March 13, 1996
President Bill Clinton
The White House
Dear President Clinton:
Thank you very much for the invitation to the White House while I was in Washington in January. I am sorry circumstances made it impossible for us to meet. I was looking forward to experiencing the symbolic seat of North American government in a new way. In the past, I have only picketed the White House, and as a student walking up and down the street outside it. I used to wonder what might be inside. It seemed to be made of cardboard, and appeared empty and oppressive, remote from the concerns of a few black students-and their courageous white teacher-from the deep South.
The first protest I joined that picketed the White House was a Hands Off Cuba rally in 1962. I was eighteen. It was very cold, snow and sleet everywhere. Our hands and feet and heads were freezing as we trudged in circles, shouting slogans to keep our minds off our misery and to encourage each other. Amazingly, someone from the President's office sent hot coffee out to us. The compassionate gesture humanized the president and the White House for me, and made it possible for me to feel a connection that I would not otherwise have felt. When President Kennedy was assassinated, and my whole school wept, it was of those warming sips of coffee that I thought.
I love Cuba and its people, including Fidel. The bill you have signed to further tighten the blockade hurts me deeply. I travel to Cuba whenever I can to take medicine and the small, perhaps insignificant comfort of my presence, to those whose courage and tenderness have inspired me practically my entire life.
I have seen how the embargo hurts everyone in Cuba, but especially Cuban children, infants in particular. I spend some nights in utter sleeplessness worrying about them. Someone has said that when you give birth to a child-and perhaps I read this in Hillary's book, which I recently bought-you are really making a commitment to the agony of having your heart walking around outside your body. That is how I feel about Cuba: I am quite unable to think of it as separate from myself. I have taken seriously the beliefs and values I learned from my Georgia parents, the most sincere and humble Christians I have ever known: Do unto others....Love thy neighbor...All of it. I feel the suffering of each child in Cuba as if it were my own.
The bill you have signed if wrong. Even if you despise Fidel and even if the Cubans should not have shot down the planes violating their air space. (Did you, by the way, see Oliver Stone's "Earth and Sky," about the U.S. bombing and general destruction of Vietnam over years and years? There was a major case of violating airspace!) The bill is wrong, the embargo is wrong, because it punishes people, some of them unborn, for being who they are. Cubans cannot help being who they are. Given their long struggle for freedom, particularly from Spain and the United States, they cannot help taking understandable pride in who they are. They have chosen a way of life different from ours, and I must say that from my limited exposure to that different way of life, it has brought them, fundamentally, a deep inner certainty about the meaning of existence (to develop one's self and to help others) and an equally deep psychic peace. One endearing quality I've found in the Cubans I have met is that they can listen with as much heart as they speak.
I believe you and Fidel must speak to each other. Face to face. He is not the monster he has been portrayed; and in all the study you have done of Cuba surely is apparent to you that he has reason for being the leader he is. Nor am I saying he is without flaw. We are all substantially flawed, wounded, angry, hurt, here on Earth. But this human condition, so painful to us, and in some ways shameful- because we feel we are weak when the reality of ourselves is exposed - is made much more bearable when it is shared, face to face, in words that have expressive human eyes behind them. Beyond any other reason for talking with Fidel, I think you would enjoy it.
In 1962 I also went to Russia. I was determined to impress upon all the Russians I met that I was not their enemy, and that I opposed the idea my government had, at that time, of possibly killing all of them. I have never regretted offering smiles to the children of Russia, instead of agreeing with a paranoid government to throw bombs.
The world, I believe, is easier to change than we think. And harder. Because the change begins with each one of us saying to ourselves, and meaning it: I will not harm anyone or anything in this moment. Until, like recovering alcoholics, we can look back on an hour, a day, a week, a year, of comparative harmlessness.
Is Jesse Helms, who speaks of Cuban Liberty, as he urges our country to harm Cuba's citizens, the same Jesse Helms who caused my grandparents, my parents and my own generation profound suffering as we struggled against our enslavement under racist laws in the South? And can it be that you have joined your name to his in signing this bill? Although this is fact, it still strikes me as unbelievable. Inconceivable. I cannot think his is a name you will rejoice in later years to have associated with your own. I regret this action, sincerely, for your sake.
The country has lost its way, such as it was. Primarily, because it is now understood by all, that resources and space itself are limited, and the days of infinite expansion and exploitation, sometimes referred to as "growth," are over. Greed has been a primary motivating factor from the beginning. And so the dream of the revengeful and the greedy is to re-take Cuba, never mind the cries of children who can no longer have milk to drink, or of adults whose ration card permits them one egg a week. Would you want Chelsea to have no milk, to have one egg a week? You are a large man, how would you yourself survive?
My heart goes out to your - I voted for you for President, even though I personally want compassionate feminine leadership in the world, at least for the next hundred years or so: uncompassionate woman-hating and child-forgetful masculine leadership has pretty much destroyed us - because I know the same forces that have demonized Fidel for so long are after you and especially Hillary. I wonder if you can see this? Or if you really feel secure and confident of the future, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Republicans and with Helms?
Sometimes, when I don't know what to do, I imagine a little child standing beside my desk, or sometimes a small baby, kicking on my desk. There are Cuban children - as dear as any on earth, as dear as Chelsea, or my daughter, Rebecca - standing beside your desk all the time now. How could this not be so? They are standing beside the desks of those in Congress, in the Senate. They are standing in our grossly overstuffed supermarkets and spying on us in Weightwatchers. One cannot justify starving them to death because their leader is a person of whom some people, themselves imperfect, human, disapprove.
America at the moment is like a badly wounded parent, the aging, spent and scared offspring of all the dysfunctional families of the multitudes of tribes who settled here. It is the medicine of compassionate understanding that must be administered now, immediately, on a daily basis, indiscriminately. Not the poison of old patterns of punishment and despair. Harmlessness now! must be our peace cry.
I often disagree with you - your treatment of black women, of Lani Guinier and the wonderful Jocelyn Elders in particular, has caused me to feel a regrettable distance - still, I care about you, Hillary and Chelsea, and wish you only good. I certainly would not deprive you of food in protest of anything you have done!
Similarly, I will always love and respect the Cuban people, and help them whenever I can. Their way of caring for all humanity has made them my family. Whenever you hurt them, or help them, please think of me.
Anniina Jokinen has created a web site devoted to Alice Walker's writings.
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