With so much surrounding the current situation in Cuba, and the viral #SOSCUBA, we sat down with award-winning feature film Cuban American actor, writer, and producer, Leo Oliva to explain first hand his experiences with the island, which is not all cool cars, cigars, and beautiful women that Hollywood often portrays.
Can you explain your connection to Cuba?
I am first generation Cuban American. I was born and raised in a Cuban household in Little Havana, Miami, Fl. My first language was Spanish, my first meal was Cuban, my first coffee was Cuban. I was raised by parents who fled Cuba with my grandparents in search of not just a better life, but of a possible future. I grew up knowing that it was due to Castro’s Communist Regime and continued dictatorship that my family would never be able to return to Cuba. That I would never be able to see the land of my ancestors. The land and the life my family sacrificed to give my brothers and I an opportunity to live freely. Cuba is my heritage, my identity. Cuba is the birthplace of everything that lives inside of me.
How was your dad during the build-up of that trip?
There was a feeling of nervousness and excitement, driven more by my brother and myself. A feeling of hesitation and uncertainty also clouded our thoughts. We were planning on visiting Cuba not only to see where we came from and where my father grew up, but to also bring some aid to a relative who had recently undergone surgery and was in need of antibiotics and dietary adjustments. Would we make it through with the medicine and the fruits and vegetables? Or would it all be considered “contraband” and tossed immediately upon arrival? Would my father have an issue getting in and out of the country since there was record of him being a Cuban exile? We did what we could to ease our concerns. Still, nothing would prepare us for the emotional and eye-opening experience that lay ahead.
Can you explain your experience of Cuba?
The best way I can describe it is “Beautifully Depressing”. If anyone has ever visited a third world country, they may be able to compare their experience to ours. The only difference being that this country was not always a third world country, and that is obvious at every turn. In the regal yet crumbling architecture. In the Frankenstein cars many people admire. But mostly, in the longing and nostalgic stares that come from the generations who knew the Cuba that was before the current dictatorship. What Cuba was it will never be again. But what it has become, should have never happened, and should have never continued to happen for over sixty years. Upon our arrival to Cuba, our vegetables, fruits, and vitamins were deemed contraband and thrown in the trash. While visiting we stayed with relatives and in “casas particulares” that belonged to the citizens. We explored the tobacco fields owned by farmers who had just had 80% of their yield taken by the government without payment. We were approached by girls so desperate to make ends meet that the offered themselves to us for a price. All and all, as everyone always says, the people were amazing, helpful, and giving of their care, limited resources, and love. But the hardest part was feeling like there wasn’t enough that we could give back. Enough that we could do to make their lives even a little better. Because the only thing they needed was freedom. Something we couldn’t offer them.
Can you share your insight on the current situation of #SOSCuba?
Cuba is asking for help. Not the government, but the people of Cuba. I’m not sure what we can do, but I know what I wish would be possible. A road to freedom and democracy in Cuba. One that is not dictated by those in power at this moment because that is not their goal. That is not their vision of what Cuba is. Cubans aren’t asking for water, food, healthcare, although they desperately need all of the above. They are crying out for help to achieve what we take for granted in this country, the freedom to choose for ourselves, to elect our officials, to speak our minds without the risk of death or incarceration. How we get there is above my pay grade. But now is the time to act. The Cuban citizens are fighting without weapons and without resources, against a government that keeps everything from them and for the last sixty plus years has kept them from achieving their true potential.
Having survived Fidel Castro, why do you think Cuba has yet another dictator in power and what can be done to change that?
A dictatorship does just that, it dictates. The Cuban people have not been given the opportunity to choose another leader. To choose freedom. Also, if you keep a people poor and focused on where their next meal, their next glass of clean water is going to come from, they are unable to focus on anything other than survival. Until the dictatorship is removed, they will be unable to decide for themselves who they want to lead them. And without the means or support to remove the dictatorship, it will continue as it has for the last sixty plus years.
As an actor you have portrayed Cuban. How does that make you feel?
To be honest, the only time I have ever portrayed Cuban has been on stage. The film industry has a hard time distinguishing between Hispanics/Latinos, hence the generalization of all of us into “LatinX”. I have played more Mexicans and Colombians than anything else because of the fact that there aren’t many roles for specifically Cuban characters. I am working on changing this by developing multiple projects that embrace and show the diversity of the Hispanic Culture.
How can we help Cubans with what is happening today?
We need to look at what the real issue is and not get stuck on what we traditionally consider humanitarian aid. This is not about food, water, and healthcare. This is about freedom. There are countless petitions and calls for action from the US government. I think the most important thing to do now, for the government and those with the resources and ability to help, is to think that if this was your family and your country, and you saw that they had no ways of defending themselves as they fought for freedom, what would you do?
For up-to-date news on Leo Oliva follow him at: https://www.instagram.com/theleooliva/