Saturday, December 20, 2014

Cracking the door open on Cuba

The announcement that after nearly 54 years the United States is re-establishing full diplomatic relations with Cuba has been cheered by most countries around the world, particularly in Latin America.

That’s no surprise. On October 28, 188 members of the U.N. General Assembly voted in favor of a non-binding resolution urging an end to the American economic embargo against Cuba. Only two nations voted against the resolution—the U.S. and Israel. The micro-nations of Palau, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstained. That was the twenty-third time a majority of General Assembly members has called for an end to the embargo.

Cobbler in Havana waiting for customers.
It’s no surprise either that most Republicans and Fox News, the agitprop branch of the GOP, were practically apoplectic regarding Obama’s historic change in policy. In the hyper-partisan atmosphere in the U.S. today Obama would be roundly condemned by Fox News and the GOP even if he discovered a cure for cancer or the key to nuclear fusion.

Most vociferous were Cuban-American politicians, particularly Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is 43 years old. I don’t know if Rubio has done the arithmetic but the U.S. broke relations with Cuba about eleven years before he was born. Maybe it’s time for him to rethink his position.

“It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established,” Rubio fumed on Fox News. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush joined in the fulminations and so did other Cuban-American politicos mostly from Florida. Only a handful of Republicans supported Obama or held their fire.

What is certain is that the embargo has not done anything to nudge the Cuban government toward democracy or an open-market economy. Old age has inflicted more damage on the Castro dictatorship than American policy.

What the embargo has definitely done is make the life of the average Cuban infinitely more miserable while feeding the state-of-siege mentality in the island that ironically helps to prop up the government.

So why does the diplomatic war and the economic embargo against Cuba live on—like a sort of Flat Earth Society—against all logic, sense of proportion or evidence that it does anything to achieve its stated goals? 

Indeed, to understand the frame of mind that keeps the embargo alive you would have had to talk to my dad, or failing that—he died seven years ago a month short of his ninety-fourth birthday—to his wife who is in her eighties and inherited the job of keeping the anti-Castro fury going full-blast within my family, like a never-dormant volcano. When I spoke to her yesterday afternoon, she lamented that even the Pope had “turned liberal” by spurring the U.S.-Cuba negotiations.

Young woman watching a dancing class at
at the ballroom of the former presidential
palace in Havana. 
My dad was an autodidact, someone with not even a high school degree but a sharp mind and a voracious appetite for reading about practically any topic, from history to the sciences.

He was gentle and soft-spoken to the point of reticence, except when either one of the two Cs came up in conversation—“Cuba” or “Castro.”

He would then go into a Mr. Hyde-like transformation, as his face would redden and he tossed aside logic and facts and compared Castro to Hitler, Stalin, Attila the Hun or worse, and Cuba as a bottomless gulag sunlight never reached.

I learned to nod and listen. There was no point in arguing.

I had learned to understand that his tirades came from a well of sadness, bitterness and anger that dwelt deep inside a man whose life and bearings in the world had been suddenly destroyed by a political debacle beyond his control.

Unlike the personal fairy tales you often hear from Cuban exiles in Miami, neither my dad nor his family were wealthy. No vast holdings of any kind are coming my way when the regime changes in Cuba. Instead the Laniers were a clan of absent-minded professors and eggheads who probably couldn’t balance their checkbooks much less pile up any significant amount of money.

Standing at the threshold of middle age, though, my dad and mom were relatively comfortable in a lower-middle class niche that included a small printing and stationery shop, a very modest house that I visited during my two trips to the island, and a baby-blue 1954 Chevy sedan. My dad caressed and took care of that car as if it had to last another fifty years. It’s probably still putt-putting somewhere in the island but it’s no longer his.

New owners: The retired couple who now
 live in my former house in Cuba.
Then in 1965 that precarious existence was upended when my parents left for Spain and then the U.S., where I'd arrived three years earlier. He and I ended up washing dishes side by side at a restaurant in Long Island, N.Y.

My parents had divorced by then and he and his new wife set out to forge a life and an identity literally out of nothing. He eventually went to work as a printer, his trade in Cuba, for not much more than minimum wage and to retire on Social Security in Miami. His wife worked at a dry cleaners.

To my dad, Castro destroyed everything. Among the older generation in Miami you’ll hear my dad’s lament repeated hundreds of thousands of times, probably embellished, but tinged with the same rage and bitterness that won’t cede an inch to facts, reasoning or the passage of the years.

Moreover, South Florida radio and TV stations that have cursed the Castro regime daily for decades and turned Miami into an political echo chamber, impervious to contrary opinions or policies.

This group also mobilized politically around their common and implacable hatred of Castro, coalesced around the Republican Party and elected its single-issue bloc of local and congressional legislators. Recent presidential campaigns have involved obligatory visits by the candidates to some restaurant in Miami to assure everyone the anti-Castro hostilities will continue until he and his pals are gone.

But that reflexive opposition to normalizing relations with Cuba is wearing thin. Old-timers like my dad are dying off and being supplanted by a younger, assimilated cadre of Cuban voters who are not so obsessed with the embargo and in fact wish for resumed relations so they can travel freely to the island.

Last time my husband Stew and I were in Miami I was struck by the ubiquitous advertisements in Spanish for traveling to Cuba, sending money to Cuba, buying cheap phone cards to call Cuba, sending parcels to Cuba, getting relatives in Cuba to visit Miami.

Cuba, Cuba, Cuba in an area where supposedly the majority of the population vows allegiance to a policy of isolating the island and choking the dastardly Communist regime in saecula saeculorum.

Front porch of a home in Havana. 
The many refugees that vehemently support the embargo in fact also flout it by sending hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and goods to the island yearly and lining up at the airport to catch the next flight to their homeland. Last year approximately 600,000 people from the U.S. visited Cuba, the vast majority Cuban-Americans.

A more compelling sign of a generational and political shift is that in 2012 Cuban Americans, albeit by a thin majority, voted for President Obama.

Polls by Florida International University also indicate an inexorable and overwhelming shift in Cuban American opinion in favor of renewed diplomatic relations most notably among younger generations.

Ultimately I agree with my late dad that the Cuba of his days is gone and has been supplanted by a repressive regime, a catatonic economy and a demoralized populace.

To visitors today Havana presents an almost apocalyptic vision of a once-beautiful ship that has been abandoned at sea to corrode almost beyond recognition by decades of neglect and the incessant pounding of the waves.

It’s just that my dad’s vision of our homeland, and that of others like him, is grounded in the past, choked with bitterness and despair. Mine looks toward the future, with uncertainty but also hope.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The decline and demise of everybody

One of the oddest books I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, is Roz Chast’s “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?”

She’s a cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine and her book, illustrated with cartoons, handwritten text and a few photos, zigzags with hilarity and grimness through a reality no one wants to talk about: The inevitable decline, and most often messy and tragic end of one’s parents, and by direct extension, ourselves.

Chast is the one at the right of the couch. 

No wonder her parents wanted to talk about something more pleasant. Credit Chast’s humor and talent as a writer and cartoonist for her ability create a book such taboo topic.

At our church, the non-denominational Blessed Lady of Medicare, a few months ago someone handed out a questionnaire called “Five Wishes” that congregants were supposed to fill out to specify their last wishes for burial, the sort of memorial they want and other end-of-the-road details no one really wants to think about let alone put down in writing.
It’s a sensible exercise given the demographics of the congregation. Quite often the weekly church bulletin reads like a litany of people with “conditions” and those who’ve succumbed to the final “condition,” i.e. death. 

The questionnaire doesn’t seem daunting until you realize the prospective stiff in question is you.

Stew and I picked up a couple of copies. Stew didn’t want to deal with it at all. I took both of copies and dutifully buried them in my nightstand under a stack of magazines and books. Occassionally I would pull out the questionnaires, look at them, harrumph, and promptly re-bury them as if they were contaminated with kryptonite.

Both questionnaires eventually disappeared. I must have thrown them out. I just don’t have Chast’s sang-froid.

The early church service we attend is more like a discussion group but other than prayers for the ill or the dead-and-gone, the subject of death and dying—our own or that of our loved ones—rarely is up for extended discussion. And when it pops up it’s usually wrapped and Fedex-ed Upstairs quickly with a brief note about life everlasting or a comforting scriptural passage.

Of recently I’ve adopted what I describe as a Buddhist take on dying.  It's probably a glib denial under another name.

I try to concentrate on the moment and to be a reasonably decent person right now.

I’ve concluded that obsessing about one’s eventual departure, which is certain, and the circumstances, which are anything but, only extends the potential unpleasantness of it all from the future to the here and now.

It ruins the day, and done daily it ruins the life we have left.

Indeed, there have to be more pleasant things to talk about.
The genius of Chast’s book is how methodically and unflinchingly she took notes and drew cartoons about her parents’ last few years, from the beginning of the end, to the very end, including some indignities and dilemmas like her mother’s incontinence, her father’s dementia and the mounting bills for nursing homes, ambulances and the services of a saintly Jamaican nurse, among others.

I recommend Chast’s book. Despite the topic, it’s not all depressing. If anything, I found many parts of it inspirational, particularly her courage in writing the book.

I’d bring it up at church though I don’t think it would be received with much more than a polite groan.

May I also recommend a new HBO show called “Getting On.” It’s set in a geriatric ward of a hospital populated by folks with all sorts of physical and mental problems who are attended by medical and nursing staff with problems of their own.

Yes, it’s a comedy and it’s hilarious. Trust me.