To Go Back or To Stay, a Cuban’s Dilemma

By Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti

Juan Carlos Cremata Malberi.  Photo:
Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti.  Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — I recently returned from a trip to the United States and Switzerland, where I’d been invited to participate at different film festivals. The return trip always involves an obligatory stop-over in Miami – and an encounter with friends or old acquaintances. No one says anything to me, no one tries to convince me of anything.

Should I return, or stay?

They only talk about their daily problems – the pickles they’re in, what they go through every day. Still, a dichotomy kept buzzing inside my head: to go back or stay.

For over 50 years, the question has been something of a Shakespearean dilemma for most Cubans.

Returning means a dreadful head-on collision with a heat that becomes more stifling every year. You start to stumble upon problems the moment you step off the plane, finding a Customs that is increasingly distant, cold and harsh on nationals.

Foreigners barely notice this in their eagerness to discover the island. The welcoming one gets as a Cuban at home, rather than affable, is tainted by the hatred, envy, frustration and impotence of those who receive you.

Once, I returned in the middle of a power-outage. Welcome to Cuba.

Those of us who eke out a living here, the routines in this ambiguous and angst-filled mixture of underdevelopment and socialism, know what this entails: a re-encounter with daily uncertainties, intolerance, bureaucracy, indolence, shortages, incomprehension, “lack of resources”, a blinkered and provincial way of thinking, the ever-present and now almost insulting street business, mistreatment, apathy, melancholy, the politicization of everything, false discourses, the absence of morality and a long list of etcetera’s that empty into what we cling to, endure or try to be – or what they hope we become.

Of course, it’s not like that everywhere. In Cuba, there are also families and plenty of good people – but almost none of them make any important decisions. They have sway only over our emotions.

There is already more than one generation fed up with so much history, so many stories of a glorious past, so many promises of a promising and increasingly distant future, so much of a pressing present.

The average Cuban only knows the day-to-day. I managed yesterday; I’ll figure something out tomorrow. I need to eat today. And I am not just referring to food. There is a need for spiritual nourishment that’s even more urgent.

It’s the thesis of one of my films: one can afford to be materially poor, but not spiritually so. Some will attack me for saying this. It won’t come as a surprise. We’ve all become experts at not listening to others.

Then, there’s the option of staying.

Everyone tells me what this has meant for them: breaking ties, readapting, nostalgia, difficulties adjusting and paying for everything, even the air one breathes.

I believe in my culture. That is my nation. The culture that allows me to understand those who no longer live on this land and to share spaces with them.

I know I am atypical and privileged. I have been able to travel as well as materialize many of my dreams.

I’ve seen the world and know that something different exists out there – and that it’s real. And that the solution isn’t to be found there either, as the remedy can sometimes be worse than the disease itself.

But I have become a man of the world who finds the nearly-provincial, neighborhood or tribal concept of the “homeland” tight-fitting, uncomfortable, restrictive and even miniscule.

I continue to feel as other Cubans do: those who often tell us about the discrete arithmetic of survival.

What is to be done? Why should we continue at this crossroads?

We either return to the cyst and wallow in it, or we accept the pain and build another future.

No matter how much one resists it, reality ends up capturing you. Again and again, it envelops you, degrades you, and annihilates you.

You turn on the TV and everything you see and hear is a lie: the same, dry and bitter discourse, pitted against the appearance of an easy and carefree life, comfortable and feasible.

I once read something that somehow edifies and reassures me a bit. The problem is that one is always leaving, never returning.

Why do I go back?

This late in the game, I think it’s out of pure habit. Before, I used to do it because I had a family and, most importantly, work to do here.

I also don’t think I am young enough to confront a change of such magnitude. There’s nothing patriotic about my decision. I no longer believe in the “homeland.” My nation is my work.

But I don’t know what I’ll decide in the future.

*Juan Carlos Cremata is a Cuban screenwriter and filmmaker who lives in Cuba. His films include Nada (“Nothing,” 2001) and Viva Cuba (2005), a film that received over 30 awards, both in Cuba and abroad.


10 thoughts on “To Go Back or To Stay, a Cuban’s Dilemma

  • Ken, you are 100% correct.

  • I find you to be a bit rude and probably lacking manners to a great degree. Your choice. let me be very candid if at all possible with your type. I am not defending Cuba nor its system, I believe that the author put it very well as to the choices he had, but I am stating a fact which you do not seem to grasp. Yes, I made money, but not only in the US as you have assumed, which can make an ass out of you. I also paid my more than fair share of taxes here, and still do. Can you tell me why are so many of our citizens moving abroad or is that a concept and fact that you have not been made aware of? Try to do a little research as to who is immigrating to our country and let me know your findings, it will be very interesting. Incidentally, I never asked for a paradise and created my own opportunities payhing my own way through school etc. where I learned that “promiss” is written as “promise”.

  • Yes, people are stressed in the US and Canada as well. And each one of us could find parts of life in Cuba that would appeal to us. But there are parts of our lives here that we would miss and very soon. Ready access to a variety of foods and other material goods (although this is not true for everyone in our countries). If i moved to Cuba I would want to bring my pension income and not have to live on the income of Cuban retirees.
    Of course, one of the ways to improve the standard of living of Cubans is to oppose the US embargo.

  • Great article, very honest but at the same time it points to the shortcomings of having an only or mostly Euro-Cuban culture. Spirituality is extremely strong in Cuba, based on African models, enriched by Catholic thought, liturgy and iconography, which were re-shaped and adapted to the new conditions of life in Cuba. it nurtured the Slaves, the Afro-Cuban and poor masses through centuries of abuse, hardship, discrimination and persecution, but it is considered a ridiculous barbarism or cultural color if considered at all among the intellectual and professional classes, particularly in Havana. Even the Catholic religion served Cubans of all colors and cultural base to find spirituality, which I consider very different from being “Religious”.
    As far as the problems of every day life, those of us who have lived abroad face similar or even totally different problems, but problems never-the-less although ours are not created by underdevelopment or the blockade. They come about as a result of privatization of basic services, commercialization and exploitation of every single human need, the contamination of our air, water, soil and food to satisfy economic interests and the lack of adequate pay to meet cost-of-living expenses.
    Señor Cremata’s problem is right out of the Existentialist Manifesto if there was ever one. As a Cuban (or really anyone), he is incredibly privileged just for having that choice to stay in the “First World” or return home, but it is a meaningless one. Here in Canada there are Iranian architects driving taxis, Cuban engineers working as electricians, Malaysian doctors selling veggies and Colombian Veterinaries dispensing at a convenience store. Would he get work as a filmmaker if he stayed abroad? What about his social life, his family, his status, even his living conditions…?!?
    In my provincial Camagüey we would say Juan Carlos has “el Mal del Blanco” or White-Man’s Disease: He thinks too much about very little at all. Temptation is a normal part of life and we deal with it everyday in sundry ways. I support his decision to remain in Cuba 100%.

  • Agree totally! Good post!

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