In announcing his decision to normalize relations with Cuba, President Barack Obama explained the relationship between the two nations with a saying very common among Cubans: No es fácil—it’s not easy.
After more than a half-century of unresolved geopolitical tension, Cubans both on the island and in exile have adopted the saying to describe any struggle, from the mundane to the complex. In Miami, some call it the “Cuban Condition” – nothing can be simple. We are all so diverse in our interpretation of the same events, yet so unified in our pride and passion for a country some haven’t seen in half a century, many never at all.
I was born in Cuba, but grew up en el exilio, in exile, in Miami. I lived among the old guard that fled immediately after Fidel Castro took over in 1959; those who stayed on for a few years before being disillusioned; those who hung on to their island for a decade, or two, or three, before fleeing; and others, like me, the children of those generations. Where you are woven in this great Cuban-American tapestry influences how you feel about what the President announced last week.
I don’t remember Cuba. All my life, I’ve heard about an island —described with such nostalgia—that Castro ruthlessly tore apart. To hear my parents and their peers describe a pre-Castro Cuba is to hear an eyewitness account of Eden itself: the houses were sturdier, the food tasted better, the streets were safer, and the ocean breeze was cooler.
My father was 19 when the Revolution drove another dictator, Fulgencio Batista, out of power. He openly admits—as many of his generation do—that he helped in that ousting, by causing disruptions and participating in civil disobedience. His brother—my uncle—was sent packing to France after setting fire to the last row of a movie theater. My father was never so brazen, but they believed that Batista was corrupt and tyrannical, and considered Castro their savior. My mother, on the other hand, was just 11 when Castro came to power, and was the first generation to be inducted into La Juventud Rebelde—the communist youth—and educated to venerate the pantheon of Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, and Karl Marx – along with the one constant in Cuban history claimed by all, José Marti.
My mother’s first disillusionment came early on, when she was asked why she never reported to a government-required volunteer activity.
“Porque no me dió la gana,” she answered. Because I didn’t feel like it. She was always a little hard-headed, a trait that didn’t set you up for a successful trajectory within the Communist Party.
Her disillusionment deepened when her dream of being a grade-school teacher was dashed as she was forced to become a veterinarian. The government’s new five-year economic plan called for more emphasis on agriculture and all that the industry required.
My mother resisted any urge to leave. At the time, leaving the island was considered an act of defection, and there would be no turning back. Leaving her family behind was unconscionable.
Then my mother met my father, also a veterinarian. Two years later, I was born. Suddenly the food rations, the lines to get rice and the meal plans all became increasingly difficult to bear. Still, when the Mariel boatlift opened the doors for anyone to leave the island, my parents stayed. My mother still couldn’t leave her family. My father, whose entire family had already left, couldn’t convince her.
The trigger for her coming around, and deciding to leave, was not a traumatic, high-drama moment, but rather an everyday scene, starring yours truly. I was all of two, eating a slice of ham. I asked for more, but there was no more to give. The rations only allowed for so much. My mother realized Cuba was no place to raise me.
As the story goes, the following months were agonizing. Thanks to my father’s French lineage, my parents were able to claim political asylum in France. But actually getting off the island took nearly a year. When the Cuban government learned of my parents’ desire to leave, they fired my father from his veterinary job and reassigned him to work in a construction site. He broke two ribs before word came that our application had been approved.
We lived in France for six years before making our way to Miami. My mother eventually was able to bring her mother from Cuba a decade later, and always hoped that she would one day also be reunited with the brother and four sisters that remained on the island.
Neither of them ever saw these relatives again, though there were years of grainy, bittersweet phone calls filled with hopeful talk of the impending reunion. My grandmother died in 2003. My mother, this May. My father, whose family has all since left the island, has never been as emotional about leaving his home, however. He’s kept memories alive by endlessly telling stories about the Eden that he remembers, debating every tweak in American policy, and lamenting the mistakes of his generation.
I’m often asked about my own journey; whether I’ve ever been back to Cuba, for example. I’m often told how beautiful it is by people who have visited – how everyone should experience it before the government changes, and the country’s “frozen in time” quality disappears. And all I can think about are the countless hours—at the dinner table, at parties, in the car—of my parents reminiscing about the past and complaining about how their country has crumbled. It became deafening, as if an entire people had become obsessed with one singular topic, never able to move past it and start anew. Like my parents, I’ve never returned. They believed that going back would be a sign of support for an immoral and corrupt government, and that any money they spent there would go in support of the dictatorship. And they wanted no part of it. Neither did I. I’ve always believed that the best way to honor their sacrifices was to honor their beliefs. It never seemed right to return to a place that my parents fought so hard to leave just to give me a better life.
Eventually, I do remember my parents shifting their tune. Sentences stopped beginning with “Cuando Fidel se cae,” once Fidel topples, and ending rather with the notion that the Cuba they remember will never again exist. At least with my parents, the harsh reality that exile was not going to be temporary finally set in.
I struggled with a swirl of mixed emotions at this month’s news. My initial reaction was to hold on to my parents’ anger, as a way of acknowledging their suffering. But, like my parents came to realize, there are emotions and then there’s the reality. The status quo has not only failed, but also frustrated a people who hoped regime change was always right around the corner.
And now that I live in L.A., I realize the complexity of the Cuban experience is lost anywhere north of South Florida. It’s like I am exile not from one, but from two, surreal islands: Cuba itself, and the displaced Cuban alternative in Miami. It would be unthinkable there to have someone come up to me and talk about how amazing Cuba currently is, but I actually hear it quite often here. Now I marvel that such a small island has held the attention of every president since Kennedy.
Though my father has mellowed in his old age—he’s nearly 85—it’s no surprise that he fervently disagrees with me. For him, there is no compromising, no negotiating with this regime. My mother, however, would’ve welcomed this news. The idea of an American embassy in Cuba is tantalizing, the idea of the American flag flying again in Havana should inspire the Cuban people that hope is just 90 miles away. And for me, it will be a welcome reminder that this home I left over a defiant demand for more ham is not as distant, and aberrant, as it has felt.
Jean-Paul Renaud is the director of communications for the UCLA College. Prior to entering higher education, Renaud was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.