The Sunset Over Key West

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

At the very tip of Key West, Florida there’s a monument proclaiming the “Southernmost point,” in the continental United States. That spot is approximately 90 miles from Cuba, and if you squint, it almost feels like you can see the geographically close, but ideologically remote island.

Everybody from Chinese tourists to Hell’s Angels wait in line to get a photo next to the “Southernmost” monument with the horizon and ocean blending together into one seamless blue landscape. What’s often missed is a smaller plaque nearby, commemorating all of the Cubans who have made the trip to Florida, by boat, raft, and anything else that can float, since Fidel Castro took control of the island in the 50s.

There’s no similar plaque on the Cuban side of the sunset, of Americans who headed south 90 miles looking for something a little different. And while I’m not suggesting the economic downturn in the US will prompt laid off factory workers to brave shark-infested waters. I do think it’s time to study our Cuban neighbors and learn something.

A few weeks ago a group of 26 people arrived in the Florida Keys via boat. A fairly unremarkable sight considering more than a million people, many of them arriving via cruise ships, disembark in the Keys every year. But in this case the mode of transportation was a speedboat, and the human cargo, trafficked Cuban refugees.

According to Coast Guard statistics, the number of Cubans setting sail for Florida is up from past years. In the past four months 316 Cubans have been intercepted in the Florida Straits, and returned home. The US Government’s policy known as “wet foot-dry foot,” simplifies things to, if you make it to dry land, you are fast tracked to stay, and if your feet are still wet at sea when you are discovered, you go back to Cuba.

Growing economic uncertainty, and the continued strain of lifetimes spent under a communist regime certainly get at the root of the continued Cuban exodus. An additional 5,000 Cubans are said to have crossed into the US via the Mexican border last year.

But looking out towards Cuba from Key West, it’s a bit of a wonder what Cubans must think before they set out for this life changing adventure, and their reaction when they arrive dry footed at their desired destination.

I’ve been on both sides of that view in the past year. First in Cuba, looking back from Havana’s historic and majestic sea wall, north towards Florida. I remember sunsets off of the Vedado neighborhood. A few families gathering to listen to some local musicians play a song and maybe even dance a little. Mist from the aquamarine sea spraying up and cooling everyone just a little as they sip beers. I feel a sense of calm just thinking about a long Havana stroll.

A few weeks ago I landed on the other end of the telescope, looking back at Havana from the colorful, crowded tip of the Keys. The serenity I felt a year ago was obliterated by a complicated mix of tanned pleasure seekers riding around in ramped up golf carts looking to consume “southernmost” tattoos, beers, and offensive t-shirts. For somebody coming from a country void of capitalistic beacons like McDonald’s golden arches, the Florida Keys must stir some new emotions. Kind of like trading your sip of rum at the unadorned corner stand in Havana for a world that looks like it was organized and decorated by Hooters.

These recently arrived 26 Cuban migrants are very different than the original dry footers, who were fresh from watching their businesses and haciendas expropriated by Fidel Castro. The newer migrant crowd has largely not known wealth, only socialism. But they are aware of the world outside, from a mixture of relatives who escaped and from pirated National Geographic channel DVDs. And they aren’t so sure about Florida, even though 60 % of the Cubans in the US live there.

One rental car employee, who noticed my Cuban baseball hat (purchased at a game in Havana last year), was overjoyed to talk about his home country. He misses it he says, especially the camaraderie and sense of community. He told me he’s dying to get out of the US and head to Spain. “I’ve lived here in Miami for a few years and I’ve never met my next door neighbor.”

I guess, having had the view from both sides of the Florida Straights, I’m left wondering, what if 26 US citizens washed up on the shore of Havana, and were absorbed into Cuban society. What would they feel like in a world void of fast food chains and box stores? Would they stay? Would they choose the unobstructed, low-key view of the sunset from the Havana malecón? Or would they miss the light beer sponsored sunset circus on the Key West pier. I know it’s not that simple, and like many Westerners, it’s easy for me to idealize a very complicated island after a visit.

But while talk in the US continues to revolve around economic downturns, and struggling American families, it might help to look south 90 miles to put things in perspective. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to consume a little less, and have a little less money to focus on. While Cubans continue to suffer greatly in many ways under a dictatorial government, they also have learned a few things that we might embrace. Like knowing and relying on your neighbor, and enjoying the unencumbered version of the sunset, the one where that last brilliant light of day isn’t overshadowed by a billboard.

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