Leaving Cuba: From Dreams to Reality

Veronica Vega

From "Balseros"
From “Balseros” (Rafters)

HAVANA TIMES — Reading the Havana Times interview with Carles Bosch, director of the documentary Balseros, I remembered the impact the documentary had on me. As for any Cuban marked by the experience of emigration, every character became a kind of alter ego whose destiny I could not be indifferent to.

I vividly recall the afternoon in which, standing at Havana’s Malecon ocean drive next to some friends, I saw for the first time how a group of young people set off into the sea on those makeshift vessels. The abyss was below them and the dreamt-of destination over the horizon. It seemed unreal, as though I were seeing the filming of a movie. The people around me made comments and jokes. Cubans, as someone once said to me once, have no sense of the tragic.

Days later, an acquaintance told me he had had a terrible experience the previous night on the coast of Alamar, while drinking with some friends on his birthday. The party had come to an end when someone discovered a child’s dismembered hand floating among the reefs.

The remains brought to shore by the waves were the sole, tangible evidence of what was happening in the high seas. On firm ground, only the relatives of those who left felt the pangs of anxiety, waiting for news, listening to the lists of names read on Radio Marti.

From a distance and for everyone else, that immense expanse of water was merely another opportunity to escape from poverty and the absence of freedom, of reaching that dream that still thrills the overwhelming majority of young Cubans: the coasts of Miami, the glorious United States.

Balseros gradually dismantles the myth, showing us what each character experiences, the reality they find on the other side – a reality that does not refute the advantages of a developed society, but which does not make these accessible to the immigrant to the same extent. Such opportunities rather strike us as violent, hurtful, sometimes incomprehensible. It is the challenge of inserting oneself in that fast-paced society, with no experience, most of time without speaking English, while hauling stupefaction and nostalgia.

One of the most violent contrasts is perhaps Mericis’ surprise on leaving the country with her daughter, not on a raft but through the US visa lottery, and, on arrival, finding that her sister living in New Mexico ended up a drug addict. Before leaving Cuba, Mericis had said: “I see a bright future. I aspire to become something, perhaps not the manager of a company, but I aspire to something good and big…”

The worst contrast is, however, always experienced by those who remain in Cuba, the mother, the wife, the children who had to content themselves with uncertainty (in the case of those who disappeared in the high seas, which was fortunately not the fate of anyone in the film), and for those who see their hopes dissolve into silence, the irregularity of communication, the transformation of the familiar face and voice into those of a stranger.

Like so many other things important for Cuba, we have never had any statistics on this, figures that speak of those who bet on a dream and never made it, or the more common experience of those who stayed in Cuba and emigration only afforded them the occasional (or no) respite and the traumas of absence.

3 thoughts on “Leaving Cuba: From Dreams to Reality

  • If you are suggesting that Vancouver is the only city in Canada where people pick up cigarettes from the street, I am prepared to let that be a test of my credibility and yours.
    Those readers who have never been in Canada, feel free to ask around and let us know what you discover.

  • Ken, you should have explained that Vancouver is known across Canada for two things – rain and drug addiction. In Edmonton it is illegal to throw cigarette ends on to the street and the fine if caught is $200. To suggest that someone – probably one of Vancouver’s drug addicts – picking up a cigarette end off the street reflects Canada isfarcical
    I spend considerably more than half my time in Cuba at home with my wife. She as a Cuban has travelled to the UK and Canada and yes she has gained a more realistic view of tthe wealthy countries. She was amazed at the energy flowing throughout society and through the infrastructure. She was astonished at the lack of basura (rubbish) on the streets. She became very critical of Cubans lack of application and says that her country needs “capitalismo” to progress out of its economic morass.
    Any realistic appreciation of Cuba has to start with the social structure based on “la familia” and continue with appreciation of the beauty of the country and of its music. But, as one gets under the facade and finds that everything is controlled by the Castro family regime through its military control of the economy, that the shops, the hotels, the transportation literally all the requirements necessary for life, the gloss rapidly tarnishes.
    “Socialismo” controls life in Cuba from the cradle to the grave.
    It is not surprising that an increasing number of Cubans are trying to get out to join the capitalist world. 1.274 medical doctors in 2014 to the US alone. In Cuba they earn over $30 a month which compares favourably with the average Cuban monthly earnings of just over $20 per month and the pension of $8 per month.

  • I am struck that this article has not provoked any comment. I found it quite useful.
    Spending time in Cuba helps us to have a more realistic appreciation of Cuba. Likewise, travel to the wealthy capitalist countries helps Cubans to have a more realistic view of the wealthy countries.
    A friend of mine in Vancouver recently had a visitor from Cuba. Her visitor was surprised when she saw a man bending over to pick up a cigarette on the street. She went home with a more realistic view of life in Canada.

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