It’s the year’s most asked question: “Have you been to Cuba?”
Implicit in the query is a dash of well-meaning all-American naïveté — the belief that, if Americans are now free to travel to Cuba, it should be even easier for me as a Cuban-American to pack my bags and join the giddy rush to visit the island where I was born.
Far from assured, it’s less likely that under President Barack Obama’s rapprochement policy and expanded travel and trade rules I’ll ever set foot in Cuba. The Cuban government has no desire, need or motivation to open up to Cuban-Americans like me when they’re hosting more American tourists and journalists than they can accommodate — as well as scores of returning Cuban immigrants and Cuban-Americans with less political baggage and more money to spend and invest on the island.
It’s one of those perhaps unintended, but real results of the new U.S policy. Some Cuban-Americans need not apply.
From Cuba’s side, the opening is not through an all-embracing circle, but through a sliver. Or, as Miami lawyer Rafael Peñalver puts it, “un embudo, a funnel,” a system set up for trade, travel and investment “through which only a select few from abroad are allowed to partner with a select few from the Castro cúpula to exploit Cuba’s natural resources and labor force. The main objective of the ‘embudo’ is to keep the Castros in power."
It’s the same limited system the Cuban government has operated during the past 30 years to keep the economy afloat by catering to travelers and investors from Canada, Spain and Brazil. Those who participate must toe the line. Cuba is not a state that respects individual rights or that ensures its citizens — or its visitors — due process.
A journalist who points out those shortcomings, and who gives voice to the repressed opposition, is not welcome. In Cuba’s eyes, I’m the devil incarnate: An informed Cuban-American with intimate knowledge of contemporary history and of the institutions and characters that shape the island. A tour guide or media handler would find it difficult to feed me the propaganda they routinely peddle to others.
Worse yet, I’m not someone they can easily dismiss as a right-winger.
In the early 2000s, when I covered Cuban art and culture, a Communist cousin sent me a message that I would be welcomed in Cuba.
“Why not?” he told a relative. “She’s a well respected intellectual of the left.”
I didn’t even attempt to apply for a visa — and had a good laugh at the way the extreme right of exile and the extreme left that rules Cuba often coincide in their assessments of the political spectrum.
I appreciated more the clever pragmatism with which another cousin encouraged me to visit in the aftermath of the 1990s Special Period’s shortages: “Here, one member of the [exile] community is worth 20 from the [Communist] party.”
Truth is, I ran out of enough desire, although never out of curiosity.
In the age of Obama, a visa is not any more likely to materialize than at any other time. Change Cuban-Americans like me can count on is not in the cards. And I hope that answers the year’s question.