“What would have happened?”

“Life in prison.”

I gasp.

Luis shrugs. “When you’re so hungry you fear you will die, you’re willing to risk it. It wasn’t always like that in Cuba, but there were too many times when desperation was all we knew.”

“Your mother and grandmother must have been very strong to survive on their own like that. To raise you amid such tumult.”

Luis smiles, love shining in his eyes. “They’re amazing. Two of the strongest people I’ve ever known. My grandmother is all smiles and welcomes everyone. My mother is more guarded, but she’s always been there for me.”

“Did your mother ever think of leaving Cuba with you?”

“We never discussed it,” Luis answers. “When my father was alive, there was no need. Life was relatively good as an officer’s wife, as an officer’s son. And I think my mother was more open to the regime back then. Her family believed in Fidel’s reforms; it was a passion she and my father initially shared, although I imagine that passion has all but disappeared after she’s seen the future the revolution promised.”

“I can’t believe the regime has lasted so long given the life you describe.”

“It would be narrow-minded to say the entire country feels as I do, but many do,” Luis replies. “And even though we cannot wear that banner proudly, I believe there are enough of us to change things.”

He delivers the words with such conviction that I almost believe it possible.

“Did any of Fidel’s reforms succeed?” I ask.

“The social ones fared far better than the economic and political ones, for sure. Look, it’s not all bad. I agree with some of the things he’s done or attempted to do. Being black in Cuba is a bit better than it was in 1959—on paper, at least,” Luis adds. “But is ‘a bit better’ enough? It’s been nearly sixty years. How much has the world changed in that time? Race still matters here even though the regime says it does not. The majority of the exiles who send money back in the form of remittances to their relatives are of European descent. My black friends face difficulty getting hired to work in the tourism sector. Without remittances, without access to CUCs, the deck is stacked against black Cubans. And how can we measure racial inequality when the regime willfully ignores it?

“Men and women are ‘equal’ under Fidel’s government, but what does that mean? ‘On paper’ tells a far different tale from the reality of everyday life. This incremental progress where we exalt Fidel for the fact that things have gotten just the tiniest bit better in nearly sixty years is not enough. Fidel was good for Fidel and his cronies. The rest of us deserve more . . .”

He makes a sound of disgust.

“This island will break your heart if you let it.”

I think of my grandmother dreaming of a country just removed from her grasp, ninety miles that stretched on to eternity, of all the refugees and exiles in Miami and throughout the world, and I can’t disagree with him.

“Would you ever want to travel to the United States? If things changed and opportunities for Cubans increased?”

The question fills the air around us, the divide between our circumstances the elephant in the room.

“I don’t know. I got my passport years ago when they finally made it legal to travel. It seemed safe to hedge my bets even if the cost was prohibitively expensive. Without the paladar, I never would have had the funds. In Cuba, your passport is issued for six years, but it costs about two hundred dollars to perform the mandatory renewal every two years. Nearly a year’s salary every two years to just hold a passport. Add in the cost of travel and it seems like a very distant dream unless you have an outside benefactor or access to CUCs.

“And the United States?” Luis sighs. “It’s complicated. Within Cuba, there are different views on our relationship with the Americans. Some believe the United States is the source of our problems; others dream of moving there so they can earn enough money to send back to their families and eventually bring them over, too. And some think the reality lies in the middle.”

“Where do you fall on the United States?” I ask, half afraid of his answer.

Is it possible to separate your political views from your personal ones? To love someone who represents something you don’t agree with? I am American. Does he see me as an extension of my country’s at times flawed policies?

“We’ve paid the price of politics over and over again,” Luis responds. “The embargo is ridiculous. It’s hurt the Cuban people, not Fidel and his cohorts. It doesn’t work.”

“True. But to some it isn’t merely politics. For the most part, there’s a generational divide on the embargo. My grandparents’ contemporaries hate the idea of giving Fidel anything after he took everything from them. They had family members that stood before those firing squads, whose blood spilled on the ground, who were imprisoned for speaking out against injustice. Families were torn apart. They were separated from their loved ones, their memories, their legacies. Everything they had was seized by the government when they left. Their thoughts, emotions, lives were regulated by Fidel before they left. They watched the country they loved change into something they no longer recognized.

“The anger among the exiles is legitimate. It’s lessened with each subsequent generation, but there are real reasons for the anger. The revolution didn’t happen nearly sixty years ago for them. They live the revolution over and over again with each day they are in exile, with each hour they are reminded that they cannot go home.”

“And those of us who remained?” Luis asks. “In some cases perhaps those Cubans were made to leave, but for the most part you seem to forget that they had a choice.”

“Did they, though? How can you live in a place that seeks to eradicate your existence? That offers so little and takes so much?”

“I don’t have the answer to that. But you’ve seen the people suffering here. What do you think of the embargo?”

“The embargo hurts the Cuban people and fails to target the regime,” I reply. “But I didn’t lose a loved one to Fidel. My whole life, everything I worked for wasn’t taken from me. My generation is less inclined to hold on to the anger, but I am loyal to my grandmother, to my great-aunts. For the exiles, being Cuban means you’re born with a loathing for Fidel even after his death.”

Luis smiles ruthlessly. “That might be another trait we share.”

“Where do you stand on all of this?” I ask again.

“I love my country,” he replies. “I am Cuban. I will always be Cuban. Go to America to visit? Perhaps. But my home is here. My loyalty is with my country.”

“Is it really that simple, though? Not everyone has the luxury of tying their Cuban heritage to a place. For many being Cuban is something they carry with them in their hearts, something they fight to preserve even when all they have are their memories. When they left, they couldn’t take anything with them. No photographs, no official documents, no family heirlooms or mementos. That kind of exile makes you angry.”

“You’re right. Both sides love Cuba, they just do it in different ways. Some love it so much they can’t leave; others love it so much, they cannot stay.”

Luis takes a deep breath. “I write. Under a pseudonym. Online.”

The words would be innocuous anywhere else. I know quite a few people who blog on a wide range of subjects. But Luis doesn’t say the words like they’re innocuous; rather, as if he’s entrusting me with a secret—a deadly one. There’s an earnestness there, too, as though he wants me to know him, and this is the most intimate part.

“What do you write about?” I ask, even though I already know the answer. Politics. He’s been hinting at it the entire time, and now that I know him better, it’s not shocking, really. He has a strong sense of justice coupled with an appreciation for history, and there is an abundance of injustice around him.

The look in his eyes—the fury blazing above a fading bruise on his cheekbone—says it all.

“What would they do if they found out?” I ask. “That’s the reason for the pseudonym, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I wanted to protect my family. They didn’t sign up for this, and it didn’t seem fair that they would suffer for me speaking out.”

“What would they do?” I ask again, a chill sliding down my spine as my gaze drifts back to the hints of violence on his face.

“It depends on how big of a threat they determined me to be, and given that I’m a professor teaching at the university, where I possess the power to subvert my students . . .” He sighs. “They could see me as a significant threat. They could block my site. Fire me. Fine my grandmother’s business to the point where it would no longer be viable or simply shut it down altogether. They could pay my neighbors and colleagues to spy on me. Hire men to rough me up. Throw me in jail. Arrange for me to meet with an untimely accident—a car crash or something similar. Perhaps a mugging in one of the less savory parts of the city.”

He delivers the words in a calm tone, yet with each deliberate pause, it’s clear how much he’s thought about this.

“That night we shared the rum on the veranda—you weren’t mugged, were you?”


“So they already know who you are. They want you to stop.”


“And the roughing-up was what, exactly?”

“A warning.”

“Has this happened before?”

“No. I wasn’t on their radar before, but now I appear to be.”

“What changed?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

I don’t believe him for a second. He’s not a man predisposed to deceit, and the false note in his words rings true in his voice and in his eyes.

“What changed?” I repeat.

“I don’t know for sure. They were more concerned with their fists connecting with my face than conversation, but if I had to guess . . .”