NEW YORK — There's a homeless gentleman who lives in my neighborhood. For years we've called each other "my friend." He walks around wearing several layers of button down shirts and khakis with different blankets wrapped around his head and shoulders, regardless of the weather. Sometimes he walks alongside a kid-style bike, and other times he carries a huge patio umbrella. But he's always lovely, and we always check in with each other. One day I asked him where he was from. He replied, "Ethiopia. And you?"
"I'm Cuban," I said.
He threw his hands up in the air, and his eyes brightened. "Ah yes! Fidel! Very good." And my heart sank. All I could think was "Et tu, my friend. Et tu?"
Outside of Miami, the moment after "I'm Cuban" is always 90 miles wide. I never know which myth I'm going be sized up against or how I will fare by comparison. I'd love, just once, to get a "Cuba … meh" reaction. Instead I get the same tired tropes …
"You're a Miami Cuban? You're really Conservative, right?"
I'm an NPR-listening, latte-drinking, artisanal food tasting, pro-immigration reform, capital “D” Democrat who can throw my public television tote bag into any ring and bring the pain. I'm immediately suspect of any politician or talking head that capitalizes on the pain of the Cuban exile community. Marco Rubio gives me hives. I'm also part of a growing Cuban blue majority. I've experienced the disastrous effects of Castro's regime both in Cuba and Miami. I was thrilled with the U.S. policy change toward Cuba. Not because I thought that the U.S. was responsible for Cuba's problems, but because it's a failed policy which has given the Castro brothers the cover needed to blame all their failures on us. The onus is now squarely on the government of Cuba.
There's also this idea that support for these changes can be divided by generational or party lines, which is simplistic and convenient. It implies that somehow the older generation was wrong and my generation's approach to Cuba is a rejection of their beliefs. It makes for catchy copy, but it's just not true. Trauma is messy and different waves of exile have different opinions on how to bring about change. Within those waves there are just as many progressive as there are conservative approaches. My 93-year-old grand uncle and my 84-year-old grandmother's best friend's politics regarding Cuba are the same as mine. They walked away from their entire world so that we could have the freedom to engage in fierce political debate. Keeping Cuban plurality alive is our way honoring their sacrifice. Whoever decided to draw these lines clearly has no Cuban grandmother to contend with.
"I just wanna go see Cuba before we ruin it"
Well, you should have planned your trip in 1958 because 56 years of a totalitarian dictatorship has a way of wearing on a country. When Fidel took over, he got everything. The life savings, businesses, homes and belongings of every Cuban citizen who decided to put their human rights ahead of material wealth. Where did it all go? With large swaths of Havana collapsing in on itself, a mortifying international sexual tourism that operates with impunity and an abysmal human rights record — what's left to ruin?
The follow-up to this comment is usually the arrogant, "I just want to go before there's a Starbucks on every corner." What's so bad about Starbucks? Last I checked, they paid well and provided great benefits for their employees without infringing on anybody's rights. You know what else Starbucks has? A working toilet and Wi-Fi, which is more than I can say for the majority of Cuban homes and institutions. Havana has been a functioning capital city for 500 years — it'll survive a few coffee shops. Besides, the Cuban people don't have the time to wait for you to gawk at their misery before "we ruin it."
"Ooh, the cars, the cigars, the rum"
Take it easy Jay-Z. Put down the cigar, set the daiquiri aside and take that black beret off your head. You look ridiculous. If I put my American goggles on, I get the allure. The Godfather II, Hemingway, the Che Guevara T-shirt … But let’s break it down. The mob owned more of NYC than it ever did Havana. Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea" in a pre-Revolutionary Cuba. Che Guevara was pretty, but a sociopath, who established Cuba's first gay concentration camps. Sure, the old cars look great, but would you want your only mode of transportation to be half a century old? And have you ridden in one? They're gas leaks on wheels.
People accuse exiles of nostalgic extremism. But the tourist gaze makes our sentimentality look amateur. On my trips to Cuba, I've stood in bread lines, cleaned the rocks out of the government-issued bag of rice and showered out of a bucket. You want revolutionary credibility? Engage with the Cuban reality and not the exhausted spoils of a violent conquest. Cuba is a country in crisis, not a Communist theme park.
The good news is we've got a real chance at a hard reset. You can get your fill of Cuba and have meaningful exchanges with a people that have been isolated for way too long if you're willing to hold the government of Cuba to the same standard you hold your own government. You can support its people and not its regime-run tourist industry if you do your research. My hope is that the next time somebody tells you they're Cuban, you will ask, "Really, what's that like?" And you'll listen to what another human being has to relate. After all, truth is always better than fiction.