A new generation of Cubans on the island are bravely standing up to communist tyranny and demanding their right to have actual rights, and that gives an old Cuban exile some hope.
Old Cubans like my papi see hope for their homeland in young protesters
Listening to a new rap anthem for inspiration, an 88-year-old exile anxiously awaits news of Havana’s artist-activists.
When I finished reading my 88-year-old father the latest news from Cuba, he was quiet at first. We were on the phone, Papi in New Hampshire and I in Massachusetts, but I could almost see him shaking his head. “I don’t think those kids are going to stop,” he said.
Papi was referring to the young artist-activists who have been leading unprecedented peaceful protests in Cuba, calling for the release of all political prisoners, freedom of expression — the right to have rights, as they put it. In a recent protest, on April 30, dozens of activists gathered in Old Havana in support of dissident leader Luis Manuel Otera Alcántara. Public dissent is rare and punishable in Cuba, so it’s no surprise that these historic protests, among the largest (as many as 300 people in one case) and best organized since the 1959 revolution, are receiving global attention. The Cuban diaspora has weighed in, voicing support across social networks and staging solidarity protests in Argentina, Canada, Spain and the United States. Many of the oldest exiles, people like my father, hold out hope that these young people will make their old dream come true: to see a democratic Cuba before they die.
Every night, Papi asks me what “that little radio” I carry (my smartphone) is saying about the protesters. Was anybody else beaten, put under house arrest? Is Luis Robles still in jail? Papi doesn’t read English well, doesn’t get Spanish newspapers, doesn’t go online, and American TV newscasts have barely reported on the protests. He relies on his Cuban friends and me to keep him informed. I want to give him details about the turmoil in Cuba, but I want to protect him even more. My father is still grieving my mother’s death, battling heart problems, grappling with social-distancing rules. Running beneath all of that is the worry that communism is coming to his adopted country — that his children will have to endure the nightmare of having their country flipped over, just as he did after the revolution. Reassuring him isn’t easy, so I leave out the worst of the regime’s abuses, the precarious state of hunger strikers, the severe shortage of food and medicine throughout the island — the suffering.
My father drove a forklift in Cuba. The revolution was supposed to be for people like him. It was supposed to end Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship and restore democracy. Instead, food shortages and intense repression under the new regime forced him to choose: leave Cuba so his children could have food on the table and live in freedom, or stay in our working-class barrio, where he and my mother had grown up, and pray for the return of democracy.
He chose to leave. For the first time in the country’s history, leaving Cuba required the new regime’s permission, a process that left us branded “worms” and easy targets for reprisals. The government took what little we had, but it let us leave.
We arrived in the United States in 1967, five stunned, skinny refugees glad to be on the right side of the Cold War and U.S.-Cuba policy. I remember the adults huddling around a shortwave radio in the kitchen of our new home in New Hampshire. Each night, they gobbled up news about Cuba from faraway stations. It was too late for them, but maybe change would come for their beloved barrio and the four generations of family they’d left behind.
Six decades of false starts and weak reforms haven’t extinguished that hope in the old Cubans I know. I’ve started to see myself as my father’s Sancho Panza, following him on his quest, buffering him from the worst as he tilts at the windmills from his past. But shielding my Don Quixote from upsetting details has been impossible. The first blip leaped over my news firewall in November, during a call between my father in Merrimack, N.H., and his brother in Miami. Tio told Papi about the scrum of revolutionary police, dressed as medics, that violently raided a home in Havana where artist-activists were on hunger strike to protest a new crackdown. A shaky video shows officers breaking down a door and rushing at the young people, who were lying on the floor, prepared for nonviolent resistance. Those ideals didn’t help the activists, all members of the San Isidro Movement, or SIM, a collective of young creatives advocating for artistic freedom and human rights. SIM members reported being violently hauled out of the building, beaten or arrested.
News of the raid spread quickly on “Fayboo” and “Tuiter,” as my father calls the social media websites he doesn’t use. Mobile Internet access is relatively new in Cuba. The government introduced it in late 2018, controls access, and made online criticism of the regime illegal. But Cubans appear to be losing their fear of expressing discontent online. They’re denouncing the worst shortages of food and medicine in decades, a surge in coronavirus cases, shutdowns in water service and escalating repression — like the raid on the SIM hunger strikers.
The rush of support for SIM thrilled Papi, but he worried constantly about the “jovenes” and their supporters, people such as Luis Robles. In December, Robles, a 28-year-old programmer, showed his support for a jailed SIM member by walking down a crowded Havana street holding a cardboard sign that read, “Free Denis.” Police arrested him within minutes. He’s still in Cuba’s notorious Combinado del Este prison awaiting trial for enemy propaganda and disrespecting authority. He faces up to seven years in prison if found guilty.
Calming my papi that night almost did me in. Mid-battle cry, he pointed out that Fidel Castro, after leading an attack that killed 19 soldiers, served less than two years in prison before being released into exile. I talked about karma, the long game, hope. Papi settled down, but I had to suppress my own rage against giants to get the job done.
My go-to distraction for Papi these days is a new rap song, “Patria y Vida.” Well-known Cuban musicians, living in and outside of Cuba, released it in February in support of the protesters. The title inverts the revolution’s iconic slogan, “patria o muerte,” homeland or death, into “patria y vida,” homeland and life. By May, it had 5 million views on “Youtú.” Activists, young and old, adopted it as their hymn.
“Patria y Vida” ripples with the slang and swagger of the barrio. The rappers denounce the regime, defend the persecuted, predict the end of the dictatorship and its lies. I never thought I’d see my father bopping his head to reggaeton, talking smack with dreadlocked Cuban rappers. Yet there he was on my last visit to his house in Merrimack — masked up to protect me — humming along, a little flat, but all in.
That same afternoon, Raúl Castro announced that he was stepping down as the head of the Communist Party, as he’d promised. But his handpicked successor, President Manuel Díaz-Canel, has always toed the Castro line. Real change is unlikely.
“El mismo perro con diferente collar,”Papi says. “Same dog, different collar,” a common Spanish saying, captures Cuba’s reality. The party elite and the military conglomerate have too much power to accept the activists’ calls for dialogue, let alone democratic change. The 60th anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion came and went two weeks ago. This regime is good at what it does. Suppress change. Repress dissent. Stay in power.
The weight of those six decades landed on me suddenly, hard. “Nothing’s ever going to change,” I said to Papi. The words slipped out before I could stop them. Papi turned to me, a little startled to be in the role of Sancho for a change. “Tú vas a ver. Esos muchachos no le tienen miedo a nada,” he said. “You’ll see. Those young people aren’t afraid of anything.”
Hope — that stubborn miracle — wasn’t going to let go of Papi. I could see that now. It was lifting him, still, to root for the young artists — and the longtime dissidents who are rallying with them, refreshed by the artists’ irreverent poetry and powerful music.
“There’s something in the way those people are singing the song,” Papi said. Images of Cubans singing “Patria y Vida” on the street, on porch steps, from balconies, flashed through my mind, and I understood. Often, just before the chorus — se acabó, it’s over, referring to the end of the dictatorship — people tilt their heads up to the sky. They close their eyes, fill their lungs with air and place a hand over their heart as the words fly from their mouths, free.