Knight Ridder | By Myriam Marquez
My father’s only niece died on my birthday. Just like that. Teresita was gone, barely a year after my first cousin retired from her bookkeeper’s job at age 62.
We were just getting to know one another again, starting to connect the branches on the family tree, to share recollections about our very independent grandmother. We had gone from virtual strangers separated by time-stained photographs and Cold War politics to close family. As if my leaving Cuba at age 4 had been only yesterday.
By phone, we shared her elation at becoming a grandmother, celebrated my older son going off to college, her niece in Miami getting married - in short, we acknowledged God’s gifts of love and family, the mundane stuff of memories. We kept talking about my getting back down there.
Last year, I almost made it back. I had planned a trip to cover a family-reunification conference in Havana - a follow-up to my 2002 reporting trip. The Cuban government nixed the travel at the last minute. The regime had just arrested 75 human-rights activists, independent journalists and librarians. It was in no mood to talk up the diaspora of the Cuban family. So the conference was postponed.
Figuring it wouldn’t get any easier for me to go back to Cuba as a journalist - particularly one whose opinion doesn’t quite mesh with “revolutionary paradise” - I started looking into other options. I considered applying for a family visa.
But then the Bush administration imposed a new travel and remittances policy this year that denies the very meaning of family. The new policy does not count cousins, aunts or uncles as family worthy of having personal contact. No travel allowed to see cousins or nieces and nephews, no money for aunts or uncles who may have raised you like their own child. Trips from Cuban-Americans wanting to visit family on the island were limited to once every three years and only for siblings, spouses or parents.
In the failed belief that tightening dollars will topple Fidel Castro after almost 46 years in power, the new U.S. rules stooped to the ridiculous. Sending soap and toothpaste was aiding and abetting the enemy.
As usual, Castro got the last laugh. He simply outlawed the use of the dollar on Cuban streets, and imposed a 10 percent charge to exchange U.S. dollars to the island’s convertible peso. Right off the top, Fidel gets 10 percent.
Last week, the U.S. Interest Section in Havana put up the number 75 in lights - a “holiday” reminder of Cuba’s crackdown almost two years ago. On Thursday, Cuba put up a billboard in front of the U.S. offices showing photographs of abused Iraqi prisoners and a large swastika in red with “Made in the U.S.A.” stamped right on top of the word “fascist.”
In such a venomous environment, it’s a miracle that Cubans on either side of the Florida Strait manage to stay close to family, cousins included.
Had Teresita gotten ill in any other place in this hemisphere, I could have gone to see her, sent her any medicines she needed before her liver failed, as it did, from hepatitis that went untreated. (Cuba’s “free” health-care system at its usual mediocrity.)
Had U.S. policy on Cuba not been hijacked by extremists, I would have hopped on the first plane out, embracing my grieving cousins at their mother’s funeral. Bush’s policy isn’t hurting the regime as much as it is breaking Cuban hearts.
Myriam Marquez is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.