Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cuba Fixr Upprs, Bch Vus, Rstricts Apply

In its May 29 edition the Washington Post reported another chapter in the seemingly inexorable unraveling of the U.S. embargo against Cuba: Cuban-Americans living abroad may now be able to buy property on the island.

Three years ago the Cuban government did away with a thicket of laws banning the private buying and selling of property, and combined with the recent loosening by the Obama administration of the trade embargo, that has opened the possibility, if just that, of some exiles buying property on the island at bargain prices.

A Cuba entrepreneur has even set up a Havana-based, bilingual web page, Espacio Cuba, to help folks find the "home of their dreams in Cuba."

It sounds enticing, particularly because ever since I've known Stew he has been agitating about living near the ocean. A place near a gorgeous Cuban beach would fit that ticket nicely.

To most Cuban-Americans, though, particularly those over sixty years old, the gradual lifting of the embargo presents a bitter irony.

For decades they've vociferously defended the embargo, which stood as a rationale for the years of hardship they've endured in exile and their implacable opposition to the Castro regime.

But now Cuba's opening might make possible their dream of returning home, indeed buying a home on the island, before they die.

The United States embargo in effect has been coming apart for several years, even before the recent rapprochement between the two countries initiated by the Obama administration and Raúl Castro in December.

My cousin's house in the southern coastal town of Cienfuegos—and
a few blocks from the sea—includes a cherry-shape
1957 Chevy in the garage. 
When Stew and I visited Miami a couple of years ago, the signs were literally everywhere, on buses, bus stops, billboards and empty walls.

Visit your family in Cuba! Send money to your relatives in Cuba! Send them cosmetics, car transmissions, whatever! Bring them for a visit to Miami (psst: Most of them never to return)! Accordingly, flights from Miami to backwater places on the island also proliferated.

"What embargo?" asked my stepmother, none too happily, the last time I saw her. She's not one likely to go back, mind you, still fuming about the U.S. returning Elián Gonzáles to his dad in Cuba in 2000.

I'd like to explore the possibilities and I know that Stew would too. At the mere mention of the C-word—Cuba—he reaches for the luggage, few questions asked.

From Mexico City's airport, Cuba is only three hours away, no fuss, no dealing with immigration hassles at U.S. airports. I hold a Cuban passport, have family in Cuba and Stew and I are legally married, so no problema according to the State Department.

Apparently it's not all quite that easy according to the Washington Post. For now only Cuban citizens are allowed to buy property, although the government in partnership with Chinese investors is putting up condominiums that foreigners could acquire. Transfers of money can be complex too. One realtor operating in Cuba described the market as "immature." Buying a house in Cuba is tricky business.

Then there's the deplorable state of much of the property on the island which has crumbled for fifty years far beyond the reach of any Home Depot, Lowes, or Bed Bath & Beyond. I can imagine that tackling the renovation of a Cuban fixer-upper would provide enough fodder for a dozen episodes and many laughs to viewers of the Home and Garden Channel.

Still, hmm. I recall a friend's story about his dad, who after a life of frugal Chevrolets and Fords showed up at home one day—if I recall on the eve of his seventieth birthday—with a Cadillac d'Elegance Super Supremo or some such insanity. His dad's was a what-the-hell kind of decision one makes late in life.

Let's do some math. In November Stew turns 69 and in December I reach 68. A beach house in Cuba, under swaying palm trees; humid, briny breezes blowing through the porch in the afternoon; a parrot sitting on a tree; unlimited amounts of Cuban food.

Hmm, and hmm again. Crazy, but definitely something to consider.


Friday, May 29, 2015

Checking in on marriage equality

For Stew and me, news about the progress of marriage equality doesn't come from headlines or the the noise from the burgeoning circus parade of Republican presidential candidates but from private yet significant moments at airports, car rental counters and hotel registration desks.

It's always bugged me that at airport customs and passport checkpoints Stew and I had to present ourselves as unrelated individuals even though after 40-some years together we were far more related than most of the heterosexual couples recognized by the authorities as legitimate family units.

U.S. Customs forms asked how many "family members are traveling with you" and we obliged by checking "none." When we approached the passport check counter, we dutifully waited behind the yellow line and proceeded one at a time.

Stew is the blond one. 
At the Miami airport a year ago, even after we were officially married in Massachusetts, a U.S. customs official—a fellow Cuban no less—greeted our marital status with laughter.

"Nah. You're brothers, right? Cousins?" he asked.

We insisted and only when Stew went to get the copy of our marriage certificate did he say "Whatever!" and let us through with a dismissive wave.

We let it pass too, hoping the official might have learned something and would treat the next gay couple with less hilarity and more respect.

Move to 2013 in Massachusetts and the Avis rental counter at Logan Airport. While filling out the paperwork Stew requested the no-charge additional driver discount accorded to so-called "domestic partners," a bland legalism that sanctions gay relationships as similar but not quite as worthy as "married."

The clerk's reply, a middle-aged woman, was a matter-of-fact, "Why don't you two get married, that's what we do here in Massachusetts!" When Stew said that's what we planned to do she offered a loud and sincere "Congratulations!".

The ordinariness of her reaction—to congratulate us as she would any other couple about to be wed—felt good. Things are changing indeed after years, decades, when the notion of two men or two women getting married was treated with contemptuous condemnation, derision or a mixture. The best we could hope for was polite silence.

Two weeks ago, traveling home from Jerusalem, a thirty-one hour insomniac special that combined buses and planes with stopovers in Tel Aviv, Newark and Mexico City, I decided to break up the tedium by announcing along the way that we were married.

In Tel Aviv, a young woman who checked our boarding passes asked if we were traveling together but didn't even look up when I said we were a couple. "Meh" seemed to be her reaction.

Pretty much the same for a customs guy in Newark though an officious U.S. Department of Agriculture beagle named Flannery dutifully sat down when it sniffed some Israeli oranges in Stew's carry-on. After surrendering the oranges we proceeded along.

The only tense pause came in Mexico City when the customs agent asked, in a not particularly friendly tone, about the "nature of our relationship (parentesco)." Nonplussed I replied, "¡Somos pareja!" ("We're a couple!"). She let us through but her reaction was surprising: Hadn't she heard that Mexico City's Federal District legalized same-sex marriages in 2009?

I admit there are limits to our field testing of changing mores on marriage equality, though the recent tectonic shift on the issue in Ireland, which one commentator described as "once a virtual colony of the Vatican," augurs further progress worldwide.

Still, I'm not going to make a scene at, say, the immigration kiosk at Benghazi International. Then again, Libya and most other Arab countries are not on our proximate to-visit list.

Neither is Louisiana, another marriage equality backwater, New Orleans notwithstanding. There, Gov. Bobby Jindal insists on an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage and mocks other GOP luminaries for going soft on the issue.

Bah. Stew has a great tried-and-tasted recipe for beignets and neither one of us is that fond of crawfish anyhow, from New Orleans or anywhere else. The hell with Jindal.