Friday, December 1, 2023

Memoirs of a Gusano: Cuba, Private Property and the Punctum

New York Times Magazine, What Was Once Theirs, an essay by Anthony DePalma, a self-proclaimed gusano (Spanish for worm), ponders the certain demise of the “Castro regime,” and the impact it will have on Cuban held property.

It’s fair to say that one expects the same amount of objectivity and critical analysis from the New York Times that one expects from the jingoist sensibilities of Katie Couric. However, it is a sad day when the self-proclaimed bastion of U.S. journalism mirrors the market driven and colonial enterprise so beloved by the current Bush administration.

Although this article would better suit the Times’ Travel section, or the reading list of the Wharton School of Business, what makes this recollection somewhat bearable is the photographic image used in the article and its relationship to the emotive construction of private property ownership.

From the beginning, DePalma correlates the ownership of a home to a family photograph, and the ownership of shoebox to memories and recollections. What never was could legally be. Or as DePalma so candidly and unreflectively alludes to in the article’s title, what was once mine.


Young Miriam (DePalma’s wife), appears in the photograph wearing a bright yellow dress. Plump and a bit over-fed, Miriam is surrounded by three other women, presumably mother, aunt and grandmother. The birthday cake is missing (this is a post-Batista Cuba after all). Miriam and two of the other women stare back at the camera, with the octogenarian gazing off to the side, perhaps fretting the eventual demise of (her) privity of estate. It is no accident that the New York Times chose this image constructed of four females, pink walls and chairs, crooked tablecloths, and ceramic figurines resting on a silent television set. What judge would, or could, rightly deny little Miriam and her ancestry their rightful ownership to homes, figurines, memories and sugar mills?

Although DePalma “escaped Castro’s regime” in 1962, speedboat and all, it is here that he misses the life-raft. I quote his initial recollection:

“Foreigners almost never show up on the ragged streets of the old town across the bay from Havana. But there was a knock recently on the front door of the battered yellow house in Guanabacoa that is home to Marielena and Francisco, a working-class couple, and outside stood an American.” [italics mine]

DePalma, the American, quickly drifts westward, claiming and insisting that perhaps what was once his wife’s beloved battered yellow house, owned by working-class Cubans, will once again return to them under the silent but predatory U.S. property rights of takings, titles, and self-entitlement. In fact, DePalma concludes: “When Fidel no longer looms over Cuba, it is much more likely that both sides will focus on what happens when there is another knock at the door, and another stranger asks to come in.”

One can almost hear the teardrops fall when DePalma laments: “And when Fidel dies, will the 1.5 million Cuban-Americans in Florida and New Jersey return to take back what once was theirs? [To sugar mills and ranches, not the shoebox]” The answer is quite simple: sure, but why don’t we begin right here in DePalma’s American homeland, by granting Native Americans title to their land.




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