I recently took time off from work in Paraguay and spent 10 days on the island of Cuba with my father and grandfather. It was a very intense, if also brief, trip that took these three generations of my family back through our personal history—my grandfather was born in Cuba—as well as through the maze that is Cuba’s political, economical, and cultural reality. My next several posts will represent an honest, though inadequate, attempt to put that story and my experience into words.
The humidity feels like a blanket. At the Jose Martí International Airport in Havana, basset hounds make up the K-9 unit. The whole situation is like organized chaos: “locura con orden” (madness with order), as my grandfather says. The inside of the terminal looks like a makeshift import-export business with hoards of expatriate Cubans running neon-plastic-wrapped bundles of goods past ambivalent customs agents. In quantity, it would alarm and enrage those remaining stubborn proponents of the United States embargo. In principle, it makes all too much sense. Economics is simply running its course.
The great Cuban experiment, which has played out on this small island just 90 miles off the U.S. coast since the revolution of 1959, is as tangible as ever. Low, sea-swept clouds play games with the tropical sunlight as we drive across rickety roads. In typical developing-world fashion, horse-drawn carts and hopeful hitchhikers crowd the shoulders, sometimes wandering between the lanes of a sparsely traveled and sluggish freeway.
For those with a mind to history, a certain feeling is quickly evident—the smell of saltwater and fumes from ancient automobiles (running on aviation fuel) fill the lungs with it. It is the need to figure it all out. The island seems to echo, enveloping one’s mind with this great imperative to understand the reality of the forbidden country of the Americas before it crumbles under the weight of time and economic inevitability.
I have family on this island—great aunts and uncles, their children and grandchildren, who have waited 60 years for my grandfather to come home. They have heard stories about me, seen my pictures, and heard about my life and the life of my family. And though we are connected by blood, we are separated by worlds of politics and culture and economics. Just 90 miles away, but somehow, our lives could not be more different. Where in the world am I? —Mario Machado