From Cuba to Cambridge

Three Harvard undergraduates are discussing the recent election. They talk about the media coverage, the opinions of their family members,

Three Harvard undergraduates are discussing the recent election. They talk about the media coverage, the opinions of their family members, and most importantly, the new president himself. But Daniel E. Lage ’10, Andrew Velo ’10, and Daniel Balmori ’10 are not talking about the future resident of the White House. Instead, the president they are concerned with will inhabit the Presidential Palace over 1,400 miles away in Havana, Cuba.

Though none of them has ever actually set foot on Cuban soil, Lage, Velo, and Balmori care deeply about the island’s politics. All three are officers of the Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association (CAUSA). They note, however, that their views are their own and not of the organization, which strives to be inclusive.

Their interest is personal as well as political: each has parents who fled the nation after Fidel Castro took power, and each looks to the day when the Cuban people will have more than one choice for president on their ballots.

The formal transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul Castro marks the first transfer of power in 49 years. For most Harvard students, this is the first time they’ve witnessed a change in Cuba’s leadership in their lifetimes. But, according to Lage, Velo-Arias, and Balmori, Raul’s election may not signal progress toward the democratic Cuba that so many Cuban-Americans and their families envision for the future.

Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista—sensing his eminent downfall—fled the island nation on New Year’s Day 1959. A group of revolutionary forces led by Fidel Castro gained power, with Castro later gaining complete political control of the nation. During his decades-long reign, Castro was decried as a tyrant and lauded and as a charismatic opponent of Western imperialism. Last year, the ailing man transferred his presidential duties to his brother Raul and last month formally stepped down, appointing Raul to replace him. And this political upheaval’s side-effects extended beyond Cuban soil. Castro’s coup d’etat set in motion a series of events that brought many families, like those of Lage, Velo, and Balmori, to the United States, albeit through much hardship.

After Lage’s grandfather’s general store was seized by armed guards, Lage’s father boarded one of the “freedom flights” inaugurated by President Lyndon B. Johnson, taking him to the United States. When Lage’s grandfather tried to apply for a visa out of Cuba, he was thrown into a work camp for six years before finally receiving clearance to leave.

Balmori’s grandfather had a similar experience in which he was forced to do manual labor before the communist regime would grant him a visa. At age 14, Balmori’s father was able to escape to Spain and spent several months in an orphanage before meeting his uncle in the United States in 1967.

While Velo’ father was able to leave Cuba, his mother was not. His father had to work with seven different governments in order to get his wife into Panama and then into the United States in 1984. Today, each family resides in southern Florida.

While the recent political events in Cuba may look promising to some, Balmori, Lage, and Velo-Arias foresee little actual positive change in Cuba’s government. Velo was working late the night they announced that Fidel Castro was formally stepping down. Though he had long thought about this moment, his reaction surprised him. “It struck no emotion,” he says. “I thought I would be happy but I realized that we are dealing with a government that doesn’t play by the rules and real change will not come from above.”

Lage likened the change in Cuba to the political change in Russia when Putin stepped down. “The power relationships are still the same,” he says. Balmori agrees that Fidel Castro’s resignation means nothing. “The difference between Saturday and Sunday in Cuba is nothing,” he says in reference to Saturday, Feb. 24, the day that Raul Castro, the island’s only candidate, was elected president.

Balmori points to Raul’s first acts as president as proof of the continuation of the status quo under the new government. Raul asked permission of the government to consult his brother on state matter and appointed José Ramón Machado Ventura his vice president. Balmori describes Ventura as “a revolutionary who served with Fidel Castro renowned for his commitment to old style socialism.” He says, “In my eyes while Fidel Castro has formally given power to Raul it is symbolic and it unfortunately doesn’t change much. The moment it happened nothing magical happened on the island. There is still repression and there are still no free elections.”

Lage shares in Balmori’s disillusionment with both the new government and the process by which it was instated. “The issue isn’t who has power,” he says. “The issue is that during the election there were an equal number of candidates as there were spots. We want a democratic transition, true multiparty elections.”

Neither Lage, Balmori nor Velo find promise in Raul’s presidency. In Balmori’s opinion, Raul lacks his brother’s charisma and leadership abilities. “Raul is not the most capable as a leader and the people know that,” he says.

All three admit that their slight pessimism stems from a series of disappointing developments in the history of Cuban politics. Last summer, for instance, a rumor circulated that Fidel Castro had died. Lage remembers his father coming home from work and informing him of the possibility of an announcement of Castro’s death on the Cuban state news. Velo said that the city of Miami, with its large Cuban population, was preparing for the massive celebrations that would come with the announcement. But in the end, no announcement came, a fact which Velo said was unsurprising to most Cubans.

“Cubans have an expectation of let-downs,” he says, pointing to the high hopes present after the fall of the Soviet Union. “People are reticent to go out and celebrate because they don’t want to be let down again.”

Balmori says that while this glass-half-empty mentality exists, most are still hopeful that communism in Cuba will, someday, come to an end. He says he scans the headlines of every morning in anticipation of that day. “There is something in us that every day we hope communism will fall,” he says. Lage notes that while communist Cuba is a sad fact of life for his generation, it is even harder on his grandparent’s generation, many of whom will never live to see a free Cuba. Balmori was at his grandfather’s funeral the day Fidel Castro first announced that he would be stepping back in 2006. He recalls leaving the funeral to be greeted by people waving Cuban flags and dancing in the streets, but he could not muster their same level of enthusiasm.

Lage says that while Fidel Castro’s death is obviously an eventuality, it certainly will not solve the problems facing Cuba or instantly usher in a new age of democracy. “The next milestone is not Fidel Castro’s death,” Lage says. “The next milestone is when the people of Cuba can have their voice heard and change happens from within. That’s what’s important.”

Although Balmori has a particular connection to Cuba and its politics, he notes that the problems of the Castro regime extend beyond the island nation. “It’s not a Cuban issue, it’s a human issue,” he says. Lage and Velo also hope to raise awareness about human rights violations globally, and not just in Cuba. Balmori continues, “We have a passion for humanity all over the world,” a passion which the three bring to their admittedly different, but nonetheless relevant, lives at Harvard.