Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — I never thought that several hours in Havana’s “Park of Laments”, a place near the US Interests Section (USINT), would be like taking a semester of Cuban History.
There is no other place in our country where hundreds of people gather on a daily basis without having been summoned to take part in a political event, where individuals of all classes, ages, professions, skin-colors and every other details that sets human beings apart convene for the sole purpose of obtaining a visa that will authorize them to cross the warm currents of the Gulf and enter the United States legally.
An automated e-mail sent me by the US State Department because of the invitation to participate in the 24th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) I’d received previously sufficed for me.
At home, my relatives didn’t know whether to congratulate me over the unexpected news or not, in view of the 300 dollars in preliminary paper work I had to pay, for a process whose outcome was ultimately uncertain…but that is the way things are in Cuba. When one is faced with an emergency, one always expects a “miracle” to come knocking at one’s door. First, we went through our meager savings. Then came a generous loan and an advance payment, in anticipation of potential benefits upon my return from Miami. I was traveling to the States, the promised land.
I didn’t get much sleep the night before my interview at the consulate, assailed by the advice my close relatives had given me: “Don’t talk too much. Don’t lie to them, because those gringos know everything about you.” My family lit candles, cast protective spells against any envious people of the neighborhood and a Santeria priestess gave me her blessing.
When dawn broke, I was one of the many people who stand next to the funeral parlor at the intersection of Calzada and K streets, resigned to the inevitable, ready to cry out of happiness or grief, depending on the reply they got that day.
The people in the neighborhood keep abreast of what those who gather there are going through and need: there are lawyers, experts in filling out forms, photographers, people who counsel you on how to behave at an interview, people who sell transparent envelopes and no shortage of food vendors. All of them revolve around the planet USINT.
The hope-filled visa applicants are a kind of atomic cloud, the neutrons unleashed by a nuclear reaction, cooled down by law and order officials and by the Cuban employees of the US consular service, the ones responsible from preventing any kind of explosion.
The “Park of Laments” gathers as many stories as it does people – the best and worst news for tens of thousands of Cubans every year.
I heard of mothers waiting to reunite with sons who had left the country on rafts years before, saw boys and girls accompanied by their grandfathers who were in search of their parents in the US. There was no shortage of Cuban Angola war heroes, invited by a brother who had once been considered a “traitor” for leaving for Miami while his sibling headed for Luanda. A former communist activist said he didn’t care that his childhood friend was religious. Families, entire neighborhoods, were drawn together with enough force so as to put behind them many futile disagreements.
The last act of the day is the meeting with the US official, a genuine 21st century inquisitor who asks any number of questions and ultimately decides our fate.
I didn’t understand what my interviewer (evidently of Italian origin) meant by throwing my passport into a basket next to him. A Cuban employee led me away by the arm with a typical sporting gesture, and then a girl standing before the neighboring booth hugged me euphorically, crying, as we had both been successful.
I landed in Miami forty-five minutes after leaving Havana. I was lodged at the Hilton, a hotel that reminded me of the Habana Libre of my youth, when we could have a few drinks at the Las Cañitas bar next to the swimming pool, paying for everything in the same currency our wages were paid in.
What’s amazing is that I never had the need to speak in English. I was welcomed by a young woman from Cuba’s province of Camaguey, who was so kind she even lent me her mobile phone to help me communicate with people in Cuba as needed. At the bar, a man from Ecuador ended up giving me the razor blades I’d left behind in Cuba by accident. At the buffet table, I met with smiling Argentineans, the Haitian lobby manager cleared up some questions I had and the small shop where I bought my pre-paid phone cards was operated by a Mexican woman.
When I had the opportunity to come down from heaven – from the 18th floor of the hotel, I mean – I took a stroll down Biscayne Avenue, breathing in the fresh air after many hours of air conditioning. A tropical downpour – typical of any afternoon in Havana – led me to take shelter under a palm tree next to a small restaurant, where one could tell from the demeanor and appearance of the employees that one had no need of asking “do you speak English?”
The hotel bill was pretty much like all other bills. A friend from Hialeah (a high school teacher, like me), a reader of Havana Times, came to see me and generously introduced me to the complicated world of immense shopping malls, giant commercial complexes where finding the exit can require the aid of an employee.
I went from store to store, hauling the old suitcase I brought from Cuba and shopping bags along, and no clerk was put off by the amount of things I was carrying.
Back at the airport at the end of my stay, though I hadn’t exceeded the weight limit, I didn’t have the 42 dollars I needed to pay the total fee in taxes. I was on the verge of suicide for several minutes, until the familiar solidarity of one of my compatriots made itself known: two Cubans I didn’t know gave me the money without accepting anything in return.
There were other such incidents later, also in the Cuban style of the day: as this was my first trip to the United States, I would not have to pay any customs fees in hard currency back in Cuba, so other travelers gave me some of the things they bought, treating me to unexpected but welcome gifts.
The return flight was as quick as the trip over. Laughing and mildly disappointed here and there, my small family resigned itself to seeing how the better part of my luggage ended up in the hands of its legitimate owners. We headed home happy; as I shared bits of the short but intense days I’d spent in Miami.
Six months later, I still ask myself whether I actually travelled to the United States.
Vicente Morín Aguado: [email protected]