The steam came up from the sidewalks as the sun beat down on us, like a sandwich engulfed in heat, as we walked through old Havana. Broken sidewalks and crumbling buildings with cracked paint surrounded us.
A middle-aged Cuban man approached us while we wondered what he was going to say. In heavy-accented English he said two words: “Thank you.” The hope and appreciation that was in his eyes was repeated many times by Cubans that I met during my visit. In many ways it was a microcosm of the four days I spent in Cuba at the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy.
In his speech, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized that the ceremony didn’t change our democratic values and our strong beliefs that the Cuban people are entitled to self-determination and to elect their own leaders. Much of his speech was in Spanish, so it could clearly be heard and understood by the people on the island. Kerry also emphasized our commitment to human rights and religious freedom. (Perhaps some dissidents will view the American flag flying above as a symbol of hope.)
What happened on Aug. 14 with the raising of our flag was an opportunity for both sides to see if we could once again be neighbors even though we strongly disagree about many things. I likened it to family members who had not spoken to each other for 50 years. There’s no doubt that they have differences of opinion, often very strong, and in some instances unable to change.
We are entering a phase of a very complicated dance where each partner is looking at the steps taken by the other side. Whether you are in favor or against normalization, we should honor the principles of Jose Martí, quoted by Kerry in his speech, that “Anything that divides is a sin.” Today we are less divided, albeit slightly, but tomorrow is still unknown and will depend on both partners.
During my visit, I went back to my home in Havana where I spent the first 13 years of my life to find it was occupied by a bank. Unfortunately, I asked if I could go inside and I did. My old home had been totally changed into small offices. I chose to keep my memories as opposed to the reality of today. As I visited many other places that I had known, most were no longer recognizable, but the ghosts of yesterday were clearly there.
Whatever your view of what is happening, you should consider deciding for yourself what the Cuban people believe and want for their future by going there and talking with them.
It has been said that yesterday is history, today is a mystery, but tomorrow an opportunity. Hopefully, we will not waste this opportunity.
Stephen N. Zack, Miami