Babalú at the White House

A year ago today I was boarding an airplane on my way to DC where the following day, December 10, 2008, I was to be part of a group of bloggers, journalists and internet activists who would be meeting with the President of the United States of America. December 10th is International Human Rights Day and then President George W. Bush held this small conference where human rights activists from different countries could get together and not only discuss the similarities and differences of the human rights issues in their respective countries, but to talk about how new technologies could be used to foster change within same.

It was an absolute honor for me and, in all honesty, I didn’t feel deserving of that honor. As I met the other attendees and heard their stories I realized that I and my life were quite different – in most cases diametrically so, than those of the others. But I’ll get back to that.

I had many readers contact me about this trip, asking why I hadn’t written all about it and why I was being somewhat terse about the whole thing. And, again in all honesty, this entire year I have that on my mind.

I suppose I could have written about my nervousness that morning in our hotel room. About having to redo my double Windsor knot a couple of times on three separate ties. About how my head was spinning, thinking about my parents – both of whom cried when I’d told them the news of my invitation – and what they went through in their lives and how, while on the tarmac at Miami International Airport back in 1968, in a new country, they could never have imagined that their son would one day be invited to the White House to meet with The President. I could have written about how I kept thinking “What the heck am I doing here?” over and over and over again.

I could have told you all about the cold, gray morning and how I stood – nervously – in a light rain at one of the White House gates waiting to get in. And how, once inside the guard booth at the gate, I kept thinking “Yes, this really is Capra-esque”, remembering Annette Benning and her scene in the exact same spot in the movie The American President.

You would have heard about the moment where the guard allowed me through, pointed to the White House and said “You go straight to that door. The one with the Christmas tree.” And how that short walk from the guard house to the door with the Christmas tree seemed to last forever and how hard it was for me to fight the tears back.

I could have tried to describe what it feels like to stand in front of a door to the White House and have a United States Marine in full dress uniform go through the formal procedure of opening a door for you. And how through my emotions I could barely muster a “Thank you for your service, sir.”

You would have heard about the guard stationed inside that door who asked “How can I help you, sir?” and who, when I replied rather meekly “I’m here to meet with the President,” must have noticed my nervousness and smiled as he said “Boy, I bet it’s not every day you get to say that, huh?”

You would have read of the Remington statuettes in that anti-room, and the paintings depicting American landscapes and what an incredibly beautiful and inspirational thing it is to witness the White House in full Christmas regalia. It is, truly, awe inspiring.

I would have written about meeting the other internet activists in that small conference room somewhere in the White House basement and how, as I sat there with them all, listening to the procedures and instructions from the White House protocol people, I imagined that they were all feeling the exact same things I was.

You would have read about my adrenaline boost and how my heart seemed to be racing a mile a minute as we were led into the Roosevelt Room in the White House. How majestic it all seemed. How history encompasses you and fills you when you are in a room like that. How you can’t help but think about all the discussions and debates and arguments and decisions that have been made in that exact same room throughout history. I would have, as I am now, been writing through goosebumps and tears.

And, like now, it really would have been impossible for me to capture in words what it felt like when the President was introduced as he walked into the room. Your mind reels. Not only do you find it difficult to believe that you are actually there, in the very same room with the President of the United States, but the love for this country just explodes within you. And you get these brief snapshots of your life flash before you. Your parents taking their oath as citizens, your Cuban grandfather admonishing you at a baseball game as a child because you hadn’t placed you hand to your heart during the National Anthem. Little memories. Big memories. Things you hadn’t thought of in many, many years. I even imagined my grandparents staring down at me from heaven, beaming with pride. “That’s my grandson down there.”

Some people would have refused to believe this but, I would have told you that I found President George W. Bush to be absolutely genuine, down to earth and relaxed, and intelligent. A sincere man and one who as I shook his hand I knew had given me his “mano franca.” And who went straight to the business at hand after giving us all a warm and brief welcome and expressing his gratitude for not just our being there, but for the reason we were all there.

You would have read where the President knew all of our names, knew the names of all of our websites and newspapers and blogs and knew – sometimes finishing for us – the names of political and ideological prisoners in all of our respective countries. From China and Burma and Belarus to Cuba and Iran and Venezuela. He knew the plight of prisoners of conscience and dissidents and students activists. He understood the importance of their vicarious voices.

If my trip to the White House and meeting with the President of the United States had been just about me, you would have heard how, when he introduced me to the group, he asked about my wife Maggie and asked “Y como esta Babalú?” And you would have been told what it feels like to high five the President of the United States.

I would have told you about that painting in the Roosevelt room, right above the stately mantle of a fireplace decorated for Christmas with bouquets of Maryland Apples. That painting that hung right behind and above the President as he sat at the head of the conference room table. The one where, after the meeting and photos, the President, as he shook my hand before leaving, asked “I saw you glancing at that painting behind me. Do you know who it is?”

“Yes Mr. President. It’s President Theodore Roosevelt.”

“That’s right. And do you know where that is?”

“No. Mr. President. I don’t.”

You would have read where the President smiled, patted me on the back and said “Look it up.”

The painting is of Theodore Roosevelt and is titled “Rough Rider”, painted by Tade Styka, to commemorate Roosevelt’s heroics in the Spanish-American war. It depicts Roosevelt atop a horse on San Juan Hill, Cuba.

***

I’ve been carrying these memories for almost a year now, and have taken to the keyboard many a time to express same, but I’ve always felt that writing all of these and posting them would take away from the true meaning of the meeting with President Bush and the reason we were all there to begin with. I’ve posted this today because all of you – writers, contributors, readers and everyone else that’s part of the Babalu family – are the reason why I was afforded such and invitation. You are the engine that drives this whole thing and I didnt want to make it to the one year anniversary without telling you all what an incredible experience it was and how honored I was – and still am – to play a small role in it all.

It is my hope that tomorrow – one year to the day later and again International Human Rights Day – we can all direct our focus to human rights issues not just in our beloved Cuba, but throughout the entire world. Just one political prisoner in just one country is an affront to all of humanity and we should all do whatever it is we can to bring their plight to the forefront.

Tomorrow, International Human Rights day 2009, let’s use all of our free voices to support those whose voices are muted by hate and oppression.

20 thoughts on “Babalú at the White House”

  1. A beautiful piece Val. Thanks for sharing it is such a way that the feelings and emotions you felt on that day are conveyed to the reader. Excellent!

  2. Thanks for sharing Val, a so beautifully written experience. It is, indeed, a one in a lifetime opportunity. And, who would have imagined that the WH has a picture of Roosevelt in our cubanisimas lomas de San Juan!

  3. Bravo Val!
    thanks for eloquently relating a once in a lifetime experience, once again your words/actions have made so many very proud

    keep swinging for the fences

  4. Beautiful writing, Val. I felt like I was there with you, sharing the moment. You certainly deserve the honor.

  5. Val, This is one of your most outstanding and moving articles ever.

    What an experience!

    What a President!!!!

    No need to add how sorely we miss his leadership today . . . .

  6. As always, you made the reader feel what you felt on that day. I can see why it took you so long to put it into words. You make us proud Val!

  7. Great, moving piece, Val. I could almost feel your experiences as you described the different locations and experiences you felt on that day.

    As someone who’s also had the pleasure of meeting President George W. Bush as part of a larger group (nowhere near as personal as your meeting, though), I agree with your assessment of him as a smart, compassionate and down to earth man despite my brief encounter with him.

  8. Val,

    Thank you so much for sharing with us this beautiful and moving post.

    I remember you telling me a couple bits and pieces of this event at Cuba Nostalgia this year, but nothing nearly as detailed as this post.

    I’m certain that our current POTUS wouldn’t have the decency to do anything like what you experienced last year at the White House because our current POTUS would rather meet and embrace the world’s oppressors instead of the victims of oppression. What can I say, that’s his nature.

  9. What a powerful piece! What a big difference a year makes. Last year, we had a man for a president. This year, someone who cut off funding to Iranian pro-democracy activists here in the US, and we know what he wants for Cuba and the rest of Latin America. I’m sure he’ll spend Human Rights Day staring at his reflection in the mirror.

  10. Val – Very well written – you had the privilege of meeting the man who even after he was no longer President visited wounded soldiers at Fort Hood.

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