HAVANA TIMES — The popular reception received by pitcher Ariel Contreras during his recent visit to Cuba reveals the gaping chasm between declarations that stigmatized him as a “deserter” and the feelings of masses of people, especially baseball fans.
I found it interesting that, in an interview with Contreras published in the blogs linked to the government, he explained that he had a clause included in his contract with the NY Yankees specifying that the athlete would never be forced to play against Cuba.
As it turns out, the “deserter” was not as “traitor.” Even with $32 million in his pocket and playing in the majors, he longed to again represent his country in any international competition. As he stated, “If that were to happen, I could retire contented.”
As for me, I would love to again interview Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez here in Cuba.
I met him at the worst time, when he was banned from playing baseball after having been accused of plotting his own “defection.” He always denied that, but that sanction put him in a corner, so he did in fact leave for the US.
I would also like to meet up again with Enrique, a doctor friend of mine who went to a conference in Chile and never returned. He attempted to visit Cuba several times but was always rejected. The old immigration regs marked him too as a “defector.”
He’s actually a very humane physician, the kind of person who always has time for his patients and their friends. My own wife owes her life to his clinical expertise in detecting what turned out to be a serious case of meningitis.
Because of that — despite whatever the official version says — Enrique was never ever a deserter to us, and we never felt betrayed. It’s true that we wanted him to stay here longer, but no one has the right to force another person to live where they don’t want to.
Thanks to the new immigration law, he’ll be able to visit us, see his family and friends, and wander the streets of the city. His trip certainly won’t have the national and international connotation of Contreras’s, but for us it will be even more important.
I don’t think the new immigration reform is a panacea, but it’s such a leap forward that it makes me dizzy. It surprised those of us who thought that doctors wouldn’t be included, given the economic importance of their work for the island.
But we weren’t the only ones surprised. Several dissidents who were previously prevented from traveling were left dumbfounded when they received their passports and thus the ability to go to any country that would give them a visa – which is not at all difficult for a Cuban dissident.
And this movement of people is widespread. This week I ran into a woman selling eggs at the agricultural market in Havana’s Monaco neighborhood. She told me that she had already visited Ecuador and was planning a trip to El Salvador, invited there by some of her acquaintances.
Another friend of mine asked to borrow US $50 because he was going to Mexico and needed it to cover the cost of his passport. When I asked him how he got his visa, he told me that he didn’t need to ask for any permission to travel. He thought that all he needed was a passport.
My friend was unaware that it’s essential to obtain a visa for the country he wants to visit, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him that these are becoming increasingly inaccessible. At the end of the day, many people are able to get them, and many others only have the right to dream of traveling, after five decades of negotiating a minefield of obstacles.
Those who — at one extreme or another — predicted a flood of migration are baffled. Cuba remains full of people, the vast majority of professionals remain at their posts, and the airport has not collapsed or jammed up with overloaded traffic.
I have no doubt that many Cubans will leave in search of greener pastures – as do Uruguayans, Mexicans, Dominicans and Spanish (who of late seem determined to replay the story of their grandparents in Latin America).
The big difference now is that Cubans too will be able to return. To maintain their residency on the island, all they’ll have to do is come back every 24 months. But now they won’t return as deserters or traitors, but as citizens with the same rights as everyone else.
Undoubtedly immigration reform has some murky areas, but the change is humanely far-reaching. There will be time to crank up the engines of criticism, but for now I’ll think about enjoying a beer with Enrique or re-interviewing “El Duque.”
(*) An authorized HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.