President Barack Obama will arrive in my native island on my mother’s 87th birthday, a perhaps insignificant fact were it not for the mathematics of Cuban history and exile.
When Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl rose to power, my mother was only 29.
An elementary school teacher pregnant with her first child and married to a food distributor who made extra money buying and selling American cars, she was wealthy in love and promise. In sepia-tone photographs, the couple is leaning against one or another new model, wearing fine linens, and she, trendy stilettos. They came from humble families, but earned enough to dream of building a weekend beach house in Varadero.
Three months into the Castro revolution that destroyed not only the wealthy but the middle class, I was born.
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Days before the Obamas’ trip, I’ll turn 57.
Obama is the second sitting president to travel to the island.
Republican Calvin Coolidge was the first in 1928, and like Obama, traveled with the First Lady. President Gerardo Machado, one of the youngest generals in the Cuban war of independence, ruled Cuba then, an advocate of ending the Platt Amendment that established U.S. dominance in Cuban affairs.
My mother was born a year after Coolidge’s visit to address the Sixth Annual International Conference of American States in Havana. She has been a great-grandmother for almost a decade.
Her grandchildren are into their 30s — and the Castros still rule Cuba, as if in 1959 they had not just won a guerrilla war, but purchased a 780-mile-long farm. By the way they’ve positioned relatives in key positions in government and commerce, it looks like they plan to bequeath the island to their children and grandchildren.
Our exile is forever. My father is buried in a Miami mausoleum, Cuban flag resting at his side. My mother is losing her memory to age and disease. I’m three times a grandmother, a grateful American who would only consider returning to Cuba, the homeland I left at 10, as a journalist now. My Cuba is mostly gone, resting in cemeteries on both sides of the Florida Straits.
Even if the Castro dictatorship were the most benign in the world, the reign has been way too long.
Why does the hemisphere’s longest-lasting dictatorship — one that began with summary executions and continues to curtail the most basic freedoms — merit the honor of a visit by a man whose historic presidency is marked by principles the regime doesn’t uphold?
It’s not a question of merit, reward or legitimacy.
Some are calling the presidential visit a disgrace and casting Obama’s breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations as a vain quest for legacy. Such ready-made condemnation isn’t useful. Obama is more popular in Cuba than the brother-in-chief dictator. His words, broadcast throughout the island, could inspire generations. And the future, at this late point, is what matters.
Two generations couldn’t fix the chaotic country the Castros created in complicity with those who supported them — and at long last, the Americans intervened.
“America will always stand for human rights around the world,” Obama said Thursday.
The numbers are on his side. I’ll take him at his word.