Dear Mr. Castro,
I know you have little tolerance for the big bad neighbor to the north that has for years antagonized your slender island jewel. So let me admit right up front that I am indeed one of those Americans who lolls around in the mud of our freedom—I surf the Internet; I criticize my president; I even buy socks and shampoo at Target now and again. But before you roll this letter up and cigar-spark it into oblivion, please, allow me to elaborate.
I may live in the land of the infernal imperial idiots, but one quarter of my blood is Cuban, thanks to my grandmother, Elena Maria Delgado, may she rest in peace. She lived nineteen years in Camaguey before her father sent her to New York to find a husband. Mi abuela started fires with her tongue, she lived for food and family, and she never passed up an opportunity to sing or offer advice. A Spanish-loyal Cuban, admittedly, but a Cuban no less. I know this fact alone is insufficient to incur your interest—after all, millions of Fidel-hating American hearts pump hot Cuban blood.
But what if I told you that you’d been my hero?
I was a 26 year-old card-carrying member of the International Socialist Organization, a shamelessly idealistic hater of capitalism when I first encountered you. I was also a brand new history teacher. So what better theme for my world history class than revolution? From Russia to Haiti to France to Iran, Syria to America to South Africa, Cuba was the hit. And why not? Cuba’s history is one sizzling story, starting with Hatuey, the righteous Taino leader, who told the Spaniards he’d rather suffer eternal hellfire than join them in heaven.
You had our allegiance. My students steamed when they read about America high-jacking Cuba’s war against Spain, turning Guantanamo Bay into an insurance policy just as Dole spun sugarcane into gold. They were incredulous over Batista’s courtship of the U.S., inviting greedy mobsters to defile Havana with all her seductive charm.
You must know, Fidel, how many of us progressive Americans are thrilled that you managed to wrest your island free of America’s sweaty capitalist palms. On those winter mornings my students and I hotly traced your unfolding rebellion: the Moncada barracks uprising, imprisonment on the Isle of Pines, the trial, your most famous line. History will absolve me. Yes, yes, they nodded. He was doing it for the people!
Yes, for the people! I nearly shouted.
But that was before I actually saw the Cuban people, waiting in interminable lines for plain white bread and a few eggs, for phone cards and nail polish and that soggy mass of dough they call peso “pizza.” That was before I met Oscar, our museum guide in Santiago, who earns the equivalent of 20 U.S. dollars a month, not even enough for him to visit Havana, much less the neighboring Jamaica where his mother is from.
The students thrilled when they learned how you met that charismatic Argentinian doctor in Mexico, all heart, who left his woman to join your cause. Che Guevara, they bristled, Fidel and Che! What a team! They loved how you toured the U.S., charming beatnik Americans into putting cash in your pockets.
You burned up those Mexican nights. When I was back in Mexico City after a month in Cuba, I imagined you and Che and the other bearded revolutionaries brewing plots in the cane-dark cafes. How I know you loved those months, ensconced safely in the valley of the mainland, your island on the edge of explosion, waiting like a hot impatient lover. And yet you don’t allow your own people to leave Cuba. Everyone brags about their cousin/brother/uncle/friend in America, Miami or New York. Oscar pointed to a piece of modern art—a woman’s face mirrored inside of a bird-cage, surrounded by chicken wire—and looked me in the eye: “Some people say this island is like a giant prison.”
Is that what you saw when you and eighty-two revolutionaries sailed the Granma into a mangrove harbor on that fateful night in 1956? Didn’t you spend two years guerrilla fighting in the mosquito-rugged Sierra Maestra mountains so that Cubans could be free?
I feel like a fool, Fidel. I called you a bad-ass (a compliment of the highest degree, I assure you). I called you a prophet! I believed that your socialism might forgive your dictatorship. But when I browsed the book stalls of Havana and Santiago I found little to read that wasn’t about the revolution—the occasional Hemingway, sure, but didn’t you read voraciously while you were in law school, and in prison? What about being exposed to competing ideas?
I believed that in Cuba I would find a bastion of true communism, vibrant urban gardens and a thriving population of inspired people. Instead I found a double currency, where natives need 24 pesos just to equal one CUC (why not just call it what it is: a tourist peso). I found bored workers, lacking incentive, purposefully dishonest. I found too many people living as peasants, selling lighters, candy, batteries, and rubber-bands on the street corners. I found people sacrificing their dignity for pesos, like the woman in Santiago who plied us with smiles and conversational banter for half an hour. “I’m a teacher, too!” she said. “And today is my birthday! Fifty years old! And all I want is a beer. But I have no money.” Her face darkened with shame. “Do you have a CUC for me, just one CUC, for me to buy a beer on my birthday?”
I found long faces and strained smiles, aimless ennui manifesting as littered terrain. I found Che Guevara on every corner, reduced to propaganda, a corporate logo on a billboard. I found the (alleged) Granma encased in glass and under 24-hour armed surveillance. I found beautiful buildings neglected into ruins. I found adults begging open-palmed for the cheap plastic whistles we gave to the children.
You must know: our month in Cuba was still quite dreamy. We strolled the sunset Malecon of Havana, kissing in the blooms of light, watching the wiry kids holler their jumps into the water. We swam in the blood-warm Caribbean off Playa Ancon, jellyfish be damned. In Baracoa we danced on the rainy sidewalks and got within inches of Christopher Columbus’s cross. At Carnaval we gorged on enough rum and pork sandwiches to ignore the rivers of urine streaming down the streets. We learned that the national religion is music. If there is a blessing, an expression of gratitude, a heartbeat of hope in Cuba, it is the never-ending sidewalk symphonies. Music fit for God’s dance floor.
You know why Americans and Europeans frequent your crocodile island, inhaling its mountain lust. You’ve learned how to keep us happy, setting us up in casa particulares for 25 CUCs a night, where we get to live with your people—sleeping in their sheets, sitting at their kitchen tables, sensing their interior weather. They flock to the bus stops to pick us up; they speak more English than I do Spanish. Do you think they don’t talk to us? Do you think we can’t feel their restless desire, to be able to roam and return and be born again?
I know your health is fragile (I saw you on Cuba-vision TV just this past summer, looking exhausted and mad), and that even you will succumb to the tyranny of time. But it’s not too late, Fidel, to redeem yourself. Why not lessen your iron grip and trust in the dignity of your people? After all, who history doesn’t absolve, it condemns.
Respectfully (and furiously) yours,
Jessica Dur has scaled the jungle to sneak into Machu Picchu, done outdoor aerobics in Bangkok, sipped wine with a priest in Bulgaria, and survived the month of July in Cuba. She lives and writes in Santa Rosa, California. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Recess Magazine, Hobo Camp Review, Frostwriting, Fractured West, Hipmama.com, and others. She blogs at www.gyrlwryter.blogspot.com.