Monday, March 10, 2008

What I learned in Havana talking to ordinary Cubans

March 08, 2008
What I learned in Havana talking to ordinary Cubans
By David Paulin
The secret love affair between left-leaning elites and Cuba goes on no matter what. No sooner had Cuba's aging Fidel Castro resigned, tha a common narrative emerged in liberal papers like the New York Times: positive changes could be coming to the hemisphere's last bastion of communism.

On Cuba's northeast coast, meanwhile, 24 ordinary Cubans -- men, women, and children -- boarded a boat under cover of darkness. They set off across the Florida Strait to America -- presumably unaware of the media's upbeat Cuba narrative playing out in the country of their dreams. They landed in South Florida, reported the Miami Herald.

They're among tens of thousands of Cubans who have escaped their island in recent years. Coming when it did, their escape underscored yet again the glaring perception gap regarding Cuba dividing ordinary Cubans and leftist elites in America and abroad. You have to wonder if Cuba's apologists have ever talked with ordinary Cubans, those living in Cuba or who escaped from their island prison to America.

Nearly every night, boat loads of fleeing Cubans cross the Florida Straits -- and even more Cubans now take a longer and safer route through Mexico. That's according to official statistics cited in a New York Times article.

Given Raúl Castro's inability to inspire confidence among his subjects back then -- when he was acting president -- it's perplexing that the Times recently described Raúl as a "practical" and "no-nonsense" guy who is less wedded to ideology than his brother Fidel. All because of his "decision to begin his tenure by meeting the Vatican's top diplomat, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a possible go-between with the United States and Europe."

Cuba, however, has played this game before -- inviting Pope John II to Cuba for a historic visit in January, 1998. Back then, many liberals also interpreted this as being a sign of Fidel's good intentions, evidence that positive changes were coming to Cuba.

It never happened.

Within a few years, the government cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy initiatives -- most notably the Valera Project -- by tightening its grip on power and making mass arrests. Kangaroo courts sentenced 30 journalists up to 28 years in prison in April, 2003, provoking international outrage.

So much for the Vatican's influence on Raúl and Fidel.

Why does nobody take Raúl at his word? After the National Assembly voted him president -- unanimously, of course -- he pledged to make no radical changes. And he noted that he'd closely consult with his ailing big brother. Members of Cuba's privileged communist elite must have been happy to hear all that.

Visiting Havana

The media's problematic reporting on the Castro brothers brought to mind a week-long reporting trip I made to Havana in 1996, 12 years ago, in mid-December. While reading recent news reports about Raúl Castro's government -- including cautiously upbeat ones -- I was struck by how things in Cuba today are as bad as they were when I visited.

Then and now, salaries average about $19 a month, not enough to pay for basic goods such as soap, cooking oil, and medicine. Then and now, Cubans giving interviews to foreign reporters insist that only their first names be used, fearing they'll be punished for speaking their minds. Some won't talk at all, of course.

It has been like this for nearly half a century. Accordingly, if Raúl Castro is indeed a democratic reformer in disguise, he'll face a major challenge in repairing the psychological and social damage that he, his brother, and members of the communist elite have wrought in state that owns all property, most businesses, and punishes those who dare to exercise civil liberties we take for granted. Some Cubans have bravely protested or fled the island. Others play along with the charade and pay lip service to it.

Take religion, for example. When I asked a Havana school teacher how she'd be spending Christmas, she told me: "Why, there is no Christmas in Cuba!" Pointing to a little girl, she added, "She has never known a Christmas!"

It was one of many telling anecdotes I gleaned during my week-long trip to the hemisphere's last bastion of communism. Coming to power in 1959, Fidel Castro eradicated nasty bourgeois influences such as Christmas -- a holiday no longer fit to celebrate under his communist ideology.

I was a Caracas-based journalist when I went to Havana. On assignment for the Dallas Morning News, my subject was what Cubans thought about the historic visit to Cuba being planned for Pope John Paul II.

Traveling alone is no fun. I'd gotten an absurdly low-priced package trip to Havana that was for two people, not one. So I invited along a Venezuelan acquaintance named Fiffy. She had a gift for putting people at ease, and she occasionally helped me out with my not-so-perfect Spanish.

Like more than a few sophisticated and well-educated Venezuelans, Fiffy was not a huge fan of the United States, but nor was she a raving anti-American. Neither of us had ever visited visited Cuba. The place fascinated us.

It was during our first afternoon stroll in Havana that a cheerful teacher beckoned us inside to visit her classroom, having spotted us looking into the grade school's street-level windows. She introduced us to her charming and smiling class of uniformed students. They greeted us on command. I didn't tell the teacher I was a journalist.

"We're tourists," I said. It seemed like the safe thing to say.

Soon after arriving the previous afternoon, I ran into serious problems with customs at Havana's Jose Marti airport -- all because my well-worn U.S. passport raised eyebrows among Cuban officials. They claimed it was too shabby to be taken seriously. Having traveled for years in the back pocket of my Levis, it was a bit creased around the edges. A tiny corner of my photo was unglued.

"No señor, this is not acceptable!" a man wearing dark military-style fatigues told me. "I don't think they'll let you in."

He added, "You'll have to take another flight back to Caracas."

Alternatively, he explained, I could spend a week in a detention facility and then leave on my return flight. "Don't worry. It's not like a prison."

It was the second strange thing to happen that day. The first occurred late that morning when Fiffy and I boarded a Russian-built jet flown by Cubana, the state airline. Settling into my seat, I discovered a problem: The seatbelt was broken. So we called over the stewardess.

"Oh, some irresponsible passenger must have broken it!" she brusquely declared.

We settled into two nearby seat. Puzzled, Fiffy looked at me. "Did you hear that?" How can anybody break a seatbelt?"

I leaned toward Fiffy's ear. "She probably can't apologize like you would in the states -- say there was no time to fix it or something. It's better to blame somebody else if you want to keep your job."

Fiffy stared straight ahead, thinking. Aside from the seat-belt problem, the rest of the flight was pleasant. We arrived at mid-afternoon.

In the terminal, however, customs promptly singled me out because of the shabby looking passport -- which had not raised eyebrows two days earlier at the Cuban Embassy in Caracas, when I'd presented it to get my travel papers.

Fiffy and I spent hours pleading my case with various officials, all of whom were dressed in dark military-style fatigues. Picking through my luggage, one official pulled out my camera. He narrowed his eyes and stared at me: "Are you a journalist?"

I looked at him, and I lied. "No! I'm a teacher! We're here for the film festival," I said, referring to the annual Havana Film Festival that was about to start. Technically, journalists needed permission to visit Cuba to write stories. However, my editor had advised me to just go as a tourist.

Curiously, a Venezuelan passenger from our flight who'd forgotten his passport was cleared right through customs. Could they be looking for a bribe? Nobody had dropped any hints along those lines that I picked up on. The thought of ending up in a detention center made me think of Miami -- a 30-minute fight away. At the time, I was making a few trips a year to Miami. Going through customs, my spirits always soared when the officer said: "Welcome home!"

Ah yes, Miami. So near and yet so far.

I was in a bind. I had insufficient cash for a plane ticket back to Caracas, and none of my credit cards were any good in Cuba due to Washington's economic embargo. Hearing about the hapless American, a good-hearted ticket agent at a Venezuelan airline offered to fly me back to Caracas for free.

At about 6 p.m. I told Fiffy to go to our beech-front hotel in Old Havana. "If I don't make it back, just try and enjoy yourself for the week. I don't want our tickets to go to waste."

I sat in a plastic chair in the empty airport terminal. Most of the customs officials had gone. The hours passed by, and I was exhausted. Toward midnight, a serious mustachioed man came up to me.

"Come with me!"

His fatigues were different and had Soviet-style epaulets. We went outside, and he opened the rear door of a Russian-built Lada. He sped off into the pitch-black night. I wondered where we were going.

Suddenly, a startling sight materialized in the headlights: Dozens of shabbily dressed bicyclists were right in front of us -- about to get run over. Awkwardly, they veered off wildly in every direction, missing the car by inches. The driver angrily blasted his horn, but never slowed down.

Inside a small office building, he pointed to some chairs in a waiting room, and he walked off. At a nearby desk was a young and pleasant blond-haired man in military fatigues. I sat in a big comfortable chair and quickly dozed off.

I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a soft voice. The blond-haired man took me to a nearby office. There, I pleaded my case again to a man behind a desk with a severe expression.

"Why are you carrying so little cash? Most tourists bring more."

"We've got a package," I said. He bawled me out, then returned my passport.

"OK, you can go. Enjoy the film festival."

Ah yes, the Havana Film Festival. It's a very big deal, a magnet for filmmakers such as John Sayles. Later that week, I spotted him at one of Havana's premier hotels -- the lovely colonial-style Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Sayles was showing his newest release, "Lone Star," an entertaining piece of social criticism touching on American and Mexican identity in Texas. Hip American filmmakers make annual pilgrimages to the Havana Film Festival -- though never with any films criticizing Cuba with the same venom they turn on America.

Back at the airport, I settled into a taxi. It was 2:30 a.m. The driver grinned and shook his head.

"So, you're the American with the ugly passport! All the taxi drivers waiting outside the terminal were talking about it."

Thirty minutes later, I checked into our seaside hotel in Old Havana. It was situated across the street from the famous Malecón, Cuba's lovely and famous seawall and broad sidewalk. Perfect for strolling and hanging out, it's popular among amorous couples and tourists, not to mention hustlers and prostitutes.

I turned the key, and the hotel door opened with a noisy jolt. Startled, Fiffy bolted up from under the covers. She seemed relieved to see me. But she was more concerned about an awkward problem. There was only a single bed -- not the two I had promised when I'd invited her on the trip. So, gallantly, I grabbed some blankets and slept on the floor. I slept badly. Not because of the hard floor but because of the airport trauma.

Old Havana

We both woke up around 8 a.m. I opened a window: It was a beautiful day. So I suggested we skip the hotel's breakfast and find a sidewalk cafe. Tired and giddy, I needed a few strong jolts of espresso, just like what I regularly had in Caracas. There, you had small cafes and pastry shops on just about every corner in rich and poor areas alike.

Bounding out the hotel door, we turned the corner onto a narrow street of Old Havana. We stopped and starred at a stunning sight: a city frozen in time. Presumably, nobody had painted or restored any buildings for 50 years. It had a beautiful shabby sort of splendor. It felt a little creepy, too. It was 9 a.m. yet not a car nor a pedestrian was in sight.

We felt like explorers as we walked tentatively down the middle of street. Where were the sidewalk cafes and pastry shops? I was getting a headache.

People obviously lived in these buildings. Everything looked neat and clear. But for block after block it was like a ghost town. There was no commercial activity. Only occasionally did a person emerge from or enter one of the shabby buildings. Finally, we came across a rickety wooden vending stand operated by a middle-aged woman with a light complexion. She had hardly anything to sell.

"Who own this stand?" I asked.

"The state," she said, an ironic smile on her lips.

She was friendly but seemed reluctant to say more. The best place for us to get some coffee and a pastry, she said, was back at the hotel. I suddenly realized my stupid mistake: We were in an area where Cubans lived, and they obviously had better ways to spend their $19-a-month than at a sidewalk cafe.

It's one thing to read about Cuba's communism -- the state ownership of property and most businesses. But to get a visceral feeling for such folly, you must meet a woman who works at a small state-owned vending stand.

"Hey, do you want to buy cigars?" a young man inquired as we headed to the hotel. I have Cohiba. Just one dollar."

Humm, I thought. Just what Fidel smokes. "OK, I said."

He told us to wait, and he'd go get one. But we walked off, anxious to keep moving. Ten minutes later, he ran up to us, out of breath. I can't imagine how he tracked us down. You couldn't have asked for better service.

Everywhere we went, we had such offers from cigar-selling entrepreneurs, including from people who said they had college degrees. It was part of Cuba's vibrant underground economy -- a way to earn the American greenbacks you need to buy things in well-stocked "dollar stores." Cubans working in cigar factories got a certain number of free cigars, and they sold them to buy hard currency.

In downtown Havana, tourists love to takes photos of a huge sign that for years has adored a building: "Socialism or Death." Yet a taxi driver in his late 40s told us: "There is capitalism for the tourists and foreign companies, and there is socialism for everybody else." By transporting tourists in his creaky 1957 Ford, the former mechanic said he earned more money in one afternoon than most Cubans, including doctors, made in one month.

Over the previous few years, Cuba's state had become more tolerant of religious freedom. So three years earlier, the taxi driver said he'd bought a Christmas tree. He hadn't been to church since he was a boy, he said, but might go next Christmas. "It's been many years, and the old traditions have been lost."

One day, we met a young Cuban man in his late 20s, Felix, who took us on a tour of Havana's medical facilities -- nice spotless ones for tourists, shabby crowded ones for ordinary Cubans. We gave him a few dollars. Although trained as a veterinarian, he said he earned more guiding tourist than he could working for the state.

"I'm proud to be Cuban. I love my country. But I'd like to go to Miami," a 29-year-old Cuban medical student told us. He would never dare to say that at the clinic where we met him. He was speaking freely at a privately owned restaurant where we'd invited him; such establishments were being allowed under a modest economic opening. The food was delicious. But the portly woman who owned the place was reluctant to talk about her business.

"If I tell you how much I make, the government will find a way to take it away from me," she said.

As we bid goodbye to the medical student, he handed us a letter. It had no return address and was addressed to a person in Miami. "Would you mail this when you get out of Cuba?" he said, and we gladly accepted it. The student, a Catholic, said he was deeply suspicious of Fidel Castro's motives for inviting the pope "after all these years of intolerance and war against the church."

"You can quote me but don't use my name."

Every day we talked with dozens of Cubans. Nearly all were friendly and eager to talk to outsiders, including an American like myself. Elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America, it's easy to find anti-American crackpots. Among ordinary Cubans, we never found one.

Cubans enjoy talking with tourists, so long as somebody in a uniform is not standing nearby. In a state with no free press, tourists are a valuable source of information, along with broadcasts from Miami radio stations.

One morning, we struck up a conversation with a charming young couple, a husband and wife in their early 20s. They showed us around, took us to their modest apartment, and gave us some of their precious tea. They never asked directly for money. But we ended up giving them a good chunk of a month's salary from his state employer: $5.

Walking past a state-owned fruit stand with the couple, I noted it contained only a few piles of oranges. So much for the state-run distribution system. Intrigued, I snapped a photo. The store's proprietor immediately ran outside.

"Who are you?" he angrily demanded. "Do you have a permit to take pictures!"

"They're just tourists. Leave them alone," the husband, Angel, then 28, said. We walked off as he glared at us from the middle of the street.

"Communist!" Angel muttered.

One day Angel showed up at our hotel to pick up some things we were giving him. His wife told us we'd have to go outside to meet him, because the hotel would not allow him inside. "It's because he's black. He looks too Cuban," she said.

For all of Havana's charm, you could never forget that this was a police state. Sometimes, people would clam up as soon as we asked a question, especially if somebody in a uniform was nearby. During an interview one day at small cafe in a tourism-oriented area, the proprietor became irked when it became obvious we were interviewing somebody, and talking politics. Immediately, he turned the music up full blast.

Another day, an amicable taxi driver gave us a tour of some nearby resorts outside Havana. Pointing out a group of young men picking up debris in a park, he said in an utterly neutral tone, without hinting at his personal feelings, "Those guys are from a mental hospital, but they aren't crazy." We knew what he was getting at.

At the time of our visit, a crack-down was being undertaken on prostitution, which had become so rampant that it was embarrassing the government: Cuba was earning a reputation a a hot sex tourism spot. Yet here and there, you still saw young prostitutes out at night.

"That poor thing is shivering," Fiffy said, as we walked past a leggy shapely woman in her early 30s in tight-fitting white shorts and a white blouse -- hardly enough clothing for the chill in the air. She was quite attractive, except for the goose bumps.

Later we passed two couples strolling arm-in-arm. The men were middle-aged -- Canadians I guessed. Their dates were absolutely stunning dark-haired woman in their late teens or early 20s. Fiffy immediately picked up on the incongruous pairings.

"They were beautiful!" she said, a bit shocked.

The irony of Cuba's prostitution problem is that Fidel Castro upon coming to power blamed America for turning his country into the Caribbean's whore house. However, no such outrage has ever been expressed when socialists were running things.

What's to account for the failure of Cuba's noble experiment? In America and abroad, leftist elites invariably blame Cuba's poverty on Washington's 46-year-economic embargo. But ordinary Cubans don't buy it. Not a single person with whom we spoke ever mentioned the embargo as being a source of their troubles; they blamed their government.

Reasonable people, of course, can debate the merits of the economic embargo. But no debate is acceptable when it comes to Cuba's rights abuses. Accordingly, some leftist elites simply ignore the abuses. In the Caribbean in particular, left-leaning political leaders and intellectuals have a tradition of this, as I noted in an Op-Ed

I wrote in June, 2003 for the Miami Herald: 2003: "Caribbean Leaders Ignore Cuba's Abuses."

Consider the hypocrisy displayed at a UNESCO-sponsored press-freedom conference I attended in Kingston, Jamaica in April, 2003. Months earlier, Cuba was rounding up and imprisoning journalists. Yet Jamaica's prime minister at the time, P.J. Patterson -- then head of the Caribbean Community trade block -- failed to join other speakers in condemning Cuba's crackdown. For the left-leaning Patterson, it was par for the course.

No wonder Cubans fleeing their island seldom head to other Caribbean islands. They go to America. If Cuba's history is anything to go by, expect more of the same under Raúl Castro.

David Paulin, a journalist, reported for a number years from Venezuela and the Caribbean. He blogs at The Big Carnival.

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