I stand for Cuba
– José Martí, Cuban rebel and poet
Cuba. I have no roots there that I know of, no family other than the extended members of my adopted clan. And yet, it pulls me, and it breaks my heart. I don’t know that you can grow up in Miami and not feel that way. To be sure, my lefty heart had a very hard time growing up surrounded by the reactionary politics of my friends and neighbors in exile or, more commonly, of their parents, but not once did I question their pain, their fear of never seeing their homeland or their loved ones again, their trauma. Not once. Because, honestly, who does that? In that love-hate dynamic, the love always prevailed.
When my family and I first moved to Las Vegas, I was entirely ignorant of the demographics I would find here. Then on my first trip out shopping I heard one Cuban accent. And then another. And then another. I don’t think I have the words to describe the feeling that came over me, the feeling of being home in a completely new place. What I didn’t know then is that Nevada has the third largest population of Cuban immigrants in the country, after Florida and New Jersey. So yeah, in a really visceral way, for this and many other reasons, this town quickly cemented itself as my home away from home.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the protests that have erupted in Cuba over the last few weeks would be felt here as well. Not just in the streets, with various local pro-Cuba rallies. but all over social media. And boy, do people have a lot of opinions. Capitalism is to blame! Communism is to blame! It’s all the embargo’s fault! It’s all Fidel’s fault! But guess what? It’s all of the above. Not a single nation, not a single movement, not a single leader has ever had Cuba’s best interest at heart. and the Cuban people have been the pawns of that war of ideologies for as long as they’ve existed.
I won’t get too deep into the island’s rich history here, but first it was Spain, then the U.S., and then, yes, Fidel Castro’s revolution that helped themselves to whatever piece of the island and of the people they felt entitled to. The embargo that the U.S. has imposed on Cuba in one form or another since the 1960s is certainly in large part to blame for the poverty that ravages most of the country today. It is an affront to human rights, no doubt about it. Since 1992, the UN has annually adopted a resolution calling for an end to the Cuban embargo. The U.S. has, of course, consistently voted against it. So by all means, call the U.S. out for every single one of its sins — but if that’s where it ends for you, you are either willfully ignorant or far more concerned with your ideology than with the people you pretend your ideology serves.
Listen, I wore the hell out of my Che Guevara t-shirts in my teens. probably risking life and limb doing so in South Florida, but I wore them proudly. I watched all the documentaries and listened to Fidel’s speeches, and they were mesmerizing. He spoke of unity and communal prosperity, of freedom from foreign interference, of liberty. Finally, liberty. Liberty from the capitalistic interests of the United States that had all but ravaged the country, making it a playground for mobsters and movie stars while the people languished. Fidel and Che came into that space and spoke of another way. If the me I am now had lived back then, I have no doubt I would’ve been an eager supporter of that revolution. The people were going hungry; they were dying so a few rich people could live it up.
Yet today, the people are still going hungry. They are still dying so a few powerful men can claim victory in a perpetual fight that has nothing to do with them. Cubans on the island today cannot leave; they cannot speak against their government; they cannot be sure which of their neighbors is going to snitch on them for scoring a pig on the black market so their family can have meat, if they can even find one. But worst of all — most offensive of all to me, at least — is that the hotels and bars that draw so many of you in to party and celebrate your beautiful, free life there are closed to the people whose country you are actually in. They’re not allowed in there without you, unless they are serving or entertaining you.
In. Their. Own. Land.
That’s it. That’s where it ends for me. I need know nothing else. Cuba is a prison, and ultimately, its long list of self-serving leaders are to blame, either because they sold themselves to Gringolandia or because they were too hungry with power and ego to cave to its pressures. All at the expense of the people. Always.
So no, I am not here for any defense of the revolution. And if your -isms claim Fidel as a hero, you can keep them far away from me. I am not afraid of communism. I understand its appeal, and can certainly appreciate its direct opposition to the toxic capitalism we all know and love, but if Fidel’s revolution is what you hold up as an example… bro, get yourself a marketing director ‘cause that ain’t it.
Y’all just go ahead and keep arguing about who’s to blame. Left, right, I really couldn’t care less. Dictators come in every flavor. I stand for Cuba, for the people forced to leave but especially for the people forced to stay, the ones who are now screaming for us to listen to them. Maybe let’s just all take a few steps back and do that for once: Listen to them and to the people who have lived it. Let’s look out for them, because Lord knows the powers that be (of every stripe) are already thirsting and waiting for the chance to take their piece of that pie. The main issue I have with those of you out there caping for the revolution is that you pretend you’re above it. You’re not — and it's obvious.
Cuba Libre Hoy y Siempre. Punto.
Martha E. Menendez lives in Nevada and is the legal manager for Justice in Motion, a NY-based organization.