Co-authored by Sam Garry, International Business and Spanish student, shoestring traveler and collector of stories; and Nate Zeile, conversationalist and Sociology and International student at the University of Denver
Looking up at the crypt of Antonio Miguel Martínez was a surreal moment to say the least.
While the city of La Habana wound down after the climactic visit of President Barack Obama, I stood at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, California with the plastic rose given to me by Antonio's daughter, a Cuban, just four days prior. She had told me before I left her home in Habana Vieja that "él habla inglés," and as I mustered up words of reverence, I couldn't help but be overcome with the unfathomable personal, political and social significance of the plastic flower in my hand.
While this flower had traveled two thousand miles with ease, strapped to the side of my backpack, Antonio's daughter could only dream of standing where I stood.
A week prior, I had been at the home of my mamá cubana, which Irina had taken to calling herself. What had started as a casual conversation regarding the history of her guesthouse soon took a turn toward an intense crash course in international politics. Soon, I found myself in the midst of the captivating story of her father.
In the mid-seventies, he was branded an enemy of the state and was forced to flee to the United States. Irina never saw him again. In 1999, after a successful career at a college in California, he was tragically killed by a drunk driver. He stipulated his only child, Irina, as the lone heir to an inheritance of an unknown amount. Although unlikely to be a fortune, it would allow her daughter to attend culinary school and pursue her passion rather than following Irina into the "uninspiring" and "monotonous" guesthouse business.
As Irina flipped through a photo album, tears streaming down her face, she lamented that she was not only financially restricted from visiting her father's burial site, but caught behind the institutional barrier separating her from the inheritance.
As I hung the flower at Antonio's resting place, it became, in effect, the embodiment of Irina's closure with her father's death, the closest she will likely ever get to where I stood.
The story isn't just Irina's, or Antonio's. This is a story of the implications of a life split between two countries separated by only 90 miles and an embargo. It could have applied to any of the countless Cubans I met who told me dolefully about their brother in Miami or asked what I knew about Ohio, the state where their son was now living.
It's tempting to believe that times are changing. If you talked to a Cuban on the street of Havana in the midst of the president's visit, their excitement and affection towards Americans would lead you to believe times have already changed. My travel partners and I even shared in the creation of a roadside banner reading: "Welcome Obama and Michelle! We love you!" written in bright red lipstick on a large white bed sheet.
We realized that these bright eyed, excited people were not the anti-American socialists the Cuban Embargo was intended to enervate, but nonetheless, an inescapable affliction affected many of their lives.
As Raul Castro has allowed an increasing amount of licensed private business to take root, Cubans have sprung at the opportunity to open restaurants and rent out rooms in their homes, business directed at tourists. There are an estimated 500,000 small businesses, or negocios particulares in Cuba. The ability of Cubans to start negocios particulares represents something they've never truly had under the socialist system: mobility.
This tourist-fueled mobility is in part made possible by the Cuban Convertible Peso (or CUC) which is one of the two currencies currently being used in the country, and is pegged to the US dollar. Those blessed with private business licenses have the unique and coveted ability to earn CUC's, while those in government jobs are paid in Moneda Nacional, which carry a value of one twenty-fifth of a dollar. The phenomenon created by the dual currency system has inextricably intertwined tourism and a higher quality of life. As time has passed on, it has continued to cause neurosurgeons and college professors to leave their professional jobs and enter any job that will get them closer to the CUC, tourists, and a better life.
For many Cubans, Obama has become the manifestation of increased tourism and thus increased opportunities for private business. As more private licenses are granted, more Cubans can seize the opportunity to move towards being a "have" instead of a "have-not."
A longing for change among the Cuban people has manifested itself in Barack Obama, an icon of what many Cubans believe is a new future for their country. To Cubans who have their minds set on improving their lives, Obama's visit to Cuba is not about past transgressions, international diplomacy, or legacy.
It is about hope.
With a vision for a brighter future, the people of Cuba live in hope for an end to the embargo and after all I have seen, I hope the same. An improved relationship between the two countries means an end to the trivial barriers that separate us from an incredible group of people both fundamentally tied to and separate from the U.S.
Just like the plastic flower I had carried 2,000 miles, hope brought us together as Americans and Cubans in anticipation of the next steps in the relationship between our two countries.