Cubans are among the few people on earth who understand with seriousness what the Vietnamese went through as the black curtain of communism descended upon them in the dark night of a long terrible war’s ignominous end. Where even the ‘peace’ was no blessed relief because the rage of the Ches and Ho Chi Minh acolytes peaked as the oppression started, the beginning the sharp painful pointed tip of a communist scythe right through you, body and soul. And then the terrible escape, on the high seas, you against sharks, thirst, sunburn, lightning, rain, squalls, hunger, pirates, salt-burns, and the madness of seeing nothing around you but an endless liquid chrome horizon, knowing you are alone on the high seas and abandoned by the world, your message in a bottle unheeded, and you unknowing of what will become of you.
If you improbably survive, and make it to haven, in Miami or Orange County or Linda Vista or Houston or Westminster or San Jose or Portland, you will in a symbolic sense remain at sea, because so few will know you. They will not know of the sharks and pirates and sunburn. You will look normal, a new immigrant, and you will be treated normally but you will remain forever a stranger, because they cannot understand or imagine. Some will not be able to understand your story by looking at you. Some worse ones will not want to know your story, they will be leftists, insensate to the crimes of communism because they cling to the utopian notion of a Better World and you are shattering that treasured dream. So, they turn their heads, too. Or worse yet, they label you a fascist, a Nazi, a rightwinger, a crazy. For not buying their communism.
Cubans know this too.
Today, I called up an old acquaintance, a well-known Vietnamese-American journalist whose journey to America began as a boat child, fleeing with his father the evils of the communist maelstrom that engulfed Vietnam in 1977.
I knew he was a pragmatist and a realist. I knew he had been back to Vietnam and was not utterly against normal relations with the unrepentant regime. I knew he was a bit of a liberal. I asked him what he thought of President Bush’s visit with Phan Van Khai, the Vietnamese prime minister, which will happen today.
It all came back to him, the experience of communism and the tiny boats on the high seas and the exile. He had no kind words for the Vietnamese prime minister. He reminded me of the human rights violations still going on in Vietnam, the inability of people to emigrate except by illegal boat, the ban on religion, the indigity of ration cards, the politicization of every aspect of society. It may be less terrible than it had been but he told me never to forget that it was still an oppressive regime that was ensconced in a mountain of crimes against humanity, something it had never renounced. It was still the same monster, its mood tamer, he told me.
Coming from him, a highly westernized Vietnamese-American, practical and detached and probably a Democrat voter albeit not anyone’s leftist, I was surprised. But then, I wasn’t. The experience of communism never leaves you. You cannot shake it out of your mind or identity, it’s like the memory of a near-brush with death. It never leaves you. You can only tell others, and this is what he told me, fearlessly, unconcerned about what liberal opinion may be. This was the reality of communism he knew.
Cubans know this too.