• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, thehavananote.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Two Cuban actors making their way to the Tribeca Film Festival opening of “Una Noche” last week have disappeared – and presumably defected – after arriving in Miami. Apparently, just like the characters they play in the film, they’ve chosen to leave the island for a better life in the United States. The third actor, who did not defect, said, "I have my family there, my friends, my girlfriend," he said. "Here, I don't know anyone." On the other hand, what foreign actor (especially one in Cuba) wouldn't want the chance to "make it" in the United States?
I’ve not had a chance to see the film, and as such I can only draw educated guesses about the way in which it treats the characters’ decisions to emigrate. But I’m going to guess that, taken together, the film and its actors’ real life developments illustrate the complex and toughest realities of living in Cuba – and that includes having the same loves and dreams as anywhere else (and far fewer opportunities to pursue them than one would have in the US for instance), and an inordinate amount of getting creative and hurrying up and waiting, and yes, for some and for all, fear and limits.
It can be a particularly depressing reality for twenty-somethings in a country [that] is proud of its broad-based educational achievement but offers the vast majority of Cubans little to do with that education. And though Cuba is undergoing significant economic changes that will surely change the course of Cuba’s future, it will take time for the benefits to be felt broadly and deeply enough to convince so many disaffected youth that there is a reason to stay. So, whether you’re ‘fleeing’ a prison guard, or whether you’re ‘fleeing’ a place that feels like a dead-end, it’s not hard to imagine the impulse young Cubans have to leave their country.
But, it’s also not unreasonable to ask a few rhetorical questions, like, aren’t there millions of people the world over who also have good reasons – perhaps even better ones – to flee their country for ours? Are Cubans the most miserable people on the planet, or is there added – and significant – reason that contributes to so many making the decision to defect (or emigrate)? Cuba policy wonks know the answer to this question, and it causes us to gnash our teeth and pound the table for emphasis – to make sure the listener is actually listening:
Thanks to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and the 'wet-foot, dry-foot' policy in place since the mid-1990's, Cubans may arrive in the United States by any means (yes, including illegally), and not only walk free in our country, but they will receive government adjustment assistance (intended for refugees, though they don’t have to actually prove they are refugees), be eligible to work, and have the right to a green card after just one year. What other illegal immigrant group gets this sort of treatment in the United States of America? Certainly not Haitians or Afghans. Not Iranians, North Koreans nor any other group that could make a case for it. The policy is an anomoly of the 1960's; it was never intended to leave the door open for fifty more years. But it has, and no president has been tough enough to close it.
Cuba is undoubtedly as hard a place to live as it is beautiful. The much-publicized defections to the US by Cuban actors and athletes – and the thousands of more anonymous rafters and go-fast boat riders who arrive from the island – surely capture our imaginations. But it is not only the island that drives them here. The United States beckons too, with its well-dressed Miami relatives disembarking their planes laden with gifts, with its promise of opportunities across this great country, as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and, most crucially, with an unparalleled, favorable immigration policy crafted especially for Cubans.
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