OF ALL THE STEPS taken by Barack Obama, to me none has been more relevant than the one concerning the US blockade / embargo against Cuba and the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two American countries.
I was born in Cuba and lived there for the first 39 years of my life, before moving to Europe in 2013. I know no other Cuba than that which was blockaded (although the term is a misnomer, this is what I was taught), the one constructed in opposition to those “northern imperialist gentlemen.”
I grew up hearing that all the ills of Cuban society, tangible and abstract, could be excused by the catalog of restrictive measures imposed by the United States in 1961, which had made our lives on the island miserable.
This became abundantly clear to me a couple of years ago during a visit to London, when I was barred from collecting money at a Western Union counter because ”the country you come from (confirmed upon presentation of my passport) does not appear on the list.” The same thing happened in San José, Costa Rica.
So, on this past December 17, I realized that Obama was talking not only about an exchange of prisoners, but also about the future application of a significant number of measures, some of which address the blockade (or embargo) and the normalization of relations between the two countries. I said to myself: pinch me, I am dreaming. It seemed so unreal, as unreal as my going to Cuba on December 30. The story of the two Cuban agents and the American contractor quickly faded into the background.
It is worth mentioning that December 17 is an important date in Cuba that commemorates the miraculous San Lazaro, who, according to Cuban Santería tradition, is Babalú Ayé, a saint and syncretic spirit that watches over those suffering from illness or misfortune — another way of describing the relations that have existed until now between Cuba and the United States.
On the day in question, still glued to the television, I started sending information to Cuba, because given the island’s antiquated communications infrastructure, I wanted to make sure everyone understood, just as I did, the scope of what was happening.
The appearance of Raúl Castro only served to confirm the liberation and exchange of the prisoners, a fact of which I was already aware. But when Obama let loose his “TODOS SOMOS AMERICANOS,” I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I had not imagined that this man would initiate such a profound and historic change.
In our home in Hanover, Germany, my partner Esmeralda and I experienced the gamut of emotions: anticipation, expectation, happiness, uncertainty, tears, euphoria. Our poor neighbours had to endure our applause, shouts, and celebrations. For Esmeralda, who, while Cuban-born, had grown up in West Germany during the Cold War, these new circumstances meant, I think, a legitimization of her Cuban identity in exile — something that had been taken away from her as a child and had turned her into a “Communist,” even though she had already left Cuba by 1959.
While I listened to the two presidents (first Raúl and then Obama), I was struck by an onslaught of ideas and requests: universal access to Internet in Cuba, easier passport and travel applications, no longer being considered a “possible migrant” by American consulates (a witch-hunt term on the island), respectful dialogue between dissidents and revolutionaries, and much more.
I know there are aspects of the embargo that the President of the United States cannot change. I also know that everything will depend on what Congress decides. But that the man threw down the gauntlet, of that I am firmly convinced.
Now, days after the announcement, I continue to struggle with feelings and thoughts that I imagine I will carry with me for some time. And other concerns will follow, like those I have tried to keep at bay, such as those related to the residual colonial subtext of Obama’s speech:
Today, we are renewing our leadership in the Americas. We are choosing to cut loose the anchor of the past, because it is entirely necessary to reach a better future — for our national interests, for the American people, and for the Cuban people. Charting a New Course on Cuba