Great day for Cubans, especially me

Yesterday Stew yelled urgently during the NBC Evening News broadcast, for me to watch an important video clip: Three Cuban honor guards solemnly marching toward the flagpole at the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. to raise the Cuban flag for the first time in more than fifty years.

My own celebration yesterday. 

The choreography was a bit overcooked; the stiff-legged guards looked like characters in a Prussian operetta, except they were all black Cubans. Yet the sight of the Cuban flag going up at the embassy—which for decades had been nominally operated by the government of Switzerland and until recently didn’t even have a flagpole—briefly, and unexpectedly, moved me to tears.

And just this morning, news came from my second-cousin Odette, who finally arrived in Mexico with her two daughters, to be reunited with her husband Julio, whom she hasn’t seen in two or three years, by week’s end. He lives in Austin, Texas, and works hanging drywall with a crew of undocumented Mexicans.

I’d visited the Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. more than fifteen years ago, as a journalist, and remember it as a ghostly sight. The building is a grand mansion, much grander than you would expect for such a relatively insignificant country, with a grand staircase and a grand ballroom where, before the endless decades of socialist penury and austerity, grand parties were held, supposedly one of the hottest tickets in the capital of the Free World.

What I found instead was a building and an operation frozen in time, circa 1960. There were coats of arms stuccoed over the tops of the arches surrounding the impressive entrance lobby, one for each of Cuba’s six provinces, which have since proliferated to fifteen under Castro’s revisionist map making. The desks by the entrance were beat up; the ballroom expectantly holding its breath for the next gala, surely no time soon.
Three years ago Stew and I also saw the U.S. Embassy in Havana, though only from the outside. It’s a 1950s-modern building holding a choice spot on the city’s oceanfront promenade, and surrounded daily by a line of hundreds of people looking for papers, visas, permits, anything to get out of this socialist paradise.

Flagpoles installed across the street from the
U.S. Embassy in Havana

Just across the street, the Cuban government had installed a jungle of flagpoles to block the view of a rolling electronic billboard the Bush administration installed on one side the embassy, from which to broadcast provocative messages intended to do little more than annoy the Cuban government.

Sanity had returned sometime later, when the U.S. removed the billboard and the Cubans stopped flying black flags, which symbolized some American outrage I can’t remember.

For us the most impressive sight was a brand-new, dark-blue armored Cadillac parked in the courtyard of the embassy, awaiting orders not from the ambassador, but the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section, as prescribed by the diplomatic kabuki the two countries played for decades.

According to NBC News, when John Kerry visits later this summer, he’ll be the first American secretary of state since 1945 to visit tiny Cuba, which all along has been only ninety miles away from the U.S.

One of my two third-cousins, headed for the U.S. this weekend. 

People ask my opinion about the sudden melting of the ice wall between the two countries, and I say it’s great, exciting, hopeful.

What I think it’s going to happen to the folks trapped in the island? I have no idea. I suspect rapid economic change, fueled by tourist dollars and a loosening of the socialist straitjacket that has choked the economy for so long, but under some sort of centralized political control, in the style of Vietnam or China.

Raúl Castro says he plans to retire in 2018, when he will be about eighty-eight years old, and Fidel in his nineties or preferably resting in an impressive mausoleum shaded by palm trees. Not a decade too soon, fellas.

I am particularly happy for the two daughters of my second cousin ,who’ll arrive in the U.S. this weekend. Happy that the family will be together again, happy that those two girls will get a chance to explore a whole new life, and to do so in the island kingdom of Austin, Texas. Happy that when Stew and I visit Cuba next year, it will be more like a fun family trip home, instead of a tension-filled passage to a forbidden land.


2 thoughts on “Great day for Cubans, especially me

  1. I am thrilled for the Cuban people that the blockade and freedom to come and go as they please is finally coming to the island. In my heart of hearts I have always wanted to travel to Cuba to see the architecture and meet the people. Hopefully that will happen some time soon. I'm happy to can return to your homeland with open arms for friends and family and no fear.


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