He was the first American president I shouted a slogan at. I don’t remember the precise words of the insult as almost thirty years have passed. However, I can remember the feeling of my clenched fists, my red and white uniform trembling with each scream that I launched at Jimmy Carter who — according to my kindergarten teacher — would destroy the island, the palms, the classroom desks, happiness.
And three decades later, here I am in Havana, talking with him and other familiar faces from our nascent civil society. I barely resemble that Little Pioneer buried in the hysteria of political slogans and this man I am speaking with doesn’t fit the role of the leader who was the target of my insults. Now he is a mediator, a man who doesn’t seem interested in wiping Cuba off the map, as they once assured me in primary school. So the girl who was supposed to be the “New Man” and the former commander of the armed of the forces of the United States, have met at a moment in their lives in which neither has the same position as before, in which the path of both has taken the direction of dialog; although once we could have killed each other, across some battle field.
I see him speak and wonder if he knows that I was trained to hate him. Will he be the villain of my childhood stories, the face of grotesque caricatures in the official newspapers, the man whom government propaganda blamed for all our ills? Of course he knows, and still he extends his hand to me, speaks to me, asks me a question. And so he, who was “the enemy,” offers me his kind words.
Outside the Hotel Santa Isabel where we have met, in some school in the area, another little girl repeats her slogans, squeezes her hands, shouts, focuses her mind on the face of a man whom she says she detests. Fortunately, she too will forget the words she screams at this moment, erase from her mind the slogans full of resentment they make her chant today.
P.S. I am attaching a message, accompanied by a gift, that we gave Mr. Jimmy Carter in the name of several bloggers and other Cubans.
Havana March 30, 2011
Mr. Jimmy Carter:
On behalf of several alternative bloggers and other members of Cuban civil society, we would like to give you this present. This is a small sample of the food that the self-employed are able to make from maní, the word Cubans use for peanuts, that dried fruit that you know so well.
For over half a century the maní has been one of the few products that has escaped the control of State planning. Even in the hardest days of the so-called Special Period one of the the few things we could buy on the free market produced by independent people were these cones and peanut butters that we offer to you today. There were times when the traditional cry of “peanuts, the peanut seller is here…” had to go practically underground, becoming a phrase whispered into the ears of clients.
This popular “criminal” food, within the reach of every pocket, has become the symbol of public resistance before totalitarian pretensions, a stronghold of creativity and ingenuity in the face of centralism and control. Here is the maní, the conqueror of difficulties, stubborn disobedient, transformed now into a symbol of union, a meeting point between your people and ours.
30 March 2011
Translator’s note: Here is a link to Jimmy Carter’s own trip report, released April 1, 2011.