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A poet's perspective: Cuba, Trump and democracy

Obama's inaugural poet, Richard Blanco, reflects on last week's dramatic shift in U.S. policy towards Cuban immigrants, as well as Donald Trump and democracy.
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In 2009 Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco became the fifth inaugural poet. He was the first Hispanic as well as the first openly gay man to read at a presidential inauguration.

Blanco grew up in Miami and was also invited to write a poem for the August 2015 reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba. His poem was entitled ' Matters of the Sea.'

He recently came by the Univision studio to offer a literary perspective on the inauguration of Donald Trump, as well as the announcement by the Obama adminsitration to rescind the so-called 'wet foot, dry foot' policy that for decades has granted residency, almost automatically, to Cuban migrants who reach U.S. soil.

Univision News: As a past inaugural poet, how do you see the current transition of power from President Obama to President Trump?

Richard Blanco: I'm looking at it through language, and that's what I don't like, the degradation of language, of rhetoric. As a poet that’s what you are always looking it. There’s language of hope and optimism and building futures together, on the one hand. Then there’s language of division, and racism and misogyny and all the rest. I don’t like the language that’s coming out of the Trump presidency.

I pause and think sometimes, I just chuckle, because only in America could this happen. It puts a little smile on my face for about one second. If there's anything that I learned from the inuaguration it's that incredible transfer of power is something that is just really at the cornerstone, the very foundation, of who we are as a nation. It’s palpable. Look how this pendulum swung. Yes, we are writing poems and being vigilant and doing protests, but the world is not falling apart. We are moving with it and seeing what happens. I'm watching that too. That doesn’t mean the system is infallible. There could be one swing of the pendulum that goes too far and that’s what we are all watching.

UN: In your poem, 'Election Year,' published two days before the election, you use the allegory of a garden invaded by weeds and a killer vine. You ask the question will the garden live or die? Is that your concern in poetic terms that there is a threat to the garden of democracy?

RB: I come to poetry - people come to poetry - because the arts scratch below the surface, they ask different questions that try to get some place else that is not what we always see in the black and white world. So during Trump’s candidacy I started to write a poem for his inauguration, as a sort of spoof, never thinking he would be elected. I couldn’t do it, because there was no nuance, there was nothing fresh I could say. So I started digging deeper and deeper. The only thing I had was language and I came up with an allegory of a garden, and the garden was a democracy.

Gardens are a very artificial concept. Gardens don’t exist in nature. In a way, every social construct is artifice. We agree on these rules and at the same time we have to maintain those rules. That's the idea of the garden and our role as gardeners in a democracy, to always be on top of the garden, so to speak, but also know that sometimes the garden is just going to go crazy. So the poem is about where we are now ... we failed to tend the garden perhaps the way we should have earlier on. Democracy is only as strong as our contribution to it. I don’t blame any one person, I just think it’s a systemic issue that we are all thinking about now. At the end of the day democracy is not perfect. There’s cracks in it. A garden is not perfect.

The weed I intended to mean not necessarily just Trump, but anything that creeps into the garden. What do we do when that happens? It's the hope and despair we face sometimes when you are gardening. The weeds are still coming up. When do you give up? It’s a constant struggle, just like in a democracy. It's a constant planting and weeding.

UN: Last week the Obama administration announced the end of the so-called ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy that for decades granted almost automatic residency to Cubans who reached US soil. Some people say 'wet foot, dry foot' was being exploited by people who left for economic, not political reasons. In 2015 you wrote a poem, Matter of the Sea,' for the reopening of the US embassy in Cuba. You wrote; “Not even the sea can keep us from one another….” Do you still believe that after the rules changed?

RB: That poem was very symbolic. Despite political divisions the bonds of family and people are actually the solution to some of these issues. I grew up with half a family in Cuba. We are one people still. That sea wall that divides us is actually what unites us, because it's actually water, it’s not a wall.

So, when it comes to the rejection of 'wet foot, dry foot,' I think there always been a lot of questioning about that. My entire family, all my cousins, have come from Cuba by all sorts of different way and means. When I speak to my cousins there is part of it that is, I won't say economic, it’s about the freedom to pursue prosperity, the ability to get a job and have fair wages and where a government is for the people, and by the people. I think that's what they are running away from.

There is also an abstract notion in my head. Castro has always had an escape valve for everything. Whenever the heat in the pressure cooker gets too high, they find a way to have a release valve. I think this idea of 'wet foot, dry foot' has always been an escape valve. If you think of the courage it takes for some of these men and woman and children to make that journey, you can hope, in an abstract way, if they don’t have that option perhaps something will shift in Cuba.

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