Another loss for all Cubans, and I’m not referring to the 4-1 loss to the Rays in the “historic” baseball game played in Cuba this week. Since 1959 Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits have seen their fair share of losses: lost children, lost parents, lost identities, lost homeland, lost freedom, lost innocence. The 90 miles of ocean between La Habana and Key West is the final resting place of many lost lives, and the losses continue.
We’ve seen euphoric coverage of the “historic” visit over the last week, with the leader of the free world and his family marching to communist Cuba as if they were headed to yet another trendy spring break tropical destination. Many more are watching at home in America, thinking they may want to get to the island before “it changes,” before “it gets commercialized,” before “tourism.” I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but Cuba has been a commercialized tourist destination for quite some time. The rest of the world has been trading with Cuba; tourists from Canada, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Brazil — basically anyone who can afford travel to Cuba — have been vacationing in Cuba for decades. The only reason Cuba continues to be stuck in the 1950s is because of corruption and the choking hold communism has had on progress. Forgive my lack of enthusiasm when you approach me to tell me you’re Cuba-bound “before it changes.” Before it changes? Does that mean before hope and prosperity reach Cuba’s sunny shores or before fear and despair release their hold on the people? With any luck you’ll come back wiser, albeit having enriched the oppressors.
For anyone looking to experience a real island paradise before tourism and commercialization, go ahead and visit the island of Molokai, Hawaii for true sans commercialization. As for Cuba, with all the normalization hype, the reality of life on the island and the continued struggle of Cubans are either being ignored or trampled — not sure which is more distasteful. Cubans are fun-loving people who want what everyone else wants: food, jobs, a sustainable economy; freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, of worship; and free elections. If they could, they’d be driving a 2016 Honda Civic over the much overrated gas-guzzling ‘57 Chevy. If they could, 10-year-old boys and girls would be at soccer or at band — anywhere except selling themselves outside exclusive resorts for foreigners, or “jineteras.” These children are the young faces of the sex trade, innocence lost forever.
I’ve always known freedom. I didn’t experience the fear and oppression my grandparents and parents endured at the hands of communism. I was way too young when I left Cuba and this is the only homeland I’ve ever known. My pain is different. It’s pain rooted in all the years of watching with an aching heart as my grandparents and parents toasted a new year, “Next year in Cuba, Chinita,” year after year. Even though they loved and prospered in America, they never really got over the trauma and violence of the Castro regime. They never lost hope that they’d return to their homeland someday.
My kin were exiles, not immigrants. They didn’t come to this country looking for economic security and better opportunities. They left everything they owned that wasn’t already stolen by the communists and came here risking hardship — a small price to pay for freedom. They were exiled from a land they didn’t want to leave and passionately hoped to return to. My grandparents and my father are now dead, my mother is too old and infirm to remember. The Castros, however, have outlived my kin. They have also managed to outlive American outrage, benefiting from America’s collective short-term memory and our president’s quest for a legacy. All the while, the Castro regime and their abuses of human rights continue to haunt generations of Cubans on both shores.
I am not opposed to progress. I am actually quite open-minded and upbeat. I support normalized relations with Cuba if it means helping Cubans. I want innocence back in the eyes of Cuban children. I want people to have enough food without having to sell their dignity. I want people to experience the freedoms I have, to be free to write controversial or provocative opinions and not face torture and jail. Maybe this current normalization approach will help; maybe it won’t.
I think America should not compromise on human rights. And I just don’t trust a communist government that was built on top of destroyed lives and decades of lies, a regime that ran the most prosperous Caribbean economy of the 1950s into the ground and keeps the country rotting, 50 years later, in the backdrop of what was once prosperous. And it’s not quite over yet.
At the bottom of the Florida Straits lie Cuban bodies that continue to tell the story of Cuba; new generations of desperate people doing desperate things hoping to reach American shores on makeshift boats that barely float; people desperately hoping for a “dry foot” on American soil, just so they won’t be sent back to Cuba. And all this is happening in the throes of “normalization.” This is why I am skeptical. Yet many don’t see anything remotely odd with the juxtaposition of people still wanting to flee in the face of normalization.
Could it be that Cubans continue to be oppressed and have no faith that “normalization” will change their reality? No freedom. No hope. No way out. That’s the Cuba that hosted and played baseball with America this week. That’s the Cuba people still risk their lives to flee today. Maybe now you can understand why I’m not all that excited about playing ball with a dictator who has the blood of so many people on his hands, no matter how much the media, American baseball and the Obama administration play it up.
• Maria Uchytil is a Cuban-born Juneau resident.