- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005


By Mirta Ojito

Penguin, $24.95, 302 pages


In the spring of 1980, Cuban President Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel to allow Cubans less than happy with his revolution, people he referred to as “scum” and “worms,” to escape his island gulag. More than 125,000 Cubans jumped at the chance and crossed the 90 miles of open water, in boats hired by their families, to Key West and a new life.

It’s a tragedy that Mr. Castro’s characterization stuck.

After 25 years in the United States, an overwhelming majority of the “Marielitos” have assimilated and proved themselves to be hard working additions to the fabric of American life. Marielitos were not scum or worms, but like most immigrants to this nation, simply oppressed people yearning to breathe free. A scant few were criminals or mentally retarded, but all were tarred with the same brush, and it has taken years for Marielitos to be welcomed to their place in the nation’s immigrant history.

Today, most Marielitos live quiet lives as construction workers, business owners, car salesmen, doctors, lawyers, college professors, clerks and accountants.

There is even one Pulitzer Prize winner, Mirta Ojito, who was only 16 on May 11, 1980, the day she and her family left Cuba. Mrs. Ojito, who got her start at the Miami Herald and won her Pulitzer for writing on race issues for the New York Times, has produced an intensely personal memoir of her journey to Mariel, “Finding Manana,” the name of the boat that brought her to the United States.

The book is two parts, skillfully woven as a seamless whole. The first is straightforward reporting. Mrs. Ojito used her considerable investigative skills to track down and interview the long forgotten individuals who played central roles in the events leading Mr. Castro to letting her family go.

The second part is Mrs. Okito’s personal story. As a Mariel participant, Mrs. Ojito uses the voice of a teenaged girl in Marxist Cuba — her own voice — negotiating the maze of difficult choices, pressures, loyalties, temptations and fears she faced as a girl in revolutionary Cuba. Her story of innocence, betrayal and awakening is in many ways the story of all the people of Mariel, and by extension, Cuba.

The seeds for Mariel were planted when Jimmy Carter was elected president. Mr. Carter took steps to ease U.S. relations with Cuba. The result was a tiny crack in the bamboo curtain that in 1978 allowed thousands of Miami Cuban exiles — the Mariposas, or Butterflies, as they were known — to return to visit their families on the island, many for the first time in decades. Cubans on the island discovered that much of what they’d been told about their Miami cousins, those who had “abandoned” Cuba, was a lie. While Cubans on the island were barely surviving on ration books and revolutionary chants, their relatives from the United States had houses, new cars, full refrigerators and an abiding love for their families and their lost nation.

Some of the returning Cubans — Bernardo Benes, Napoleon Vilaboa and others — disdained to this day in Miami as “dialogueros” began to wonder if it might be the right time to talk, to “dialogue” with the Cuban government. For a year or so there was a window when from the U.S. side things looked possible. But from Cuba’s side, for those not already disenchanted, the Carter opening nourished a sea of discontent with the revolution.

It was in this tentative environment of exchange that on April 1, 1980, a small group of desperate Cubans crashed a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana seeking asylum. When the new envoy — a young lawyer whose family had escaped from Nazi Germany — refused to give them up to Cuban state security, the events that led to Mariel were set in motion.

While Mrs. Ojito’s historical reconstruction is fascinating, it is the universal themes that I found most compelling. I found myself wondering time and again: What would I have done in that situation? What would I expect my children do?

Mrs. Ojito recounts being in the fifth grade and the class being asked “Who believes in God?” “Who goes to church?”

“There were categories of lies at home,” she writes. “We were never to flaunt the fact that we had relatives in the United States, but we were not to deny them either. We didn’t have to announce to the world that we believed in God, but, if asked directly, we would affirm it.”

Asking a fifth grader to stand up to her nation and the entire revolution is a daunting thing, and done only with consequences. Mrs. Ojito marks that day in school as the beginning of her turning point. Before that, she could believe in God and Fidel, but from that time forward she found her personal and her family’s beliefs more and more in conflict with the Cuban Revolution.

In a later passage, she describes the daily masks Cubans are forced to wear. “You had to listen and say little, go with the flow, lest a friend turn out to be an enemy who could ruin your life. The smallest disagreements, the most trivial conversations, the slightest wavering of thought could be fodder for anyone intent on advancing his career by destroying someone else’s.” Eventually, she concludes, on her own, that she can not stay in Cuba.

Eighteen years later, when Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, Mrs. Ojito made her first trip home to the island to report on the visit for the Miami Herald. The central message of the pope’s visit was “Be not afraid.” Mrs. Ojito seems to have taken that message to heart. In dissecting her own buried past, Mrs. Ojito has created a poignant and poetic memoir of an important moment in Cuban and U.S. history.

The book makes the point that through dialogue and exchange, it is possible for the unexpected to happen — in this case 125,000 people won their freedom — a controversial idea even today in the Cuban-American exile community. Asked recently if her memoir might offer policy lessons for today when the relationship between the United States and Cuba remains as constrained and as stagnant as ever, Mrs. Ojito said “no,” explaining that 1980 was a particular moment in time and things are different today.

Anti-Castro stalwarts will argue that Fidel Castro manipulated and twisted the good but naive intentions of some exiles. Others might argue that even Fidel cannot control things outside his power, and calling his bluff and opening relations might be the monkey wrench required to upset his revolution again.

Either way, it is a fair bet that Mr. Castro will not be pleased with this book.

For her part, Mrs. Ojito won’t be drawn in to the bitter internecine world of exile politics, saying only that one unintended consequence to the brief opening in 1980 is that “it got me here. I’m grateful for that.” That eventually led to this Marielita writing “Finding Manana.” We are all the richer for that.

Tom Carter is a reporter on the foreign desk at The Washington Times.

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