Rafael Hernández (RH): In your comment to my letter ten years ago, you told me that you would return the day the Cuba that I painted really existed. However, you came back. What happened?
Maykel Galindo (MG): The person I am today is not the person I was back then. Many things have changed. And to answer you now I have to put in context everything I wrote then as an answer.
When in 2016 I decided to return to Havana, I had a couple in Brussels who was very enthusiastic about Cuba. He helped reconcile my image of Cuba. After the 2011 reform, in 2013, I began to make consecutive trips to Havana; and to notice spaces for more and more young people, which in my time did not exist; to discover another Cuba advancing towards another place; a different discourse in the media; to notice a real desire for transformation, for opening. As a young man who lived for many years under the U.S. embargo, and also under a Cuban immobilist discourse, I began to notice a progress towards something different.
Seeing that there were young entrepreneurs who were in Cuba no longer living off a salary, make no mistake, that was useless, I was not going to return to Cuba to work in a State institution that was going to pay me three or four hundred pesos a month, but to a place where I could set up a business and live, without major benefits, but decently. Meeting young entrepreneurs, I begin to change my image of a fixed and immobile Cuba.
Being precisely in Tucson, Arizona, I listened to Obama’s and Raúl’s speech on YouTube, and I told myself that I had to go back, because Cuba was calling me.
I had already bought my house, which I imagined I would live in when I was old, because it was always clear to me that I was going to die here, and so I started with the idea of opening a hostel, a rental house. And in 2015 I began to come for longer periods, and in the 2016 I stayed to live in a Havana that was overflowing with wellbeing, with the desire to live, with creativity. What I saw was extremely beautiful, young people who had had as a life goal to leave the country and who were thinking of returning to live in Cuba. And although the steps were timid, there was something magical that made one believe again that this time things were going to get better. In that context, I returned.
In the context in which I had read your letter in 2012, from the pain; from everything I went through to be able to leave Cuba without wanting to stay abroad; when one arrives in a society not like the American one, but like the Belgian one, and you realize that as an immigrant and poor person you can study, with the preparation and support of the family, that although it is modest, you can prosper, and that education and health are practically free too.… And then when you realize that you are in a functional society and that many of the things that they told us we had in Cuba you also have abroad with created social commitments, and then you read an article like yours, you become very frustrated, because once again we are not analyzing things as they should be.
The day capitalism and communism are going to be analyzed in Cuba, well, we must analyze all capitalisms and all communisms, including the other paths, such as Vietnam, China, Finland, Sweden, for capitalist and communist countries, and not just stay in that confrontation of the two shores that are Cuban communism and U.S. capitalism.
I answered you in that context, after I was denied many rights during that process of leaving the country and when I returned to visit later.
Those were the years when I was really trying to find a balance between the person I was and the person I had become, between the desire to live in Cuba and the desire not to.
RH: In 2022, you told me that you were not happy there, but you felt more like a citizen.
MG: In Belgium I felt more like a citizen because I had rights that I didn’t have in Cuba, to decide and to get involved. What is happening in Cuba today with the youth, say emigration, say the explosion of the July 11 events, is that there is a disconnection between the government and the needs of young people.
In the tone of my response to your letter is that young people who have not lived what you or my mother lived cannot be asked for continuity or resistance.
The rulers must govern for that class of young people who are leaving, solutions must be sought, and many of the solutions, Rafael, lie in solving the structural problems that exist today.
There is a disconnection between the official discourse and the real, psychological, social, economic needs of young people. I answered you, let’s say, with that candor. The one who is in a youth organization is not the only young person in Cuba. There is also the dissatisfied one, who does not have the same intellectual journey, and who lives in a disadvantaged neighborhood, with a disadvantaged family, who does not understand anything about sitting in a classroom or being a political figure. That young person is also part of that society. That gap between two Cubas is very difficult to fill, and the more time passes, the more irremediable it will be.
RH: Going back to your life abroad, tell me what you were doing in Belgium precisely at that time.
MG: For three years I stopped studying and working part-time, so I could bring my brother to Brussels with me, and dedicated myself to working full-time, in bars, restaurants, hotels. Since I started working, I had a friend who worked in a five-star hotel, and she taught me how to operate with the codes of the big European chains.
When my brother settled down, I went back to the highly prestigious Higher Institute of Translators and Interpreters in Brussels. Those studies contain a good dose of politics, economics, and the institutions of all the countries that speak Spanish, French and English, practically half the world, it made me understand more the American, Latin American, Cuban, European institutions, and have a much broader political vision, which prepared me for the return to Cuba, already stripped of all conflicting feelings, but seeing it as the country of resistance that it is. In addition, appreciating how at that time it was trying to launch reforms, the complications caused by the U.S. blockade, all of this made me see Cuba from a much more, let’s say, international perspective, more disconnected from my feelings as a Cuban and more as a country, and also with greater intellectual maturity for having lived abroad.
RH: Was it easy for you to re-adapt to living in Cuba? The repatriation? Did your friends think your decision was a good one? What do you miss most about your life there?
MG: It was, shall we say, easy for me, in fact; more than I thought. I did not plan to return in 2016 to live permanently. But the life I was discovering was so beautiful. I saw people, Cubans like me, returning full of dreams, of motivation. Although in Cuba life has always been a material problem, it is not easy to set up a business, buy what you need…. Getting rid of all that material need was easier than I thought, and readjusting to life. You can’t “adapt” to what you already are, but simply accept that you’re from here, and little by little you get used to it. When one lives in an extremely quiet residential neighborhood, you must get used to the hustle and bustle of Old Havana, to the neighbors, to living here: one day the power goes out; and another, there is no water. One gets used to those things, because one has everything else, the love of the family, the new friendships that you discover. You see one is creating a business, which for one is prosperous. Then there is dealing with the bureaucracy in Cuba and everything else. But we already know that this is an evil for everyone, not just for one.
Many things should change in Cuba, but in the end that is not what makes one leave or stay. So, to my surprise, it turned out to be easier than I imagined.
What I missed most about my life in another country were my friends. And I was lucky, because almost all my friends came to see me, the best in any case, few things tie me to a place more than its people and its culture.
I do miss a lot of things from Belgium, I can’t spend a lot of time without being there either. What I miss the most are the everyday moments, that cup of coffee you have with a friend in that place that you have made yours, dinner in that other restaurant that you have also made yours. Those moments that I have made mine in certain spaces of the city, the walks in the park, that was what I missed the most.
The repatriation was quite easy for me, the process as such was simple. There was a lot of misinformation. Once they summoned me to Havana to register and give me my ID. But in the end, it was just to take my fingerprints, and I had to pay for a plane ticket just for that. But I would really classify it as an easy process.
Being one of the first to repatriate, my friends thought it was the biggest nonsense in the world; because nobody imagined that someone who went through such a hard time to leave Cuba was asking for a permit to resettle. When I said it in 2016, they took me for crazy. I do not have to justify myself to anyone, but beyond showing that it was a wise decision, because they saw me happy, it is true that Cuba does not give the guarantees so that one feels good when living abroad, nor that you are making the right decision. Unfortunately, Cuba’s relationship with its emigrants today is still stormy. Although endless things have been done to improve that relationship, such as the meetings of Cuba and its Emigration, since the time of Fidel, the relationship with emigrants is still not healthy, they are excluded from many things, from paying for a passport at a price like any Cuban citizen living in Cuba, from investing. Repatriation is a mechanism of exclusion, since it is conditional on the possibility of losing residence in Cuba. As long as these things are not healed, the relationship between emigration and the Cuban government will not heal; and anyone like me who decides to return to Cuba will always be seen as a slightly strange person.
RH: Has living abroad for so many years helped you better understand what happens here?
MG: I have visited poor countries, and I have studied the institutions and how the trade mechanisms work with those countries. I had to attend many classes on commerce, law, economics, and there they openly talked about how everything works. What it means to have a country like the United States financially and institutionally blocking one like Cuba allows you to understand more. And that Cuba will probably continue to be a victim of the power relations that the United States has, against which absolutely nothing can be done, except resist.
The trips have opened my eyes a lot; to understand that communism and capitalism, as I told you before, is not just the United States and Cuba; and that capitalism not just involves all countries with which we are used to comparing ourselves, such as the United States and Europe, since there is also a Dominican, Mexican, and Argentine capitalism; and that when you see everyone’s faces, it is impossible for you not to understand the reality of Cuba, above all, what you do not want for Cuba.
That is what I am afraid of. That some leaders in Cuba today do not realize that they are creating a mass of people who tomorrow, in the event of a rupture of any kind, could lean towards one extreme, because we are not political or socially preparing our young people to be, shall we say, consistent or to be political beings. This could be a problem for the future Cuba.
RH: That Cuba of 2016 so different from when you left, what did it consist of?
MG: Differences in lifestyles, goals, discourses, mentality. Obviously, Cuba changed. When I went specifically to Miami, they told me: “In Cuba nothing has changed,” I told them: “Well, in Cuba things have changed.” And the fact that I am currently living in Cuba with my business; and that I can go with my money to see my brothers who are in the United States, and that doing so is not forbidden, is proof of it.
RH: What would you say to a Cuban who lives abroad and is considering the decision to return?
MG: Well, Rafael, answering this question from the current context is very complicated. Because many things have changed again.
The only recommendation I would give to a Cuban who lives abroad and is considering returning is to be consistent with himself and to live his trip as he must live it. I don’t think that, at this time, there are many Cubans considering returning, given the complex situation in the country, to which I do not see a short-term solution.
I am in Cuba today because I already have my business created and I already bet on it. I don’t think I would do it right now, in 2022, because the Cuban government is not going to provide a short-term solution to any of the problems we are having. Of course, the U.S. blockade is part of what is happening, but there are many things that can be done from within that are not being done. And precisely what motivated me to return to Cuba in 2016 is that there was no continuity discourse. Raúl Castro seemed to me to be a very pragmatic person, and he was trying to do things the right way, to leave a slightly more prosperous and economically healthy country. Whoever wants to return to Cuba and is considering it should know that it has to be their trip, and that if they do so, they are doing it because they love the country, and accept the things that the country has that makes them feel good.
RH: If you were to catch the ear of the President, what would you recommend to reduce the migratory flow?
MG: That he holds a true colloquium of the union of young Cubans and not only of the Union of Young Communists; that he sits and listen to them in shirtsleeves as you are doing with me; and not only to those who are sitting in a classroom at a university, but also to the youth of the neighborhoods. But really, not with a few government leaders in a disadvantaged town. Because the mechanisms are created in Cuba. There are democratic mechanisms that can be exploited, in all schools, with the Federation of University Students, with the Union of Young Communists, to collect all the concerns of the young people.
That they hurry up with a profound economic reform, because the necessary changes are not cosmetic, they are profound. And to do short-term things to improve trust. Whether for a friendly, family or business relationship, trust is essential. The big problem is that a good part of the young people does not listen to them. My friends are tired because they don’t trust the government.
Current Cuban society is a society that is very open to all kinds of criteria, very plural. Thanks, among other things, to the Internet era, to the opening to tourism, to the great Cuban migration, Cuban society has completely pluralized. And it is necessary to create spaces so that everyone has a voice, and that the country is governed for everyone.
When I decided to return, Cuba seemed to me such a progressive society, that all the elements were created to found that third way that we young leftists in Europe call it, that we realize that there are completely contaminated models. A communism like the Chinese, with millionaires, a Vietnamese communism with millionaires, what does this have? Anyone who manages to accumulate millions can control a corrupt politician. And I saw that steps were being taken to build a society without copying any model, trying to develop its own, that seemed so brave to me. And there were spaces where young people were heard or tried to be heard, and I saw so many interesting things that I believed it. Then came COVID and the U.S. government, with the desire to hang and drown the Cuban people. But the Cuban government’s response has been more ineffective than it should be. And in a society as plural as Cuba’s today, with young people who need to participate and be heard, it is necessary to find the mechanisms, if not, we’re going straight into the void.
We need more spaces where we can be much more sincere. Dismantle the discourse of those independent media that only create discomfort and that idea that nothing changes, and everything gets worse. It is true that this presidency has had a titanic task. But the discourse goes on one side and acting on the other.
Raúl had a refreshing discourse and not just a discourse, he acted. In politics, acting is important. even more so when one is daring. I think he restored a certain confidence in many of us who returned.