Barack Obama is in Havana tonight. What a sentence.
From here in the belly of the beast, surrounded by the army, the army reserve, the navy, the air force, the marines, the coast guard, the national guard, nuclear warheads, stealth bombers, aircraft carriers, attack helicopters, the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security, the National Security Administration, star wars, SWAT teams, local police, campus police, state troopers, neighbours armed to the teeth, assassination drones, Hollywood, Disneyland and Walmart, I say: farewell Cuba.
Farewell to the Cuba that has been poor but sent nurses and doctors to people’s homes to check on them when they were sick. Farewell to the Cuba who sent thousands of those doctors and nurses around the world to care for the world’s poor. Farewell to the Cuba that drew and held the line, even if it wavered sometimes, against institutional racism. Farewell to the Cuba where no one died in the hurricanes that always killed people in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and Florida. Farewell to the Cuba that you hear as Chucho Valdés piano sings and sways. Farewell to the Cuba of those intelligent, funny, insightful movies. Farewell to the Cuban athletes who were so magnificent on the international stage for so long. Farewell to the Cuba of Cuito Caunavale, fighting and dying for the freedom of others out of conviction and solidarity. Farewell to the Cuba that sheltered Assata Shakur and proclaimed with Nelson Mandela, “How far we slaves have come!”
Farewell to the Cuba whose commitment to serving its own people brightened the eyes of a young man I met in Minnesota about 10 years ago. He had fallen in love with an American visitor and come back to the US with her and they had a child. But his heart longed for his homeland, I think, for a place where people were treated with dignity and received the services they needed. I tried to explain to him that we African-Americans have been stripped of the ability to just “be” the way that he was used to “being” when he had been at home. We have passed through the fire, I tried to tell him, but we were very badly burnt and we have had to learn to speak again. But it seemed, listening to him, that in Cuba they remembered how.
The US news media is full of self-righteous cant today, as Obama lectures Raúl Castro about change and how to improve his human rights record. Cuba is stuck in a 1950s time warp, they say. While these phrases roll off the assembly line, more African-Americans, young and old, have been gunned down here in America. Children are crying from hunger, they are poisoned from their tap water, people are pumping their veins with cheap heroin mixed with paint thinner, the blackshirts are massing and believe me, the sun is going down.
Farewell Cuba. I salute you: imperfect but full of pride and achievement. Perhaps now you will do better, as you have so often done in the past, than others. Perhaps the coming onslaught from the army, the army reserve, the navy, the air force, the marines, the coast guard, the national guard, the nuclear warheads, the CIA, the FBI, Homeland Security, the National Security Administration, star wars, SWAT teams, local police, campus police, state troopers, neighbours armed to the teeth, assassination drones, Hollywood, Disneyland and Walmart — which will seek to turn you into a sugary 1950s theme park — can be resisted in your heart or in corners that they will all overlook. As your mountains change shape and your beaches erode, you will need every ounce of your strength.