In October, 1960, the U.S. imposed a partial trade embargo on Cuba after Fidel Castro, new head of state, announced Cuba would turn socialist. At the height of the Cold War, the liberator turned dictator, whom the U.S. had enthusiastically supported just a few months earlier, had made a pronouncement tantamount to a declaration of war.
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As Castro set about nationalizing U.S. industries in Cuba, a near total economic embargo or what the Cubans today still call a blockade was imposed on Feb. 7, 1962.
From the U.S point of view, the embargo was more than justified. Castro was a murderous and vengeful dictator with sinister ambitions to ignite communist revolutions in South America and across the globe. Much of that, of course, is true. Castro relentlessly murdered his opponents in El Morro, the 422-year-old fortress protecting Havana Harbor that Ann and I traipsed through one morning during an eight-day trip to Cuba last February.
So early on the morning of January 1, 1959, President Fulgencio Batista, who once deposed a dictator was deposed himself. He fled down a secret staircase in the Presidential Palace to a plane that carried him and his family to safety in the Dominican Republic. Retribution was swift. By March 19, 483 police officials, mayors and other counter revolutionaries had been tried and executed by the Castro regime.
Consider Cuba before Castro. Batista’s government was thoroughly corrupt, brutal and indifferent to the needs of ordinary Cubans. The Mafia ran roughshod over Havana. The rest of the country was largely ignored. There was crippling poverty everywhere. Cuba was economically an American puppet state: At the beginning of 1959, U.S. companies owned about 40 percent of the Cuban sugar lands—almost all the cattle ranches—90 percent of the mines and mineral concessions—80 percent of the utilities—practically all the oil industry—and supplied two-thirds of Cuba’s imports, according to speech given by JFK in 1960.
I could not verify who said the following, but the alleged quote bears repeating: “The U.S. would do anything for the Cubans except get to know them.” A Cuban told me it was FDR, but I could not verify that. More likely, it was FDR’s fifth cousin Teddy who was much more familiar with that part of the world. The point remains.
Castro will turn 86 in August while his brother, Raul, hits 81 in June. Few if anyone knows what the true succession plan is or even if there is one. But the Castros’ still need the U.S. as the boogie man to keep a firm grip on power.
Castros or not, the 50-year old embargo should end. In a sense, it’s a crime against 11 million Cubans, who are denied the most basic creature comforts and necessities. Each citizen gets one bar of soap a month (rub arm). Food is rationed. We were told to bring the basics to give away: pads of paper, pens and pencils, makeup and barrettes for the women and baseballs for the boys. Combs, aspirin, BandAids are always in short supply.
Hard currency is scarce to import many of life’s necessities. People wander the streets, many seemingly with little to do.
The hundreds of long-empty store fronts in Havana are a telling sign that commercial activity is moribund save a commercial square or two and an occasional grocery store. Not much more than a couple of plastic chairs can be found in these darkened and unlit interiors – and stairs that lead to apartments on the upper floors.
But the Cubans soldier on. They are relaxed, warm and friendly. We saw little evidence of crime and never felt threatened. A police sighting in Havana is less frequent than in Boston. Seeing the military is rarer still.
To a much lesser extent, the embargo is an economic crime against Americans too. Imagine the positive effect to the construction industry if investment could be made to Havana’s spectacular Spanish architecture. Indeed, 80% of the homes in Havana were built between 190 and 1960 and have been decaying for decades.
Given the uncertainty over the embargo, investment is at best trickling into Havana at present so all that’s left of some proud buildings are their facades and the rusting staging that holds them up. They await investment that would gush into Cuba if the embargo was lifted. Maybe when the Castros are gone.
The embargo manifests itself this way: If Marriott wanted to build hotels in Cuba, the company would have to stop operating in the U.S. Indeed, Sofitel was pressured to shut a Havana hotel down so its French parent could keep the many U.S. hotels open. But there are bright spots: the seaside resort town of Varadero, which is a mere 87 miles from the U.S., had one hotel in 1989. In fact it was a replica of the famed Hotel Nacionale in Havana
where the mafia, Hemingway and movie stars held forth. Now Varadero has 50 hotels patronized largely by Canadians, Russians, Germans and Brits.
But the embargo is unevenly applied: there’s plenty of Nissans and Toyotas on the streets and those companies have a massive presences in the U.S.
Actually, the US, believe it or not and thanks to Bill Clinton, is Cuba’s 4th or 5th largest trading partner. Clinton allowed US farmers to sell beans, corn and chicken to Cubans. But before it leaves the docks in the U.S., it has to be paid for with hard currency. Trade reached a high of $744 million in 2008, but declined to $352 million last year as hard currency reserves dwindled although it started ticking up again in January and Feb., probably from the renewal of educational and cultural tours last year from the U.S. which bring in hard currency.
But for the most part, you do not see American brands in Cuba: no Coke, no Bud, no Nike….the few PCs we saw had Chinese labels on them and our tour bus was made by Youtong, a Chinese company. The only roadside signs you see espouse La revolucion and display the mug of Che Gueverra, who died young and was immortalized as the handsome face of La revolucion. Fidel, we were told was too old and grizzled, to have his mug plastered up everywhere. Best to go with Che’s movie star good looks.
It’s hard to defend Castro, but not impossible. Indeed, Steve’s and my friend Alberto Gongara who came to the U.S. in 1960 hates it every time Castro calls South Florida Cubans traitors and worms. I mean it really bothers him. Yes, the charged rhetoric still flies, and expresses the depth of animosity between Cubans in Cuba and Cubans in South Florida.
“Free healthcare and tuition are great, but Cuba is not so great at breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Alberto likes to say.
But on our trip, we also heard the Cuban side of the story from professors, economists, hospital administrators, musicians, beggars, nurses, architects, technicians, primary school teachers, waiters and even the nuns who ran a marvelous retirement home in central Havana.
But no one was more influential over our group than our Cuban guide Jorge-Soria Perez. We were a group of 36 North Americans traveling with a Dept. of the Treasury license under the aegis of the University of Wisconsin Alumni Association. Why Treasury? It manages and enforces the embargo under the Office of Foreign Asset Control set up in 1963. Now that’s a name only a bureaucrat could love.
Now I could give you a travelogue and describe the hotels and the food which were pretty good. Indeed, we visited a primary school, Hemingway’s Havana lair, a health clinic, an art school in which the main building was designed to represent a woman’s reproductive and sexual organs, the Bay of Pigs, a revolutionary museum, churches, a world class art museum, Cuba’s biggest cigar factory and many, many bars where the nasally vocals of Cuban music sliced through the air.
We saw many, many buildings such as the empty but solid and ornate Opera House and cannons recovered from the USS Maine perched along the Malecon, a long stone embankment on the Atlantic and a favorite gathering place. There were many statues and monuments for Jose Marti, the father of Cuban independence. I had my picture taken with a statue of Bennie More, a legendary Cuban band leader.
But the people struck me the most and no one more so than Jorge, who was warm, attentive, candid and funny. When was the last time you heard a Cuban cheer Bucky the Badger, Wisconsin’s mascot? He never shied away from a political discussion. And it was the politics and people are I found most interesting.
I kept an ear out for propaganda, but there was precious little, but Jorge certainly did not apologize for Castro who, he said, enjoys a 70% approval rating.
Of course, that was hard to verify, but to be honest from everything we saw, Castro’s popularity would be as hard to disprove as prove. As Jorge said, we were only getting our BA in Cuba – we’d have to return to for our Masters and return yet again for a PhD.
We were not restricted in where we could walk and visited several cities and towns about 250-300 miles outside of Havana. Of course, we were shown what they wanted us to see, but they could not hide what seemed to me was a largely idle population.
Here’s what Jorge said about those who fled Cuba along with perhaps a tinge of disgust: “Their minds stopped in 1959. They put their money in a suitcase and left.” Some Cubans, he said, feel those who left for the U.S. are
traitors, but my sense was Jorge did not feel that strongly about it and I am sure 30% of Cubans don’t assuming Castro has the other 70% in his pocket.
Jorge said Castro offered to pay for the U.S. businesses he nationalized in the early sixties, but I wondered with what? During nationalization, Cuban business owners were told they no longer owned their business. They worked for the government now and could pull a salary. The shock forced many to leave. And they still leave.
If a raft is too risky, you can apply for 20,000 visas granted each year by the U.S., again thanks to Clinton who Jorge thinks was well on his way to normalizing relations. Indeed, the Cuban view about how Washington views them falls along party lines here – Clinton wanted to normalize relations and Obama, if re-elected, might just pull it off. Carter wanted to as well, but got distracted by the Iran hostage situation.
The official line puts Reagan, HW Bush and Dubya on a low bar with Batista. As you leave the presidential palace – now a museum – there are unflattering caricatures of three republican presidents next to Batista with the most insulting one reserved for George W. Bush. He’s cast as a donkey in a dictator’s military uniform and donning a cap bearing a swastika. Such scenes do not exactly encourage dialog. That and the signage at the Bay of Pigs was the most overt propaganda that we saw on our trip.
If a Cuban is lucky enough to get a U.S. visa, he or she cannot come back. They leave everything behind — family and possessions. Apply for one and I suspect they’re blackballed from such prestigious venues as the U. of
Havana. The visas are hard to get and the wait to leave is long even after the visa is granted.
There’s tangle of bizarre rules. Indeed, Jorge many times referred to the relationship with U.S. as complicated, a euphemism for Cubans caught in the Catch-22 political crossfire.
Anyone know what wet foot, dry foot is? If you choose to risk life and limb at night on a raft or ramshackle boat and you’re lucky enough to make it to dry land in the U.S., you can claim asylum as a political refugee. If you have so much as a toe in the water, you are sent back to Cuba to what is sure to be difficult circumstances. Immigration estimates 16,000 Cubans a year arrive on a raft, a scow or what they call fast boats for which their owners charge $6-10k a head – a king’s ransom in Cuba and probably sent by relatives in the U.S.
If a Cuban makes it to Mexico with a Cuban passport, they’re in luck. Let’s say he heads for the Texas border with a Mexican friend. He shows his Cuban passport to customs and is welcomed to the U.S. as a political refugee. His Mexican friend? He’s sent back.
Jorge did not have much of a handle on how many try to leave illegally. Indeed, families, many of whom have relatives in Florida can visit if they can afford it. Almost all can’t and getting permission to leave Cuba is a long and cumbersome process. Indeed, Jorge in all his 46 years has never set foot outside of Cuba. I told him he’s welcome in Boston any time. He seemed interested and said he had friends there.
We saw several Cubans returning on our American charter to Havana, loaded down with flat screen TVs and whatever they could carry back from the U.S. Now that Obama has restored cultural and educational trips such as ours, there’s 10 roundtrips flights a day between Havana and Miami – for us 48 minutes over, 36 minutes back. So tantalizingly close…..
It’s estimated in the range of 600,000 U.S. citizens will visit Cuba this year, but if the embargo was lifted, the number is projected to be 10 times that in the first year alone. It’s impossible to imagine how Cuba’s tired and inadequate infrastructure could absorb such a tidal wave of humanity.
But back to Castro: Here’s how he justifies himself as explained to Max Lesnik five years ago. Lesnik, a school classmate and communications official for Castro during the revolution, became disillusioned with the dictator when the executions did not cease. Once he allied Cuba with the Soviets, Lesnik fled to Miami where he was a favorite bombing target by right wing Cuban terrorists known as Omega 7 because he has long advocated an end to the embargo.
In a movie about him a few years ago called The Man of Two Havanas, Lesnik returned and met with Castro, who explained why he cozied up to the Soviets…something to the effect, “What was I supposed to do now that the market for sugar in the US no longer existed?” Lesnik was nearly killed in the Florida offices of his Latin magazine Replica, which was bombed 11 times and several times in one week alone.
The movie criticizes Congressional members Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz Balart for their intransigence about lifting the embargo. I think it was Ros Lehtinen who said the educational and cultural trips were nothing more than sex tours. Well, you could have fooled me. Actually, prostitution is a big issue and why Cubans are not allowed to go beyond the lobbies of hotels unless they have official clearance.
The movie is quite good and won acclaim at the Sundance and Tribecca film festivals. Other recommended movies about Cuba are The Lost City directed by Andy Garcia and The Lost Son of Havana about Luis Tiante’s tearful return to Havana after 45 years in the U.S. That there’s Lost in the titles speaks volumes.
My friend, Alberto thinks Lesnik is nothing more than a Castro agent and apologist and therein lies the intractable differences between South Florida Cubans and those in the country. In fact, he suspects, a bit implausibly, that there are two Cuban agents for every 10 Cubans in Miami. Maybe Lesnik, now in his 80s like Castro, is one of them.
Cuba’s pact with the Soviets was a convenient, but one-sided marriage. The Soviets craved a foothold in the Western Hemisphere and one so close to U.S. soil was a stroke of luck.
Seventy five percent of Cuba’s sugar was sold to the U.S. before the embargo. The embargo eliminated the market for Cuban sugar, first 25% of it and then completely. The Russians bought all of Cuba’s sugar production at an inflated price. As Castro’s literal sugar daddy, the Soviet Union bought Cuba’s sugar for nearly 30 years until it collapsed in 1989. Aid ceased and Cuba found itself thrust on the world market where it found itself an inefficient producer.
In 1989, there were almost 190 sugar mills in Cuba. Today there are around 45 still operating. The rest are shuttered and rusting hulks that litter the countryside.
And speaking of rusting hulks, I saw a rather large one while peering from the hotel balcony in Cienfuegos. Off in the distance was a dome that looked like the Seabrook nuclear power station. I thought we’re getting wound about Iran getting nuclear weapons and Cuba already has nuclear capabilities 300 miles from our shores.
As it turned out, the Soviets were building the reactor prior to its collapse in 1989. Work on the Juragua reactor ceased in 1992 and while discussions to finish it continued for eight years, it was decided to abandon it for the same old story — lack of financing. Good thing, too, says Jorge…it was the same design as the Chernobyl reactors.
During the years following the Soviet collapse and subsequent uncoupling to the two nations, Cuba suffered mightily. It’s GDP fell 35% during what was labeled The Special Period. Eventually, Castro’s Cuba found new partners such as Venezuala and renewed closer ties to Spain. Store shelves were empty – literally, and if ever there was a time for the embargo to be lifted, it was then.
The Russians are just as an intense subject for Jorge as the U.S. and Spain. He feels that all of them manipulated the Cubans. For example, Cuba enjoyed a close technical and economic alliance with Israel, but once the Soviets exerted influence, it became “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Lose Israel, the Soviets insisted…and Cuba did. Since the Soviet collapse, the Israelis have helped the Cubans replant spent sugar cane fields with citrus trees. And the Israelis built an apartment building called Jerusalem in a trade complex in the Miramar section of Havana. Ironically, it’s close to the Russian embassy, which is perhaps the ugliest building I have ever seen.
I asked Jorge to characterize the Cuba Soviet relationship now that it has been over for more than two decades. “Imposed and transitory” was his response. The Russians, many thousands of miles away from Cuba, might as well have been from outer space. The two nations had communism in common, but Jorge would argue that Cuba is socialist not communist. After all, families own their homes and can pass them down …they can trade them, buy not sell them although some of those rules have been relaxed recently.
Jorge said something more profound though when it came to talking about its benefactor states. He looked at me: “You don’t have to worry about your sovereignty.” Cuba has always lived in the shadow of the Spain, the U.S., the Soviet Union and even the British.
Which bring us to Cuban economy – such as it is. Yes, there are some industries – agriculture is the biggest and tourism would seem the next biggest and now Cuba has partnered with China to explore for oil off its shores. There was some speculation US drillers might enter the picture if oil is excluded from the embargo. Indeed, we saw two Chinese oil derricks in Varadero.
But even Cubans have a hard time getting their arms around how their economy works. “I’ve lived here 46 years and I still don’t understand it,” Jorge told us.
Indeed, much of the confusion comes from a dual currency system. The Cuban Peso or CUP for short is what the native population uses. The CUC which stands for Cuban Convertible Peso is what brings in hard currency. We exchanged Canadian dollars 1 for 1 for CUCs. U.S. dollars are technically not allowed but can be exchanged with 10 per cent penalty. During the 90s in the post Soviet era, being caught with U.S. dollars was a jail-able crime.
So here’s how Cuba’s socialist economy works. Almost all the money we pay for our hotels, for example, goes to run the government, pay for universal healthcare, free tuition etc. I am sure there is privileged class in Cuba, but we did not see it. Word is Castro lives in a modest dwelling near or in the Mirimar section, but he does have a swimming pool.
On a smaller scale, we heard a choir one night in Ceinfuegos. At the end of the concert, they sold CDs and accepted donations in CUs for a trip to France. If they raised 500 CUCs, they would be allowed to keep about $20 in
Cuban Pesos. Jorge hated the two currency system for it seems designed to keep the population poor – and down.
But Cuba desperately needs foreign capital and is in limbo because of the embargo. Should it be lifted, much of the risk that scares investors evaporates.
But I did not get the sense that the Cubans are sitting around waiting for Coca Cola and MacDonald’s to reach their shores. One brave soul in Trinidad, a city on the Caribbean, came up to me and said and I quote “People here are very poor. I hate Raul. Maybe someday we’ll be liberated and come to the U.S.”
I shook his hand said good luck and walked away wondering how much his views were shared by his countrymen. It was a profound moment and he was brave to have approached me. We had celebrated my wife’s birthday just minutes earlier at a very upbeat lunch where the restaurant had made a special birthday cake and sung Happy Birthday to her. Truly a land of contrasts!
After 50 years of Castro, one wonders about major differences between U.S. citizen and Cubans. Are Cubans motivated to work hard after so many years of lethargy? Will they take initiative after 50 years of being told what to think and how to behave?
The answer seems clearer when you think about those 16,000 Cubans who sneak over every year, leaving everything behind to seek a better life. Risking your life and betting the farm is serious initiative.
But we can’t just throw a switch to end the embargo and expect Cuba to all of a sudden be a capitalistic democracy. Newly private cafeterias and flower sellers is not going to generate hard currency although it seems to send a signal that perhaps Cuba is loosening up.
Lifting the embargo will have to be done in measured steps and many questions will have to be answered. What role will the Cubans in South Florida play if any? Most of the ones I have spoken to do not want to go back certainly not under the present circumstances. And while reuniting families would be positive, it won’t always go smoothly.
But Cuba at its core is culturally an American nation and I suspect most Cubans want free, friendly and easy relations with the 1,000 pound gorilla to the north.
Will the embargo be lifted any time soon? I have no idea and a lot depends on the outcome of the election in November. The U.S. has a 40-person interest section in the Swiss embassy that was established under President Carter in 1977. Enrique with the tour company, who is perhaps the most worldly person I have known, says Castro needs that U.S. boogie man. He was not optimistic.
The Havana Fine Art Museum in Cuba is world class: many of its works highlight the Cuban struggle for humane treatment and sovereignty. There’s modern art, landscapes and portraits of families and women. There’s only a smattering of the muscular arm and fist communist art, but there was one mural of sorts that our host Wilfredo Benitez, who has traveled to the U.S. several times, wanted to show as we concluded our museum tour.
In big letters, it spelled out R-E-V-O-L-U-C-I-O-N across a dozen feet. Some of letters were tattered and others dripped with blood, but there was one overriding theme. As you read left to right, the letters faded. The symbolism was obvious: La revolucion has faded, too. Has the experiment failed? And is free expression more alive that we realized in Cuba? Maybe just for tourists. Benitez was a man of the world, but then curiously said Castro is brilliant.
The embargo is an anachronism and it too has failed. Rather, it hardened feelings on both sides and solidified the system it aimed to remove. It placates Cubans in South Florida, but when does the vengeful position end so both nations can move on? The Castros are going die either way. So what is the point? There is none.
One thing I would love to do is take Jorge to a Red Sox game and have him sit down to dinner with Alberto, who came here with scarcely the shirt on his back. I think they’d get along and one would hope that their Cuban heritage would conquer other emotions that might surface after a couple of drinks. Both are wonderful people.
I have regular contact with Alberto, but have not heard back from Jorge from the one e-mail I sent him after our trip. I imagine there’s some risk in him responding given reasonably free use of cell phones and e-mail have
only occurred recently among those with good jobs. There is Internet in Cuba, but it’s censored, and sometimes by U.S. companies which cannot accept commerce or even free registrations from Cubans. But if Jorge could not answer a question, he promised to consult “Mr. Google.”
I think it’s time to send Jorge another e-mail.
What I tried to do with paper was to give you a flavor of the country and its tortured relationship with the U.S. by combining what I saw and heard with historical perspective and research. It was written for The Tuesday Night Club, a mens’ literary club in which I am member. I read it on Tuesday, April 17, 2012. The subsequent discussion among the members was robust to say the least.
By no means did I capture 50 years of history, needless and large loss of life, suffering, depravation, imprisonment and the agony of shattered families.
But I came to one simple conclusion: it takes two to tango. Shall we dance?