When I was a child growing up in New Orleans, Cuba appeared in my schoolbooks as a blank patch of water in the Gulf of Mexico. This rogue state avant la lettre was apparently too dangerous to have its existence revealed to the new generation growing up just an hour or two’s airplane ride away. The never-never-land status of the country – at least in the eyes of the non-military population of the U.S. – was certainly convenient when our government decided to build the Guantánamo Bay detention camp there far from any sort of civilian oversight. It was an open secret that the U.S. government had maintained a naval base in Cuba since 1903, including during all the years when it was asking us to disregard the country’s existence. Now that President Obama has announced a normalization of relations with Cuba, New Orleans is likely to become one of a handful of new gateways to the country, along with Miami and other Gulf Coast locations. Lest the novelty of travel to Cuba appear all too novel, keep in mind that Cuba has long been a popular tourist destination for travelers from around the globe, including American residents willing to accept the inconvenience and expense of traveling via Canada or Mexico to circumvent the U.S.’s travel ban. Under the new policy, I hope, Cubans will be allowed to visit the U.S. as well.
Back in 1881, the great poet, journalist and architect of Cuban independence José Martí traveled to the U.S., where he settled in New York and wrote extensively about both countries, their struggles and development. Generally considered the key intellectual figure behind the founding of the Cuban state, Martí died in battle in 1895 in one of the three wars fought for Cuban independence from Spain. It is no surprise that President Obama chose a line by Martí to begin the part of his Nov. 17 speech addressed directly to the Cuban people. Esther Allen, a scholar and translator of Martí who is currently writing a new biography of the Cuban hero, has traced the source and original context of that line, and has written about it, along with Martí’s role in the changing landscape of Cuban-U.S. relations, in a dispatch for Words Without Borders entitled “The New Normal: On Cuba and the Power of Translation.” Before you book your plane ticket, you can read what she has to say here.