28 June, 2008

End the Cuban Embargo

by Jorge Reyes

I have been thinking a lot lately about the U.S.-led Cuban embargo and its ability, real or perceived, ultimately to bring about a democratically elected government in Cuba. In my most recent book, a personal memoir that included a visit to Cuba, I hardly touched on the subject. At the time I was writing it I didn't think politics was as important as the personal drama I sought to analyze.

However, since then, many things have occurred that have brought the entire dialogue of Cuba to the forefront (yes, I'm thinking of the Elián soap opera), causing me to change my own personal opinions. Prior to that time, my thoughts were not unlike what the vast majority of Cubans in exile think: With an embargo, Fidel will be history.

I left Cuba when I was 8 years old. Up until my visit, I thought very little of my country. I was too taken by my new adopted nation -- by everything it gave me, by all the opportunities I had. Cuba, to my way of knowing, was a backward nation with a repressive form of government that stifled aspirations, hope and even happiness. The few times I thought about Cuba, I only thought about the bad things: having my hair forcefully trimmed at my elementary school; actos de repudios -- acts of repudiation; the hardships; the hunger.

Why, I thought to myself, would anyone want to go back and visit?

As I grew older, my ideas matured, and my memories became laced with childhood nostalgia. It was Ernest Hemingway who said that memory is hunger. I often heard about the old house in the town in Boniato near the city of Santiago de Cuba. I often heard about my grandmother, now old, with cottony white hair and a face full of wrinkles, who every afternoon sat in the corridor of the house dressed in white cotton petticoats she still made by hand. She often asked any visitors from Miami about me, about my mother, about her other family members whom she hadn't seen in more than 20, then 30 years.

These thoughts, plus the terminal illness that finally consumed my grandmother, prompted me finally to ask my mother and an aunt to go back. They -- especially my mother -- had trepidations about going to Cuba. What were they going to find? What were they expecting to find?

We left Miami on a Friday afternoon and arrived in Boniato at the crack of dawn on Saturday. It took us almost 12 hours to arrive in a country that's only 45 minutes away. By the time we got to our hometown, the three of us were already tired, seeing our country as if in a dream. Cars, buses and horse-drawn carriages made up the traffic of Santiago at that hour.

The people seemed to live under circumstances that were, well, less than favorable. Homes had electricity, but blackouts underscored the strange realities of the peoples' existence. When there was light, it was so faint that everything took on a surreal pale glow that was nothing less than creepy.

Buses were filled to capacity, and the people on the buses usually hung from doors and windows, clinging desperately to each other by the hem of shirts or pants, whatever.

I devoted a very brief chapter to politics in my book. As I said, politics wasn't as important to me as the personal drama I sought to rediscover. And yet the tragedy of the Cuban people as a whole and Cuba's experiment in communism, or Fidelism, cannot be separated -- complex as it may be, sad as it is -- from political undertones.

It was then, on my trip to back, seeing this disaster all about me, that my ideas about Cuba began to change, and quick. The U.S. embargo hurts the people, not those in power. If the ultimate purpose of the embargo is to defeat Fidel by isolating him economically, socially and politically, it has failed in both rhetoric and in practice.

Fidel, 49 years after his revolution, is still there, old and on the brink of death, but he's still there nonetheless using the embargo for his own purposes!

This, to me, is reason enough to scrap this relic of the Cold War and come up with something better., And this should be done not because of Cuban politics but in spite of Fidelism and in spite, even, of the ire this view draws among many well-intentioned Cuban Americans in Miami. Further isolation makes no sense when the time is ripe to bombard Cuba with commerce, information and an influx of new ideas.

I often heard about my grandmother, now old, with cottony white hair and a face full of wrinkles.

All those who with Janus-like face only can look at an either-or situation miss the complexities of the Cuban nation and the countless, slow ways it will eventually turn into a pluralistic, multi-party political system.

I may be naive about my opinions. What I do know, though, is that there is a lot of work to be done in a post-Castro Cuba. The realities of that future demand new, fresh, imaginative ways to bring about a peaceful reconciliation among Cubans.

I don't have all the answers. What I do have is an open mind. Now is the time, more than ever, to breach this gap and cross that 90-mile stretch that to some of us is as wide as the universe. So I wrote in the book: "Go and visit an uncle. An aunt. A grandmother. Honor your past. Crack that barrier that exists. Rediscover yourself. The Cuba of tomorrow belongs to all of us.''

My parents lost Cuba once. Don't let it happen again with this generation.

As the years have gone by, I'm glad that the main thesis of the book has proven correct, mainly, that the Cuban embargo had been a disastrous foreign policy towards Cuba, and that, coincidentally, it has never much of an embargo. I based this on the fact that the book was written while I was visiting family in Cuba, like countless other Cubans, and with certain conditions I dind't feel I was visiting an enemy country nor that there was much of a tight grip on the symbiotic interchange of ideas between both countries.

Mind you, my trip was not prompted by politics, but by my grandmother's terminal cancer. She had less than six months to live, and I felt that my mother as much as myself had to say goodbye. Who can argue against that? Some tried, but the argument was indefensible. I even presented a copy of the book to Congresswoman Ileana Ross Lehtinen and, in private, she told me she couldn't have argued against something as humane and touching as what I did. In fact, she supported my decision.

And that's exactly the crux of the problem. Most Cubans defy the embargo because their defiance of it makes the difference to a family member back in Cuba- a mother, a father, an uncle, a niece. It makes the difference whether they go to bed hungry, or simply have enough money to take a better forms of transportation to go to school or work, paid for by dollars, of course.

I ask you: if you had a parent or close family member living through his/her days and you were able to go, would you refuse to in political principle? I doubt it. The same goes for any Cuban in similar circumstances.

The game of the old is over and if it isn't, it should.

This is a new generation of Cuban-Americans who are not monolithic in the way we think, in the way we speak, in the way we even think of Cuba. Anyone else who speaks for old cold-war rhetoric is just a demagogue. Deal with Cuba's present political system we must, weather we like it or not. What would be the opposite? Hope for a social and political crisis which will lead to a bloodbath. Personally, I doubt that will ever happen, but that's exactly the policy of many who still defend the wanders of what the embargo has done to cripple Castro's political repression. If anything, it has strengthened it.

I blame this not just on the Cuban exiled community. I equally blame this impassee to the US government less-than creative foreign policy towards the Caribbean island. It has shown a desire to talk tough only during presidential visits to South Florida, but it refuses to even consider diplomatic, respectful dialogue based on a semblance of equality and respect to nationhood. Castro, no fool himself, has sensed this ambivalence and weakness and used it to his benefit. The fact is he remains in power. The fact is that if this embargo had been successful Castro would have been fodder for old newspapers. The fact is we wouldn't be having this conversation, so long in the making.

I may be wrong. I doubt it very much. The effects are so obvious.

19 June, 2008

Mariela Castro's triumph: free sex change surgeries in Cuba.

by Jorge Reyes

There are things in life that never cease to amaze me. Recently I was approached by the editor of a newspaper to consider the possibilities of writing an article about Cuba's latest social and legal policy: the approval of giving transsexuals in Cuba free sex operations for anyone who qualified.

In a country that boasts of having free medical services, this shouldn't have been surprising except for the fact that the type of free medical services that will be provided is nothing less than a sex change surgery and the legal change of identity.

Wow. Is this all?

As of the writing of this, there are already:

28 qualifying diagnosed transsexuals;
19 of whom want to undergo surgery;
8 do not want to undergo surgery, but they want to change their legal identity;
13 have successfully been able to change their names and replace the photo on their identity cards;
7 are waiting approval by the Justice Ministry for their legal changes.

But this is the thing, it gets even stranger still.

The move to legalize such amazing social policy has been strongly supported by none other than Mariela Castro, president Raul Castro's own daughter. Mariela, a sexologist, heads the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), and she's not shy about the role she played in bringing about the successful implementation of Resolution 126, as it is known, which was signed into law on June 4 of this year.

As of late, she has openly and publicly criticized Cuba's homophobia and has even apologized for her own family's role in the forceful imprisonment of gays and lesbians in the past. In the 1960's, Cuba would simply incarcerate or send to labor camps anyone suspected of being weak or effeminate. Fast-forward to 2008, and what you will get is a gay and lesbian society that doesn't seem to mince words or live in a half-world of double-truths.

Long, it seems, are the days when Cuban writers, intellectuals or others were simply socially ostracized, arrested or deported to other countries merely for suggesting anything that went against the heterosexual machismo mores of the times. All one has to do is read Reinaldo Arenas's memoirs, novels and short-stories. I won't go into any detail about these literary gems, suffice it to say that when he died of AIDS Mr. Arenas left behind a harrowing first-person narrative of what it was like growing up gay in Castro's Cuba during the 1960's and 1970's. And it wasn't pretty.

Even Fidel Castro gave an equally quoted interview in 1965 where he said "there are no homosexuals in the countryside." By 1992, Castro  seems to have changed his mind.

But how did these changes occur without many people even discussing outside of Cuba remains a mystery. Why in Cuba, of all places, remains an even greater mystery.

What's perhaps odd, to me at least, is that before any substantial social policy takes place, a majority of the populace must have accepted such changes. In less than thirty years (and that's a brief time in a country totally micromanaged by the communist party), homosexuality went from being penalized to something that seems accepted, within limits.

I suppose that lots of credits must be given to Mariela Castro herself and the interest she's taken on behalf of a group of people largely misunderstood. She's said that for many years she tried to change her dad's own views on homosexuality and that he, far from encouraging at first, cautioned her later to be prudent and to continue with her activism.

It's difficult to predict how far these changes will go towards slowly moving away from a monolithic political system, and how much Raul Castro will tolerate.  There could be a political backlash. As a friend of mine from London wrote me in a email, she hopes that these changes are not simply cosmetic in nature and used as a ruse to imprison gays and lesbians later on.

I don't think that's the case; first, the Cuban government, far from being a politically pluralistic society, didn't have to open up a space for Cuba's gay, lesbian, transsexual and trans-gendered community in order to retaliate against them later on. Yet it did and it's curious that while in the past it has lumped members of the GLBT community with political reactionaries, this time it hasn't and, in fact, separated them altogether as a potential political threat.  Don't fool yourselves, it could happen even with Mariela's best intentions.

Cuba's ratification into law of Resolution 126 as well as the striving to fully integrate members of the gay, lesbian, trans-gendered and transsexual community to the forefront of public discourse and legal rights seem to be the most liberal and ambitious of its kind in the Western hemisphere, including its neighbor to the north the United States.  (By the way, Mexico just this week seems to be on the forefront of progressives social policies as well legalizing gay marriages, another one of its kind simply because Mexican society is still dominated by the old prejudices and that equally hypocritical Machismo mentality.)

If Cuba's government continues on this road towards a semblance of pluralism, Raul Castro's Cuba may follow a path unlike any of us had ever expected. Others are very skeptical that this will translate into any form of political openness.  They argue that this is just a little band-aid given to an oozing problem.  It remains to be seen, though, if these changes however slow can also be irreversible. 
Time will tell.  One never knows what's going to happen in Cuba from one minute to the next.