By Nathan Frandino
The last fond memory Maria Gomez has of her native Cuba was growing up on a six-acre finca—her family’s farm, tucked into a valley in Santa Clara, with a little wooden house and no electricity—and playing there as a child, getting dirty in the grassy fields down by the creek.
“Getting up early in the morning and the sun rising,” Gomez says. “Those were beautiful childhood memories, and I don’t have many.”
Her childhood dissipated when the Cuban police accused her father of setting fires to pro-Castro establishments and jailed him for six years for being “counter-revolutionary.” She fled in 1970 with her mother, eventually settling in Miami. After a short visit to Cuba in 1979 with her husband, she has refused to return to the communist country until now.
The Gomez family represents a growing group of Cuban Americans whose attitude toward Cuba has changed. Diehard anti-Castro Cuban Americans no longer dominate the population, while more and more Cuban Americans support freer travel, greater interaction with the island, and even an end to the 51-year-old embargo.
This year, an estimated 375,000 Cuban Americans are expected to travel to Cuba, according to the licensed Cuba travel agency Marazul. Some attribute the surging travel to President Obama’s policy of unlimited travel for Cuban Americans with family there. Obama eased restrictions in 2009, after former President Bush limited the same group to visiting Cuba once every three years.
On Nov. 18, Maria and her husband will be going on an emotionally and politically charged trip alongside their two children, who are now adults and have never set foot on the island.
“I’m curious to look at Cuba with a very different perspective,” Gomez says. “My kids are grown, they’re independent, I’m not as angry as I was, and it feels like a good thing. You know those moments in life when the timing is the right timing? That’s how I feel.”
Gomez has every right to be angry. When her school learned of her father’s anti-Castro sentiments, they refused to let her continue studying. When she and her mother wanted to leave, the government forced them to work on the granjas, sugar cane plantations that many considered to be concentration camps.
She felt rejected and unwelcome in her own country. After two years of working on the plantation, she and her mother earned the right to leave the country. After a brief stint in Mexico, they arrived in Miami before joining family in Union City, N.J., where Maria met her husband, Manny.
Manny Gomez arrived in Florida as a ‘Peter Pan kid,’ one of 14,000 children sent from Cuba to the U.S. by their parents between 1960 and 1962. The two visited the island in 1979, when the Castro government allowed interaction with the Cuban American community. They traveled with two of Manny’s aunts and stayed for one week—long enough for Maria to not want to return again.
Thirty-two years later, their children are ready to go. After so many nights around the dinner table with their parents sharing stories of Santa Clara, curiosity finally bit the kids.
“My family has always talked about Cuba like some distant place, so I’ve had these images of what it looks like for me,” 26-year-old daughter Amelia says. “I hear that Cuba is very poor and run down, but it’s trapped in time. Everything is an antique.”
These dinner table talks typically ended the same way each time—just talk, with no real plans. Maria often objected to the desire to return, but Amelia says she could tell her father was excited about the possible trip. He still has cousins and aunts in Santa Clara.
The family is spending three days in Havana before traveling to Varadero for two days. Then they will spend four days in and around Santa Clara before returning to Havana and flying back to Miami on Nov. 28.
As excited as the family is for the trip, the political side presents another round of emotional challenges.
“Going to Cuba is exciting, but I also have to admit apprehension. I’m going with my most precious cargo,” Maria says. “I’m looking forward to facing the fears to this trip that I haven’t worked through, and to see how I handle myself.”
Having experienced firsthand the repression of the Castro regime, Maria has heard criticism for taking the trip.
“They think we’re either A. crazy, or B. giving up—what are we doing, going back to Cuba when it’s such an oppressed country?” she says. “But they don’t know what oppression is. I lived in that, and I’m going back to Cuba. So at the end of the day, I really don’t give a damn.”
Travel to the island has long been a controversial topic among Cuban Americans, even though a majority now favors fewer restrictions. A 2011 Florida International University poll found that 57 percent of Cuban Americans support free travel to Cuba while 43 percent oppose it.
Jason Poblete, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and public policy expert, says there are few reasons why people should actually return to Cuba.
“If you come here fleeing repression, you have no business going back,” says Poblete, who believes U.S. policy toward Cuba continues to fail. “The policy basically says we encourage people to people contact, but that’s been exploited.”
Obama lifted restrictions again in January 2011 when he decided to “increase purposeful travel including religious, cultural, educational, and people-to-people travel,” according to the U.S. State Department.
Poblete’s not the only one opposed to travel. The Cuban political refugee and acclaimed jazz musician Paquito D’Rivera recently compared Cuba travel to Jewish vacations in Nazi Germany. For Maria, the trip represents an opportunity for closure. She hates what the Castros and communism have done to her and her country, but she’s realized that she can’t stay angry forever.
“I've come to realize that I'm not 21, 25, 30 anymore. I don't have the luxury of time to continue holding on to that anger,” she says. “This trip means rediscovering my past. I think that my dad would be very pleased, because the decision to go to Cuba came from my kids. This would be something that you need to do, so go ahead and do it.”
Nathan Frandino, is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Piratepenpen]