HAVANA TIMES, Nov. 4 — Although people in the First World enter airports almost as naturally as going into a store, for the average Cuban a trip abroad by airplane means breaking a silent and sinister curse.
A type of umbilical cord reinforced by layers of intricate bureaucracy must be overcome before the dreamer has in their hands not only the visa from the destination country but also the precious Cuban exit permit (which though no longer arriving by mail as a small card, people still call the “tarjeta blanca,” meaning “the white card”).
With good reason, to prevent their wonderful adventure from being marred by the envy of others, the “chosen one” has to use absolute discretion in this matter. As Marti said, “It has to be in silence, because to achieve some things they have to be done in secret.”
I suffered a lot from friends when—without them even saying goodbye to me—I only learned about their departure after they were on the other side of that abstract demarcation called “the horizon.” Over time I eventually I came to understand that their paranoia wasn’t unfounded since I realized that we’re made to believe that our freedom of movement is restricted and confined to the nth degree.
My truncated travels
Nevertheless, with inopportune curiosity and the dreadful habit of imitating the First World, we Cubans insist on objectively seeing what lies beyond “the thin blue line.”
In this sense, as an exotic hobby, I have collected my attempts at traveling.
The first time was in the ‘80 eighties, after I’d heard about a program that placed young Cubans in cooperative work assignments in socialist East European countries. I was so anxious was about being able to get a peek at the world that at first I didn’t even ask about what I’d be doing there. As it turned out though, I would have to work in a factory (completely unrelated to what I wanted to do), which derailed my efforts.
In addition, since the co-op assignment required two years of work experience in any field, and I had just turned seventeen; so I instead took a course as a long-distance telephone operator and started my work life here on the island.
In the days, weeks and months that made up those two long years, I was so excited with my work that I not only tried to be polite to the customers but to surpass the required standards of courtesy, but I was yet to learn that fate can make sneak attacks.
A functionary from People’s Power (the local governmental council) had to carry out a background check on me, with my fate thereby falling into the hand of the upstairs neighbor that he used as a reference. Being a jealous member of the party, she said she hadn’t seen me at the neighborhood meetings or doing nighttime block-watch duty. What she was saying, in short, was that I wasn’t community-minded or “revolutionary.”
In this way, the socialist Germany that I had envisioned—with its dormitories for Cuban guest workers, its snowy landscapes and its baubles—would forever remain in the mist, in the distance (and in my dreams).
But fate also knocked on that same neighbor’s upstairs door. A few years later she was expelled from the party in the aftermath of a blowout triggered by her husband, who had cheated on her with another woman.
My second attempt to leave was in 1993, and I still get knots in my stomach whenever I pass by the US Interests Section Office in Havana – a tightness, a feeling of anxiety.
It’s ironic that the imposing building is so close to the waterfront, the same makeshift port from which so many rafts have left. Who knows how many made it, or how many failed? Only God and the depths of the sea know figure for sure.
I received a letter of invitation from my father, who I had suddenly stopped seeing when I was just two. My comings and goings at the immigration office became increasingly unbearable with the handling of papers stamped with ever more signatures and stamps, with the heat and the power outages, the packed buses, the lunch dishes that they almost never filled… Therefore in the end one comes to cherish those papers as tangible evidence of an impending miracle.
But this time fate hit me head on. The clerk of the Interests Office attended to me through a little window, or rather sent me away with a few hurtful questions followed by a devastating response: “Sorry, but your visa has not been granted.” This time had been the “father” of postcards with snowy landscapes and sweet goodbyes in letters sent from so very far away, as if from the most unreachable star.
Preparing my wings, again
Ah, but this obsession to lose my virginity as a traveler wouldn’t give up. It was still gnawing at me from the inside, despite my having seen so many attempts shattered between all the bureaucratic hoops and the skepticism of those who send the letters of invitation from the other side while affirming, “Sure, travel is simple – and quick.”
They’ll say those kinds of thing until they themselves get tired of so many obstacles (and costs) and conclude that Cuba is a mystifying island, a variant of the Bermuda Triangle, an unstudied magnetic vortex.
But if even rocks ultimately wear down by the slow, persistent friction of the waves, why should we doubt that the horizontal pull of the gravitation that grips us won’t weaken? So nowadays—again—I find myself collecting papers with letterheads and signatures, and stamps…
I look out at the horizon and wonder how much distance separates me from Paris, where my novel came out this past spring. This summer I met a French woman who had read my book. She talked about how moved she felt from the journey she had made through it as a collective autobiography in which a group of artists contend with asphyxia, statism, hustling, and dreams…
And while my body goes along retracing those same steps as before—to the immigration office, to the embassy; through the strong, invisible horizontal resistance of gravity that no scientist has yet discovered—I’m glad that at least my words are free and can reach anywhere in the world without waiting for a passport, or visa, or a white card.