I am Cuban-American. Most will think of the kind of Cuban-American who was on Miami Boulevard last week, banging pots and pans to the beat of Gloria Estefan’s “Cuba Libre”. But I identify with my heritage in a different way than the majority of Miami-Cubans.
My family left the island before the 1959 Cuban Revolution. My grandfather was thrown into prison several times – perhaps because he was a young loud-mouth who got himself in trouble with Batista’s overly-brutal police. It was relatively easy to travel between the US and Cuba before the revolution, so having had enough, my grandparents gathered what little money they had and left for New York. They settled there, where my mother was born.
I first visited the island in 2002 on the insistence of my American father who took interest in my mother’s heritage. The trip made such an impression that I found myself visiting there every year since.
As I watched videos of Miami-Cubans celebrating the death of the 90-year-old “dictator”, I grew unsettled. My blood flows with as much Cuban heritage as my 24-year-old counterparts in Miami. We eat the same dishes, listen to the same music, and speak the same language. Yet somehow we disagree on one important point, seen best in our respective reactions following the death of Fidel Castro.
Back in the US, I had learned to expect suppressed and hungry Cubans living under the heavy hand of Castro’s evil regime. Instead, I saw 1950s Chevy’s chugging down the pot-hole ridden streets as children played baseball in the park while their fathers watched on from the nearby neighborhood domino table. No begging in the streets. No long lines in front of the markets. Just the smell of black beans and rice from a nearby well-stocked Cuban kitchen.
As a Cuban-American, I was somehow supposed to fit the mold of a Miami-Cuban in my hatred for Castro. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to hate something I didn’t understand.
So where does their hate come from? A lot of Miami-Cubans today are the result of a great wave of Cuban dissidents who left the island following the revolution and the sweeping economic changes it brought.
Castro wanted to reorganize Cuba’s economy to get rid of all foreign influence. The US had supported the Batista government, even supplying his army during the revolution. Castro nationalized American factories on the island and limited the size of land holdings through his new agrarian reforms. New healthcare and education systems were introduced, creating effectively one of the most healthy and literate populations in the western hemisphere. The US wasn’t happy about this at all: during Fidel's diplomatic visit to the US, President Eisenhower refused to meet with him.
Castro was not soft. He silenced opposition in his government and among middle-class and wealthy Cubans whose economic status was effectively taken from them after the revolution. It was in this period where many people, dissatisfied with losing their personal property and feeling unrepresented by the changing political landscape, left for Miami.
This anger is understandable. But the Cuba my grandparents fled is not the same Cuba from which the Miami Cubans did.
Cuba has been a colony since the late 15th century, when the Spanish exterminated indigenous Taíno, Guanajatabey, and Ciboney peoples. They ruled the island for four hundred years before the United States lent its military assistance to Cuba in the Spanish-American War. On paper, the island was “independent” – in practice, the US was still in charge.
US companies profited off of the island’s resources throughout the first half of the 20th century. Inequality grew while politicians and corrupt officials maintained lives of luxury. The divide between rural and urban Cuba spread. Batista led a military coup to recapture the Island, and the United States backed him up.
This is the environment from which my grandparents emigrated to the United States. The 1959 revolution was not an isolated event in the span of Cuban history.
While one side of my heritage celebrates the achievements of the “free market” and capitalism, the other side feels the burden of Latin America’s struggle against foreign influence.
While the American in me recognizes that limiting political opposition by clamping down on free speech goes against the values of a democracy, the Cuban in me recognizes that a lot of Cubans feel the US government will promote its national interests at the expense of others, and must be fought.
Being a Cuban-American, for me, is two sides of the same coin - except each side is passionately opposed to the other.
I am a Cuban-American, and while my heritage seems strangely at odds with itself, I hope the United States and Cuba can grow in mutual respect and understanding while maintaining sovereignty and national dignity.