Cuba's exiles face a transitional stage
President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba last March prompts the pondering of some questions about the present and future of Cuba's community of exiles. Is it on its way to becoming a historical fiction, or is it just refusing to recognize its "post" status?
Exile always entailed the refusal to negotiate with those in power. However, over the years it has seen its positions diversify and its angst dissipate as relations between the exile community and the Island became more fluid. Certain steps taken by the Cuban government after 1993 - the possibility of sending remittances, the arrival of several weekly flights linking various American cities with different locations on the island, among others - were just the beginning of a trend spurring people to rethink things, and whether it makes sense today for one to declare himself, know and feel himself to be, a Cuban exile, and whether it is appropriate to demand that anyone identify himself as such.
There is a process of rapprochement underway between the two governments. When officials with the regime are engaging in talks with Cuban-American businessmen, when a growing number of Cubans are regularly travelling to the island, when those arriving view Miami more like a place to make deals and blow off steam than a site of struggle, when money does not discriminate between a former political prisoner and a former official of the Government, who is not even repentant; when the economic isolation is being dismantled, and school uniforms are even being bought at little stores in Hialeah, just what exactly is what we call “exile” and what does it consist of? Does the change of mask also imply a transformation of its essence? How are we to reconsider their story, then? Is it time to bury forever the terminology associated with the status of "exile" and move on to another concept? Is what has certainly been the most polarized and irreconcilable relationship in the history of Cuba, even after 17-D, going to be defused?
There is still a school of public opinion whose discourse is firmly rooted in the exile identity. The paradox is that the community of exiles seems to grow old without being replenished, as apparently it is incapable of enlisting new parties identifying with its raison d’etre. These exiles' collective vision, ratified in 1980 with the Mariel Boatlift, which frustrated attempts at dialogue that some groups wanted to undertake with the Cuban government, was undermined by the balseros crisis, the issuance of 20,000 annual visas, the Elián González affair, and also the preference for and predominance of Europe as a destination among young intellectuals leaving the island.
Now Obama's visit has once again eroded the very concept of el exilio. More than a few pointed out that only two "retrograde" classes opposed the unavoidable presidential tour: the Cuban government (remaining true to its Cold War, reactionary and repressive core), and the "recalcitrant exile community in Miami." Equating these two groups is unfair to the exiles, to say the least. Time and history have conspired to dismantle, one by one, along with the Castro regime, the exile community’s foundations. In the end, after so many decades, the one is dependent on the other, and they are destined to die together.
With each group of Cubans crossing through Customs into the free world, the question of just who these people are resurfaces, and whether that idea which for decades we referred to as el exilio even makes sense any longer. The old exile community had always been associated with a fairly homogeneous set of political positions, centering on the fall of the regime as a precondition for returning to the country. For many that was what exile was all about: the incapacity or inability to return to a place from which we were excluded or expelled.
With Cuba it turned out that, when the time came, returning was actually technically possible – though the regime always reserved a humiliating right to deny entry. But the original reasons for the exile remained intact. Not just anyone is an exile, but rather one who chooses to defy the governing authority. This political notion of the fleeing individual is what has been chipping away at the very idea of exile.
Exile, as a category, however, from Hannah Arendt to Edward Said and Giorgio Agamben, has always been more complex, porous and, therefore, slippery, resisting attempts to be studied and characterized from a single perspective. Rather, it has tended to be continually redefined. We knew little about Russian and Eastern European exiles fleeing Communism, and much more about Spanish and South American ones escaping military dictatorships, as their stories were glorified by leftist rhetoric, which denigrated Cuban exiles and viewed them as ideological adversaries.
The exile community is also undergoing a transitional stage, which began long before December 17, 2014. The very personal nature of exile will be bolstered, which is what ends up conspiring against the very idea of an exile identity, and it will be necessary to define the community's political presence and its role in the Island's future.
Just as the opposition on the island has changed, so has its exiles, who today must discuss how to proceed with their decades-long struggle, knowing that, save for some symbolic elements, there is no longer any chance for restitution, and the wounds cannot be closed. Both groups should continue to demand urgent political changes. Economically the state of the country is so deplorable that reconstruction is unthinkable without the presence of the exiles, which have long been, in fact, those who sustain much of the island's economy.
Who, then, shall dare to extend to the community of exiles its death certificate? I wouldn't. Not yet.