author – activist – faculty – mom
Finally, after half a century of bullying, the US is prepared to normalize relations with Cuba. The nation of Cuba has long been a source of cultural and spiritual power in the Americas, particularly for Latinos. In 1991, I went to Cuba for the first time, on a Global Exchange study tour of African Influences on Cuban culture. In 1998, I visited again to study Spanish at the University of Havana for a month. Both experiences were amazing in many ways. But during both trips I saw firsthand how the US embargo against Cuba was really hard on the Cuban people. The US seemed to be a grudge-holding bully who was determined to punish the island for political and economic self-determination. Particularly in 1991, just after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba had lost its superpower patron, and was struggling for survival.
During my first trip, I also met Assata Shakur. She came and talked to our group about her life in Cuba. On a stormy night where the electricity went out, she just walked up to us without any entourage or bodyguards. Just like when we saw Fidel speak at the youth rally. He just stood out in the plaza without anything like the secret service guarding him. And he gave a looooong speech, so if anyone had been gunning for him, they’d have had plenty of time to shoot. One of the members of our crew had a camera with a telephoto lens. No one hassled him. The entire nation was relatively peaceful. No one was getting mugged on the streets. I saw zero crime and a high level of cooperation. However, the citizens were suffering without access to consumer goods and medicines, but the society seemed intent on figuring out how to do the best with what they had.
I have often said that I thought Obama would be the one to lift the blockade. When I first heard that the two nations had reached an agreement to normalize relations, I was excited to see this ridiculous era of punishment come to end. The Cuban people deserve access to resources. And yet, there were positive aspects for a nation insulated from obsessive consumerism and the internet. Young people seemed focused on more important values than clothes, appearance, and petty online interactions. This is a significant bittersweet aspect of the upcoming changes.
Another one is ensuring the safety of Assata Shakur. Shakur was framed in the early 1970s for many crimes, including a murder she did not commit. The #HandsOffAssata campaign kicked into a higher gear recently when her status as a wanted “terrorist” was upgraded by the FBI. Now many of us have concerns that an opening of closer relationships between the US and Cuba would put her freedom and safety at risk. Here’s hoping Obama pardons her on his way out of the White House. If Bill Clinton could offer clemency to many of our Puerto Rican political prisoners, here’s hoping Obama can stand up and do the right thing with Assata.
The final bittersweet spot is personal. The US embargo against Cuba plays a role in my novel-in-progress, The Manhattan Escort & Larceny Service. The protagonist, Marisol Rivera, is very close with her little sister, Cristina, who is a medical student in Havana. In the novel, they struggle to maintain contact with their communication so severely limited. Their phone, internet and mail capacity is deeply curtailed by the embargo, and the profound love and loyalty they share has to be squeezed through the tiny spaces where messages can get through. At one point, Marisol travels to Cuba (illegally), and the situation she encounters there is based on Cuba under the embargo. Now that things will be changing, I’ll need to make a decision whether to change the book based on the new and evolving relationship between the US & Cuba, or to set the book in the recent past. Both solutions have drawbacks. But all these bittersweet downsides are small compared to the fact that the US will finally stop the economic and political shunning of the largest Caribbean nation and one of our nearest island neighbors. Ashe.