The Power of Imagination

While in the process of completing a post on quite a different topic, I happened across this photo, taken after the recent “closing” of the Lincoln Memorial.  I found the photograph distressing and inexplicably haunting.  Surely I hadn’t written about these events – or had I?

I awoke this morning remembering a post from my earliest days of blogging. Written in 2008, it seems equally relevant today, though not in any way I could have imagined at the time.  I’m reposting it here with only an edit or two for clarity and the addition of these two quotations from an 1859 letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Pierce. The first is both relevant and amusing.

I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have perfomed the same feat as the two drunken men.

The second is merely relevant.

Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.

(Re-posted from June, 2008)  In recent weeks, Cuban policies limiting citizens’ access to certain goods and services have been liberalized.  Farmers no longer are required to purchase materials from state-run stores, and it’s now possible for more individuals to rent cars.

Restrictions on personal cell phone ownership have been eased, and bans lifted on the purchase of electronic or electrical consumer items of all sorts, including computers, televisions, pressure cookers, rice cookers, electric bicycles, microwave ovens and car alarms.

Raul Castro’s reforms have been scrutinized closely for practical as well as political significance.  While apparently desirable, they are filled with a certain irony.  In a nation where most individuals are not allowed to purchase a car, car alarms seem somewhat beside the point.  The scarcity of many basic food items and the prohibitive cost of others make the possibility of possessing an electric rice cooker or microwave seem just slightly amusing. Continue reading

Cuban Gold

Children of the Cuban missile crisis, we bear within ourselves certain visceral memories unimaginable to students today. Sitting in our classrooms, watching the clocks tick off the implacable hours, we awaited a word from our President and cast sideways glances at one another as we began to wonder – Have we celebrated our last birthdays? 

In 1962, I knew less of Havana than I did of death. Most of what I knew had come from television and film – especially Desi Arnaz and his Babalú– or from adult gossip about cigars, rum and fishing the jewel-like waters that separate Cuba from the Florida Keys.

Even as an adult visiting Key West, my exposure to that “other world” just ninety miles away was limited to enjoyment of Cuban coffee and pastelitos, the lilt of the music and the entirely kitschy “buoy” that claims to mark the southernmost point of the U.S.  It’s not a buoy, of course, and several locations are farther south. While the claim of “90 Miles to Cuba”  is correct, you still can’t get there from here as an ordinary citizen, and it’s extraordinarily difficult to get here from there. Continue reading

Yoani Sanchez ~ After Five Years

Slender, dark-haired, Yoani Sanchez walks the streets of Havana. Passing into and through the shadows of the Castros, she thinks of toasters and lemons, a scarcity of pork and the hunger of children. Fingers curled around the flash drive pushed deep into her pocket, she walks quickly, intending a liaison, a tryst, an encounter far removed from the world’s prying eyes.  Her longing is for a computer – her desire, to send her words into the world.

A young Cuban woman who blogs from Havana, Yoani Sanchez has built a worldwide readership. The circumstances of her life, her straightforward words and incisive intelligence make her someone worth reading.  They also make her someone to fear, particularly if you happen to be a Cuban official whose only desire is to maintain order and preserve the status quo.

Dictators may smile benignly when philosophers and thinkers use large, rectangular words to ruminate over grand issues like Freedom, Censorship and Ineffective Government.  But when pretty young bloggers begin to describe the realities of life in words everyone can understand – toasters and oxen, lemons and milk – dictators pay attention. Continue reading

A Prayer for Yoani Sanchez

Sailing to Havana

On the Texas coast, easterlies mean rain,  but southeast winds whisper tropical promises.  Building in like the trades, they rise after noon to blow every hint of land – burning fields, greening trees, fresh-plowed earth – back upon itself until dusk, when they quieten again.  Shaking off the lassitude of winter, sailors tack into the southerlies, working their way forward against their steady call. Along the coastal plain, gusty west winds fill with pelicans and spoonbills, and empty the bays before dying away as quickly as they came. 

But no matter the season, it is the north wind that delights.  With its restless, gypsy-like dance across the waters, it promises an irresistable bit of temperate pleasure in the midst of summer’s oppressive calms. When the wind blows freely from the north without a hint of easting, steady and unwavering as a well-trimmed craft, every sailor who has known the incomparable pleasures of long, offshore reaches begins to stand at windows or walk to doors.  Looking to the south, sniffing the air, letting the mind unwind its coils of responsibility, commitment and routine as casually as lines flipped from a cleat, they begin to dream.  With a well-found vessel and a few provisions, with fuel and water and the proper navigation tools, the course would be clear.  Passing down the Ship Channel, through the jetties and out toward blue water, leaving the tanker anchorage, the safety fairway, Heald Bank and the Flower Gardens behind, there would be only wind, water and a destination.  Set the course at 117 degrees true, make adjustments as you must, and in six days, or seven, you would be in Havana Harbor.  Seven hundred thirty-five nautical miles on the rhumb line, she’s only a long reach away on a steady norther.

In a perfect world, I would be gone: yielding to temptations I hardly can bear.  My open window faces north, scooping up the breezes.  My wind chimes, tenor in range, tuned to an Aeolian scale, ring only on winds from NW to NE. Tonight they are singing due North and my heart echoes their sound: restless, with a slightly minor stirring.  Given time and a boat, I could find my way to Havana. Laid up against the wall at Marina Hemingway, I would walk El Malecon, using my new, rudimentary Spanish to ask, “Can you help me find Yoani Sanchez?”

Finding Yoani Sanchez

 It is, of course, a fantasy.  There is much more than water that separates Galveston from Havana, and a few hundred miles of ocean are more easily overcome than the twin realities of geopolitical obstinance and dictatorial whim.  The thought of sailing away to Havana Harbor, tying up and walking over to visit Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez clearly falls into the realm of fantasy. Recognized as such, it stands as a powerful reminder that Yoani Sanchez herself is not a metaphor, a symbol, a blank screen upon which we can project our own fantasies about the oppressed Third World writer. 

Yoani Sanchez is real, as her people are real. At this very moment, she is in Havana, living her life as you peacefully sit at your computer and read these words.  Perhaps she is reading.  Perhaps she is wondering where to find a bicycle chain, or pondering the mysterious messages painted on the broken windows of the city.  Perhaps she is taking one of the unusual red and blue buses which sit at the side of the road outside her window or perhaps (one can only hope) she is pouring her son a scarce and luxurious glass of milk.  Soon, she will be writing again, using the power of human language to bring to a world’s notice the abuse of political power.

Despite the fact that I don’t know her culture, can’t speak her language and barely comprehend the nature of the government which constrains her life, I have come to know enough of Yoani Sanchez in past months that any thought of  focusing on other things leaves me with an irrational sense of betrayal, of abandoning a friend.   A friend or two of my own say, “You can’t be responsible for everyone.  Think how many unfortunate and oppressed people exist whom you don’t know: the refugees, the prisoners, the disappeared and violated.”

And that is true.  There are many I don’t know, millions of people whose circumstances nearly defy description and whose lives are lived out in hopelessness and fear.   There was a time when I knew nothing of Yoani Sanchez.   I knew little of her country and even less about her people.  But now, I know.   I’ve taken my bite of this particular apple, and so I find myself accountable for my response.  The difficult question, of course, is the nature of my response.

However distasteful we may find it, the truth is that we are embedded in history, and it takes time for things to work themselves out.  In difficult and complex circumstances, the longings of the human heart can meet the limits of life in a clash of suffocating force. When that happens, allowing time to pass, allowing the next step to reveal itself, is difficult.   It is tempting to become impatient, and even easier to experience helplessness, anxiety and frustration.  The urge to take control, to force a turning of events simply in order to resolve the tension – the urge to DO something – can be irresistible.  It’s a generally unhelpful response, particularly since, when no other obvious solution exists, the temptation to resolve tension simply by turning away can be strong.

Kryie Eleison

Restless in the wind and feeling the call of the water, still haunted by Yoani Sanchez and uncertain which next step to take, I found myself impelled to Galveston’s shore.  Walking the edge of the same water that laps against El Malecon so many worlds away, I remembered other days when there was nothing more to do: times when clear thought dissolved into a blur of confusion, and every action proved ineffectual. Seeing those days in memory, I saw my solution as well.  Turning my gaze from the south, from the expanse of water and the impossible journey it represented, I turned instead to the north, to the little seaside town and St. Mary, Star of the Sea.

I am not a Catholic, and whether Yoani Sanchez’ beliefs are Catholic, I have no way of knowing.  But in the cathedrals of the world it is faith that matters, not definitions, and Yoani Sanchez is a person of deep and abiding faith.  She also is a person of words, and surely understands the silence that is the necessary partner of words: the seedbed that allows them to take root and flourish, the frame that surrounds their images.

In a cathedral, it is the silence that comes first.  Sitting near Mary, Star of the Sea, or Anthony, or Patrick, with their banks of votives and calm, impassive gazes focused beyond the horizon of time, silence begins to permeate the soul.  As the silence grows complete, as mind and heart are stilled by the unutterable presence of eternity, I rise and take a taper, and light a candle for Yoani Sanchez.   There is no need for specific prayer, no need for words to fill the silence.  The silence itself is prayer, and comfort, enough.

As I watch the flame, a mysterious wind sends ripples of grief through my heart like a rising wind will ruffle the waters.  But the wind lays, and the heart calms, and the grief stands revealed for what it is: a profound experience of the truth that to be human is to be limited.  The promise and the pain of faith is understanding that those limits will be overcome, but  only in due time, and by a power other than our own. 

I stand a moment longer, watching the flame, hearing the silence, feeling the grief ebb away.  As I turn toward the sunlight streaming in through the open door at the end of the nave, as I begin my long walk through the flickering shadows toward re-engagement and life, there is no need to look back.

Yoani Sanchez is safe.



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Imagining a Ban


In recent weeks, Cuban policies limiting citizens’ access to certain goods and services have been liberalized.  Farmers no longer are required to purchase materials from state-run stores, and it’s now possible for more individuals to rent cars. 

Restrictions on personal cell phone ownership have been eased, and bans lifted on the purchase of electronic or electrical consumer items of all sorts, including computers, video players, televisions, pressure cookers, rice cookers, electric bicycles, microwave ovens and car alarms.

Raul Castro’s reforms have been scrutinized closely for practical as well as political significance.  Apparently desirable, they are filled with irony.  In a nation where most individuals are not allowed to purchase a car, car alarms seem somewhat beside the point.  The scarcity of many basic food items and the prohibitive cost of others make the possibility of possessing an electric rice cooker or microwave seem amusing at best.

While the sudden availability of televisions, computers and cell phones has created a bit of a stir in the world outside the Island, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez and others suggest Raul Castro’s easing of restrictions instituted by his brother Fidel is nothing more than bowing to the inevitable.  At this point, there is no stopping the influx of technology into the country, so it makes sense to get ahead of the curve and gain political advantage wherever possible.  Even more cynical observers suggest that easy availability of cell phones simply provides one more way for the government to keep track of its citizens.

In any event, the reforms have been noted with cautious approval and general agreement that, while the reforms are lovely, they probably are cost-prohibitive for most Cubans.  Writing in the April 1 Washington Post, Manuel Roig-Franzia notes that “Cuban state workers make an average of $19 a month… (while) car rentals in Cuba – also managed by the military – are among the most expensive in Latin America, with vehicles typically going for as much as $100 a day.”

The additional fact that such items and services must be purchased with Cuban convertible pesos, a stronger currency than the national pesos paid state workers makes things more difficult.  Cubans who receive tips from tourists or have money sent in from abroad have access to convertible pesos, but the existence of a de facto dual monetary system does little to increase purchasing power across the board.

The same issues arise when it comes to a less-publicized but symbolically important March 31 move by the Cuban government to lift restrictions on Cubans’ freedom to enjoy resort beaches, stay at luxury hotels or purchase services provided by the hotels.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent economic difficulties for the Castro regime, the practice of keeping Cubans and tourists apart became so rigid it was known as “tourist apartheid”.  Some of the most beautiful places in the country were off-limits to Cubans: Varadero Beach, Cayo Santa Maria, the Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio Province.

For most Cubans , being allowed to move beyond that “apartheid” and indulge themselves in the luxury of a hotel stay will be as symbolic as the right to purchase a computer or DVD; it simply is too expensive. A quick look at current rates published by TripAdvisor tells the tale: a night in Havana?  $201 to $369.  A little stroll along Varadero at sunset?  $169 to $305.  Guardalavaca? $255.  Guardala? Coming in high, at $455.  There was a listing at Guama for $3, with a description  that proclaims “twice the charms”.  If not a misprint, it’s either the world’s best bargain or the world’s worst decision: who knows?

In any event, it doesn’t take a genius to do the math.  Quoting Roig-Franzia again, “on (the salary of the typical Cuban), it would take nearly two years to earn enough for one night at the Saratoga.” 

Resort living and luxury hotels aren’t for everyone, of course.  Even as an American with a perfect right to head off to the Hilton, I prefer to make other choices.   I suspect there are Cubans who feel the same.  If I were Cuban, I’d be far more interested in regaining my right to travel to places like the Vinales Valley.

One of Cuban’s most remarkable natural attractions, it’s been declared a National Natural Monument and listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1999 as “a cultural landscape enriched by traditional farm and village architecture.”  Surrounded by mogotes with rounded tops and steep slopes, the valley is a luxurious mix of tobacco, taro and bananas, unusual plant life and exquisite vistas.   For decades Cubans showed off their treasure, until access was limited by the government.  In the words of Rafael Ferro Salas, “The old road was closed.  Now only the rented vehicles of foreign tourists travel the new route, and those carrying visitors invited to the spot by government officials.  For Cubans who live in the island nation, traveling is prohibited on the access road leading to the valley’s vantage point, the site where the view is loveliest and most unforgettable.”

In words of unutterable poignancy, he goes on to add, “Pinar del Rio is full of natural beauties.  The most beautiful sites are being left like a footprint in the fog of memory.  So far no one knows when the day will come when they can go back to traveling among them.”  (CubaNet, October 1, 2004)

Writing in Babalu, Val Prieto notes some uncertainty whether areas such as the Vinales Valley are now accessible to Cubans.  It may be the lifting of restrictions applies strictly to tourist beaches, hotels and services.  Whatever the final result, the changes certainly stimulate thought.  Whatever happens in the next months, whether Varadero, the Cays, the Vinales Valley and other prohibited sites become open to all Cubans, it remains a fact that for years Cubans have been barred from their own country, banned from visiting sights celebrated world-wide for their beauty and historical significance.

For a Cuban to be banned from Vinales is not unlike an American being banned from Yosemite, prevented from traveling to or enjoying its splendor because the government prefers to reserve it for those who will pay well for the experience.

What others experience can be hard to imagine.  But imagine, for a moment, being banned from the Everglades while tour boats filled with foreigners are granted special passes to enjoy the wonders of the River of Grass:

Imagine being banned from Anasazi ruins throughout the Four Corners area because a politician prefers to show off the sites to his cronies:

Imagine being banned from Cape Hatteras because the government intends to restrict contact between you and visitors from other countries:

Imagine being banned from Death Valley for the sole purpose of buttressing your government’s sense of entitlement and control over your life:

Imagine being banned from Niagara Falls simply because the government has the power to do so and decides it will do so for the simple delight of exercising power:

For some people in the world, such banishments are a bitter reality, limitations on freedom imposed by rulers intent on controlling other peoples’ lives.  It’s impossible to look at the world and not understand that such bans lead inexorably to other constraints.  The freedom to travel, to assemble, to speak without fear with whomever we choose, the freedom to participate fully in the life of a country or community – all those freedoms begin to erode when a valley, an historic site or an occasion is declared by the state to be “off limits”, made a punishable offense for the sole purpose of maintaining power over individuals.

As I read about the possibility of change in Cuba, and ponder the strange significance of open beaches and hotel stays for the cause of freedom, I can’t help remembering an expression I once heard someone use in quite a different context.   “I’m banned, and I’m proud,” he said. From my perspective, it was an odd statement.  I suspect a few Cubans would find it even more odd.



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