“You’re still fighting.”
“I am. Revolutions are for the young. When I could, I fought for what I believed in. But I’m an old man now. The older you get, the more you realize that change—meaningful, lasting change—doesn’t always come with violence and bloodshed, but with reform, however slow, however gradual. When I was young and rash I believed the only way to defeat Batista was to kill him, to take his country and government away from him by force. But now?
“The problem with revolution, with the wave of violence it carries with it, is that it’s like a flash flood—it sweeps everything away, and nothing looks the same as it once did. And you think this is good, change was what you wanted in the first place, change was what you needed. But suddenly you have a country you must govern, people whose basic needs must be met. You must stabilize a currency, and create a legal system, and reform a constitution. Those are not the things young men dream of. They dream of dying for their country; dream of honor in battle. No one dreams about sitting at a desk and arguing over phrases.
“But those words, those laws, that infrastructure is everything. Without them, no government can succeed. I am not blind to what my countrymen are suffering, Marisol. Or the problems that exist. But I am here, with my pen. The revolution we need now will be fought by those arguing over words, phrases, passing legislation and loosening restrictions. Men willing to sit at a table and discuss the things we’ve been afraid to address for many, many years. I am meant to be here, to finish what I started, and hopefully, to be part of that change. For my family, for my country.”
That’s the gap between him and my grandmother. She could not have lived in this world he created, and he could not leave it.
He turns to Luis. “The longer you stay, the less I’ll be able to do for you. The more restricted your movements will become. The more danger to Marisol. You need to leave tomorrow. Marisol can get you a flight, and I have all the exit paperwork sorted out for you. We have a small window of time in which we can blame your release and departure as a clerical error, the product of departments not speaking with one another. The longer you wait, the greater the chance that you will be picked up by the police, that you will be prevented from leaving the country. If you’re picked up again, I can’t help you. You will be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.”
“He’s going,” Ana replies, speaking for the first time, her fingers on the bracelet again.
“We’ll discuss it later,” she says, her tone firm. Her gaze turns to my grandfather, tears welling in her eyes. “Thank you. Thank you for what you have done for my grandson.”
He bows. “Of course. If you’ll excuse me, I need to get home. My wife will be worried.” He turns to face me. “Marisol, I would very much like to see you before you leave.”
The reality that we’re leaving so quickly hits me. I thought I would have a couple more days here, but now it’s all unraveling.
“Will you meet me at the Malecón tonight?” I ask him. “There’s something I need to do.”
After my grandfather leaves, Luis and I retreat to his bedroom with a makeshift first aid kit in hand. My fingers sweep across his face, careful to keep from hitting the bruises, the cuts near his eye. He unbuttons his shirt, his knuckles scraped and bleeding.
I suck in a deep breath. “What did they do to you?”
His hands tremble over the buttons. “Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
He shrugs off the shirt, the bloody fabric hitting the floor.
Bruises mar his torso, a particularly nasty one dangerously close to his kidneys.
“You could have been killed.”
“You’re not fine. They could have killed you, and there’s nothing we could have done about it. Nothing you can do about it. Do you realize how crazy that is?”
“They just wanted to scare me a bit. If they’d wanted to kill me, they would have.”
“And the next time? You heard what my grandfather said. You have to stop. What you’re doing is dangerous. It’s going to get you killed. Is it worth it?”
“Of course it is.” Whatever they hoped to beat out of him, I fear they’ve only made it stronger. “It has to be.”
It’s one of those moments when blinding clarity hits me and two halves cleave together.
Like my grandmother before me, I’ve fallen in love with a revolutionary.
I feel the same helplessness she must have felt, the same sensation that we’re on a train hurtling off the tracks and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I don’t know what to say anymore, how to convince him he has to leave.
I can’t fathom living in a world where you have no rights, where there is no oversight, no accountability. The United States isn’t perfect; there’s injustice everywhere I turn. But there’s also a mechanism that protects its citizens—the right to question when something is wrong, to speak out, to protest, to be heard. It doesn’t always work, sometimes the system fails those it was designed to protect, but at least that opportunity—the hope of it—exists.
The ability to crush a voice is staggering here.
“Do you really think you can change the government? That they’re going to let you?”
I dab at the wounds on his face with the antiseptic.
Luis hisses as I touch the cut near his cheekbone.
“I see the hope for change everywhere I look, the undercurrent of it running through Cubans’ daily lives,” he says. “They know this isn’t enough, that we deserve more. They dream of little changes that would make their lives easier, make their children’s lives easier. Most of us remember when things were really bad, when it was a challenge to get enough to eat, and we remember the desperation we felt, the gnawing hunger in our bellies, the weakness in our muscles, in our bones, and the willingness to break the law because otherwise we would quite simply die. We’re dying a different death now, one that isn’t physical,” he continues. “We need to keep putting pressure on the government, keep pushing for change, demanding they do better. They should fear us. We have a generation now that looks ahead and isn’t pleased with what they see.
“My students—the future of this country—they care about technology, what little they’re able to access through legal means or not; they care about popular culture, which is smuggled to them through flash drives and in foreigners’ suitcases. They’re pragmatic in their desire for change, for more. For now, they’re occupying themselves with the fight—with gathering all they can on the black market, with changing their own realities. But what happens when they’ve exhausted their limited resources? What then?”
Isn’t that what I admire most about him? What attracted me to him in the first place? The passion, the commitment, the absolute dedication and love for his country. The men I know in Miami are obsessed with what kind of car they drive, or the brand of watch they wear, what club they’re going to on Saturday night. Luis lives for Cuba, and I love him for it; but now I fear Cuba will kill him.
I continue patching his wounds, soothing his bruises, struggling to keep the worry from my voice, to stifle the fear. “I understand that you want to make those changes. I admire your passion. But what if the limitations imposed by the government are too stringent for you to accomplish those goals?”
“I don’t know. But what you’re asking me to do—it’s not in my nature to give up. To run. And I don’t want to risk you in order to do it.”
“It’s too late for that. In their eyes, I’m probably already a threat. And don’t consider it giving up or running. Call it a strategic retreat.”
“I’m abandoning my country, my family, my people. My father died fighting for what he believed in. And I’m running away to save myself. How can I live with that?”
My heart breaks for him, because I understand the responsibility he carries with him, the desire to honor his family and to live up to the sacrifices they made. And at the same time, the chasm between us has never felt greater than it does now, the sand stretching on to an infinitesimal length, the sea boundless. Ninety miles feels like an impassable distance.
“If you die, things won’t be better. What will your family do then? At least if you’re alive, you can send them money, more than they would make here; you can make a difference from outside of Cuba. Perhaps more of one than you would make inside the country with all the restraints the government imposes upon you.”
“You want me to go with you.”
“Because you love me or because you think it’s the right decision?” Luis asks.
How has he known this when I only just worked it out myself?
“Because I love you and I think it’s the only decision.”
His eyes close for a moment when the word “love” leaves my lips as though he’s absorbing the force of that word, as if I’ve hit him with a physical blow.
His eyes open. “I’m not afraid to die for what I believe in.”
“Maybe not, but what does your death accomplish? You wouldn’t be the first one, and you won’t be the last, and what changes? Nothing. I would rather you be alive in the United States than dead in Cuba.”
He makes an impatient noise. “You don’t understand. You speak as though Cuba is just a place to live, as though it’s nothing more than taking a few boxes and moving them from one house to the next. It’s not. This is my home. My country.”
“How can you love a country that does this to its citizens? A government willing to throw you in prison for speaking out against their abuses. I came here wanting to love Cuba; I told myself I would look at it through clear eyes, that I wouldn’t be swayed by Miami’s view, that I would judge it on its merits and not through the lens of the exile. But I can’t. I’m Cuban, too. Perhaps I wasn’t born here, but my blood is Cuban. How can you fight to stay somewhere where you are not wanted, in a place that will get you killed? You’re a smart man; it makes no sense. Where is the logic?”