Gone tomorrow

Jeremy Taylor on Finding Mañana, by Mirta Ojito

  • Mirta Ojito

Finding Mañana, by Mirta Ojito (Penguin Press, ISBN 1-59420-041-6, 304 pp)

Always and everywhere, there is a trade-off between individual freedom and social order. Total freedom is anarchy; total order is suffocation. A revolution, whether in France or America, Russia or Cuba, shifts the balance violently in one direction or another, releasing pressure like rupturing tectonic plates.

But radical change has to institutionalise itself. Everything and everyone around it has to adapt to a new situation. No revolution can accommodate an opt-out clause. Everyone has to cooperate with the new reality, or stand the consequences. This, of course, is where the long-term trouble starts: the sniffing out of dissent, the enemy burrowing under the walls. Liberation as a new tyranny.

In these seismic shifts, large numbers of people get hurt. No revolution has been accomplished without some degree of barbarity: deaths, prisoners, exiles, civil war. Dissenters who will not or cannot adapt to the new circumstances escape, or are blocked from escaping.

In the case of Cuba, part of the human hurt has been the separation of families across the Florida Straits, and the marginalisation of those who want to leave the island but can’t. Both the Cuban and American governments have controlled the movement of people, money, and goods between the two countries, making them political weapons in an ongoing cold war. Separation has fed the anger of Florida’s Cuban exile community, which encompasses everything from the sorrowful and nostalgic to the violently deranged.

The only American president to address this hurt at the human level was Jimmy Carter (in office from 1976 to1980). The usual iron-fist approach makes Fidel Castro more stubborn; it has never worked, it has provided Castro with a lasting excuse for domestic difficulties, and it has inflicted huge amounts of extra and unnecessary pain on the Cuban people. Carter, who had an instinct for human decency, tried another approach, and bartered prisoner release in Cuba for an easing of restrictions on the US side. Castro responded: Cuban prisons emptied, exiles returned to visit relatives, dissidents were allowed to leave. Everyone benefited, including the Cuban economy.

But the thaw produced a flood. The visiting Cuban Americans, “intent on re-creating the ‘paradise’ they had lost in 1959”, as Mirta Ojito puts it, spread their tales of Miami riches. Released political prisoners told horror stories about their confinement. The Americans slowed down the visa process. As frustration built up, would-be escapees gate-crashed foreign embassies in Havana demanding asylum; in 1980 more than ten thousand people invaded the Peruvian embassy, bringing the crisis to a head.

Castro resolved it by opening the floodgates and inviting Miami exiles to sail to the port of Mariel in Cuba and take these refugees away, with an equal number of relatives. The Mariel boatlift solved the immediate problem at the embassy, exported unwanted Cuban dissidents, and caused embarrassment and logistical problems for the US.

It was a card Castro had played before, when the US clamped down on visas in 1965: 2,800 Cubans left in the Camarioca boatlift then, and another 270,000 in the “freedom flights” that lasted until 1973. This time, he mixed in large numbers of “scum” —?unwanted criminals, delinquents, the mentally challenged: dispensables.

Mirta Ojito’s family were among the 125,000 “social misfits” who joined the 1980 Mariel exodus. She was 16. Her father had wanted to leave since the early days of the revolution — he thought it “robbed people of their souls” — and had waited 15 years for the necessary exit visas to come through. “The police came on May 7 when I was about to have lunch,” Ojito begins. The family had to leave immediately, taking only an overnight bag each.

Ojito is now a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, reporting for the New York Times from Miami. In 1998 she covered the Papal visit to Cuba, and of course revisited her old family apartment. She felt a need to document what Mariel had really meant for the many people swept up in it. What were Castro’s and Carter’s motives in allowing so many Cubans to ride across the Florida Straits in yachts and fishing boats and trawlers? What had other escapees’ experiences been like?

In Finding Mañana she tries to take Mariel “beyond the realm of politics and into the intimate spaces of private lives”. This goal is only partly achieved. Her father Orestes, she claims, was “fiercely independent and completely apolitical”. Early in the revolution, he had been told to leave his job selling cloth, and to drive trucks instead. Understandably, he was not best pleased. He and his wife Mirta stood apart from revolutionary activity, applied to leave Cuba, and were thus marked as gusanos, worms. They did just enough to survive in an atmosphere where

Cubans had become adept at hiding their true feelings and motivations. We lived submerged in a world of shadows. Everyone wore a mask in public, sometimes even at home, and you never really knew who your friends were. You had to listen and say little, go with the flow, lest the friend turn out to be the enemy who could ruin your life. The smallest of disagreements, the most trivial of conversations, the slightest wavering of thought could be fodder for anyone intent on advancing his career by destroying someone else’s.

Young Mirta was mocked at school for believing in God, and for her parents’ backwardness. The family felt nostalgic for the old pre-revolutionary days when things were “joyous”. They had relatives and friends who had left and with whom they maintained contact. They spent a fortune on an illegal Russian black-and-white TV set, a symbol of sophistication and luxury. “After a while,” Ojito says, “wanting to leave became a way of life.”

This was not an apolitical family: in a revolutionary situation, to be apolitical is itself a political statement, and the Ojitos were lucky not to be denounced as counter-revolutionary. There is little recognition of this in Ojito’s book, nor of the larger realities influencing the individual hurts: the trade embargo, Castro’s economic blunders, the culpability of Batista, the logistics of social change.

But the larger questions are not Ojito’s main focus: she sketches only enough background to support the stories she wants to tell, human stories which she carefully interweaves with her own. They form a compelling narrative.

Among them is Bernardo Benes, whose family had left Cuba early; he mediated between Castro and the US in the late 70s. Ojito’s uncle Oswaldo makes an emotional visit to Cuba under the family reunification programme in 1979, peddling a vision of paradise in Hialeah (“It is our individualities, he thought, that make us human. Our similarities only turn us into herds”). Héctor Sanyustiz crashes a bus into the Peruvian embassy grounds in 1980 and thus sets in motion the events that lead directly to the boatlift.

The Peruvian chargé d’affaires Ernesto Pinto has to deal with Héctor’s bus and ten thousand dissidents in his embassy garden. Napoleón Vilaboa, a Miami car salesman and Bay of Pigs survivor, has negotiated with Castro for the release of remaining Bay of Pigs prisoners, and pitches to him the boatlift idea. Mike Howell, a one-armed Vietnam vet from Atlanta, captains the refurbished boat, the Mañana, that brings Ojito to Key West (and gives her book its title).

These human stories are vividly told, and provide a rich context for the Ojitos’ own experience. After leaving their home with their uneaten lunch still on the table, they have to spend five days camping out and dealing with malicious bureaucracy, harassment, and humiliation. Ojito herself is too dazed and seasick to recall much of the voyage or their arrival at Key West, except being puzzled by the lack of skyscrapers. In Hialeah, pining for Cuba, even its restrictions, she soon discovers the world of exile where “one must always walk alone, at one’s own pace, and only after burying a part of one’s soul”.

At first, she finds American fashion “decadent, drugs epidemic, freedom overrated”. But 25 years on, though still nostalgic for Cuba, her opinion of Castro’s revolution is apple-pie American: a “repressive regime routinely abandoned by its brightest sons and daughters”. Successful adaptation.

Her own story turns out well. Prizes and name recognition; her father drives a Miami limo instead of a Cuban truck. Ernesto Pinto’s diplomatic career was nicely advanced by the embassy crisis. But many of the other stories — Benes, Vilaboa, Sanyustiz — end badly, in fear, poverty, isolation.

And there were aftershocks. Castro had overplayed his hand; the hapless Carter, who in the same week had to deal with the bungled hostage rescue in Iran, was damaged by the Cuban influx, and lost that year’s election to Ronald Reagan, who steered the US onto a very different course. Some of the “Marielitos” were still in detention in the US at the start of January 2005, almost 25 years since the day they landed.

Mirta Ojito’s account of these events is solidly researched, and anchored in human detail. That is the book’s strength. This is surely the definitive account of Mariel at the human level, including the interaction of powerful personalities on both sides of the Straits. About the politics on either side, though, there is probably more still to be said.


Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), November 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.