Cuba Without the Castros

Cuba, the forbidden country, the tropical country, has been painted in drab olive green my entire life. By the time I was born on the second to the last day in 1960, nothing would stop Fidel Castro from marching into Havana on New Year’s Day in 1961. Despite his promises, Fidel was about to turn the island into “un carmín encendido,” the fiery crimson red of communism. “Un carmín encendido,” the verses of the poet are on fire. So say the lyrics of Guantanamera, the de facto anthem of exiled Cubans. My mother sang that song of Cuban longing during dreary Connecticut winter afternoons. She sang it in the evening over a sink full of dishes. She sang it at glittering noisy parties that she threw with her fellow Cuban exiles. On those Saturday nights, our living room expanded and reached back to Havana.

When we visited our relatives in Miami’s dense summer humidity, my mother was even more homesick for the tropics. I was sure Miami Beach looked like Havana. The palm trees, the pastel colors, the sun a globe of fire suspended in the sky. Encendido. Everything was on fire in Miami. And I was homesick too—homesick for a place I had never been. I recently learned there is a German word for what I felt. Fernweh. Homesickness for a place to which one has never been. It explains the weirdness, the disorientation that marked up my childhood. Other kids had Narnia or Never Never Land. I had Havana, imaginary, magical Havana.


Calle Merced #20

In Miami my fernweh intensified. At night my Cuban relatives adjusted radios and televisions to pick up random airwaves from Cuba. Fidel speechified almost every night, and he went on for hours without taking a breath. He gripped my relatives. In Spanish, the word grippe means flu or a fierce cold that won’t let go of you. Grippe means the same thing in German. Perhaps the Germans can also share the word fernweh with my Cubanos.

My mother taught me that Fidel was not synonymous with Cuba. But neither was he an aberration. He cleaned up what had been the mob’s playground for decades. He wiped out illiteracy. He gave people healthcare. Sinvergüenza, my mother yelled. The word literally means someone who has no shame. You might say I was a scoundrel in my father’s native Connecticut. You might say, that my socialismo was nothing more than a teenage rebellion. A first-generation post-Havana Cubana like me rebelled by wielding scathing politics. My mother said that my politics infected me like la grippe.

By the time I went to Cuba, Fidel had just stepped down and Raul was in charge. Things had loosened up a bit. There was a small free market, but it could not compete with the black market. There were private restaurants called paladares. Qué rico was the arroz con pollo—the rice and chicken was plentiful, delicious. All the Cubans had to eat in abundance were pasteles—pastries—after all, that sugar had to be used. Speaking of sugar, here is curse a first-generation Cubanita like me heard growing up—I should send you to Cuba to cut sugar cane, you malcriada. Americans were brats. The only thing I knew about sugar cane was that it slashed the skin like a machete.

Even after I saw Havana, saw my mother’s apartment, saw the imposing El Capitolio, I still had fernweh. I have it all over again when I sit with my mother in her nursing home. “Did you hear,” she whispers to me as if it is a state secret, “Raul se va—he’s going. No more Castros in charge.” I can’t tell if she’s happy about that. Change, even if she has been dreaming about it for half-a-century, is hard for her. For Cuba little will shift under the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez. Since my mother has been wheelchair-bound, she’s an avid television news watcher. “This new guy is the same, Mamita,” she tells me. She may be right. Díaz-Canel, who is 57 like me, has been a communist party stalwart his entire adult life. According to my mother, “He’s been Raul’s compañero—his companion, his buddy, for a long time.

Almost 60 years into La Revolución, Havana has remained beautiful like my mother, but it is also increasingly disheveled like her. The buildings are crumbling like her voice—the voice that hummed Guantanamera all the livelong day. Our guide told us that a gallon of paint costs a fortune. Se cuesta. It costs. That’s one of the many reflexive verbs that excuses one from any responsibility. Se rompió. Another reflexive verb in which things break spontaneously. Havana felt that way to me. Se rompió. It had simply broken. No one could fix it.

Fidel and Raul were reflexive too. Their Cuba was the only Cuba I knew. Taunting Kennedy, hiding missiles, dancing the rumba with Khrushchev. The Cuba of my childhood was about hunger, hard labor, old cars and the ocean breezes my mother craved like a drug. Cuba was that place intensively loved and more intensively missed. Hay Cuba como te extraño. Oh Cuba how I miss you.

Cuba is the ground zero of fernweh. No matter that the Castros are no longer in charge for the first time in my life. Fidel’s olive drab ghost will haunt the place forever. “Believe me, Mamita,” my mother says, “nothing changes in Cuba.”

This essay originally appeared on WBUR’s Cognoscenti  


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