Chapter One, page 19
that woman hurling questions in English at Fidel for almost five hours,
questions that no one had asked him before, left me speechless. What about
prisoners? she wanted to know.
When I was little, I had heard a story about a young man in the neighborhood who was sent to jail and later executed by a firing squad for conspiring against the revolution. His bride had gone crazy, the story went; she spent her days in a catatonic state, looking out the window of her imposing but crumbling house across from our apartment. I thought of my mother’s cousin, whom I remembered vaguely. He had been in prison on an island south of Havana, and my father had flown in a small plane to see him several times. The man fled Cuba in a boat as soon as he was released. The son of my father’s closest friend at work had also been in prison, sentenced to thirty years for trying to leave the country illegally in a boat. I had always thought that those were isolated incidents, aberrations of a regime that felt threatened by its enemies to the north. Yet here was Fidel on television admitting that he held maybe two or three thousand political prisoners in Cuba’s jails. Not only that, he said that, at one point, more than fifteen thousand Cubans had been jailed for political reasons. Finally Ms. Walters asked Fidel to say a few words in English for the American people. His words were instantly translated to Spanish. He said that the americanos were hardworking people, honest people, even idealistic. Fidel added that he hoped the people of Cuba and the people of the United States could be friends. That, he said, was his sincere hope.
When we turned off the television, my father remained pensive in the darkened living room. The message was clear, he said. Changes were coming. If Fidel were willing to talk to his enemies, who knew? Maybe we could dare to dream again. Not about the kind of radical changes that would make us want to stay in Cuba, my father said, but dream about obtaining the one thing he wanted more than anything else in life: a visa to the United States. All he needed now—all Fidel was after, really—was a little push, a hint from Washington or from Miami that the Americans were willing to listen. But who, my father wondered, citing an old proverb, who would be the one to place the bell around the cat’s neck?