Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The View from Cuba

From Havana

Obama in Havana

By Manuel Alberto Ramy

No, Barack Obama has not traveled to Havana. But his campaign has. I learned this when I saw a T-shirt with a slogan in his favor, hanging from a clothesline in the El Cerro neighborhood, which, according to the old song, "has the key."

"It was brought to me by my son, who is an Obama fan," said the owner, a lady who asked that her name not be published because her son "lives in Miami and, as you know, things over there are not easy."

To many Cubans (not only to the Cuban government), Obama and McCain are the same when it comes to their general attitude toward the island. "A little tougher or a little kinder, but they want to mess with what we have achieved," says Rigoberto, who identifies himself as a transport retiree. "I am not an apapipio," an unconditional supporter of the government, he hastens to say, but "we have good things to retain, other things to change, like letting people make a better living because things are tough," he says, raising his arms and eyes toward the crumbling walls of his house.

The old house must have been built in the 1920s or '30s. It's easy to see that it has been poorly -- or not at all -- maintained in the past 40 years.

When it comes to Obama, Rigoberto agrees with his nephew, "whom I could see this year, thanks to my sister, who is his mother, whom he can visit. He couldn't visit me, though. We uncles were removed from the family," he says, smiling ironically.

In 2004, President George W. Bush imposed rules that limit the relationship of Cuban families on both sides of the Straits of Florida. One of them was a redefinition of the concept of family, from which Bush excluded uncles, cousins and nephews. He also reduced the number of visits to one every three years, as well as the remittances of money for family assistance, to $300 every quarter. All that as part of the chain that links the Cuban-American ultraright with the island rightwingers.

It's worthwhile to see how people's appraisal of the candidates changes when legitimate individual interests come into play, both in Cuba and in Florida, where the topic of family is weakening the control of the ultraconservative, aggressive "historic exiles."

"Obama was in Miami and said that, if he were elected, he would lift those regulations. How could we -- my son, his uncle and myself -- not agree with him?" She tells me her son "is already an American citizen."

From the presidential campaign, our chat drifted to the races for three Congressional seats that are setting Florida on fire.

"My son told me that those two -- what's their names?" she asks her brother, who answers: "The Diaz-Balarts." "Well, them, they are against the trips. Imagine. You can tell they have no relatives here."

The brothers Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart, along with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, three Republican members of Congress, recently wrote a letter to the governor of Florida asking him to sign a law that enables the state to paralyze flights to the island and end family visits -- all in the name of consumer protection. The governor signed the law, which has been challenged by travel operators and is under judicial review.

Somewhat sadly, the woman says she doesn't want to be identified because she can travel to Miami ("I'm hoping to go soon," she says) and fears that any publicity "might harm me when I go ask for a visa."

She describes her son as a hard-working man who has never been involved in politics "neither here nor there. He went [to the States] to improve his life," she says, but in the Congressional elections "he will vote for someone who supports the trips. I don't remember his name, but it's a candidate in his district."

Clearly, his son was part of the migratory waves that, since the 1990s, have gradually changed Miami's social composition, a fact recorded by several polls done in the past 20 years. Different motivations and interests seek channels that suit them.

I look at the T-shirt with the pro-Obama slogan. If it's on the clothesline it's because it was washed. And if it was washed, who wore it?

"My grandson," Rigoberto answers. "He is 19 and wears it to every party he attends. You know why? 'Cause he wants to rile 'em up, as kids say nowadays."

Lucky for me, the young man who wears the T-shirt "to rile 'em up" arrives in the house and parks his old Chinese bicycle (Forever brand) in the alley next to the old house.

"Yes, I wear it and I've had no problems," he says, airily. "Why wouldn't I wear it, when people around here wear T-shirts with the American flag?"

"Look," he adds, "I have a Chinese bike, an Obama T-shirt and bought a Vietnamese computer. I am globalized and want peace and normal relations and the ability to travel."

To motivate him, I mention that popular singer Silvio Rodríguez recently spoke in favor of eliminating exit permits.

"Silvio is not the government, and the government has said nothing" about exit permits, he comments. "Besides, I prefer Ray Fernández."

Ray is a singer who's singing his own compositions outside the radio and TV circuit. He has attracted a sizeable audience that follows him wherever he goes.

"Once the Americans change their policy, [the leaders] here will change theirs, too," he opines. And he adds, as a final message: "I told my uncle when he came to visit that he had to fight for his yucca up there."

"Fight for your yucca" is a refrain from one of Ray Fernández's popular songs, the young man explains, as he hangs a baseball cap with the word "Industriales" (his favorite team) from the bicycle handlebar.

Does the young man study? The grandfather hesitates. Does he work? The question is like a fly ball that drops between two players, because neither reaches for it. Finally, the young man answers. "I'm into it."

I thank the three and leave. With this report, I, too have "fought for my yucca."

Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief for Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.

No comments: