Local Cubans express hope for island nation
Joy tempered by a harsh past
Luis Tiant, the legendary Red Sox pitcher, had to perform at his best while his family suffered amid fear and poverty in communist Cuba.
On the pitcher’s mound, he pushed past it. But off the field, he struggled to bring his parents to America. They finally arrived near the end of his career and died just 15 months later.
The thaw in US-Cuba relations Wednesday came too late to benefit his immediate family — but Tiant said he hoped it would help millions of others still in Cuba.
“Those of us who are here, we eat and live and have a decent life,” said Tiant, 74, in an interview in Spanish from his home in Maine. “All those people in Cuba have spent all those years . . . It was time for the end of everything. Here and there.”
President Obama’s speech restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba raised hopes — and skepticism — across Massachusetts, home to about 12,000 Cuban Americans, about 3,500 of whom were born there.
Both governments will open embassies, relax travel restrictions, and expand the amount of money that Cubans can send home, though the full economic embargo and ban on US tourism to Cuba remain in place.
Alberto Vasallo III, the chief executive officer of El Mundo, the Spanish-language newspaper his father founded here after he left Cuba, said he was disappointed that Obama did not outline concrete steps for change in the Caribbean nation. Cuban Americans have long argued for free elections, freedom of speech, and access to the Internet and outside world.
“I still don’t see how this helps the Cuban people,” Vasallo said, adding, “All of these things we’ve been clamoring for for 60 years, I didn’t hear any of that. Let’s get all warm and fuzzy with the Cuban government when just one administration ago it was considered a terrorist state? What changed?”
“It’s still a prison,” he said. “It’s the exact same Cuba my father escaped from.”
Obama’s announcement took many by surprise, particularly in Jamaica Plain, where Cuban-owned businesses dot Centre Street.
Sixto Lopez, a restaurant owner, had no time to watch Obama’s speech as he hustled to prepare paella for the lunch crowd. But he is still angry about the repression that overpowered his life when he was a math teacher in Cuba.
He had fled to Venezuela, and then to the United States, in 1986.
“You don’t know freedom until you lose it,” said Lopez, 64, who now runs the Old Havana Cuban Restaurante. “You can’t choose what to read, what to study, what movie to see. . . . They decide your life.”
Nearby, in a gift shop called La Casa de los Regalos, owner Aida Lopez was in tears with her daughter Rosa, and friend Liuva Del Toro, 72, a former political prisoner in Cuba.
“If there are no sanctions, I’m going home to my country forever,” Lopez, a 79-year-old grandmother, said. “That’s my land and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Del Toro had survived 16 years in a Cuban prison, a hunger strike that left him in a coma, and a bayonet wound that left a long, thin scar on one leg.
But Wednesday, Obama’s announcement inspired him to recall the Cuba he loved — the pristine beaches, the good schools, and the highly trained doctors and dentists.
“It’s a paradise,” he said.
“It was,” Lopez corrected him.
They know the Cuba of their memories no longer exists. The pale-pink house she left with her husband and children is likely in disrepair. Del Toro’s house is now a museum. They have no idea what happened to any of their possessions.
But as Lopez watched Obama’s speech, her hands trembled.
So many had died waiting for US-Cuban relations to change, including her husband, Alfonso.
“They died with hope that never came,” Rosa Lopez said.
As soon as the speech ended, the phone rang.
“Did you see?” Aida Lopez asked in Spanish, speaking to another Cuban immigrant living in Boston. “Yes. We’re going back.”
Wednesday, it was too soon to tell whether Aida Lopez and others could really move home permanently.
She never became a US citizen, because she says Cuba is her homeland. Years ago, in a moment of optimism, she bought a T-shirt in Miami, emblazoned with a Cuban flag and the Spanish phrase, “Al Fin, Libertad,” which means, “Finally, Freedom.”
In recent years, she grew so despondent about Cuba that she put that shirt away. But on Wednesday, she played the Cuban national anthem and pulled that old T-shirt off a hanger from the racks.
The shirt was dusty with a yellow hue. She clutched it to her chest smiling and rushed outside onto Centre Street under gray skies, to tell the neighborhood she hoped that soon her Cuba would be free.