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Letters From Havana: How A Family In Exile Kept In Touch For Decades

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    Photographed by Ruby Yeh.

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    Carmen Pelaez is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Miami.

    One year ago this week, on December 17, 2014, the U.S. and Cuba agreed to end their Cold War feud and reestablish diplomatic relations. In July, the two countries reopened their respective embassies. And in the past week, the U.S. and Cuba have agreed to allow regularly scheduled direct flights. Among the developments, the decision to restart direct mail service between the U.S. and the island was the least impressive.

    I could barely muster a shrug. The last time I sat down to write and send a letter to my family or friends in Havana was in 2001. After all, snail mail is almost as much a relic of the 20th century as the Castros themselves at this point.

    As a Cuban-American filmmaker and writer, I had hoped for something more significant in a year during which the U.S. and Cuba have made huge strides in reestablishing relations. I had hoped for a decrease in the jailing of human-rights activists, or an announcement that the Cuban government had accepted Google’s offer to provide free WiFi island-wide. Maybe even an increase in the average Cuban's income through a bigger expansion into private business. Instead, I can now send letters and packages directly to friends on the island, albeit without any guarantee of what will happen when these things get there.

    In the 1970s, letters were our lifeline to friends and relatives left behind. Receiving one was a random, treasured occurrence, and every time a relative traveled internationally, writing back was equally exciting. The 9-year-old me wrote long letters about how I wanted the Revolution to be over so that I could finally live in Cuba.

    My grandmother would always make me rewrite them. I didn’t understand why; I was just being honest. "Because every letter they get is read by the government, and this could get them in trouble!" she scolded. I would tear up my eloquent pleas and write generic letters about my life and what I wanted to be when I grew up, all the while thinking my abuela was exaggerating. But when I visited Cuba for the first time as an adult, I realized how right she was.

    Mail will be going directly between the two countries, and that would have been a wonderful development a few decades ago. But if this policy really is about engaging with Cubans, we need a development that brings them into the 21st century, not one that looks to repair old Cold War wounds.

    Ahead, some of the letters I exchanged with family in Cuba.

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  2. Photo: Courtesy of Carmen Pelaez.

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