People call the complexity of my relationship with my island home the Cuban condition. This condition is unlike any sickness you’ve heard of—unlike the Zika virus, the West Nile virus or swine flu. It’s unique to the Cuban exile community, and it carries with it a few eccentric symptoms: We never wear black with red (they’re communist colors), we eat everything on our plates and take the complimentary bread home (they’re starving in Cuba), we hate standing in lines (they bring back nightmares of food rationing) and Fidel Castro is the devil (end of conversation).
So, as someone who was raised by a community afflicted by this condition—a community of parents, aunts, bosses, friends, neighbors, teachers and bus drivers—I can run a high fever from time to time.
My parents’ stories of the past still ring in my head, like the time my father was fired from his veterinary profession because he applied to leave the country. I remember stories of how food stamps detailed the sparing amount of rice and beans each household was allotted and how Castro required people to attend his marathon speeches at Revolution Square. These were mere footnotes in a lifetime of stories that shaped—and confused—my views of a country that I left when I was only two years old.
In December, President Barack Obama, with a blessing from the Pope, announced what is now being called the United States-Cuba Thaw, wherein the governments agreed to reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana and lift nearly 60-year-old restrictions. This included clearing direct flights to the island, lifting some trade restriction of Cuban cigars and rum and allowing American tourists to chart cruises to Havana for a weekend of warm sands and cool breezes.
I would not be allowed to enter with my hard-earned American passport, the very symbol of my parents’ sacrifices.
The easing of the decades-long embargo on the island also included rescinding Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, restoring scheduled air services between the countries (including for the direct delivery of mail) and allowing U.S. tourists to import $400 worth of goods from the island. In legal language, any travel related to “family visits, official business of the U.S. government, professional research, educational activites, religious activites, and support for the Cuba people” was now welcome.
From the White House, Obama argued that decades of rivalry, tension and mistrust had only hurt the Cuban people and done nothing to bring about democracy and freedom. It was time for a new approach and allowing more Americans to visit the island, spend their money and spread their values would make a greater difference in the lives of ordinary people. “It will be easier for Americans to travel to Cuba, and Americans will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island,” he said. “I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.”
“No!” I told myself upon hearing the news. My proud parents—the kind of Cubans forged from Caribbean sun, well-seasoned pork and hatred of the dictatorship—risked everything, and left everything, to keep me from this evil empire. How could I accept such a reversal after all they had sacrificed for me?
My mother left her entire family behind. She would never see her sisters, brother and parents again. My father, after announcing his intention to leave, was “reassigned” to work in a construction site. He broke two ribs doing that work while we waited for permission to leave. That was his punishment for betraying the Revolution.
We fled to France, alone in a foreign country with too much cheese and bigotry and too little yucca and tolerance. Six years later, we moved to Miami. The city was like that hazy dream you try to remember days later. It felt like Cuba, sounded like Cuba and at times even looked like Cuba. But it wasn’t.
“The skies were bluer in Cuba,” my mother lamented almost daily.
“The water was warmer,” my father would protest.
For the rest of their lives, their stories were merely affirmations that they had lost their paradise forever. Over dinners, family functions, car rides and even at church, I constantly heard of this magical land that Fidel Castro ripped apart. And that was everyone’s story in Miami.
So, in no way did I want to let my parents’ sacrifice go in vain. No way would I return to Cuba until the regime that created so much suffering vanished. But then Obama went to Cuba and my heart softened. I began to forgive on behalf of my parents. I wanted to see where I was born—a place I had heard so much about but never really knew. As soon as the U.S. lifted travel restrictions, I convinced a friend to go with me and we booked our flights.
And then, a stark reminder of the kind of government that rules the island hit me. It shouldn’t have been a shock after hearing all the stories, but it was. As it turns out, my American-born friend would be welcomed with open arms, but I, a Cuban-born American citizen, had to jump through hoops. The U.S Embassy in Havana warned that the Cuban government may “not recognize the U.S. nationality of U.S. citizens who are Cuban-born or are the children of Cuban parents” and that I would be “treated solely as Cuban citizens and may be subject to a range of restrictions and obligations.” Some reports said those obligations include the possibility of being forced into military service.
I needed to fly there on a Cuban passport, which could only be obtained at the newly opened Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. I would not be allowed to enter with my hard-earned American passport, the very symbol of my parents’ sacrifices. All in all, the entire endeavor would cost nearly $1,000 and months of frustration. Those provisions were a decision made by the Cuban government to dissuade me to go. I had forgiven them, but they had not forgiven me.
And so my Cuban condition kicked in, and it worsened. How could a government be so vengeful? How could they keep me from seeing my home and witnessing those great blue skies and warm waters? I realized my parents were right all along. This is a government not to be trusted, visited or forgiven. I’m sorry I doubted my parents; I’ll never love the country as much as they did, but I’m certain to keep their rancor.
Not long ago, I was exchanging pleasantries with someone on a dating app when the topic of Cuba came up. “I love Cuba,” he said. “I was there in January and everyone seemed very nice.”
My condition kicked in. “They only wanted your money,” I replied. The conversation was over. I know my parents would’ve been proud.