As my grandmother quietly loses her mind, her thoughts turn to her girlhood. She can recite the street corners of every house in which she lived and its memories: of her and her brother for days watching from a slope the employees of the Polar beer company create a float for that year’s carnival, and of being asked to ride on it; of cars crunching on thousands of crabs at the height of the season along the Malecon; of flying in a single engine plane at her husband’s insistence on their honeymoon, their only other companion besides the pilot a one-armed man. Last Sunday as FOX News aired a clip of a bare flagpole in what was the former Cuban Interests Section in DC and is, again, the Cuban embassy, she muttered, “It’s about time.”
A ninety-year-old woman’s unbidden expression, maybe. In my grandmother’s dotage nostalgia rules. She wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. A lot has happened since I wrote a post assessing fifty-three years of families separated, blood shed, property snatched, promises broken. Tomorrow Hillary Clinton will call for the end of the embargo at my university. Some will correctly wonder what kind of courage it takes to endorse the Obama administration’s policy goal. To which I respond: she’s a Democrat calling for the end of the embargo in Miami, and she will likely receive applause.
Here’s what I posted last December, revised for clarity:
During a banal conversation about holiday plans at my grandmother’s last week, her caretaker said she was spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Cuba. “Take me with you!” the ninety-year-old said, five minutes after she’d denounced the Castro brothers for “nationalizing” her newly finished house in 1960. The cognitive dissonance aside — she has gradually lost some of her formidable concentration — the incident sums up the basic incoherence of Cuban-American policy, especially how the remittances and increased travel allowed by the Obama administration several years ago have leveled what remained of my genuine solidarity for my parents and grandparents. The caretaker, students I’ve taught over the years, and neighbors, all to a man and woman, voice their disgust with the Castro regime. Almost all of them have a story about a crime perpetuated by the regime against them, showing particular disgust for the quasi-apartheid preventing them from shopping and in some cases visiting tourist hotels. None of them want the Castros in power; at best I sense a kind of abused-wife kinship with the greybeards. But they don’t understand why they can’t have the freedom to spend and travel.
Instinctively, the normalizing of the relationship makes sense to me. But I understand the paradox, and it’s heartbreaking. Pawns of the Cold War, recruited by the United States with phantom hopes of, well, doing something for them, Watergate burglars, mayors, legislators, redoubtable political players who have shaped local and presidential elections for decades, the exiles are also parents and grandparents, many of whom have lived in the United States since adolescence; they wouldn’t think of packing and leaving even if the Castros had abdicated or been assassinated in 1992. Their roots are here. Their souls, however, remain in Cuba. From the United States they sought redress. At worst they wanted respect. It’s December 2014, the Castros are in power, many of the relatives who chose to stay in Cuba are dead, the confiscated property is gone. And most of the world thinks the exiles are a joke.
A joke also is the parade of Democrats and Jeff Flake unable to answer questions about Cuba’s human rights abuses — legitimate questions, asked even by the Cuban men and women I’ve mingled with. Not one of them yet has responded with the cynicism buttressing the question. Last week the Senate released a report in which the world learned the extent to which the United States tortured men accused of terrorism — twenty-six of whom, let me be clear, were innocent. A poll yesterday revealed that a majority of Americans approve. Socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor — I’ve never tired of quoting the Gore Vidal line. Human rights abuses for supporters of the embargo, just and necessary enhanced interrogation techniques to keep America safe for the rest.
The caretaker asked me if I was interested in visiting Cuba. “Of course I am,” I said. “I will. Someday.”