“We all belong to the sea between us.” — Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco, reading from his commemorative work Matters of the Sea at the ceremonial opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana.
Old Glory flies in La Habana again, and it brings to mind another poet, the exiled Heberto Padilla.
“Cuban poets no longer dream,” he wrote in the bravest book of poetry ever penned on the island, Fuera del Juego (Out of the Game), a wrenching rejection of the complicity of intellectuals with what had become a firmly planted, despotic dictatorship in 1968, the year poet Richard Blanco was born in Madrid of Cuban exile parents.
The prize-winning poetry cost Padilla imprisonment, torture and ultimately, the safety if not the solace of exile, thanks to the intervention of a Kennedy. He, too, loved the sea, a requisite to being Cuban, but he died of a heart ailment in a land-locked, southern American town, discouraged not only by his estrangement from the land he loved but also by the divisive politics of exile.
Today, I think Padilla might have been moved, as many of us were, by the powerful imagery of this historic moment and by the cadence of Blanco’s call to “gaze into the lucid blues of our shared horizon to breathe together, to heal together.” But Padilla, a man “aged by clarity,” might have warned Blanco about the perils and limitations of being a poet of officialdom, of toeing the line, too close to corny, too far from truth.
And Padilla would also point to the fissures of an on-point strategy of engagement that is unfortunately accompanied by incongruent moves.
This moment of openness wouldn’t have been possible without the relentless pressure that Cuban dissidents have exerted on the Cuban government, risking their lives, taking beatings, serving jail time to expose violations of the most basic human rights.
Yet not a single dissident was invited to this ceremony, and the excuse that there was no space was contradicted by photos showing plenty of it.
The Cuban government made sure dissidents were nowhere near. Although people were allowed to gather outside the embassy, dissidents were kept away by Cuban police. Fourteen of the Ladies in White, who peacefully march after church on Sundays, were arrested, according to reports, to keep them from reaching the embassy.
Old Glory flies in Havana again — a magnificent symbol of freedom and democracy against a serene blue sea, yet enclosed by the tall bars of the reopened embassy, an island within an island. No longer the flag of the enemy, but of the “neighbor,” as Secretary of State John Kerry cast the new fragile relationship.
Yet the Cuban government considers its own citizens enemies (including Cuban-American journalists with insider knowledge and affinity for Padilla poetry). The reason: simply thinking differently and pushing for the same reforms Kerry mentioned in his speech.
Kerry’s was a memorable speech that hit fertile if calculated notes, including the mention of Cuban-American contributions — all the more extraordinary because it was broadcast on Cuban television, not in edited, censored format as is customary, but in full.
“We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas,” Kerry said, “where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”
Those are words that, like the flag, are a beacon of hope amid a dictatorship that has lasted too long, all of the 56 years of my life.
“Tell the truth,” Padilla urged in one of his poems. “Tell, at least, your truth. And then/let whatever happens happen/let them rip your beloved page/let them knock down your door with rocks/the people crowded before your body/as if you were a prodigy or a dead man.”
He was a man of his time, and ours.
Old Glory flies in Havana again, poets dream, but freedom remains the most heavily guarded hostage of the dictatorship.
The sea is wide between us.