Leaving Castro’s Cuba behind

The first wave of Cubans — many of them for the first time in 50 years — are leaving their island to see the world. Among them the famous blogger Yoani Sánchez. They seize the opportunity of Cuba’s new travel law which went into effect earlier this year. Finally.

In Cuba, I’ve seen many suitcases that had been packed years and years earlier. There they were, sitting idly in a corner, under a bed, or in a closet waiting to be carried to some far away country. But as time passed, the baggage got worn out even without moving an inch in any direction. They became symbols of a dream that slipped away. Countries beyond the Castro territory were out of reach.

In last 20 years, I visited Cuba four times. As I walked through Cuban towns and villages, I realized that my own country had become almost a mystical place for many Cubans. For others, my presence was a painful reminder of their lives being wasted. I come from the former Czechoslovakia, a country that used to be socialist, and was one of the closest allies of Fidel Castro. Our mutual trade was based on political solidarity, not on the free market. For instance, we would send our motorbikes called the Jawa to get Cuban oranges in exchange. Also, Cubans studied for free at Charles University in Prague while some of our students were enjoying Cuba, the only tropical socialist country we could legally go to.

But then the 1989 Velvet Revolution exploded. The communist regime crumbled and Czechoslovakia became a capitalist country. Czechs were now an enemy to the Castro regime. Now, we Czechs demanded cash payment for our Jawas, not oranges. We also demanded that Cuba have free elections and respect for human rights.

Very quickly, trade dried up and our relationship soured. The new Czech government with president Vaclav Havel became one of the most hawkish European countries in dealing with communist Cuba. Castro was furious, calling the Czech Republic a traitor, a sell-out, an American puppet.

In 1993, just four years after the Velvet Revolution, I traveled to Cuba for the first time. Fidel Castro agreed to open the island for tourism back then. The contrast could not have been bigger. While capitalist Czechoslovakia was flourishing, Cuba was on the brink of starvation. I remember walking around Havana in my new jeans, new shoes, shiny watch on my wrist, with lots of money in my pocket. I felt the eyes of Cubans on me. As a kid I had the same look on my face whenever I happened to come across a western tourist roaming the streets of communist Prague.

During that first visit, Cubans asked questions about the living conditions in capitalism, reflecting on their own lives in socialism. They asked questions about the Czech Republic based on fear and insecurity: How about unemployment? What about the mafia? How are you coping with losing free education and healthcare, cheap housing, social benefits, etc.?

They also had questions based on curiosity and longing: How does a burger taste? How much money do you make? Which countries have you gone to?

And questions based on desperation and hardship: Can you send me back some underwear I could sell? Can you get me milk for my child? Do you want to have sex with my sister?

Then, almost 10 years passed before I was back in Cuba, this time as a reporter. I’d had my share of achievements and setbacks by then. I had to make some tough decisions and found my way in the new society where my own happiness depended on the actions taken by nobody else but me. I enrolled in college, received a year-long scholarship in Taiwan, did a number of odd jobs, renovated my house, bought a car, traveled to dozens of countries, learned new languages, collected records of my favorite blues players, read dozen of books, saw hundreds of movies, and on and on.

After those 10 years, I found most of the people in Cuba in a stale state of mind going about their everyday lives with the same bundle of emotions — fear, longing and frustration. The suitcases were still there and so was the ultimate question: Can you get me out of here?

In one case, I did. I brought my future wife to Prague. Born and raised in a poor village in the eastern part of Cuba, she had no illusions about Castro’s propaganda. Still, she was shocked to see my country. “Did you live in communism or not?” she asked me one time while taking in energetic, dynamic and well-preserved Czech towns. She could not see any traits of socialism.

Then she offered an observation: “People here seem to have a goal in their lives. They seem to have a destination. They don’t just bounce around like in Cuba.”

I’d love to believe that most of the people in my country or anywhere else have a clear vision they follow. Of course, it is much more complex than to not know what to do with their lives. Still, in a capitalist society, at least they have a choice and a chance.

When my wife first came to Prague, she was 28 years old and was excited to take a bath (not just a shower) for the very first time in her life. She lingered in the tub until the water had turned cold. “I washed away my numb soul,” she said, making her first symbolic step towards independence and freedom.

Now, many of her countrymen will also have an opportunity to search for their own souls and find fulfillment — in a space without the Castros.

Eduard Freisler is a Czech journalist who lives in New York.

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