December 17, 2014 starts, I imagine, as most other days have for the past half century for the Cuban people. By this time of the month they have used up their monthly ration of rice, beans, oil, and sugar, and are working out how they are going to eat for the rest of the month. The ones fortunate enough to have jobs go to work, many serving the tourists who come here from Europe, Asia, and other places...except, of course, the United States. I begin the day with a few of my traveling companions on a short bus ride from Trinidad, where we are staying for a couple of days, to a nature preserve called Topes de Collantes. We hike about 3 miles to Caburni Falls, past majestic royal palms, numerous examples of the flora and fauna of Cuba, and a rather large termite nest. We stop for lemongrass and basil tea at the dirt-floored and thatched-roof house of a campesino (peasant farmer).
Then things change.
When we return to the restaurant at the base of the trail, I notice that the workers are gathered around a television instead of, well, working. But since they have no customers at the moment, I figure they are watching the Cuban incarnation of Doctor Phil. Outside, our tour guide asks me, “conoces los tres heroes?” Being a relatively new student of Spanish, I am excited that I recognize the words conoces (do you know) and tres (3). The context of his question eludes me, however, so he explains that the remaining three members of The Cuban Five, who have been imprisoned in the United States since the late 1990's for spying on anti-regime groups in Miami, have been repatriated.
Fidel Castro gave a speech after The Five were sentenced, which he ended with the word, “volverán”...they will return. I have noticed posters and billboards all over Cuba with pictures of The Cuban Five and Castro's one-word prediction. I have talked with several Cubans about this issue, and have learned that this is more than just propaganda, that the long prison sentences of The Five is seen as unjust by many.
I soon learn that as important as the release of these Cubans is, it is only part of the story. Alan Gross, who has been in a Cuban prison for smuggling illegal electronics into the country is released, as is a US spy, and the presidents of both countries make simultaneous announcements that relations between our countries are being normalized after more than a half-century of officially not speaking to one another. Later that day, Donna Conrad, another member of our group, tells me that she walked up behind a group of Cubans watching President Raul Castro on television to ask if it were really true. One of them turned to her and said, “es posible.” When President Obama's image appeared on the screen, he said, almost in a whisper, “es verdad”...it is true.
Later that day I am back in Trinidad. With my camera backpack and tripod, I am easy to spot as a tourist. As they often do, curious Cubans ask where I am from. When I say, “los Estados Unidos,” they tell me how happy they are that this barrier between the citizens of our countries is being removed. I find my way into a library and ask if I can photograph this statue that occupies a disused pool in the courtyard. As I work on my composition I notice the sorrowful look on her face, and reflect that she has apparently not yet heard the news.
The December 18 edition of Granma, the official newspaper of the communist party in Cuba, has a one-word headline: ¡Volvieron!...they have returned...that circles back to validate Fidel's prediction. Below the headline is a picture of the reunited Five (the other two had been released previously after completing their sentences). But most significantly, there are photographs of Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama announcing the news to their respective countries, printed side by side in precisely the same dimensions. I can imagine no stronger symbol of this historic day, so I purchase a copy to take home, carefully protecting it from being damaged. It is my most valued souvenir from Cuba, far more meaningful than any old Che Beret!
I witness no wild celebrations in the street. I think the Cubans have suffered too long to let their collective guard down that easily. They know that there is a long road ahead of them before they enjoy the freedom and prosperity that people like me sometimes take for granted. But there does seem to be a lightness in their step as they go about their lives; perhaps the hint of a smile that was not there yesterday. As Donna says, tomorrow the Cubans will go back to work, many serving foreign tourists, but they will return with a sense of hope.