Havana, (don’t you love the idea of a Dateline?)
I’m not quite sure what struck me most about having finally made it to Havana this past week. For reasons that only Senator No (the late Jesse Helms for those of you who don’t remember his repetitious and insistent use of the word “No”) can tell you, the U.S. still treats Cuba like it is the one pariah, the one leperous country left in the field of nations which isn’t worthy of our respect, attention, and money or at the very least, Travel status. It is a totally baffling assumption. It’s as if anyone who has visited here for more than an hour could tell you, the American Blockade (el Bloqueo) is the stupidest thing the US Government has mandated since the ____ (fill in the blank -- since the possible answers are numerous and far too obvious… though you can start with the Iraq war, Katrina relief, oh, and throw in the Grenada invasion of ’83… that was a goodie.) It does little more than give the Cuban government a handy excuse when things get tougher for the justplain folk. The point is, and I’m frankly sorry that Senator Helms isn’t around to understand what he really could have done to depose his personal nemesis -- the longest running dictator in modern history (right?)
He apparently wasn’t paying attention in the late 80s when the flood of fax machines into China (before they started making everything) let the Beijing Spring Freedom offensive of 1988-89 get off the ground. Hitherto, there was no way the dissident forces could be in touch with each other. Once fax machines appeared, and in grand number, the game was on. Yes, it ended badly that Spring, with the TienAnMin square quashing of the Freedom kids, the young man standing valiantly in front of the tank… don’t we all remember that weekend? But Cuba, which would unquestionably find itself in a different place, has been denied the imprimatur which the Chinese had twenty years ago. And what happened? The Chinese knocked down the Liberty statue, arrested tons of people, and within a few years were making Billions-with-a-B of dollars manufacturing everything that Walmart and Target wanted to sell. We didn’t just embrace them, we signed over the whole damn country to the Chinese financial wizards who figured out that owning dollars, at least in the 90s, wasn’t such a lousy place to be for a country which was, itself, just starting to industrialize. The Cubans, let’s face it, need just a couple of things to be competitive: the end of the blockage, and the resultant influx of cheap high tech goodies. There would be cell fones, laptops, fax machines, and above all, no more excuses. And no doubt given the Cubans ingenuity (these are the folks who figured out how to get HBO using a metal pie tin) the status of the old regime would be measured in weeks and months, not the decades that we have waited for Fidel to choke on a pretzel during a soccer game. Nothing succeeds like internal change: when you try and force it from the outside, even the most anti-regime people will think they are being taken for a ride by the fer’ners (and they would be right. Just ask the 1953 Iranians). Yet, if they get there themselves, it’s a different ballgame. And I guarantee you, that if we somehow flew the Key West/ Costco Air Force over Cuba, dropped two million laptops with software installed in Spanish (I know I shouldn’t have to say this, but you know the guys at DELL would forget that part) their world would change in a heartbeat. And all the Jesse Helms and Lincoln (named for the car?) Diaz-Bellard’s of this world, living or dead, would just have to suck it up, and realize that the only way for the change to happen that they proclaim they want, is for it to come from within.
The Cubans, denied all kinds of goodies for decades, have persevered nonetheless. No question you would have riots in Rye, Ogden, and Sausalito if you limited Americans to what the Cubans have had to live with. We would be pissed, figuring that our due was denied us (and we’d be right). For them, it’s been a slow roll out of a very rich/poor country into a place where the average Cuban, from whom no information is withheld since they LIVE that life and know it first hand, knows that something good MIGHT just be around the corner. What they absolutely are not waiting for is to be ‘rescued’ by the Calle Ocho crowd, the long departed families with money in Miami and Tampa, who think, mistakenly, that they will return, take back their family homes and businesses, and return Cuba to the ‘good old days.’
It would be instructive to look at East Germany: for all the legion faults of the old bad days (yes, the Commies really did run a crummy ship), there was, nonetheless, a certain self-reliance which the Easties created for themselves – by necessity. And when the wall came down, the last thing any of them wanted was to be procured by a Mercedes driving Westie from Frankfurt or Hamburg, arriving to buy a town with a trunk full of hard currency D-Marks. There is an element of pride, of having suffered plenty for fifty years, which would, I’m convinced, prevent the wholesale retaking of Cuba by the exiles. Yet, there just might be a way to let families get back together, and for the people of the island to finally breakout of the self-imposed strangle hold of their bitter economy. The sense of personal pride, and the way they embrace their culture beyond politics is something to behold. Go to a musical event – a jazz club, an open air salsa jam, or even just recorded music at a street festival. No one is standing still. There is feeling, energy and passion in those amazing movements. Hips gyrate (Editor’s note: My hips, despite exposure to Cuban music, have yet to show a single gyration), arms move in that locomotive-like cycle, and people churn their bodies to the music. They dance not to impress anyone, but because they can’t not dance. Their souls demand it of them. Stripped of so many of life’s comforts by a system which has fallen short, there is a tingly excitement which the music provides. They dance for themselves.
When you drive through the city it is impossible not to see the bill-boards which are provided to keep the faith with the population. Exhortations to remain true to the Revolucion…. 50 years later..are everywhere, reminding one that real revolution is staying true to the principles. I guess it might be easier to remain true in spirit with a full belly, and a few more of those missing creature comforts. (And no question, the encouragement to lead a constructive and positive life would mean more if the government didn’t have it’s own sticky issues with internal dissent). But Cubans are a resilient, tough people, with a very passionate side. No question that life as Martyr can become tedious and boring after decades of difficulty. But somewhere inside that amazing psyche is a torch ready to burn, not for the faux happiness of the American materialist model, but maybe something in between: which gets a little more food on the table, a few new tires for the car, truck loads of paint and cement to restore the amazing architecture, and at the same time keeps that wonderful flame of hope and selflessness burning. It wouldn’t’ be so bad to have a neighbor who we could pretend to have as friends, and get over those two generations of alienation. Aren’t we all ready for that? Senator No, I think you got some ‘splainin’ to do. We’re just sayin…..David