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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Puerto Rican In Cuba Sees Common Ties

by Vanessa Bauzá

July 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

HAVANA -- "You talk like a Cuban with a funny accent," said the stranger on the stool beside me as I ordered my morning coffee.

"Well," I answered, "you talk like a Puerto Rican with a funny accent."

"Ahh," said the man, a wide grin spreading across his face. "Puerto Rico y Cuba son de un pajaro las dos alas."

"Reciben flores y balas en un mismo corazon," I added to his delight, finishing the popular verse.

Puerto Rico and Cuba are two wings of a bird -- they receive flowers and bullets in the same heart, wrote Lola Rodriguez de Tio, the Puerto Rican poet and separatist, in 1893. The verse immortalizes the bond between her native and adopted islands, the last two Spanish colonies in the New World. Like Rodriguez de Tio, I am a Puerto Rican in Cuba, where I've lived for the past two years.

American forces defeated the Spanish in 1898. Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession while Cuba, which had been on the verge of winning its long sought independence, was granted sovereignty four years later. However, in a humiliating caveat for nationalists, the U.S. government retained the power to intervene in Cuban affairs. Even after this provision was repealed in 1934, American companies controlled much of the island's economy, from vast agricultural holdings to telephone and electric utilities.

That was true until Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, when Cuba and Puerto Rico took dramatically different paths, relying on rival super powers -- the Soviet Union and the United States.

The islands' similarities are no less striking today than when Rodriguez de Tio helped design Puerto Rico's flag by inverting the colors of Cuba's flag -- red, white and blue. Puerto Rico's somewhat schizophrenic status as a "free associated state" and its future relationship with the United States are the overwhelming question marks in island politics.

Though President Fidel Castro's government hasn't had diplomatic relations with the United States for 40 years, his northern neighbor continues to shape internal debates in Cuba, as well.

Mass rallies with hundreds of thousands of people are organized to protest economic sanctions and migratory accords. Recently, a three-day holiday was called so people could listen to the Cuban National Assembly's response to President Bush's Cuba policy.

Many Cubans see Puerto Rico as a thinly veiled U.S. colony. Cuba has frequently sponsored United Nations resolutions supporting Puerto Rico's independence and, just last year, Castro joined thousands of Cubans in front of the American diplomatic mission to protest U.S. military exercises on Vieques.

"Poor Puerto Ricans, you still haven't managed to get rid of the Yankees," a flower vendor said to me recently, with heartfelt pity. "Soon it will be your turn."

I smile, reminded of some of my friends' reactions back home when I told them I was living in Cuba.

"Poor Cuba," they said, with equal sympathy, "still living under that dictatorial regime. How much longer can it last?"

Fiery politics

Growing up in Puerto Rico, you learn not to bring up politics at the dinner table unless you want to incite a messy dispute. My parents had friends who would paint their house red every election year to signify their support for the commonwealth party. Every four years, pennants appear from car windows, and banners bearing promises are strung across the island's sun-bleached villages, as its three political parties vie for voters.

Statehood and commonwealth are usually close contenders, while the independence party lags behind with less than 10 percent of the vote. Not until I moved to Havana did I discover a fourth party: the minuscule New Independence Movement of Puerto Rico, which grew out of the defunct Puerto Rican Socialist Party. It has had a mission here since 1966 and works to maintain ties between the two islands.

If Puerto Rico's politics are marked by fiery factions, Cuba, still defending its one-party system, appears as a sea of consensus. About 99 percent of Cuban voters recently turned out to support their "untouchable" socialism in a petition drive critics said was meant to crush calls for reforms. "Socialism or Death, Homeland or Death!" continues to be Cuba's' signature rallying cry.

Since the early 1960s, Puerto Rico has opened its doors to about 20,000 Cuban exiles. They may lack the political weight of Miami's 800,000 Cuban-Americans, but Puerto Rico's exile community has been no less important in developing their adopted island's economy. Puerto Rico's Cubans have become a cornerstone of the island's economic elite, buying radio stations and newspapers, department stores, computer corporations and advertising companies.

Several years ago on San Juan's waterfront avenue, a group of Cuban exiles staged a rare rally chanting "Down with Fidel" even as a small plane apparently paid for by Puerto Rican independence advocates flew overhead towing a sign that read, "Socialist Cuba shall overcome." It was a scene unlike any you'd see in Miami's Cuban-American community, where those who dared support Elian Gonzalez's repatriation risked threats. But the moment was emblematic of Puerto Rico's largely moderate exile community.

Architectural gems

One of my dearest childhood memories is flying kites with my sisters on the lawn surrounding El Morro, a 500-year-old Spanish fort that juts into the ocean from the city's historic quarter, Old San Juan.

I still am enchanted by the old town's narrow cobblestone streets, tree-shaded parks and galleries painted like after-dinner mints.

I feel a little like a traitor saying this, but I've discovered Old Havana's architectural treasures make my island's gems seem modest by comparison. Here crumbling, dust-covered palaces cling to their bygone grandeur, despite half a century of neglect.

The graceful arches, the intricate designs of their cracked tiles, the brittle ironwork and unsteady marble staircases are heart-breaking.

I only hope Old Havana's much-needed restoration will not lead to the same gentrification that moved elderly couples out of Old San Juan and replaced them with Hard Rock Cafés and McDonalds. Tourism in Cuba -- as in Puerto Rico -- has become a major money-maker.

Driving through the Cuban countryside I always feel that I've stepped into one of the black and white photographs shot by the federal government in the 1940s and '50s to document Puerto Rican peasants' lives. Oxen pulling carts loaded with firewood, workers carrying water buckets to their thatched-roof huts, and skinny hogs sleeping in the shade of a laundry line -- all familiar images.

Only for Cuba, they are the present and not the past.

And there is one more thing I've found here that's familiar yet slowly disappearing in Puerto Rico.

It is neighbors and relatives ending their days in lingering conversation over piping-hot shots of coffee.

It is a slower pace of life and a close-knit community no longer found in our gated San Juan suburb.

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