Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Dream of a Free Cuba

The Dream of a Free Cuba

Chicago — In my dreams as a young boy, I was chosen by the C.I.A. to
assassinate Fidel Castro; I would be a hero and set Cuba free.

Like many Cuban-Americans, I was raised to believe it was my obligation
to do just that. Perhaps it was because none of us believed we would
ever return to Cuba until Castro was dead.

Now Castro has died, at long last. In fact, I have been going back to
Cuba for years, playing a smaller, less dramatic part in trying to
instigate change in Cuba. But when I accepted an offer in 2003 to attend
a seminar in Havana on Afro-Cuban ritual in Caribbean theater, some in
my family considered me a traitor.

Though I had no memories of Cuba, having left the island in 1961 at the
age of 3, I teared up as I stepped off the plane and all of my senses
absorbed missing years of home. I attended a dress rehearsal of an
adaptation of Euripides' "The Bacchae" and was surprised not just by the
exquisite quality of the performance, but also by how clearly critical
the production was of the Castro regime.

I kept looking over my shoulder, sure that the police would burst in at
any moment. It never happened. But I realized then how the isolation of
Cuba imposed by the United States embargo for more than five decades had
prevented me from seeing the efforts Cubans were making — and the risks
they were taking — to criticize the state through the arts.

After that, I returned to the island many times as the director of the
Latino Theater Festival at the Goodman Theater, looking to bring Cuba's
leading theater company, Teatro Buendía, back here to Chicago. I
eventually succeeded in 2010.

In my role as a professor, I returned to Cuba this summer to create a
theater course with Teatro Buendía for Northwestern's study abroad
program. Incongruously enough, the new course was made possible by a
grant through the State Department, designed to foster cultural exchange.

As a Cuban-American who was raised to be fiercely patriotic about my
adopted home, I believe the best way to instigate change in Cuba is to
support these performers and all those who risk retribution for
criticizing the revolution. However, the recent appointment by
President-elect Donald J. Trump of Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of a
hard-line conservative Cuban-American political action committee, to a
transition team for the Treasury Department is a threatening sign for
advocates of President Obama's groundbreaking shift of policy toward Cuba.

Mr. Claver-Carone's views are consistent with a declining but still
influential generation in my community of those who obstinately deny
that more access and open communication with those living in Cuba can
support pro-democracy activities, and threaten the government of Raúl
Castro from within.

To return now to the failed approach of the past would be worse than
counterproductive. All you have to do is travel the half-hour from José
Martí International Airport to central Havana to see the propaganda
billboard that blames the embargo for all the shortages and hardships
suffered by the Cuban people. The trade ban is undeniably the most
effective prop the Castro regime has to avoid taking responsibility for
every ill in Cuba.

I grew up witnessing the profound pain of all that my family lost when
we came to this country. I watched my mother, Adela, struggle to create
a future for her 10 children in a new country. And I grew up lamenting
the loss of a life I never knew, a culture and identity that we, her
children, were cut off from.

So I understand, too well, the arguments of political leaders like
Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz against normalizing relations with
Cuba. They and other politicians aligned with influential hard-line
Cuban-Americans argue that while the Cuban government continues to
violate human rights, suppressing free speech, unrestricted travel and
economic opportunities for its people, the United States should maintain
pressure on the regime by upholding the trade embargo. Recently,
however, and for the first time after historically casting "no" votes,
the United States simply abstained from a vote at the United Nations to
lift it.

A door has been cracked open. To push it completely open requires the
courage to reassess our true intentions and how best to achieve them.
The possibility now exists for artistic collaboration and cultural exchange.

To be sure, human rights abuses do continue in Cuba, most notably in the
constraint of freedom of expression. Though Cubans are freer to travel
outside the country, the state still restricts unfettered travel, even
within the island. And while the Castro regime defends its stumbling
economic reforms, opportunities for its citizens are limited to about
200 sanctioned nonstate jobs, which include, somewhat surreally, the
profession of clowning.

But when one strategy fails, it is only logical — and human — to explore
another. Both the Cuban exile community and Cubans on the island are
hungry for change, but part of that change must be to rethink our
demands of past decades.

One issue we must revisit is the idea of reparations for families like
mine that fled or were driven into exile. In Cuba, generations of
families have made their homes in the houses nationalized by the
revolutionary government when Cuban citizens fled the country. For many
born since the revolution, those are the only homes they have ever
known. Meanwhile, Cuban-Americans of my generation have been the
beneficiaries of the American dream; generally, we have achieved a much
higher quality of life than our counterparts on the island.

I am no political scientist, but I am a proud Cuban-American and
socially conscious theater artist who has lived in both worlds. Unlike
many hard-liners in the Cuban exile community, I have spent considerable
time in Cuba over the last 13 years, working closely with Cuban artists
who bravely voice their dissent against the regime.

I've seen how Cubans, from artists to taxi drivers, speak freely about
how the embargo is a prop for the state's denial of responsibility for
the hardships they face daily. If those who oppose changing United
States policy toward Cuba visited the island, they, too, would realize
this obvious truth. But many will not, on principle, return.

That is a mistake. Nothing is more threatening to a totalitarian regime
than the unfettered flow of information and ideas. By demanding that
Congress lift the trade embargo on Cuba, we can make more exchange
possible, especially for students and artists, to turn that flow into a
torrent. People in Cuba know that change is inevitable; and with the
death of Fidel Castro, they need us to act now more than ever.

Henry Godinez is a professor in the Department of Theater at
Northwestern University and the resident artistic associate at the
Goodman Theater.

Source: The Dream of a Free Cuba - The New York Times -

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