For the first time in my life, I heard the Cuban national anthem — and felt nothing. Strange, this emptiness, after a lifetime of living in Miami with all things Cuban a vital part of me, and in the middle of all this history-making now.
But as the world superpower and its feisty Caribbean foe of five decades shook hands to mark the end of estrangement Monday, opening the Cuban embassy and raising the Cuban flag in Washington, D.C., I couldn’t conjure anything more than the curiosity and intellectual interest of the journalist.
The flag was taken down in 1961, the year the United States broke relations with the fledgling Communist regime — the same year that President Barack Obama, who has brought the 180-degree change in relations about, was born.
A shake-up in U.S.-Cuba policy was way overdue, yet at the symbolic inauguration of the Cuban embassy, the familiar combative anthem, once rousing and awe-inspiring, rang out of tune. Without the most basic of freedoms as part of a new day, the opening has the feel of a business deal and a bailout. The flag-raising fared no better, the outdoor event characterized more by sideline folklore than diplomatic decorum with outbursts of “Viva Fidel!” and “Viva Raúl!”
While top-notch contemporary artist Tania Bruguera awaits trial in Havana for daring to attempt to stage, in light of the new relations, a performance on Revolution Square with the social media hashtag #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand), Cuba sent to the celebration the kitschy artist Kcho, who’s made the symbol of Cuban flight — the oar — a tired objet d’art.
The Cuban artist, whose name is Alexis Leyva, came to the U.S. in the 1990s and was embraced by the New York art world, only to flame out after he took to partying more than to his obligations to art dealers paying his tab. He returned to Cuba a new convert to the worship of Fidel Castro, and hence, he was holding at the flag-raising ceremony a 26 de Julio flag, an ode to the movement that brought Castro to power.
Another character pulled for the occasion from the old bag of tricks of fidelistas: Crooner Silvio Rodriguez, whom a Miami journalist reported was being compared to Bob Dylan. Sacrilege — Dylan, brown-nosing authority? Just one more americanada, of which there will more for years to come, as more Americans, in good spirit but without perspective, make Cuba a travel destination and a business opportunity.
Not to miss his chance to be the cynical pesado, an annoying person, in the room, Silvio Rodriguez told Agence France Press that, after seeing the Cuban flag flying in Washington, he was redacting the old anti-imperialist chant, “Cuba sí, Yankees no,” to say “Cuba sí y Yankees también” — Cuba yes, and Yankees too.
These were politically calibrated invitees good at stirring discord, the kind of shenanigans the Cuban government seems unable to leave behind, no matter how many well-rehearsed pleasantries the diplomats exchange with their American counterparts.
“We have chosen a new path,” said Secretary of State John Kerry, standing side by side with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at a press conference.
But Cuba, apparently, has not.
Rodriguez chose the happy occasion to reiterate Cuba’s ridiculous demand that the U.S. monetarily compensate the Cuban government for “human and economic damages” allegedly caused by the embargo. How convenient to forget it was the Cuban government who first confiscated goods and properties from American citizens and from its own people, and established a non-sustainable state-run economy that downgraded a once-thriving country.
Awkward way to begin engagement, and more so when the issue unresolved is repression, the beating-after-beating, arrest-after-arrest every week that shows the world that nothing has changed in the repressive way the government operates.
It may be the end of estrangement, but it’s too early to applaud anything on the Cuban side. Not even a once honorable anthem.