around — in a place that so many in my family had not seen since their departures all those decades ago.
Our family had been torn apart by the 1959 revolution, which is what created our Miami satellite to begin with. One of my grandfathers had been imprisoned for fifteen years in Cuba for anti-Castro activity; my maternal grandmother had never seen her mother again after having to escape the island in a furious flight.
And yet here we were, my mother and I, going back to the place it was so hard for everyone to leave. Because it was time. It was time to understand what had happened to the roots we’d left behind, to sew new seeds, and break the ice of return. And thanks to Obama’s family law, we were able to do that. “I’m evolving,” my mother kept saying at the airport, “the ship has turned.”
She was right. Little did we know that upon our return to our satellite, the ship was going to turn further still, to look at Havana straight on. Little did we know that our president would soon reach out to Raul Castro, leader of Cuba, and talk to him on the phone. Strike a deal.
I look forward to the day we stop orbiting Cuba like an exotic lizard.
Sitting on my bed yesterday morning, I thought of our first taxi driver during our recent trip to Havana. Taxi drivers are, after all, the pulse of a people; listening to stories in transit, sharing the tales of the tarmac.
“99% of Cubans,” he told us, “don’t think like they used to, we don’t sit around with our arms crossed anymore, you understand?” We were to hear this everywhere, from the people whose homes we entered throughout our weekend in La Habana, from strangers that became friends; from our tour guide, and our family — family, I should say, that had stayed behind in the 60s and who were meeting for the first time. People want more, everyone kept telling us. They want to make a living, and they are out trying to make it, against all odds.
There are new ways to do that now in Cuba — the beginnings of enterprise. Around our hotel in el Vedado, a district of Havana, there were signs: Se Vende. For Sale. This is new to Cuba, thanks to a 2011 property law that began allowing Cubans and permanent residents to buy and sell property. They are also allowed to own businesses. Everywhere we went, there were small businesses owned by Cubans: a sandwich shop set up in a car garage; a pizza place set up in a first floor apartment.
There’s even a gallery called la Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), operated by Cuban musician named X Alfonso. The place is exciting. Running out of an old olive-oil warehouse in Vedado, it resembles an art joint you might find in Wynwood, or New York.
The main problem is the gap between what Cubans earn — an estimated $20USD a month — and what the cost of owning a business or buying property is. Property prices are not regulated yet. We heard prices that ranged from the equivalent of $10,000USD for an apartment in Havana to $150,000USD for a storefront in La Habana Vieja, the city’s historic district.
Hearing and seeing all of this on my first trip to Cuba, I felt both hopeful and restrained by my government. I, like my cab driver, did not want to sit back with my arms crossed. I felt that allowing Americans to travel to, invest in, and engage with the Cuban people socially, culturally, and economically, would ensure that these new freedoms bestowed upon the Cuban people — the right to own property, create a gallery, buy a home — would last. This is what our president meant yesterday when he called Cuban-Americans and American visitors to Cuba “ambassadors for our values [As Americans].”
After yesterday’s news, I feel less restrained. I feel as though we are working towards a gradual lifting of the embargo with Obama’s diplomatic opening, and I feel this to be good — a path towards progress. I’m not the only one. According to the 2014 Florida International Cuba Poll on How Cuban-Americans in Miami View US Policies Towards Cuba, 90% of younger Cuban-Americans, such as myself, favor restoring diplomatic ties. 68% of all Cuban-Americans polled favored the lifting of travel restrictions. 52% of the respondents oppose the embargo completely.
I look forward to the day I can stop sounding like a science fiction novel when I talk about Cuba. I look forward to the day that the language of the cold war becomes truly obsolete. I look forward to the day we stop orbiting Cuba like an exotic lizard. I look forward to the promises our president made yesterday, the 17th of December of 2014.
A historic day, to be sure.