The Foreign Fidelista

The Foreign Fidelista (This is a portion of the book that was cut from Chapter 20, Imagining Cuba.)

Padded by all the mail already in the cavernous blue postal box, my fiancé visa package was absorbed as silently as a pin drop into the cold metal darkness. I paused for a beat, unwilling to believe that there would be no fireworks exploding to announce this moment. But then I let the quiet anonymity of the ceremony seal my own commitment to silence.

In part, my personal pact of silence had come from an exhaustion with explaining to everyone the situation between me and Alfredo, but also I’d decided to keep quiet about the fiancé visa because, even to me, it still seemed unreal. The other woman I’d spoken with who was applying for one for her boyfriend had paid a lawyer $1,000 to help her.

I had simply printed the forms off the internet, filled them out, and made photocopies for my files. As difficult as all Cuba-U.S. relations were, I had trouble imagining that something done with such ease would work. The whole exercise reminded me of the randomness of all the party door prizes I’d never won, of guessing how many jelly beans were in a jar, of making a wish by tossing a penny into a fountain.

Still, I felt that simply getting the papers completed and out was an accomplishment in and of itself, and I decided to celebrate by attending the film, Fidel, a documentary by Estela Bravo, a U.S.-born director who had been living in Cuba since the Revolution.

I got excited just approaching the Quaker church in Berkeley where the film was being shown and where, half an hour beforehand, at least one hundred people hovered on the front porch and leaned up against the entrance steps. These were the most Cuba supporters and potential Cuba couriers I’d seen in one place, and I eavesdropped as they shared stories about their recent trips—the celebrations when Elían returned in June, the dancing at Carnaval in July, the unbearable heat in August. Their reminiscences reminded me of how long I’d been away from the island.

Some people were speaking English and some were conversing in Spanish, but the concepts they were talking about were another language altogether, the one I’d been trying to translate into English ever since I’d returned to the U.S. Even though I didn’t know anyone at the film, I felt like I was at a reunion, a homecoming of sorts.

For the full hour and a half of Fidel, I stood alongside two dozen other people who had also arrived too late for seating space. Together we alternately booed and cheered as Cuban history traveled its inevitable course from the corrupt Batista to the reformist Fidel. We watched Fidel become so emotional during a speech in the summer of 1960 announcing the expropriation of Exxon, the United Fruit Company, and other major U.S. businesses that the loquacious Cuban leader lost his voice and had to give the podium to his brother Raúl. We witnessed Cuban exiles who had been captured during the Bay of Pigs invasion being returned to the U.S. in exchange for baby food and medicine. And we saw news clips of the murder of Che Guevara, the military coup that overthrew the government of Cuban sympathizer Salvador Allende, the destruction of the socialist Sandinistas, the U.S. invasion of Cuba’s ally Grenada, and the collapse of the island’s biggest subsidizer, the Soviet Union.

After the film, an American journalist who lived in Cuba with her children was introduced. She told us that her son had just graduated from medical school in Havana, and Fidel had attended his commencement ceremony.

“Unfortunately, Estela Bravo can’t be with us today,” she said, “but I’m here, and I’ve brought my daughter if you have anything you want to know about what’s going on in Cuba now.”

People asked about the crippling effects of the embargo and whether Fidel had earmarked a successor who would carry on his Revolution. After a while, every question began to sound like a variation on the one before, each eliciting the same generic, Revolutionary responses.

In Cuba, I had often found myself behaving like these people, playing devil’s advocate with Alfredo, promoting his government while he protested to me against it. But now, surrounded by all this positivity, I heard Alfredo’s voice starting up in my head. His litany of questions about inequalities came rushing back to me, and I felt the need to find some answers for him.

“What do you think about Cubans not being allowed in tourist hotels and still being paid in pesos when almost everything is sold in dollars?” I asked the American journalist. “And why can’t the Cubans who have dollars buy medicine at the international pharmacies? What would you propose as a solution to this sort of tourist apartheid?”

A hush fell over the church, and the journalist paused a moment before responding.

“First of all,” she said, her voice tense and irritated. “I don’t like to hear the term, ‘tourist apartheid.’ Apartheid is what took place in South Africa, which Cuba rebelled against and many U.S. corporations supported. ‘Tourist apartheid’ is what they want you to say, but we define human rights as the right to health care, to education, to human dignity. Tourism in Cuba today is a very difficult situation, and it’s way too complex to be summed up in a two-word sound bite.”

By the time the journalist had finished her evasive speech, people throughout the church had their hands raised in what I assumed was a sign of protest. Although I wasn’t entirely surprised that my fellow Cubaphiles would also want answers, I still felt proud of myself for having incited this rally for a real response. But then, as each person stood to speak, I realized that, rather than posing any more questions, they were only further justifying the status quo in Cuba.

“If Cubans with dollars were allowed to go into the international pharmacies,” one man said, “that would just be divisive to the society.”

“But why couldn’t all Cubans just be paid in dollars then?” I asked.

“Then there wouldn’t be any new dollars coming into the economy,” a woman countered.

“There will always be dollars from tourism,” I said.

“And that’s why some places, like hotels, have to be saved for the tourists,” the journalist’s daughter interjected.

Not one of these answers seemed to have a modicum of logic to it, although I appeared to be the only one bothered by this. Soon, as if I hadn’t spoken at all, the discussion returned to its original rhythm of reinforcing the Revolution, no questions asked.

After the show ended and people began making their way out of the church, a woman who had remained silent during the discussion approached me.

“I know what you were talking about,” she said quietly. “I was in Cuba last summer, and we made local friends and went out with them to Hemingway’s old hangout at La Floridita and it was just so sad because when the check came they couldn’t pay for their drinks because they were in dollars.”

I nodded my head, appreciative of the woman’s empathy even if it did seem a bit misplaced.

“I want to go back sometime soon,” the woman continued. “And I’m just hoping that somehow things will be different next time.”

As I set about preparing for my own return, I wished for a similar cultural change, although I knew that the chances of such a rapid transformation were slight. I hoped for everything to be the same with Alfredo, although I feared that it might not.

I had never had a long-distance relationship before, with a person or with a country. And although I had always been the sort of traveler who stayed longer than planned, I had never returned to the location of a previous trip. Like a taboo of the traveler, I had always assumed that places were best left as I first found them, that nowhere and no one would live up to my inflated, romanticized memories if I returned.

While the discussion following the Fidel film had reminded me of the less rosy side of life in Cuba, it also made me wonder, as I saw people’s blind devotion to the country, how much of Cuba and its people I had idealized myself. Because I had no other measure by which to test my memories, I held them up to the mirror of my Cuba couriers’ reports, discovering numerous discrepancies along the way.

One courier, a Cuban-American whose family had left the island when she was three, got in touch with me on her own to say that she’d read one of my Cuba articles and would be going to the island soon.

“Although I can’t honestly remember what Cuba was like anymore,” she e-mailed, “your story moved me and I’d be happy to bring over anything small you’d like delivered.”

I pulled out my laundry list of goods that I wanted to bring back to Cuba and mailed this helpful stranger my top item. A week later she returned, mailing back to me, unopened, the bottle of ibuprofen that I’d sent her for Alfredo’s grandmother.

“I know you wrote that you were happy there,” she e-mailed. “But the poverty I saw made me so sad I had to leave early.”

My most recent Cuba courier, the co-worker who’d brought Alfredo the fiancé visa papers, had stayed with Dinora and reported back that she’d found her nice but naïve.

“When you told me that she’d been a college professor, I just pictured someone more,” Susan paused, “worldly.”

“But she is worldly,” I said, startled by the fierce protectiveness in my voice. “Dinora speaks English and Russian and she’s lived in the USSR and she told me once she visited friends in Belgium.”

“Maybe worldly wasn’t the right word,” Susan said quickly. “It was just that her house….Well, she rents out rooms, so it’s her business, but she didn’t seem to be running it like a business and…..”

Susan’s words trailed off as she glanced over at me, looking for help. Even though I knew what my friend was getting at, I wasn’t about to offer up any euphemisms to describe Dinora’s lack of commercial prowess.

It had been many months ago now, but I still vividly recalled Dinora’s story of how, instead of raising the rent of my room when she’d put an air conditioner in it, she’d lowered the rent of the room next door to compensate for its lack of amenities.

“But you have to understand that Dinora’s coming from a socialist world,” I said to Susan. “You can’t judge her by capitalist standards.”

“I know,” Susan said. “I wasn’t trying to judge her. It was just something I noticed.”

I nodded as if I understood and, in a way, I did, but because Susan was the first friend of mine to visit Cuba, her comments meant more than those of strangers such as the woman who’d left early. So it was with a sense of alarm that I realized that, had Susan spoken enough Spanish to have had anything but a head nodding and smiling conversation with Alfredo, she probably would have felt he was naïve too, as would have many of my other friends. As I might also end up feeling if the fiancé visa went through and I had to spend most of my time with Alfredo immersed in the sort of exchanges about the U.S. economic system that so tired me out during our brief phone conversations.

And then I was off on my Alfredo worries again, remembering all the well-intentioned questions my friends asked me when I voiced my uncertainties about how Alfredo might react to life in the U.S.

“Is he open-minded?” one friend asked, and all I could think of was his resistance, like nearly everyone else’s in Cuba, to my vegetarianism.

“Is he adaptable?” asked another friend, and I thought, well, yes, to economic hardship, but, coming from such a homogenous society as Cuba’s, who could say how he would adapt to cultural differences?

What worried me most in the moment, though, was my visit itself, and the reality that it would only be a visit whereas my time in Cuba before, because of its open-endedness, had been more about a life. I worried that Alfredo and I would never again be with each other who we had been for those first four months.