HAVANA TIMES, April 3 — “What could I possibly have in common with this man?” was the thought that crossed my mind — almost immediately — when I met Carlos Saladrigas a couple months ago.
It was at an event concerning the situation in Cuba, where the organizers had set up a dynamic exchange-presentation exercise in which the participants grouped into pairs. In this, through brief conversations, each participant had to learn about their partner and present what they found out to the rest of the group.
Obviously the distribution of pairs wasn’t random. What was sought was interaction between people with different pasts, beginnings and political viewpoints. As for the diversity of pasts and perspectives, our case couldn’t have been more emblematic.
As a boy, Saladrigas was sent by his parents to the United States though (the CIA-backed project) Operation Peter Pan to “escape his being raised under communism in Cuba.”
Today he is a prominent Cuban-American businessperson and the founder of an advocacy and analysis organization on Cuban affairs (The Cuba Study Group), whose viewpoint has evolved from confrontational positions (typical of traditional exiles) to one in support for dialogue.
This current position of Saladrigas and the group is related to the social and nation-based Catholicism of those people working with the Espacio Laical magazine.
As for my position and experience (a socialist from a working class family and belonging to the generation that grew up in Cuba in the 1980s), my position is one that has been well described and explained by myself and others here in Havana Times.
However during that encounter, Carlos and I quickly overcame the barriers of mistrust and alienation.
Our common love of Cuba and for our families, anecdotes and jokes — well seasoned with that same Creole flavor — made for easy and pleasant dialogue that lasted well into the night in a cozy bar that seemed hidden in Ali Baba’s caves.
Since then, I’ve followed the interviews and public activities of Carlos, whether on CNN, on his organization’s website and more recently in a presentation he gave here in Havana. Generally, these have all left a good taste with me.
Last week, taking advantage of the trip he took to Cuba to attend the ceremonies connected with the visit of Benedict XVI, Saladrigas gave a presentation in Havana, under the suggestive title “Cuba and Its Diaspora: Attitudes and Approaches to Be Adopted by the Diaspora for Their Reintegration into Cuba.”
Organized by the Espacio Laical people, the event brought together an ecumenical circle of officialist intellectuals, diplomats, foreign press correspondents, dissidents and the general public.
From the speaker, they were able to hear a clear and balanced message in terms of a-critical and transparent propositions issuing from his perspective. This was something strange for discussion forums on Cuba – real or virtual, on or off the island.
In his talk, Carlos addressed the nature and context of immigration with respect to Cuba and the world, pointing to this clearly as a phenomenon with not only economic but also political aspects, which in our case suffers from the impacts of restrictions on both sides of the Florida Strait.
He mentioned the active roles played by dissimilar immigrant communities in the fates of their home countries, not only as investors of capital and senders of remittances, but also as contributors to the organization and reconstruction of the social fabric of those home nations.
He reminded people there — and I thought this was his most important insight — that Cuba’s problems are large, but that they are ours and will have to be resolved between us as Cubans.
Obviously the distance between Carlos’ wishes and reality is far apart.
Not everyone that wants to contribute are invited to do so, nor would everyone who would contribute do so with virtuous reasons that tied individual interests with the collective benefit.
There still exist mechanisms and positions that benefit from that kind of “customs office of hate” that has been built by and profited the political elites of both Havana and those in exile, with these latter benefiting from the active support of right-wing groups in the US.
But nor do I find the calls that some people advocate for constructing national capitalism and participatory socialism to be exactly in agreement. There would be differences in the uses and distribution of income, mechanisms of participation and the ultimate goals of the respective aims for society.
Nevertheless I hope that the “task of building a new Cuba, a free, sovereign, inclusive, prosperous, diverse, rich, fair and equitable Cuba that is generous to the weaker sectors of our society”— the task to which Carlos invites us — permits Cuban’s to achieve agreement on certain common points in the face of the abuse and plundering we suffer. The bastard legacies of the Cold War must be buried for once and for all.