As of late, I have a hard time understanding Americans.
They love their country and defend it with blind vigor because they believe it to be the best in the world and yet, they reject its main attribute: Democracy.
I get that they are upset and feel sick to their stomachs with the latest gift democracy dropped. At least one half of the country got what it wanted. That’s democracy for you. Most importantly, this is what a dictatorship is not. We can’t have it both ways: a democracy when it suits us and a dictatorship when the big D doesn’t cooperate.
Let me tell you a little bit about a place I know where, until a few days ago, everything went one man’s way.
A few days ago marked 17 years of my arrival to the USA. I have lived more years in Gringolandia than in Cuba. At the insistence of a brilliant editor/composer, who is also a dear friend, I have decided to share some photos of the place still holding my happiest, most personal memories. In this place, killing a cow without government authorization gets you more time in jail than killing the cow’s owner. Let me say that one more time: stealing beef is a more serious crime than stealing a human life.
In 2012, after four years of interrupted vacations, I packed 44 lbs. into a large duffel bag ¬— what we call gusano (worm) — and rushed to the place where I was born to see the grandparents who survived the gap and the little ones born during it. During my 10-day stay, I discovered a shy beauty hiding in ordinary objects and common places. An old chest I used to view as a useless piece of furniture drowned in more useless stuff now looked striking in all its messy glory.
Gothic church towers that never seemed special before emerged proud and distinctive. Old cars suddenly looked beautiful, even the broken ones. I kissed and hugged even those relatives I had considered distant and boring during childhood. I could not understand why anybody would hate this charming country so much.
Another four years went by. This October, I returned to see a family still standing and still making dark jokes. I should add Cuban humor is mostly dark; not many fat jokes here, I’m afraid. Family members have died. The little ones already outsmart me. I did not find any hidden beauty this time. I am sure it is still there, underneath Everests of garbage and despite the ugly scar struggle has left in everyone’s faces.
I am sure I just missed it because I was too concentrated trying to ignore the skinny limbs of kids in school uniforms and the pronounced shoulder bones in the elderly; not to mention the Swiss cheese streets that keep drivers on edge, as if they were going through a minefield.
Even walking felt like an act of faith this time. If it wasn’t dog excrement that got me, it was water from above. I don’t mean holy water, but water dripping from balconies. On that note, I don’t know any other group of people that loves to clean as much as the Cuban people. When you hear loud music, you never know if it’s a party or enthusiastic cleaning that is going on.
The happy moments were the most horrifying. A special run for ice cream proved satisfying for everyone except me. The problem with waiting in line for everything is that it gives you time to think. In my case, it gave me time to notice the other men and women also waiting in line. I began to wonder about the last time they probably had gone out for ice cream and how long they would need to wait to celebrate what was surely a special occasion and whether our group, standing before them, was too large.
A juicy burger becomes the hardest thing to swallow when pressed against the restaurant glass is the face of a hungry young mom. Paying for a taxi, instead of taking the bus, becomes a shameful act when you pass grandmothers carrying plastic bags about to burst. I thought I could save everyone by buying a washing machine. As soon as I paid to skip the line, I realized I was actually the villain. I did not save anyone. Tourists, on the other hand, might help restore the beauty, one block at a time.
In that sense, Communism is the best thing and the worst thing that happened to Cuba. It is obvious that it destroyed families, ravaged the youth’s future and micromanaged its potential. It set in motion a chain of intentional or unintentional events that led to the present misery Cubans cope with daily. It matters very little to them whether or not at the beginning of it all, the cause was pure and the man behind it Robin Hood. That’s an ancient story and nobody can possibly know the whole truth. Most of us have grown up listening to someone’s version of events we did not actually live through.
Food is, by far, the most important mission. This never-ending worry is the source of great stress and the motive behind most crimes and soaring corruption. Not even the promise of tangible change — which, by the way, did not come with Barack Obama and has not come since he left — is more present in Cubans’ minds.
Without the Fidel Castro curse, however, the alligator-shape Caribbean island would have had the same itinerary every other tropical paradise offers: beaches and piñas coladas. It would have had to compete for tourists’ attention with other nations housing equally beautiful sceneries and rich culture. If we are painfully honest, we would have to admit Communism made this country enigmatic, forbidden and unique. The very system that made decay the order of the day now attracts a large tourism wave and might just be what lets in the key to salvation. Tourists bring with them information, ideas, technology, philosophies. This is a good thing. Aside from food, Cubans are hungry for information. They want to experience the world, even if it is through anecdotes or a computer screen.
I myself do not have a tragic, personal story to tell and I will not pretend I have one now. In my family, there are those who have much to thank el Comandante for — an education, a home, electricity — just as there are those who lost a lot because of el Barbudo. I grew up believing pride, not money, was the ultimate reward for having done all the right things in life. I studied hard. I did all the right things until I left at age 15.
When I arrived, I just carried on the same way. I never had the chance to become a disillusioned adult, as my parents did. It is a lonely place, this spot I find myself in. I have nothing very good or very bad to say.