KEY WEST, Fla. — The long Labor Day weekend was the perfect opportunity to recharge in Key West, an island at the literal end of the road in the Florida Keys. Hurricane Dorian, which strengthened into a Category 5 monster before it made landfall in the northern Bahamas, only shortened the trip by a day.
The concrete monument that marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S. is one of Key West’s most well-known and popular landmarks. The monument, among other things, tells selfie-obsessed visitors they are in the Conch Republic and proclaims Key West is the “home of the sunset.” The monument also notes they are standing 90 miles from Cuba.
Two men were standing on the seawall in front of the monument and fishing shortly after dawn on Aug. 30 when I arrived after a walk from the guesthouse in Old Town where I was staying. I sat down on the seawall and looked out towards the horizon as I sipped an unsweetened Cuban coffee that I bought at a nearby convenience store. I became increasingly sad as I thought about the fact that I am currently unable to visit the country on the other side of the Florida Straits from where I was sitting.
Sunday marked four months since officials at Havana’s José Martí International Airport told me I could not enter Cuba because my name was “on a list,” even though I had visited the country more than half a dozen times since 2015 without incident. Aug. 27 also marked five months since Yariel Valdés González, a Washington Blade contributor, asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he suffered in Cuba as a journalist. He remains in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Louisiana.
I know the Cuban government will likely never tell me why it decided to ban me from the country. I also know what happened to me on May 8 is a small part of a much larger story that continues to unfold in Cuba.
Luz Escobar, a reporter for 14ymedia, an independent website founded by Yoani Sánchez, a prominent critic of the Cuban government, was detained on the same day I was not allowed into the country as she tried to interview victims of a freak tornado that tore through parts of Havana in January. The Cuban government has subsequently prevented her from leaving the country twice.
Roberto Quiñones, a reporter for CubaNet, a Miami-based website that covers Cuba, faces a year in jail after he was arrested in April while covering a trial in the city of Guantánamo. Leandro Rodríguez García, founder of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, on Aug. 15 was prevented from traveling to the U.S. in order to participate in a months-long program at the Washington Center.The Cuban government continues to target human rights activists and members of the country’s independent civil society. The Cuban government also continues to persecute independent journalists who publicly challenge it. People in the U.S. and around the world who should know better continue to blindly defend the Cuban government.
The U.S. is certainly not in any position to lecture another country about human rights or the treatment of journalists. I nevertheless thought to myself as I looked towards Cuba from Key West that the U.S., as imperfect of a country as it is, remains a beacon of hope for Yariel and countless others who are fleeing persecution by their own governments.
Yariel deserves nothing less than to be able to live his best life in the U.S. without fear. I remain hopeful he will soon be able to benefit from everything this country has to offer.