Forty-Five Years Is a Long Time
by Eduardo Cerviño Alzugaray
Cuba is a nation frozen in time. For tourists visiting the island for a couple weeks, this is part of the charm. After all, some of the buildings you may see are older than Jamestown, Virginia, founded by English settlers in 1607.
Remember the ballad, In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue?
Havana is a veritable museum of classic cars kept running on the roads by the ingenuity and tenacity of Cuban tinkerers. Movie fans know that no prop sets the period of a film better than a vehicle. From a horse-drawn carriage to a Ford Model A, from a Studebaker to a fashionable Ferrari, just a few vehicles strewn around a movie set make an immediate impression on the mind of the viewer.
What the tourist never sees is the misery and barely subsistent lives the great majority of Cubans endure behind the façades of those colonial structures. Even behind the more modern buildings from the 1950s, a decade I like to refer to as The Day the Island Stood Still, this everyday struggle persists.
Today, Cuba is once again in the vernacular of the American people. The island has occupied a lot of space in U.S. history. From the Hispanic American war, throughout the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, the Mariel Cuban exodus, and the dishonorable significance of Guantanamo to confrontations between Republican and Democratic politicians—all have provided topics for the pundits of the time. Not to mention the acrimonious discourse in the U.S. population between uninformed, naive liberals and recalcitrant, hate-filled conservatives.
Allow me to illustrate my point. Today, the average Cuban worker earns less than $25 per month. Before I left the island in search of liberty of expression and personal fulfillment, my salary as an architectural draftsman was $125 every two weeks, enough for me to own a boat with an Evinrude motor and a racing hydroplane boat, and enjoy other aspects of a gentle life.
Castro’s revolution was, in a way, justified by the abuses of the Cuban dictator General Fulgencio Batista. However, the island nation had a long history of political corruption before January 1, 1959. The dream of a drastic change converting Cuba into the Switzerland of the Americas was but a Pollyanna-like aspiration.
The first act of the revolutionary drama was full of long, empty, demagogic speeches, while behind the sugar-curtain, so to speak, the terrifying system of government prophetically described by George Orwell’s deliciously creepy novel Animal Farm was taking shape.
By the time some of the people awoke from the hypnotic state that a number of politicians induced over the weak of mind, it was too late. All countries seem to have those false prophets at one time or another: Joseph McCarthy, Francisco Franco, Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Francois Duvalier, and Hugo Chavez, to mention a few.
I opened my eyes rather early in the process. I’m not a follower of any political or religious doctrine. A healthy measure of stubbornness and skepticism is the most precious gift my family gave me. There is great wisdom in the proverb: If it sounds too good – you know the rest, I’m sure.
For me, awakening and leaving the country was a mental as well as physical odyssey that threw me into the jaws of a Cuban gulag, where the abusive system took a toll on me. Once in Europe, I started writing a memoir, so as not to let new life experiences, anxieties, and rewards as an exile drown the memories of the former islander.
The manuscript, four hundred pages long, lay in a box for decades. It saw the light of day again 45 years after it was written. Then, the realization that the material was what I needed to write four historical novels made me smile. I set out to write Crocodile Island.
This first installment of the series covers the span of eighteen months, during which four freedom-starved friends decided to cross the shark-infested waters of the Strait of Florida, consequences be damned.
Eduardo Cerviño, a Cuban-American writer, architectural designer, and painter, has published four novels and numerous short stories. He has participated in more than 100 art exhibits in the US and abroad. He is currently working on Crocodile Island, a semi-autobiographical novel. His extensive travels have taken him to Europe, North America, Central America, and South America. Learn more at his website.