Staying in Cuba

El Saratoga Hotel

By Veronica Vega

HAVANA TIMES – An acquaintance recently reached out to me on WhatsApp: “My best friend wrote to me from Mexico to tell me she’d emigrated, like nothing had happened.”

I wanted to show my surprise, but I couldn’t. I’ve lost count of all the friends that have left without saying goodbye. Astonishment and pain slowly gave way to a kind of numbness, a shield. I guess I should thank them for getting in touch when they make it to the other side, at least.

I’ve been betrayed by loved ones who left my sight, without leaving a trace. The excuse that they didn’t say anything because they got caught up getting everything ready, leaving, the hope they would contact me afterwards faded away in definitive silence.

That same person had told me a few days ago: “If things don’t change, I’m leaving.”

Then, I sent several voice messages describing what I felt when I visited her apartment, decorated with her own paintings. I relived this artistic atmosphere that I knew so well, back in the ‘90s, when Alamar was a neighborhood full of “ugly buildings like decree-laws” (as poet Angel Escobar put it), buzzing with real artistic fervor, which can no longer be found.

I told her about the book clubs at the huge Cultural Center, which means breathing in this sea breeze (the same one that slaps you in the face if you’re coming from Central Havana, as soon as the car comes out of the tunnel). I told her what this area where her building is means to me, as my family – which is being broken up by exile more and more – used to live two blocks away.

I told her: “that afternoon in your house, I tried to recover a world I thought had disappeared.”

I could tell from her reply that she hadn’t listened to my voice messages. We continued to chat about the Hotel Saratoga tragedy, and other recent explosions in Havana. My voice messages got lost, destroyed by new forms of astonishment and anxiety.

After all, who cares what Alamar was like decades ago, if we are watching a constant breakup and we have no idea where to stand so as not to get swept away by disaster. This process of destruction seems to have steamed ahead with the Hotel Saratoga incident, and the postcard view around Capitolio, which I’ve photographed so many times, has been completely ruined.

Who cares about what seemed to stand firm and indestructible? What good is anything in our memory linked to emotional irrationality and nostalgic sugarcoating?

I receive a call and it’s my dad’s wife. In her US English, her correct diction, she tells me again: “Think it over properly, it would be really nice for us all to be together, you were here yourself and you liked New York. You know the three of you would have a better quality of life here.”

Her voice stirs a strange feeling in me. It’s as if tangible reality slowly begins to dissolve, and the alternative to this “other” existence, begins to mix up “here” and “there”. I don’t know why I remembered my maternal grandfather saying: “Before (1959), I would go for lunch at a restaurant in Miami and come back that very same day.”

How can we change geography? How politics can widen the distance between two countries.

My father’s voice comes on the line now, and he makes me react. He asks in a tired voice: “Do you think we’ll ever see each other again?” I tell him: “Yes, of course we will.” Although it’s an instinctual response.

I’ve learned to not believe in what I can see, but in the life that palpitates underneath, like the seed in the Earth’s womb. I cling onto experience. To logic. If something is sick, it will either heal or die.

Some people appreciate my optimism. Others call me naive and respond with an avalanche of pessimism and bitterness. As if believing again and having hope is something to get annoyed about. Skepticism is becoming the unhealthy belief that we are cursed.

A friend tells me: “if those that have left haven’t found the happiness they dreamed of, they are merciless in their criticism of Cuba and reject the possibility of any change. Sometimes, I believe they need to invalidate everything they lived, what those of us are still here live, and make it clear that leaving is the only rational thing to do.”

Is it so hard to accept the fact that every one of us forges our own path? Why does one path have to invalidate another one? Why do we replicate the same lack of options, the same intolerance we’ve suffered for 63 years?

I get another call and it’s my sister to tell me that her daughter (my niece), has already got her appointment at the Embassy and that she’s sad because she knows the moment she will leave is drawing near. This sadness of having to leave something you don’t want to. This impotence of not being able to mix “here” and “there”.

I surprised myself when I told my sister: “It’s better for your daughter to leave, your granddaughter has no future here.” I’m getting mentally ready for new absences, I tell myself that everything moves, everything changes, and almost nothing is like we imagine it to be in our arrogant youth.

Cuba is becoming more like a big airport. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe it’s a special land to teach us that everything is fleeting. At the end of the day, aren’t we not just “dust in the wind…?”

I walk through Vedado, this part of Havana that is tied down in my subconscious with an intense force. I take photos of the streets I used to walk down as a girl, in primary school, of small leaf fuchsia flowers scattered on a sidewalk, in an intense and unique pink.

I walk blocks and blocks until I get tired, I stop, I look for a patch of shade and I write to my friend Irina Pino, a colleague from Havana Times, on WhatsApp.

I remembered every time we met, in Vedado, this overwhelming joy when hugging her, as if fragments of an entire country, a whole life, were to piece back together.  I tell her “you don’t know what you still being here means.” (Something from the past, still tangible. Something that doesn’t threaten to fade away).  I don’t know how she’s done it, but I see her in one piece. Like when we first met at Torre de Letras, this literary get-together that also disappeared.

I wonder if I’ve also managed to stay in one piece, to keep safe amidst this process of constant reinvention, if I’ve managed to hold onto what they call “identity”. 

It’s interesting that staying in Cuba has become quite like exile. 

Read more from Veronica Vega’s diary here.

One thought on “Staying in Cuba

  • What a powerful piece of writing. I remember the period in my life when my group of friends whose lives had been on the same track (school, university) began to diverge and our different realities separated us, in a way. This is happening societally in Cuba and even if people do not want to leave, the constant silent flow of others leaving erodes the reality and constants of staying.

    “A friend tells me: “if those that have left haven’t found the happiness they dreamed of, they are merciless in their criticism of Cuba…”

    This is so true. Just enjoy your lives if you have left, don’t invalidate the lives and choices of others.

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