It's funny. Sometimes -- okay, a lot of the time -- when I'm on book tour, or giving a talk at a university, or being interviewed for an article, people make assumptions about me, because I'm Cuban-American. Five assumptions. All of them suck. They are:
1. That I was born in Miami. (Nope. Albuquerque.)
2. That I come from money. (I. Friggin. Wish.)
3. That my Cuban dad and his family must have been rich before the Revolution. (Uhm, yeah. No.)
4. That I myself hate the Cuban Revolution. (The only thing I HATE is black licorice. Ew.)
5. That deposing the Castros is front and center in my consciousness 24-7 and that it is my obligation as a visible Cuban American Author to denounce the regime constantly and especially if I'm in Miami. (It is never a thought; I speak for no one but me, and even then not all that well; Miami scares me a little, ever since those old Cuban exile men with guns showed up at my last Books and Books reading in Coral Gables, pretending to be Chick Lit fans.)
I am apparently a rare breed of Cuban-American, in that I am politically progressive and was raised by a Cuban exile father who changed his politics from far right to far left after visiting his homeland in his 30s (20 years after coming to the U.S. as a teenager) and seeing how much the Revolution had helped our once-impoverished, illiterate family in the countryside near Santa Clara. Once starving peasants, our family (all of whom stayed behind other than my father, he having left at 15 in search of adventure) are now doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs.
I was raised, like Cubans in Cuba, to respect the Revolution, by a father whose sociology professor career centered around studying it. Yep. My dad is a Cubanologist. We had a framed photo of Fidel Castro on the piano in my childhood home, in which he shakes my father's hand.
I was also raised, like Americans in the United States, to be critical of the Revolution's faults, and there are many, because ours was a home that prized critical thinking and honest assessments. I have been to Cuban several times, and while I found much to admire there, I also found much to detest. Kind of like New Jersey. Or Kanye West.
When I was extremely sick seven years ago with autoimmune issues, and had no health insurance, the Cuban government welcomed me and treated me for free, proudly claiming me as one of their own, even if no one in Cuba could understand how I, with my crappy Spanish and love of weak coffee, could be considered a Latina author when I was so obviously just American to them. The doctors were amazing. The people with whom I shared my hospital room were kind and warm. I was amazed by the good health and high level of education among average citizens in Havana. I realized, while spending 10 days in an excellent, albeit crumbling, Cuban hospital next to the sea, that the United States and Cuba were like photo negatives of each other. In Cuba, the buildings were decaying and the people were in phenomenal shape, mind, body and soul. In the United States, precisely the reverse was true; we have beautiful hospitals, but sickly people, new school buildings, but shockingly undereducated children, beautiful cars, yet 80 percent of us haven't read a book in the past year.
"But the Cuban people aren't free!" Right-wing exiles in Miami love to remind me. Me, and Janet Reno. Me, and Janet Reno, and anyone else who will listen to their furious shouting.
But is that true? And, furthermore, are we Americans as free as we think we are?
My dad taught me long ago that there was more than one kind of freedom in the world. There is the Freedom To, and then there is the Freedom From. In the United States, we get the Freedoms To: TO choose our own careers, TO move whenever we like (if we can afford it), TO speak out against our government (even if it does no good) -- while Cubans get... yeah, pretty much none of that. In Cuba, meanwhile, they get the Freedoms From: FROM hunger, FROM illiteracy, FROM homelessness, FROM lack of medical care, FROM expensive education -- while we Americans get, well, exactly none of that, ever. For a society to be just and good, I believe it needs to offer both to its people, like Canada.
So, no. I'm not angry that President Obama went to Cuba, becoming the first president since Coolidge to do so. I am Cuban American, and I am pleased. I think our two countries could learn a lot from one another, if both were willing to put down their shortsighted arrogance and ignorance and admit to the strengths of the other - you know, the way people do when they are in harmonious, healthy relationships.
I do hope that's where my two beautiful nations are headed -- towards a harmonious, healthy relationship. It's about time both sides grew up and replaced cold war rhetoric with compassionate realism.