Twenty-some years ago the door opened for Cuban
exiles to visit their families in Cuba without penalties. They
were able to carry 45 pounds, I believe, of baggage per person.
There was a flood of traffic immediately, with people bringing needy and
desperate family members medicines, vitamins, clothing and even items
that could be bartered on the black market for food. Weeks of
planning went into each journey; choosing what items to take, which to
For the occasion, Teresa's family had taken a couple of cabanas at Varadero, one of the world's most beautiful beaches. Teresa's mother had a severe stomach ulcer, and therefore was one of the rare adults allowed a cup of milk daily. The first day of the visit , she called Cathy over to the corner of the kitchen where she usually discretely drank her cup of milk. "I know you American children have all the milk you can drink," she told Cathy, "and I don't want you to go without. While you're here, you can have my milk each day." Fortunately Cathy had the presence of mind to lie and say she was allergic to milk. But this impressed on her like nothing else how precious food can become.
Meals were mostly small portions of beans and rice with a little bit of vegetables, a little bread, and sometimes a small amount of canned greasy mystery meat or an egg. If the food was bad, the water was worse, with only a trickle of rusty fluid coming out of the antiquated water system. Cathy held up her end and ate without complaint small amounts of what was available during her week in Cuba, and in private even tore into our neighbor's young son who whined in front of everyone that the food was disgusting, as he wanted a Burger King meal.
Cathy was welcomed incredibly by everyone she came in contact with, even the officials, who were astonished to see her. It was an education she could never have gotten from books or TV. She came back not only without Teresa's 45-pound bag, but even without her barrettes, shoes, socks, grooming supplies, spare underwear and change of clothes, having given it all away, arriving in simple "chancletas" (rubber thong sandals), shorts and a tank top.
(Note: on her return, Cathy was stopped by customs agents, who refused to allow her entry to the USA. Unknown to the general public and the passport issuing department, Americans not of Cuban-born parents weren't supposed to visit Cuba. After Cathy pointed out this discrepancy practically non-stop in louder and louder terms for several hours, a customs supervisor finally gave up and let her in, probably to have some peace and quiet. The next day the State Department made it clear in public for the first time that only Cubans and their offspring could travel to that Communist country unless they had special permission for humanitarian reasons, a policy in effect to this day.)
Will Castro reward Elian and his family with extra food and better housing permanently, and will others in Cuba resent their good fortune? Will he be able to keep quiet with his playmates about the benefits he had in the USA? Can he somehow become a bridge between two countries so near geographically and distant in ideologies and material goods? Or a wedge to drive them further apart?
Is Elian better off, in the long run, here in our three-ring circus of a city, or in Cuba with his father and extended family? And more important to the big picture, is it possible Cuba would be better in the long run if Elian is there?
While exiles here have made this little child into a symbol for their own losses and suffering, Cuban Santeros, priests in the Santeria religion, it is rumored, have advised Castro that his own future and Cuba's fate is somehow tied to Elian and the need for a return to his country of birth. Perhaps Elian's destiny actually lies there, for reasons we cannot now imagine. Only time will tell.
I wish we could get back to normal here, if there is such a thing in Miami (which I doubt). Those who are optimistic supplicate "let the healing begin". I fear it will be a lifetime before the resentments, scars and festering sores which provoked this fiasco disappear; I wish they'd quit asking for "healing" and request, simply, understanding, faith and hope.