I've generally been in support of more open U.S. relations with Cuba: A change would be good. It's about time, I often thought to myself. And I'd say that I'm still in support of change. But until the recent news regarding normalizing relations, I had never really been compelled to examine exactly how I truly felt (or thought) about that "change;" or what "change" really meant or would look like. Nor had I fathomed just how complex the issue was/is for me as a child of exiles, raised in Miami, who has traveled several times to the island.
As a writer, I have dedicated much of my life's work to exploring those experiences, and I've believed I understood them fairly well. I thought I had a good fix on them. But suddenly, there is a great big sea of gray, full of new thoughts and emotions that I find myself navigating through. Here's why:
Two days after the news from the White House on December 17th, I travel to visit my mother, who still lives in my childhood home in Miami. I walk into my old bedroom, the walls now covered by old photos she has hung up -- a tribute to our family's past. More so, a timeline: her as a little girl with a frilly dress dancing across the dirt-floor of her rural home in Cuba; her as a teenager posing like a beauty queen wearing chin-high pants and a hibiscus flower in her hair by the reservoir of the sugar mill in the town where she grew up -- where she met my father; a photo of him in his cadet uniform; he and my mother on their wedding day, their smiles filling that camera with glee and hope and dreams that in a just few years would turn into a journey of tears and terror and sorrow -- and a different kind of dream: the American Dream.
They left Cuba in 1967 to Madrid with only one suitcase as allowed by the Cuban government (packed with those same photos, the doorknob of their former house, a jar of dirt from their backyard); my mother seven months pregnant with me, and my father carrying my 6-year-old brother, crying in his arms. They left not because they were part of the elite, wealthy land barons or captains of industry. Not because they were being politically persecuted, per se. They left because they believed in one thing: freedom -- and all the word stood for: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Panning the photos, I reflect once again on the story they told, and begin reexamining my own narrative in light of the news of normalized relations with Cuba. Like my parents, there are thousands of exiles with similar or even more heart-wrenching stories. I began to feel somewhat conflicted. How can I support the potential changes on the horizon while still honoring and respecting the lives of so many Cubans who gave up so much for their beliefs and dreams?
I ask my mother what she thought about the recent news; surprisingly, she simply says, "We'll see..." She, as well as members of my family (young and old), are reluctant to speak about the matter. They seem jaded, tired of the same 50-plus-year-old debate. But more so, in a kind of shock that, surprisingly, I recognize in myself, too. We had built a life around the paradigm that nothing about Cuba was ever going to change. Then suddenly, it seemed that change was possible. The mood was akin to mourning for the death of something practically intangible. While most can agree the embargo has failed to effect regime change, I realize that perhaps it served another, less obvious purpose. It was a psychological glue that galvanized the exile community. Would that community -- that village that had raised me -- fall apart without it?
Across the bedroom walls there are also photos of my mother's entire family that she left behind in Cuba. I grew up with that half of my family missing, until I met them during my first trip to the island in 1994. During that life-changing visit, many of my emotional voids were filled with the joy and warmth of new family bonds. But I was also terribly saddened by the degree of their day-to-day hardships. We'd spend hours simply trying to buy a loaf of bread or a pound of rice on the black market. I witnessed first hand a system of economic and social apartheid that existed -- and still exists -- as well as the lack of basic civil liberties. My cousins were not allowed to go to tourist-only hotels and nightspots unless they were accompanied by me. I soon noticed there were two Cubas: one for the tourist and one for everyday Cubans that were treated like second-class citizens. Thinking about them once again, I am reminded that the normalization of relations is just as much about "us" Cubans in the U.S., at it is for the Cubans of the island who don't have a voice in the matter. We need to address Cuba's embargo against Democracy as much as America's economic embargo.
Though I'm still grappling all these nuances and my internal contradictions and conflicts, my mind has come to rest on a most powerful and beautiful word: reconciliation -- and all its various meanings and contexts. First, we need to reconcile the generational and political divide among Cubans in the U.S. Certainly, I think all of us agree that the ultimate goal is real change for Cuba. But we need to come to terms with ourselves, find some consensus and compromise on how we can accomplish that goal. Perhaps President Obama's "deal" wasn't the best that could have been made. But regardless, a door has been cracked opened. We can linger in resentment and disagreement, or we can turn this into a powerful opportunity that we can steer in the right direction. But to do so, we need to cultivate a more unified voice and message in order to engage or advocate more effectively.
We also need to reconcile the present-day reality of the Cuban people with the overly-romanticized, often archaic and uninformed perceptions that many in the U.S. have of Cuba. It is our charge to educate people about the long emotional history of the embargo, and raise our voices to make sure that everyone understands that the true goals of normalization should be the much-needed democratic reforms and the prosperity of the Cuban people (not the regime). Opening up Cuba has to mean more -- way more -- than Americans' freedom to travel to the island so that they can marvel at antique cars, sip on mojito-flavored lattes at a Starbucks along el Malecón, or take in a show at club Tropicana.
Lastly, we need to reconcile another kind of embargo -- the emotional embargo -- that has affected the hundreds of thousands of lives of the Cuban diaspora, as much as it has affected the people of Cuba. I'm speaking of what policy and politicians can't really address. Namely, the conversations that need to take place -- person to person, family to family, community to community -- that are ultimately the seeds and the foundation of real, lasting change. As a poet and storyteller, I have dedicated my life's work to understanding that emotional embargo -- that invisible Berlin Wall across the straits between Cuba and Florida. Now, as we peer into the future, we can hope -- more than ever -- for a true and equitable reconciliation with mutual honor, honesty, dignity and empathy.
By "we" and "us," I mean anyone with a genuine interest in the matter. But I'm especially calling to action the Cuban-Americans of my generation. I feel we have been passed the baton, so to speak. It's up to us now to take the lead and change the discourse from standoff to a reconciliation, one that honors and adds context to the sufferings and injustices, dreams and hopes of our parents, grandparents, as well as our families in Cuba and all its people. Perhaps this may be the greatest legacy of our generation. But it will take work. It's more than watching a 24-hour news cycle or a few Facebook posts. As such, I invite everyone to partake in a series of initiatives I will be implementing in the coming year to help gather the many voices that comprise the real story of these policy decisions. The story of real people and their complex quest for answers, hope, and reconciliation. Someday, relatively soon, I'd like to glance at that timeline of photos that my mother started and add my own snapshots -- a selfie perhaps -- of a future that wasn't thought possible even a couple of weeks ago.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to email@example.com (subject line: "90 Miles").