It was February 2007, and I was back in Holguín, Cuba, the city about 400 miles southeast of Havana that I'd left for the U.S. in 1999 at age 8.
The purpose of my visit was to reconnect with those I'd left behind. Ninety miles of ocean and a vast political barrier had separated me from cousins, aunts, and neighbors who were once like siblings to me.
After the 1959 revolution, the U.S. imposed trade and travel restrictions to pressure Cuba toward democracy; as a result, Cuban-Americans were not free to visit as they pleased. Last year, President Obama lifted the travel ban for Cuban-Americans, though the trade embargo remains in place.
I was nervous to reunite with my family, but as I walked through the tall colonial doors of the house I once lived in, my nerves disappeared amid my family's hugs and tears. I was surprised by how quickly our rapport was re-established. I'm an only child, but my Cuban cousins treated me like their brother, and I felt a loss for the years I'd spent apart from them and my native country.
Walking the streets of Holguín, a city of about 300,000, I soon discovered that Cuba's infrastructure is crumbling along with its economy. Like an archived picture, Holguín looks old and decayed. At my cousins' high school, rooms hang from their foundation, and floodingand bullfrogsin bathrooms are common.
But the government's focus seems elsewhere. Every street corner is filled with political propagandaposters and murals urging people to support the revolution. Police stand nearby to ensure compliance.
Since that first visit three years ago, I've returned to Cuba four times. On a trip in January, I heard Cubans describe their daily struggle for survival, with basic goods like rice, milk, and cooking oil only becoming scarcer.
From Fidel To Raúl
Many were hopeful when Fidel Castro handed power to his brother Raúl in 2006. But most have lost faith that Raúl will bring change. Cubans' careers are still determined by their willingness to attend pro-Castro rallies, their actions continue to be monitored, and they still need government permission to travel.
Yet, many are optimistic that Obama will bring change. Cubans and Cuban-Americans see his move toward better relations as positive. And the very fact that an African-American is now President of the U.S. discredits much of the Cuban government's anti-American rhetoric, which portrays the U.S. as intolerant.
For the past 11 years I have lived in Miami, home to many of the 1.5 million Cubans who have emigrated to the U.S. Like most of them, I hope democracy comes to Cuba, that our families reunite, and that the next generation is spared the pain of living under so harsh a regime.
My desire is change, and my hope is that change is imminent.
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 15, 2010)