In 1959, the year of revolutionary ferment in Cuba, Celia Cruz, that Queen of Rhythm and an inventor of Salsa music, recorded a song called “Rhumba Quiero Gozar.” Cruz, arguably the greatest embodiment of 20th century Afro-Cuban culture, invites the listener to dance with her, for the simplest reason: I want to rejoice with you.
I wasn't surprised to hear the song coming from my cell phone on Wednesday afternoon. My 78-year-old mother was calling from Texas; that song has long been her ringtone. Mamá’s first word was “Wau!”
I knew she was calling about President Obama's statement announcing a loosening of restrictions on U.S. relations with Cuba, and the opening of diplomatic relations with the island nation she once called home. I imagine there were thousands of similar calls across the United States and the greater Cuban diaspora after the White House speech. My husband and I had watched it online and I was stunned by what I was hearing and seeing.
My father, who fled Castro’s tyranny in 1962, died earlier this year. I honestly don't know how he would've felt about the new direction in U.S. policy, but I think he'd have been happy to know that people could have more exchange with Cuba and that people could travel more freely.
Though born and raised in the United States, as a child of Cuban exiles I grew up with their experiences always in my mind, images of palm trees and that revolutionary struggle in the background of my American existence. Many Americans are aware of the Cuban revolution that occurred in the late 1950s. But fewer know the history of Cubans’ struggle for independence and freedom for the last century and a half. Cuba's “George Washington” was the poet, journalist and theorist José Martí, who died trying to win Cuban’s independence from Spain in the 19th century. While Martí spent years in the United States, he saw the U.S. as both a democratic example and—accurately, it turned out—as a threat to Cuban independence. Castro’s dictatorship simply replaced another dictatorship, one that had U.S. backing.
It was a stroke of genius that Obama quoted Martí in his speech; Martí is a figure of enormous importance in Cuban culture. And, unlike the Castro regime, he was steadfastly committed to civil expression and civil liberties:.
“After seeing it arise, trembling, sleeping, be traded, be mistaken, be violated, sell itself, become corrupted; after seeing voters go wild, the voting booths besieged, the ballot boxes overturned, vote tallies falsified, the highest offices stolen, it must be proclaimed, because it is true, that the vote is an undeniable and solemnly terrifying weapon. It is the most efficient and compassionate instrument that humanity has devised to conduct its affairs.”
This was Martí's writing on elections in the New York in the 19th century.
Being a progressive Cuban-American has always been a strange and intricate dance. I consider the founders of the country I live in to be the activists and architects of the civil society, those who in the last 100 years have fought for the expansion of the voting franchise and called on America to close the gap between its self-image and its reality. People like Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin, and Willie Velasquez. Their example as Americans taught me that the root value in a democracy is the vote: that's the most sacred thing.
Which is why I have always been stunned by the blind spot in so much of the progressive left to the experience of Cubans on the island. Most progressives truly don't grasp that citizens of Cuba have been denied the most basic civil rights (the right to vote, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of civic oversight) for more than a half-century. Too many of the same people who are rightfully upset about attempts at voter suppression in this country look fondly on a regime that has denied the people of Cuba those very same rights.
I have asked progressives to imagine the last 50 years in the United States without a single solitary vote, without a choice between parties. That is the reality in Cuba.
When it comes to press freedom, Cuba ranks at the very bottom. There is no freedom of the press. All the media is state-run, all access to the Internet is through official media. Your ability to read this column, to agree with me or disagree, to leave a comment, to go on Facebook, to organize a protest—all of these things are banned in Cuba. And yet many say little or think little or know little about the ways Cubans on the island have gone without these things.
I often joke that the problem with US-Cuba relations is that most Americans can only name two Cubans (hint: they're both octogenarian brothers). Given our proximity and our historic connection, this is abysmal.
Cuban-Americans, of course, tend to know more about the current state on the island than your average American. We have family on the island, hear the stories, travel there. Polling shows that younger Cubans and Cuban-Americans want an end to the embargo. I absolutely believe the embargo has been failed policy—for many reasons. One of the underreported parts of this story has been the criticism of the embargo by leading dissidents on the island, people like the courageous blogger Yoani Sánchez.
Cuban culture is more than rum and cigars—two things I heard over and over again in response to yesterday’s news. Cuba is more than one album (Buena Vista Social Club) and old American cars. I look forward to Americans becoming better informed about life in Cuba and, frankly, this will be much easier with more Americans on the island .
Things are going to change. My hope is that Cuba can chart its own course—but this course must represent the desires of all the Cuban people. There are more than 11 million Cubans on the island, and 2 million Cuban-Americans in the United States. We have been dancing an intricate rhumba for as long as both countries have existed, and while no one can know what the next turns in the dance will take, the music is playing again, and we look forward to rejoicing.