Why Stay in Cuba?

By Yudarkis Veloz Sarduy  (Progreso Semanal)

El malecón de La Habana. Foto: Kaloian.
The Havana malecon sea wall.  Photo: Kaloian.

HAVANA TIMES — I got my first important idea about Cuban emigration was when I was 12 years old. I didn’t live through the time of Operation Peter Pan (early ‘60s), and have lived distanced from the sea in my Camaguey.  Also there are some things that you don’t talk about in front of children. I didn’t know a lot about the exodus from the Havana Malecon (1994), at least not until a few years later, when one of my uncles, the most learned, the chemistry professor, tried to leave in a homemade raft three times.

When I was 12, I suffered the departure of the boy I liked the most in the whole wide world, the first one I dreamed about marrying. Later, all of those who had double-barrelled names in my class left: Jose Alberto, Isabel Cristina, Antonio Rene, Juan Carlos, George Abdel and others who I have forgotten over time. I have said goodbye to more people than a port has in my lifetime, but I imagine I’m not the person who has had to say the most goodbyes, nor am I the only one, and I at least am lucky that I haven’t had to say goodbye to my mother or my father.

Others keep leaving me. None of them have ever asked why I stay. None of those who have left have asked, but here, many people who know about my new project look at me with the expression of a dead ram and there has even been somebody who said, “The same mistake again?”

Because of comments like this, I’m sometimes under the impression that I will be responsible for turning off the Morro lighthouse.

However I have asked many others who like me have stayed: why do you stay?  And it turns out that some people have a really hard time answering this question.

“Nobody has asked me your question before. I’ve never even thought about leaving Camaguey. Of course, being here is relative somehow, but I have learned how to be here from my home,” Yanetsy tells me, and I find myself identified in her “search for ideas that can become your path. Dream. Just, live.”

Now that I think about it, I believe that I have stayed because Lezama Lima’s poetic verse always follows me: Ah, you who escape at the moment when you have reached your prime. And a little because of Jose Marti’s faith in humankind’s capacity to improve, but especially because what I love is here.

And you, why do you stay?” I invite them to tell me and I receive many answers from “I don’t believe that I will have the peace of mind that my children will grow up protected somewhere else. At my eldest son’s school, the head teacher knows who smokes, those who ditch classes and live beyond the means of their parents. I don’t know whether it is like this in any other country,” and adds “I stay because I don’t have any other choice.”

Camaguey. Photo: youtube.com
Camaguey. Photo: youtube.com

Dania wants her children to grow up like she did: barefoot, at the neighbor’s house, having a bath under the rainstorm. Nidia talks to me about calmness, about the importance of being able to go out onto the street at any time day of day and feel safe. Ileana confesses that “I hadn’t thought about it in the same way that you have. Up until now, it hasn’t been a necessity, and if one day I ever leave, it will be just to be with my husband, nothing else, but that doesn’t concern me because, as I’ve already said, leaving Cuba for me is a two-way process which means I will return, or rather, to sum it up in another way, I haven’t yet conceived the idea of leaving without returning again.”

And I have to quote Carly, who having traveled the world over, told me: “When I first asked myself this question this morning, the first response that came to my mind was that there are no logical explanations. Then I thought, I’m here because I want to be here, literally speaking, but that wasn’t the answer I wanted to give you and I kept thinking, and I’ve just realized that it must be because this is my safe place, the place where I feel like I can control things. Somewhere else is much stranger and therefore less manageable on a psychological level.”

Others talk to me with more playfulness: “You can’t enjoy what you enjoy here in Cuba anywhere else. In Cuba, you don’t work, my girl, abroad you have to bite the bullet,” one of my most hardworking and dedicated friends told me.

“Here, people are different, people come together in times of hardship, (…) one person goes to ask for a little salt from the house next door, and whatever was on the stove begins to burn because you stay conversing,” my neighbor told me, while, in effect, something begins to smell strong from her kitchen.

Foto: Caridad
Foto: Caridad

Others get really serious and tell me, almost pitifully, “Yuyi, I’m never going to be the university professor abroad that I am here, even if waiting tables could give me a life without shortages, without having to wait for the bus everyday, the long lines, everything which you already know about. The thought of not being able to do what I know how to do fills me with dread, or having to put up with a capitalist’s depression because he’s just come back from his holiday in the Fiji Islands,” Adrian told me.

Carmen Luisa tells me that what she believes in is here, “because my deceased are here, and because I have faith in Cuba,” and Annelist who confesses to me: “First of all, I have never left Cuba, and I wanted to, but to return, because I have more things here than I could have abroad, and secondly, I like my homeland, the place where I was born, the smell of rain and earth, my family.” And when I ask her insistently why she is still here she answers, “Well, girl, if Cuba keeps making life impossible for me….”

Is Cuba expelling us?

It strangles us, it even bites us, and for some Cubans, life seems to be too short to hold onto the biblical precept of “true love waits.” That and the fact that not all of us have to think the same, feel the same. Some prefer to experience nostalgia while they drive their own car, eating whatever they want to eat.

Others miss a Cuba where we are able to work in the professions that the Revolution gave us, with enough dignity that it’s worth putting up with the contradiction of how those who live off some small legal or illegal business are better off than somebody who has just carried out open-heart surgery.

Why do Cubans stay in Cuba?

And once again, my friend Ida, her years and her experiences tell me why: “well I believe some people do because of their family,” she tells me, “others because they don’t have the money to leave, others because they don’t know what lies for them on the other side, and others because they do know what awaits them and prefer to stay, not taking on the challenge of immigrating.”

Photo: Caridad
Photo: Caridad

I’m not contradicting myself when I spoke of so much about despair in “Everybody wants my money”, but we’re coming to the end of another year, and Cuba continues to love us as if we were its children, but it especially gives us the benefit of doubt, that which you also give to your not so good boyfriend who continues to hypnotize you.

It’s true, I will say that I’m fed up with the small portions, but I will also say farewell to a year where I have come to live in the most beautiful and vain city of Havana, having been able to get to know another of these Cuba’s because there are so many.

I continue to look at Vedado’s beautiful gardens, taking in the houses of those who, reinforcing the extremes that exist on the island, don’t leave because they can pay 120 CUC to whoever looks after their old lady or the child at the private daycare, and I will pray, or I will hear my deep voice repeating, with author Dulce Maria Loynaz: Maybe this spring the roses won’t blossom, but the next spring they will. Maybe in the other spring the roses won’t blossom, but they will in the next spring.

14 thoughts on “Why Stay in Cuba?

  • December 30, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    Fear of the unknown. Better the devil I know…..

  • December 30, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    Clearly, some people are choosing to leave and some are choosing to stay. In your opinion, why are some people choosing to stay?

  • December 29, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    True, Moses, the first shocker is the supermarkets, but that only lasts a short time. But as Ronin said, the long term shocker is not knowing your neighbors. I have lived here 45 years, and that’s still my only complain about this country or the main thing I miss about Cuba.

  • December 29, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    “… It takes a lot to get people to leave their home country and go into the unknown…”

    Not really. Not when the CAA is in place and there’s a huge Cuban community waiting for you. Cubans have it easy compared to most other immigrants.

  • December 29, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    The first big “change” migrating Cubans notice are the well-stocked, clean, well-lit supermarkets.

  • December 29, 2016 at 4:03 pm

    Ken, Cubans are leaving Cuba in record numbers. Obviously the “realistic” pictures are encouraging.

  • December 29, 2016 at 7:26 am

    Not only a beautiful article, but very profound as well. And happily I notice that it has not (yet?) drawn some of the ugly, self-righteous and self-serving responses too often to be found in response to pieces in Havana Times. I will save this piece to read again and again. Thank you for publishing it.

  • December 28, 2016 at 8:35 pm

    This is a superb piece of writing.
    The allure of what is over the horizon.
    Is it a paradise or is it worse than where you are at?
    A question as old as the hills.
    ‘The beautiful and vain city of Havana’
    Wonderfully described.
    I remember getting on a bus from Havana to Camaguey.
    Everyone in Havana had told me not to trust people from Camaguey because they would rob you soon as look at you.
    I mentioned this to the good people of Camaguey when I got there.
    The Camagueyanos laughed and said that the people from Havana wouldn’t even give you a glass of tap water without asking you to pay for it !!
    Nice article.

  • December 28, 2016 at 7:25 pm

    It is a beautiful place even in it’s current state of decay. But given the choice again, I would still leave. The oppression of the state prevents one from breathing freely. In America, one can breath.

  • December 28, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    It takes a lot to get people to leave their home country and go into the unknown.
    And, as Cubans have been travelling more freely, they have a more realistic picture of what life is like in other countries.

  • December 28, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Thank you for this touching piece.

  • December 28, 2016 at 12:25 pm

    Nice article, thank you. In my travels to the beautiful Island of Cuba, I felt a certain peace, and kindness from all Cubans that I met. I have not experienced that in too many countries in the world. I have lived at my current resident for 16 years and i only know one of my next door neighbors. All others are wave and smile neighbors only. That is how life is in most large size U.S. cities!!!!

    I think that is the first big “change” migrating Cubans notice when they first arrive here & it’s always a huge shocker to them.

  • December 28, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Very enjoyable article!

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