I left Cuba on October 26, 1960. I’d just started the sixth grade at Havana’s el Sagrado Corazón, where my mother and grandmother had gone before me. By early December, I was attending Little Flower parochial school in Coral Gables. A few months later, on April 17, 1961, my aunt woke me up: “They’ve landed! We’ll go back soon!” I so much wanted my life back, the real one. It wasn’t to be. The Bay of Pigs invasion failed, and I lived another life, one that I could never have anticipated in the placid world of my childhood.
Longing for Cuba has been a constant in my life. As I grew into adolescence in Pittsburgh, a terrible sadness would often overwhelm me when I realized we wouldn’t be going back. For a long time, I played and replayed the minutest details of my last years in Havana and the early ones in exile. Our family had gone from living a rather idyllic life to one that truly tested our mettle. My father called those years la época heroica.
Inevitably, I acquired new memories and the pain receded, if not the sense of irreparable loss. Much later, I appreciated the advantage of having graduated from high school in Pittsburgh. Cuban Miami wouldn’t have given me the same feel for the United States.
By the early 1970s, April 17, 1961, had taken on a different meaning.
Well before I understood the full gamut of its ignominy, segregation had shocked me. True, my shock stemmed from the realization that Tata —the Jamaican woman who had cared for me in Cuba— couldn’t have sat next to me on a bus in many parts of the United States. Thus, the Civil Rights Movement and, later, the Vietnam War defined my political coming of age. While in college, I wrote my first paper critical of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
The Sixties had awakened in me a commitment to social justice that led me to see Cuba in a different light. Like Vietnam’s, the revolution’s defiance of the United States won me over. I came to see the victory at Playa Girón —as the failure of Bay of Pigs is known in Cuba— as a long-postponed affirmation of national sovereignty.
From the early 1970s until the late 1980s, I supported the Cuban revolution. For doing so, I became a pariah among many Cuban exiles. I am neither regretful nor apologetic of that period in my life. On the contrary, because during those years I frequently traveled to the island, I got to know Cuba quite well. First-hand knowledge allowed me to come to terms with the waning of the revolution and the failure of socialism. Letting go of my illusions was hard. Since 1991, I haven’t been able travel to Cuba; officials there consider me persona non grata.
Down the road, I hope that Cuba becomes a normal country, perhaps for the first time ever. Normalcy begins with a recognition that there is no greater good than the individual rights of citizens, including their social and economic welfare. There is, however, no democracy without the right of opponents to challenge those in power, expressing their views freely and acting upon them without fear. Civil liberties are as essential as social justice, and the Cuban people deserve no less. National sovereignty must start with a respect for the full integrity of individuals.
Of all that I have written and done thus far in my life, Cuban National Reconciliation —issued by the Task Force on Memory, Truth, and Justice which I coordinated (2001-2003)— is my most cherished accomplishment. The report grapples with the issue of what a democratic Cuba should do about past human-rights abuses. How Cuba might embrace a democratic transition is a matter yet to be resolved. Not so the basic truth that motivated the task force: Democracies are nourished by an ethics of means and universal rights, while dictatorships impose absolute ends that justify any and all means. That many Cubans on the island and in the diaspora deem the report useful is immensely gratifying.
I am no longer torn by the meanings of April 17, 1961. Cubans of good will fought and died for what they considered just causes: a nationalist social revolution or a democratic redemption. Even more emphatically, the same applies to the civil war that raged in Cuba in the early 1960s, a struggle not nearly as well known or studied.
Cuba must be made whole again. In 1963, Marcelina Chacón said: “Two of my sons died fighting for Cuba’s freedom: one with one idea, the other with another.” She and her husband, José Tartabull, put photos of their boys in a common frame, draped it with the Cuban flag, and hung it at the entrance of their bohío in the Escambray Mountains.
I long for the day when Cuba as a nation —which means Cubans on the island and in the diaspora— follows the example of Marcelina and José.
Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, DC and a professor of sociology at Miami’s Florida International University. Dr. Pérez-Stable chaired the Task Force on Memory, Truth, and Justice which published the report, Cuban National Reconciliation, in April 2003. She is the director of “National Dialogues on Democracy in Latin America,” a project sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue with the cooperation of the Organization of American States. She is an editorial contributor to the Miami Herald, author of The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy (Oxford University Press,1993 and 1999), and editor of the reader, Looking Forward: Comparative Perspectives on Cuba’s Transition (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Dr. Pérez-Stable is currently working on “Intimate Enemies,” a book about the United States and Cuba after the Cold War.