We're sitting across from the Hotel Saratoga in Havana, and Idania and Leo are arguing; they're my friends, I've lived in Havana on and off since 2012, running my college's study abroad program. I started the argument, when I said I was worried to see the Saratoga's new copy of the American flag.
The flag was to welcome the US diplomats who stayed at the hotel. "Josefina and Roberta aren't going to end the blockade," Idania said, referring to Josefina Vidal the Cuban negotiator and Roberta Jacobson from the US; later that spring, Josefina met with the US students, and I prepped mine by telling them the Latin American joke about being unable to have a coup in a country where there's no American embassy, and when one of them asked Josefina, "Aren't you worried?" she told the same joke. A week or so earlier, Roberta had been bringing up human rights; I read about it on the bus during our trip to the eastern part of the island, as we passed Guantánamo, where there's a heart painted on the gate, the part where Cuban control ends.
"The blockade is an excuse," Leo said, and Idania bristled. "They use it as an excuse for everything that's wrong, and now we'll see."
"We can't move, we can't buy anything," Idania said, "They fine everyone who tries to trade with us, even big European banks--"
"Ask anyone here," Leo said, sweeping out his arm. "The blockade is an excuse."
"We're being asphyxiated," Idania said, her hands to her throat.
"Who's asphyxiating us?" Leo said grinning. "Now we'll see."
"Wait, you guys can't disagree," I said, "People in my country can only understand one foreign thing at a time, and they keep asking, 'What do the Cuban people think?'"
Across the street the students started to appear, fresh from their first rides in a máquina, the big old cars made collective taxis: the boy from Kenya who said his car with benches for five reminded him of Nairobi, the girl from Colombia who'd wondered what happens in a revolution to "the people who maybe don't want to participate in anything," the boy from Pennsylvania who'd talked about "Cuba's dictatorship and repressive regime." When we met later with representatives from the Cuban National Assembly, I said, "Excuse me for bringing up a difficult matter, but in our country, our students often hear that Cuba is a dictatorship. Is Cuba a dictatorship?, thank you."
The representatives were a white man in his fifties and two young black women; one said, "If you want to see a dictatorship, look at Batista, look at Pinochet, who killed young people and left them in the middle of the street," and I could see the image of Darren Wilson standing over Michael Brown's body flicker across several of our US faces. "Look, we're not perfect. But we have free education for everybody. We don't have the army in the street." "Unfortunately there are people paid to say things like this," the man said, "in the interest of controlling what happens in Cuba." "We're not anybody's satellite or fruit ripe for the picking," he continued, which sounds better in Spanish: No somos satelite ni la fruta madura de nadie.
A couple of weeks later we went to a panel about who killed Che Guevara; as it happens, someone in the Massachusetts town where I grew up was head of the CIA Western Hemisphere then, a deacon at his church who raised roses and daughters, one of whom worked with my mother. This was during the Vietnam War, and I was trying to explain to Idania and Leo the mystery of how in spite of perpetrating these massive illegal violences the people in my country could keep thinking of ourselves as standard-bearers of human rights, as innocent.
"You're just innocent in a different way," Leo said. Idania rolled her eyes.
"If I send you to the swamp and the crocodiles eat you," Leo said, "it's not a mystery, is it."
Idania's eyes narrowed. "They betrayed el Che," she said.
"I didn't say anything about Che," Leo said smiling. "I was talking about Susana and the crocodiles."
"I don't think it's a dictatorship," the boy from Pennsylvania said later, "It's something else, I don't know what to call it." No one else knows what to call it either; since long before December 17, Cuba's been trying to create a something else with no name yet. It's no accident that the first book the revolutionaries printed for everyone was Don Quixote, and there's still a skinny naked statue of him across from the Coppelia ice cream shop. I've heard passersby there joke about the 'Período Especial,' the time after the Soviet Union disappeared when Cubans got skinny, as the US made the blockade even tighter--in the spirit of the 1960 Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs memo Raúl Castro quoted when he shook hands with Barack Obama in April, which recommended "denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government."
No one really knows what's happening now between the US and what another student called "this vexingly beautiful country": "It's like a Picasso painting," one professor said, "with thousands of facets." "There's the risk of moving and losing everything," said another, "And the risk of losing everything by standing still." Sometimes when I pass the Quixote statue I have the impulse to give him a shirt and a meal and a little imperial advice: Cuídate, hombre, Take care of yourself. Keep your eye on that prize but watch out for crocodiles.