by Brendan Maslauskas Dunn/Love and Rage
I’ve been asked by a number of people why I traveled to Mexico and Cuba, or to put it in their exact language: “Why the hell did you go there for?” and, invariably, “You’re crazy.” And of course, this is followed by the expected mutterings of drug cartels this and evil Communists that.
So why the hell did I go? Well, why the hell not?
This trip was many, many years in the making, or rather, many years in the dreaming. I tried to go to Cuba before. A few times. The first time was when I was a young, impressionable member of the Communist Party. Which, as I recall, back then meant you got a nifty little membership card, cute buttons with hammers and sickles and Vladimir Lenin on them, and a monthly subscription to a newspaper that I found politically confusing at times. I was asked to vote for the Democrats because they were the lesser evil, critically support authoritarian Communist states, and read tracts by Lenin until my eyes started to bleed. At least the movie reviews in the paper were good.
But there was something that drew me to Cuba – that ultimate pariah floundering in an unforgiving sea of capitalism. The decaying architecture and cars from a bygone era. That incredibly intoxicating music that beckons people to dance. A nation with a harrowing history rife with tragedy but abundant with rebellion, hope and beauty. A nation that had not been beaten into submission by a brutal economic blockade, labeled by Americans by the less severe and more polite sounding word embargo. The countless invasions, assassination attempts and terrorist attacks sent in from their democracy-loving neighbors to the north have not destroyed the perseverance and will of so many people on the small island nation.
There was a heavy sense that the major historical events of the past century were still not buried in Cuba – they were living. The whole nation was marching to the beat of a very different drum. And that noise, that unique, beautiful noise, was not quite drowned out by those on Capitol Hill or in the Pentagon. And not even in the offices of the right wing Cuban American National Forum tucked away on some uninspiring road in Miami. Was I being romantic? Nostalgic?
However far from a socialist utopia it was, it seemed to me when I was younger that the Cuban people had really tried to create a new society based on mutual aid, cooperation and solidarity in the revolution. Part of me still thinks there is an element of truth to that original view I had years ago. I certainly felt it this summer. In my first attempted trip to Cuba I had somehow convinced my twin sister and two cousins to go along with me. We were teenagers at the time, without much money, and without ever having traveled farther than Canada before so you can probably guess what the end result of our plans was.
So I gave it a go again a few years later. I was older, wiser, not quite a Communist anymore, and slightly less poor. I still wanted to check it out. This time, my friend was studying in Havana for the semester through her school in Oregon. She invited me down and I jumped at the opportunity. I somehow bought tickets online. But I had to wire money directly from my credit union to some German bank which then sent the money to an agency in Cuba to secure a ticket for me that I had to pick up in Mexico at some point. Only $300? I could handle that. But some things got in the way.
I was busy with school and bogged down with work, and I forgot that I also needed money to travel to Mexico as well as for expenses while I was in Cuba. And most importantly, the god damned U.S. military decided to show up in my own backyard in Olympia, Wash., with a shipload of army Stryker vehicles, fresh from the occupation in Iraq. Local activists decided to block the shipments of Stryker vehicles which would only be repaired and shipped out again. I thought about Che Guevara’s famous words: “I envy you. You North Americans are very lucky. You are fighting the most important fight of all – you live in the heart of the beast.” Yes, Cuba could wait. We had our own battles to fight in Olympia.
I had trips planned all over the world. They all remained dreams and visions for years. Time and money, or the lack thereof, were the two killjoys I had to constantly spar with. That and, well, something about some list I was on that prevented me from getting into Canada of all places. I not only had a political and ethical dilemma with the concept of borders but a real world problem with successfully crossing them. The fear of getting detained or sent packing (or both) from a long distance trip was yet another cause for my delay. But I just had to make it to Cuba. Before things changed.
I had a political connection to Cuba, maybe from some bygone era, but given the state of recklessness and destruction that U.S. politicians, corporations and the military generously heap on the poorer people of the world, it still made sense for me to go and it still seemed relevant for me to make a stand against U.S. imperial policies and break the law by going to Cuba. As for Mexico? I give credit to much of my political awakening and world view to the social movements, struggles and visions from Mexican social movements. These movements and moments of liberation in Mexico continue to play a dominant part in Mexican as well as international politics, especially with the alter-globalization movement.
The Zapatista rebellion that launched in Chiapas, Mexico on New Years’ Day in 1994 and the popular rebellion in Oaxaca in 2006 were two major events that shaped my politics and breathed new life into my dreams for a better world. My experience over the years as a union organizer and immigrant rights activist have also deepened my political connection to Mexico. The new ideas for a socialist world and an anti-authoritarian one that were lost or destroyed from internal repression in Cuba over the years were perhaps found, or reinvented, in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas and in the barricades and popular assemblies in Oaxaca in more recent years. It was here that the concepts of mutual aid, cooperation, and solidarity were put into practice. But it was not done through a centralized party or state, or egged on by the proclamations of a strong leader. It was not done from above, but by the people, from below. It was a kind of freedom I had never experienced in the U.S. I wanted to taste that freedom, learn from it and use what I learned to help with the struggle at home “in the heart of the beast.”
My partner Michelle decided to go on the journey with me. We set our itinerary and planned to be away for the entire month of June. Cancun, Merida, Palenque, San Cristiobal de las Casas, the Zapatista village of Oventic, Oaxaca City, Mexico City, then on to Cuba. The whole plane ride down my heart was racing at the idea of getting stopped by immigration and sent back. Am I on some list still? What do they know about me? Will they know about Cuba? Would they even care? The plane landed in Cancun. Michelle and I ventured into the airport to go through immigration and customs. I waited in line. I felt my heart pounding in my neck. Finally, an immigration official, a tall man with a thick mustache, signaled me forward. He looked at my passport and paused. “Purpose of your travels?” I decided not to mention any of my actual plans. “Vacation,” I said.
Another pause, a smile, followed by, “Welcome to Mexico.” I made it in. I actually made it in. I wiped the tears from my eyes in my state of acute shock. I found Michelle. We grabbed our backpacks, and walked out into the humid night air. We had made it outside the heart of the beast. We had no idea what was waiting for us across those thousands of miles we planned to travel. At that moment, the only thing I was certain of was that my dreams were very rapidly becoming a reality for me.