Breaking the family embargo


Last month, Cuba opened its doors a little wider. President Raul Castro announced that Cuban citizens would no longer need to obtain notoriously hard to get exit permits to leave the country; just a passport.

Many Cubans are understandably skeptical of Castro’s action. No doubt some Cubans will still be denied passports, and there are still many restrictions on travel. Athletes, musicians and members of the military, for example, still have to obtain special permission from big brother (or, in this case, little brother, Raul) to travel abroad.

Still, the loosening of restrictions is real, and it has made me wonder whether it will lead to a similar loosening of travel restrictions for Cuban Americans like me, who would like to visit Cuba.


Yes, I know that President Obama has already made it easier for Cubans with relatives on the island to go there. And the barriers to Cuban travel were always porous: It was possible, for example, to fly to Mexico City and then on to Cuba even during the height of the travel ban. But for many Cuban Americans, the biggest impediment to travel has been more complicated.

I am an ABC — an American-born Cuban. I have a U.S. passport, but I also have Cuban parents and grandparents who brought me up speaking Spanish at home. I learned about Cuban contemporary politics at the dinner table and in broadcasts from the hand-held radio that rarely left my grandfather’s ear.

Growing up, one of the phrases I heard most often was: “Next year in Cuba.” That wistful chant evoked all things related to “yesteryear’s Cuba,” our marinated version of Proust’s Madeline, a touchstone for the country my relatives left behind. Every Christmas, New Year’s, Thanksgiving and birthday, it was always the same: “Next year in Cuba.”

So why have I never gone? Why did that year never come?

I’ve wanted to go since I was old enough to realize that Miami was not Havana, that there was an original out there of our carbon copy. The irony was that the same people who fanned my desire were also the ones who impeded it. As much as my parents and grandparents wanted me to go

to Cuba, and to return themselves, they could not imagine any of us going until the Castros were dead and the communists out of power.

Various American presidents have imposed or maintained their own embargoes. But the one that kept me from visiting Cuba was a familial embargo, one that encompassed not just politics but also filial love and expectations. Every time I have planned a trip, my family has erected a wall. They have denied my “exit permit.”


On one occasion, I’d navigated days worth of red tape, secured hotel reservations and actually had in my hands a $500 plane ticket to Cuba. I was on my way. Until my mother insisted she would, literally, have a heart attack if I went to Cuba, and that if I did not want her death on my hands, I would have to stay home or go somewhere else.

She reminded me how one of my grandfathers was imprisoned in Cuba for 15 years in connection with anti-Castro activity, and how my other grandfather had barely escaped with his life. She told me once again about how my uncle, while imprisoned by the Castro regime, had been tortured with electric shocks. After his release, he remained so traumatized that he landed in a mental institution in Spain for a year, during which he did not speak a single word.

If I thought I would be safe because I was American, my mother warned, I should think again. Just look at Alan Gross, she intoned: an American working on “international development,” sitting in a Cuban prison for alleged “crimes against the state,” though he claims he was only bringing cellphones and computer equipment to the Jewish community on the island.

I lost the money I’d prepaid for my trip and stayed home.

My family is not alone in maintaining its embargo. Many of my Cuban American friends have encountered similar reactions when they have proposed visiting the homeland.

As of 2011, according to Florida International University’s Cuba Poll, 53% of Cubans in Miami favored the economic embargo. And yet, we’re starting to see changes, and demographic shifts could accelerate them. Though most Miami Cubans still favor an embargo, more than half of those in the 18-to-44 age group oppose it, suggesting that younger Cubans aren’t as rabid as their parents. And according to the same survey, 61% of Cubans and Cuban Americans in Miami oppose travel restrictions to Cuba, a number I’d also bet is generationally skewed, with those in my generation much more likely to embrace a more open travel policy.

Another thing that seems to be changing is the whole concept of “Next year in Cuba.” In my youth, there was an expectation among many Cubans, particularly those who had been forced to flee the island, that one day they would return for good. In 2000, the Pew Hispanic Center found that 41% of Cubans living off the island said they would return to a democratic Cuba. Four years later, that number had decreased to 32% and is, most likely, still dropping.


Many Cuban-born Cubans living in the U.S. have settled into being American not just on paper but also in their hearts and habits. And some of those who most fervently wished to return have grown too old. My grandfather is 90 now and will never return. My father, who thought he would one day return, living half his time in Cuba and half in the U.S, died before that was possible.

One day, I will finally visit Cuba. And when I do, I will be doing it for my father, for my grandfathers, and for myself.

Vanessa Garcia is a multimedia writer and artist and a Schaeffer Fellow at UC Irvine, where she teaches literary journalism.