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A Gringo Loose in Cuba

Notes on the World's Most Useless Embargo

The American Conservative, December, 2007


On Havana’s malecón, the seawall that parallels the shore, the waves roll in and hit the sudden obstacle, sending towering explosions of bright white spray far into the air, occasionally soaking the unwary pedestrian. Across the highway that follows the malecón is a cheap open-air restaurant, the DiMar. A steady breeze from the sea pours across the tables. A tolerable shrimp cocktail, topped with mayonnaise, costs a few bucks. On a couple of evenings I drank a beer there, watching Cuba go by. It wasn’t what I had expected.

Unlike many gringo tourists, I was legal, having gotten a license from the Treasury Department. Without a license travel to Cuba is illegal under the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917. Why Cuba was my enemy wasn’t clear to me. Nor was it to the Cubans.

I had inadvertently neglected to tell the authorities that I was a journalist—I hate it when that happens—so I was not in a position to ask probing questions of officials. But then I didn’t want official twaddle. I wanted to wander, take cabs down the coast, just look at things. And did.

I was pleased to find the old part of Havana both charming and reasonably well preserved, especially around the convent of San Francisco. The latter is of course a museum now, as God knows we mustn’t be religions, but it is in good shape and breathes a moody solemnity. I tried to imagine the stillness in times before the motorcycle. The narrow lanes around it were closed to cars, making it pleasant to walk among the shops.

The country is poor and run down, and itself almost a museum. Sitting in the DiMar is like visiting the Fifties. The American embargo makes it hard to get new cars, so many Cubans still drive cars from 1959, the year of the revolution, and before. Some sport jazzy paint jobs, and others don’t. It was remarkable to watch the rides of my adolescence go by, charting them mentally as one did in 1964—’54 Merc, ’57 Caddy, ’56 Chevy, on and on. Around me the other customers, down-scale Cubans in all shades of nonwhite, laughed and chatted.

They are an accommodating people. On my arrival they spoke a truncated Spanish hard to understand—“Cómo etáh uteh? Ma o menoh.”—but they made an intense national effort to improve their clarity and by my fourth day they were comprehensible.

Cuba doesn’t fit its sordid image. It is most assuredly a dictatorship, yet the police presence is much less than that of Washington, and such cops as I saw had no interest in me. It is not regimented. Havana does not feel—well, oppressed—as Moscow did during the days of the Soviet Union. Mao’s China it isn’t.

The island certainly isn’t dangerous to anyone. Somebody said that the only communists remaining in the world were in Cuba, North Korea, and the Harvard faculty lounge. I do not know whether Harvard’s professoriate thirsts for godless world hegemony, though the idea is not implausible, but it is absurd to put North Korea and Cuba in a category. Pyong Yang has, or wants, nuclear arms, and has both a huge army aimed at South Korea, and a habit of testing ballistic missiles of long range. Cuba has little military and no one to use it against; from an American point of view, the Cuban armed forces are about as terrifying as George Will with a water pistol. It has no nuclear arms and no signs of wanting any. It is not a rogue state. It is a bedraggled island of pleasant people who need more money.

Cuba is expensive. Figuring the prices of things is difficult—deliberately so, one might suspect—because of a peculiar game that the government plays with currencies. Cuba has two, the national currency, which a visitor almost never sees, and the CUC (pronounced “kook”) which appears to exist to impoverish tourists. A visitor has to convert his money to CUCs. If you change dollars, the government skims twenty percent off the top, and then changes the rest at $1.08 per CUC. If you change Mexican pesos, which I did, the rate is 13.3 pesos per CUC when the dollar was trading at about 11 pesos. Visitors have to buy things for CUCs, which the seller then has to exchange for national currency at a rate of…. You see. Nobody seems sure what anything really costs. Still, it’s a rip.

The island could use some investment. While I found neighborhoods with nice-looking modern houses, said by taxi drivers to belong to governmental officials and employees of foreign firms, the rest of the city needs paint, repairs, and new sidewalks. Countless once-elegant houses with pillared porches and tall windows are now discolored and crumbling.

Why communists imagine themselves to be revolutionary is a mystery. Whenever they gain power in a country, it comes to a dead stop and sits there as other countries pass it by. I do not think that communism generates poverty; rather it finds it and preserves it. It has certainly done so here. Cuba seems firmly mired in 1959. How much of this comes from the embargo—“el bloqueo” as the Cubans call it—and how much from communism, I don’t know. Nobody does. This is convenient for Castro, as he can blame everything on the United States. And does.

Curiously, Fidel’s irreplaceable supporter is Washington. Alongside of highways, along Havana’s malecón, in little Mediterranean-looking villages down the coast one sees signs of the type, “Forty-three hours of the blockade would pay for a new school house.” Or for so many locomotives, or complete the national highway, or this or that. How the figures are arrived at, I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. To an extent the signs are not propaganda but simply call attention to a fact: The embargo does hurt people, who want jobs, dollars from tourists, and consumer goods. They are perfectly aware why they don’t have them: the American embargo. This may or may not always be quite true, but it has a convincing verisimilitude. It makes Fidel look good. He is standing up to the bastards who are strangling us.

How resolutely communist are the Cuban people? This is just an impression, but I would say, “Not at all, if that much.” Abstractions ending in “-ism” are hobbies for people who have time for them. Everyone I talked to wanted more money—a better job, better food, better clothes, a chance to take the wife out to dinner. After these, more freedom.

As an example of Castro’s use of the embargo to maintain himself in power, consider the internet. People I talked to had heard of it of course, but had little idea what it was and no access to it. It can be found in hotels and apparently in tourist areas, though I didn’t see a single cybercafe of the sort that are found every twenty feet in all third-world countries I know. Why no internet? Cubans universally said that the US embargo prevented Cuba from having access. This struck me as improbable. It was.

At ZDNet, a respectable American website dealing with matters electronic, I later found an account of a UN conference in Athens, in which a Cuban official was asked what percentage of Cubans have access to the net. He dodged the question frantically. ZDNet quotes Bill Woodcock, a network engineer and research director of Packet Clearing House, as follows:

“Zero percent of Cubans are connected to the Internet. The Cuban government operates an incumbent phone company, which maintains a Web cache. Cubans who wish to use the Internet browse the government Web cache. They do not have unrestricted access to the Internet.” http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9588_22-6131854.html

And if they did, the government would find itself with a lot of explaining to do.

Also from ZDNet: “A report published last month by the Reporters Without Borders advocacy group says, "it is forbidden to buy any computer equipment without express permission from the authorities," and spyware "installed in all Internet cafes automatically detects banned content." U.S. law exempts telecommunications equipment and service from the trade embargo.”

The Cuban government is lying, who would have thought it, but can blame lack of access on the embargo. Washington in effect aids Castro in maintaining censorship.

Cuba has what are called “cocotaxis.” These are yellow spherical plastic things like part of a coconut husk attached to a motorcycle, providing transportation for two. Having hired a cocotaxi for a day, I got to know the driver reasonably well, to the point of being invited to his house for snacks. His wife had just had a new daughter and he was no end proud of both. His take on the economy was that things were bad, had been worse but were slowly getting better. Still, he said, taxes were high and he had to buy gasoline in CUCs, which made it more expensive. Things like computers were out of reach, and he and his wife couldn’t afford restaurants. Did he have many gringo fares, I asked. No, not many. He wished more would come. He was tired of being poor.

I am not sure why it is in the national interest of the United States to make a cab driver and his family live on rice and fish. I did not feel notably safer on hearing about it.

An embargo makes sense when it makes sense, but doesn’t when it doesn’t. Cuba is no longer the spearhead of the Soviet Union; indeed, according to many observers, there is no Soviet Union. We seem to proceed from pure vengefulness against Castro. Fidel, a freelance reprehensible dictator, beat Batista, our reprehensible dictator. We want to get even.

But Castro is not Cuba. The CIA Fact Book says that Cuba has 11,394,043 citizens. One of them is Castro, and 11,394,042 are not. Many Americans say that Castro is evil and so we need to embargo him. One person the embargo assuredly does not hurt is Castro. Does anyone think he eats less well because of it?

Ah, but there are the Cuban émigrés in Miami. So much of American foreign policy seems determined by domestic politics, by a certain infantile truculence, and by ignorance of how people work. The embargo has accomplished nothing of any use for 50 years. Clearly the thing to do is keep at it for another fifty. The “Cubans” in Miami demand it.

We are subject to considerable disinformation regarding the island. The Cuban émigrés in south Florida paint Cuba as a hellhole. It isn’t. I’ve seen hellholes. Even before coming to Cuba, I had developed a dim view of the pseudo-Cubans of Miami. For one thing, I had been to Miami and just plain didn’t like them. They were arrogant, and rude to Anglos if not actually hostile. I found myself wanting to ask, “Just whose country do you think this is anyway?” but the answer was obvious.

Further, by supporting the embargo they are knowingly inflicting grave hardship on eleven million of their supposed fellows because they are mad at Fidel. This is contemptible. They want the US to get back for them holdings that Castro confiscated on coming to power. Given the corruption and criminality rampant under Batista, it would be interesting to ask just how they came by their property. To try to get it back they are perfectly willing to condemn the island’s population to another fifty years of living on fish and rice. What patriots.

I say “pseudo-Cubans: and “supposed fellow Cubans.” It is worth noting that 1959 was 48 years ago. The great majority of these alleged Cubans were born here, have never been to Cuba, and wouldn’t live there if they could. They are gringos, Americans. They are also an important voting bloc in a presidentially crucial state. As so often in foreign policy, domestic politics trumps national interest and coherent thought.

Living as I do in Mexico, perhaps I have a better angle of view on matters Latin-American than do ideological isolates in Washington. To the world below Laredo, Cuba is a heroic little country being bullied by the US but not giving in. I’m not sure this isn’t the opinion of the whole world except for America. Remember that much of Latindom believes that South America’s economic doldrums spring from American exploitation. They don’t: Considerable faith is required to believe that Bolivia would turn into Japan if only the US stopped oppressing it. But beliefs, not facts, determine behavior.

American arguments against the island don’t carry much weight in a region that sees things through Latin-American eyes. For example, by regional standards Cuba isn’t terribly poor. It didn’t suffer the butchery of Guatemala and El Salvador. For fifty years it has been politically stable. Given the experience of Latin-Americans with dictatorship, corruption, and violence, Cuba’s government doesn’t look bad.

Americans, perhaps because of the Cold War, tend to think that communism is communism, all poured from the same bucket. Not so. At the high end of horribleness you have Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao, genuine madmen of genocidal enthusiasms. North Korea’s dynasty runs a close second.

Castro is neither mad nor genocidal. A dictator, yes. A tiresome windbag, yes. Repressive of dissent, yes—but willingness to repress dissent doesn’t mean that there is a great deal of dissent to repress. As far as Cubans are concerned (I mean real Cubans, the kind who live in Cuba, not the make-believe variety in Miami), the problem is not Castro. It is the hostility of Washington. Castro could end the embargo by surrendering, sure. Washington could end it by ending it, and probably end Castro at the same time.

While I was on the island the UN voted 184 to 4 to recommend that the United States end the embargo. In this vote America had the support of the following great powers: Israel, Palau, the Marshall Islands, and itself. Several Cubans spontaneously told me of the vote, smiling triumphantly. Intrigued, I made a point of bringing the vote up with people I ran into. They all knew of it—the governmental television made very sure of it—and grinned broadly over what they saw as a victory for Cuba over Bush.

If this island is unstable, yearning for Fidel to die so that it can revolt and become an appendage of the US, I’m Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst.

I spent several hours walking through Havana’s slums. These are extensive and ugly. Like so much of the city, they seem to have been built fifty years ago and never maintained. Commercial streets have the usual pillars, often in pastel colors now covered with soot, the plaster falling off in patches. In side streets potholes gape. Sometimes water, probably sewage, runs across the pavement. I saw nothing suggesting hunger, no pot-bellied malnutrition, but these people clearly have little. Time and again I glanced into doorways and saw cruddy worn steps rising into darkness. Tired people gazed from windows.

Similar places exist in downtown Detroit and in Washington DC, where abandoned buildings are common, where whole housing projects have their windows bricked up to keep them from becoming shooting galleries for needle people. In America slums are racial in demarcation but in Cuba they aren’t. I encountered no hostility. In four hours I didn’t get so much as a hard look. In Detroit I would have lasted five minutes. But these people are going nowhere, living, breeding, and dying with nothing to show for it. It is a rotten thing to do to them without very good reason. And there is no reason. It does not get rid of Fidel.

The trappings of bumper-sticker socialism are everywhere in Cuba. Signs on walls say “Venceremos!” (“We will conquer!”) and “Patria o Muerte!” (Fatherland or death) and other exciting things. Adolescence dies hard everywhere. A billboard shows pictures of Bush, Hitler, and someone who perhaps was meant to be Cheney (it looked like but can’t have been John Lennon) with arithmetic notation: Bush plus whoever equals Hitler. Che Guevara’s face appears endlessly, the communist Christ, shot from slightly below, staring bravely off into a socialist paradise that didn’t fit on the tee-shirt. I saw postcard racks offering thirteen different photos of Che. If he had severe acne scars and funny ears he would be of no socialist importance, but he does make a good tee-shirt.

The press is assuredly controlled. The political section of a bookstore I saw consisted of maybe a dozen books about (sigh) Che, the rest being not much better. Confusingly, there were a couple of textbooks on business management. Television is heavy on affirmation of socialist patriotism. In particular there are channels from China, which Cuba seems to regard as communist (when did you last hear of a communist economy growing at ten percent, or at all?) and from Venezuela. Hugo Chavez clearly is thought to be a great man.

Toward the end of the adventure I went back to the DiMar to commune with the wind and the exploding waves and ponder what I had seen. Cubans make good beer (Bucanero). I have to give them that, and while mayonnaise on shrimp may not seem advisable, it worked.

I wanted to sort out what I knew about Cuba from what I suspected, so as to avoid the trap of instant-expertism. Some things I did know. A hellhole? No. Threat to anyone? No. Danger to international stability? No. In need of embargoing? No. Dictatorship? Yes. Adherent of the Bill of Rights? No.

How bad was Fidel? I really didn’t know. Admirers and detractors are wildly ideological. Compared to Thomas Jefferson he doesn’t look good (though I don’t think Castro owns slaves). Compared to other dictators the US has installed or supported—Somoza, Trujillo, the Shah, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein, and so on—about par.

But however repugnant Castro may be, the practical question is whether the embargo is in America’s interest. If the United States is still strong enough that it doesn’t have to care what the world thinks, then the embargo, though unnecessary, doesn’t matter (except in moral terms, which don’t matter). But as the country wages war on the Moslem world, tries to contain China (that’s going to work), pushes Russia into China’s arms, and tries to intimidate South America, all of these at once, maybe it would be better to improve America’s relations with this hemisphere. An effective way to spread communism is to make heroes of communists. The entire world—well, except Israel, the Marshall Islands, and Palau—is against the US on this one. Is it so important to keep Miami happy?