Cuba and Europe: Affinities and Disparities

“This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” These were the first impressions of the Italian admiral Christopher Columbus when he beheld the land, which is now known as Cuba, from the deck of his ship in his first journey, whose purpose was to discover new lands. The paradise-like vegetation made his eyes glow with joy and he named the island “Juana”.
Columbus set sail on August 3, 1492, from the town of Palos de la Frontera, which lies in the region of Huelva in the south-west of the Iberian Peninsula. More than two months later, the sailor Rodrigo de Triana finally cried out: “Land ho!” It was on October 12, 1492. The land he sighted was a small island of the Lucayan Archipelago (Bahamas) known by the native people as “Guanahani” and later renamed by Columbus to San Salvador. Weeks after that they discovered the land now known as Cuba and also the island, which is now inhabited by two nations, the Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Columbus, Genovese navigator and cartographer in service of the Castilian Crown, has thus become a prophet of a new era in the history of mankind. Thanks to him, America stepped out of anonymity and embarked on a process that would have paradoxical consequences. The continent entered the orbit of civilization and jumped over the barrier of primitivism but, at the same time, it has become a source of cheap raw materials and slave labour. Its native inhabitants were soon exterminated as a result of over-exploitation and diseases brought by the colonizers. To make up for the shortage of labour force in cane fields, the colonizers started to import African slaves under a law passed in 1512.
The Cuban nationality has thus developed from the Spanish, Africans, and marginally also from the Indians living in the island on the arrival of Columbus. As a result, the history and culture of Cuba have been marked by the influence of Europe from the very beginning. Remnants of phrases, attitudes or wit of the Spanish ancestors and the people forcibly brought from West Africa can still be found in the popular imagination, and so does a range of negative attributes associated with them.
At present, Cuban national identity is a quality gradually washed away by the flow of hundreds of thousands of citizens determined to leave the country once and for all. For example, over 100,000 Cubans have recently become Spanish citizens after a law was passed allowing them to acquire Spanish nationality if any of their relatives was born in the Iberian Peninsula.
Yet, Spain is not the only country that a lot of Cubans crave after. Any place in Europe is idealized similarly as Columbus idealized the territory he saw from the deck of his ship in one of his adventurous journeys, when he said the immortal phrase.
Sadly, Cuba is no longer the “most beautiful land human eyes have ever seen.” If it were so, there wouldn’t be masses yearning to cross the Atlantic using any means they could find, even in the undercarriage of an aircraft, which has actually occurred several times in the last half century. Needless to say, such mad attempts have had very few survivors who could give evidence of their flight.
Any corner of the “Old Continent” will do to serve an average Cuban to nourish the fantasy, arrange temporal residence or just wait for the right time to apply for a change of citizenship, provided that plans of evasion have been successfully nailed down. The only thing they need to crown with success the plans they’ve been preparing for years, adapting them over and over again to appearing and disappearing possibilities and chances, is a letter of invitation, an arranged marriage or an international mission, which would give them an opportunity to legally leave the country.
The reasons that we shouldn’t forget when carrying out an objective analysis of the causes of the refusal of Cubans to continue living under the rule of a party that has held the exclusive power in the country since 1959 include immigration control, which restricts free movement of Cubans across the border, and discrimination against Cuban citizens with regard to social and labour issues (in comparison to foreign countries).
The amount of people wishing to leave the country and never return, or, if ever, as visitors, could be considered evidence of the low support that the Cubans show to the ruling elite.
For Cubans, Europe has become one of the last resorts, helping them to ease the pressure of living under the dictatorship that has brought the country into material and spiritual poverty and giving them hope they could perhaps get rid of it one day. Even if these hopes were unrealistic, it would be very hard to take them away from the minds of those who cling to them.
We still remember the last waves of Spanish immigrants after the end of the War of Independence (1895-1898), which culminated in the establishment of the Republic of Cuba in 1902. The course of the flow has now been reversed. In the last 20 years, over 300,000 Cubans have definitely left the country. Their most frequent destinations include the United States, Spain and Italy; yet, it needs to be pointed out that any potential traveller would go anywhere, regardless of the weather, social status or other impediments.
No wonder that in this environment of social disintegration there are only a few citizens committed to fighting for human rights and trying to rectify various adverse situations that threaten the existence of Cuba as a nation. The majority of the Cubans opts for leaving the country, taking as few risks as possible. Would it be possible for Europe to increase its support for the people who are trying to reverse the appalling situation from within?
People deprived of the freedom of speech, association and movement and condemned to a life of subsistence, which can only be achieved by illegal ways, cannot be stopped from fleeing to other countries or adopting a double-standard attitude as a means of defence against the terror spread by the political police.
Despite the fact that the support provided by Europe to small and active democratic forces in Cuba has been uneven, it has played an important role in helping the country to a transition to democracy. Europe is now challenged to prove its commitment by increasing its gradual and moderate, yet firm efforts and gestures.
After over 100 years of being a republic, Cuba continues suffering consequences of a crisis that has hit the economy, politics and the society, and that has endangered preservation of the most important elements of national identity, which has been establishing itself since the discovery of America in 1492.
Cuban dissidents expect slightly more support from European policy makers who have realized the need to remove the regime, which has been dragging the country down. A regime, which has abolished democratic mechanisms to be able to establish a new order to definitely codify mediocrity and poverty.
The silent outflow of people from Cuba speaks for itself. No one would leave a country that is a marvel of beauty, as Columbus said.
Plenty of time has passed and now there are many areas in Cuba whose landscape would be far from deserving praise.
If you doubt my words, just ask any Cuban – and if you want to obtain a reliable answer, make sure you ask discreetly: “Will it take long before you pack your luggage and set out for Europe?”

Jorge Olivera Castillo

Olivera Castillo is a former political prisoner. He published number of books. He lives in the old part of Havana.