My United States of America

Cuba 2013: (c) Isaac Sibecas
“Yet, my last memory of Cuba is that of wishing all Cuban people that the future may have mercy on them, regardless of whether they are the executioners or the victims of that pugnacious logic.”
Photo © Isaac Sibecas

Back in the 1970’s, the years of my Cuban childhood, there were terrible shortages, the country had closed itself off to the world and the United States was seen as a mythical land – a land of the unknown, the beyond, the different, the free, the illusionary; a mirage of hope for people living in the sterilizing, malignant environment of true socialism. As a child, I imagined the United States as a grey country, perhaps because it was painted grey in the maps imported from Eastern Europe. Its cold grey contrasted beautifully with the raging red of my country’s political banners with the wicked propaganda, which have been occupying Cuban classrooms up until today. Sadly, parents can’t avoid (not even complain about) such form of brainwashing of their own children.

Visionaries of mythical lands, or of promised lands, if you want, seldom succeed in reaching them and living in them. I’ve been lucky and here I am, writing these lines in the stillness of a Manhattan morning. Manhattan has been the starting point for my journeys across the continent, which I’ve been making for three months now, travelling from coast to coast, visiting numerous universities and cultural institutions as well as governmental bodies and press agencies.

I don’t have any relatives here, in the United States. I came to the capital of Washington, D.C., on my own, straight from my eternal neighbourhood of Lawton. At the Havana airport, they took my documents and retained them for an hour without giving any explanation. Surely, they wanted to see how I would react, waiting in a creepy room, as the time of the take-off approached. In short, they played with me as a fierce feline squeezing its last piece of prey before devouring it. Perhaps they wanted to turn my last memory of the island into a bitter experience verging on a state of disgust. Well, they almost succeeded. Yet, my last memory of Cuba is that of wishing all Cuban people that the future may have mercy on them, regardless of whether they are the executioners or the victims of that pugnacious logic.

As soon as I arrived in the United States, I attended the Tech@State conference, where I saw several presentations on the redemptive power of the new digital media and social networking as well as on various types of technological tyranny that authoritarian states use to curtail freedom of expression. This helped me to understand from the very beginning that even for democratic countries, the experience of the repressive Cuban environment is not at all strange. The struggle for fundamental rights doesn’t end with the overthrow of a dictatorship. It is a ceaseless fight against any kind of despotic control exerted by any power.

At The New School of New York I came across the Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez (Generacion Y). Together we spoke to a packed audience about the free future of Cuba and civic education of our citizens, who, at present, are largely ignorant about legal matters and fairly intolerant in terms of social coexistence. A small group of Americans even honoured us with an “act of repudiation”, escorting us across the Big Apple as if they were our bodyguards. Also, we had to face a rude, anti-Cuban action taken by the Cuban government, which had sent a formal protest note to prevent us from holding a discussion in a hall in the building of the United Nations. We had to improvise our press conference in an office hallway, where there was very little space for the public.

With Yoani Sanchez we were received both by senators and the White House. I fantasized about seeing the faces of leading politicians that I knew only from the screen. I was impressed by the transparency of the governmental institutions in Washington, D.C., and by the monumentality of its spaces. As a visitor to the American “heart of power”, I subconsciously expected to see military elite units, but instead I saw an army of laughing students crossing security barriers to peek in and find out who governs their country and what mechanisms of control are employed. What also surprises me, I haven’t been stopped by any policeman in the street yet – no police officer has asked me to show my identification card so far, which was pretty usual in Cuba, where they would stop me without any reason – just out of boredom, because molestation of passersby is the source of their authority. Unpunishable, needless to say. That’s what is called barbarism.

Shortly after Yoani Sanchez left the United States, another Cuban came: Rosa Maria Paya, the young daughter of the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement and holder of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, Oswaldo Paya Sardinas (1952-2012), a Cuban martyr who died in a violent way under so far unexplained circumstances. Sure, the Cuban government came up with a hypothesis of a “traffic accident”, but no sooner did the surviving witnesses deny it than they were deported from Cuba to their home countries.

With Rosa Maria Paya we settled in Miami, a city which has been every minute more merciful to those whom the Castro regime tortured and drove into exile. Miami, a commercial, cosmopolitan city, where so many spies gather to commit crimes, yet, a city that is less and less tense, without forgetting its dignified pain. A city lovingly preserving a 101% of Cuban culture in order to restore it, sooner or later, in the desert-dry (and deserted) soul of the inhabitants of the island, clutched in the materialistic hands of a clan of octogenarians.

With Rosa Maria Paya we swooped down on the major American radio and television channels, appearing together or separately, each of us telling our piece of the truth to an audience of perhaps millions of people both from the United States and a larger part of the whole America. One morning, a strangely freezing one, I saw Rosa Maria leave for Cuba. It occurred to me that I should be there, too. Just a 45 minute flight and I would return to the land that I miss so much and from which I don’t want to separate, even though I know there are men ready to commit the worst things to prevent every single democrat in the country from living to see a free future of Cuba – to name only some of their victims: Orlando Zapata Tamayo, Juan Wilfredo Soto, Wilman Villar, Laura Pollan or Oswaldo Paya.

In the United States, I have been lecturing on the Cuban blogosphere at the universities of Pittsburgh, Princeton, Providence, Boston, Los Angeles, New Jersey, La Crosse, Madison, Durham, and other cities. In all campuses I was treated with respect both by faculty representatives and students, who were full of questions – sometimes really naïve ones, exposing their vulnerability to the rhetoric of a government skilled in wooing the world by showing off its attractive image and benefits. Many times I would see Cuban informers dressed up like diplomats and academics, for instance, in LASA 2013, in which Havana dictatorially delivered its mediocre monologue. I’ve come across exiled families in every corner of North America, each dreaming about their lost home, to which perhaps only few of them would ever return. Yet, the welfare of their nation was of their daily concern and they would give their best to ensure it. Their diasporic homeland inflicts great pain upon them: They have an intimate relationship to their country and it’s impossible to renounce it despite the Castro nightmare, from which they have woken up and are trying to save the next generation to prevent the anthropological damage from becoming congenital.

I felt even greater love for Cuba when the land got covered up by snow or when I was walking through a grove whose beautiful trees I was hardly able to name. I missed my dogs and cats, so I tried to feed squirrels, which is illegal here and I was fortunate that they are wild and mistrusted me. They didn’t know I was Orlando Luis, didn’t recognize me (neither did I). Almost every day I call my 77-year old mum through the Cuballama network, which the Cuban government tries to boycott since it poses a threat to its monopoly prices. My mother is happy that I don’t live in the post-communist pot any more, but she seems very concerned about what the perverse system could do to me. She is not afraid of the “long arm” of the State Security, which has had its headquarters here for decades (the impudent are always capable of taking advantage of a weakness – in this case, the decency of a democratic regime). Although my mum, Maria, belongs to the generation raised in fear, she has every reason to be scared of the whisks of the tail of a dying beast – the state establishment. That’s why her last words before saying goodbye are always: “Landy, don’t talk about anything.” I’m her only son and I must bear the blame for never obeying her, because I keep talking and talking: It’s as if the words were rooted in my throat… The words that come from you and you, and you know that, right?

I don’t want to stop breathing in the United States. The air is clear here as the midnight in its highest latitudes (I haven’t even sneezed). It’s here that I saw snow for the first time. It felt lukewarm. It’s here that I could experience the emptiness of ancient and classical pieces in the Metropolitan Museum, so often reproduced in books, sensing that the originals are exhibited in Hollywood settings, where tinsels are both a source of desire and a means of measuring of the truth. Here I’ve lived a life that rather resembled a celibate than a life of a celebrity, although it’s right here, in the United States, where I hope to be recognized (one late night in autumn, posthumously… forgive my terrible attempt at Cono Sur poetry) by the digital eyes of my intangible love.

Also, I want to visit two destinations marking the extremes of the country: Puerto Rico and Alaska. In many ways, Cuba seems to have full vibrations here in the United States compared to the island, where Cuba feels as if it was a confiscated imitation. Actually, we don’t need it. We don’t need anything like that in the universe of opportunities called the United States, where everything is within reach if you just make a click, a country where everything depends on your ability to be self-sufficient and good. Yes, we can leave the Cuban archipelago to itself, leave it alone in the hands of a group of uncivil soldiers that perhaps already form the majority society, along with the corrupt and the marginal: The fabric of the nation will have to be weaved from scratch, from the unknown, from the beyond, from the different, from the free, from the illusionary, from the mirage of hope at this side of the Malecon esplanade.

That’s why I sometimes play with the idea of founding a new territory, a natural reserve of happiness, a micro-nation that could end up as an economic power and an example of respect for neighbours and for the environment. A piece of land in California, for instance, where there would be hardly necessary to introduce any legislation because no one would even think of harming anyone. A refuge in our planet where human values would be cherished, where no power would mutilate people’s spirituality or humiliate life stories, whether or not inspired in any god. A country which wouldn’t be “counting on all and for the good of all” (that Jose Marti’s demagoguery, in which there isn’t place for anybody, the demagoguery which we dragged from the Republic to the Revolution and the Counter-Revolution), but a country which would be “counting on each individual and seeking the good of each individual” because we are not a mass, we are individuals, we were born and we will die on our own, preferably in private. This is my vision of a Cuba without leaders, a country that doesn’t have to wait for the fall of the Castro regime in order to become the island’s antipode, including in geographical terms.

Homeland is not the same as Humanity. Homeland means to behave in a humane way, here and now.

Olpl2

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo was born in Havana and graduated from the University of Havana with a degree biochemistry. Around 2000 he began work as a free-lance writer, photographer and dissident blogger.