“What did we ever do to deserve the embargo?”
Our tour guide asked us this question in a small group on the bus one day. Since I was the resident capitalist, everyone was waiting to hear what I had to say. Sitting and squirming, my response was less than stellar. It was some sad-sack tome on the value of individual achievement and the market system and how the embargo is the most un-capitalist of measures that hurt everyone. Everyone nodded in acknowledgement of my answer.
This was not what I wanted to say.
I think he deserves a better answer. That answer can also say a lot about post-Castro Cuba—and what can, or will, happen when there is no Castro in power (Fidel, Raul or otherwise).
First of all, the question he asked is the wrong question. No one in their right mind would ever say that anyone, let alone the Cuban people, DESERVE to have their market freedom, their economy, their resources strangled by an embargo. It’s a straw-man argument that forces cheap sympathy yet does little to resolve the conflict.
This should be the better question to ask: “To whose benefit is it to keep the embargo going?”
In both Cuba and here in the States, this is a far more troublesome question, as it often brings the conflicting needs and ideologies of disparate groups into greater focus. A whole list of culprits comes to mind: US business, US military, the Cuban exiles, the Cuban government, the Cuban Communist Party, the Castros, the European corporations in cahoots with the Cuban government.
None of them are completely blameless.
The US and the Exiles
Let’s start with our homegrown suspects—and none have beaten a dead horse for as long as the US military.
For half a century, the US has enforced an economic embargo on the island in a futile attempt to “starve” Cuba into regime change. Even after an ever-flexible authoritarian apparatus and a flood of European companies filling the void, the powers-that-be still insist that this is the best way.
Contrary to what the left thinks, the great American capitalists are NOT pleased with this arrangement. Cuba is the largest market in the Caribbean, and the great US companies are shut out of that action. Granted, their Cuban infrastructure was confiscated during the Revolution, which leaves a bad taste. Yet 50 years later, after European companies managed a foothold in Cuba, shouldn’t some Yankee firms go in and play ball with the Commies if that gives them the future “advanced market entry”?
We’ve been in the embargo business since 1807, and almost all have been unmitigated disasters. Our CIA’s attempts to assassinate Castro—all 638 of them—prove that a Skulls and Bones secret handshake and a Brooks Brothers bow tie make shitty hired killers. So why has the US government not taken the hint? Why have not changed course and forged a new direction in foreign policy?
According to many, especially on the left, much of the reason lies with the powerful, and often troublesome, bloc of Cuban exiles that have come to the United States since the 1960s.
Now, I’m not going to knock the exiles. I have friends who are either exiles themselves or the children of exiles. Most of these people came here for legitimate reasons: escaping political repression, economic opportunity (largely based on the lack of economic opportunity in post-revolutionary Cuba), etc. It would be hypocritical of me to smack down another group of immigrants when I (like most Americans) come from foreign stock as well.
Yet as I look at the organizations and politicians that represent the Cuban community, something troubles me. One is the lack of realistic expectations—and often for nefarious reasons. Though not true of most groups, it’s safe to say that an “embargo industry” has arisen among the myriad groups that represent Cuban exiles. From the benign to the militant, they see the embargo not only as necessary for regime change in their homeland, but also a raison d’etre for their own existence.
Complicating this is the expectations of a post-Castro Cuba: a Cuba where the clock is turned back. This has taken form in two ways: calls for repatriation of confiscated property and nostalgia for the Batista years before 1959.
Here, I’ll be blunt. Cuba will never, and I mean never, return to the days before 1959. Too much has happened, and besides, that era had enough ill will and official malfeasance to negate any misty-eyed feelings in Miami. Whatever happens after the Castros will have to deal with the institutional remains of the Cuban Revolution, not sweep them clean.
That said, reclaiming property and businesses lost in the confiscations of 1959-1962 is a pipe dream. The return of state-run enterprises to private entities will be a slow and painful process in it of itself. 50 years later, I have serious doubts that the absentee former landlords of these properties will be welcomed back to Cuba with open arms.
Below is a Dutch documentary about how Cuban groups are preparing for a post-Castro Cuba.
There are extensive plans over what the government and society of Cuba will look like in the next phase. Yet many exiles see themselves as coming back to “govern” Cuba when the change occurs. While some Cubans may welcome them (Cubans in the US provide millions in aid to their compatriots on the island, after all), there will undoubtedly be resentment among native Cubans towards exiles who invariably had resources to leave the island, instead of suffering the consequences of the revolution as they did.
After half a century, these exiles could be seen as merely another foreign interloper. It isn’t certain, but the exiles may be more of a hindrance than a help to post-Castro Cuba.
The Cuban community, before it sets foot on its homeland again, needs to really consider what it can, and what it cannot bring to the table. This involves the inevitable conclusion that not every exile may want to go back.
The biggest assumption about the exile community, and one that has changed over time, is its homogeneity. We are now at least two generations removed from the first generation of exiles in the 1960s, and at least one generation removed from the Marielitos of the 1980s. Younger Cuban-Americans, with little, if any, firsthand knowledge of the island, must have developed attitudes and opinions that have altered the proscribed course of the “exile” mentality.
The embargo, US-Cuban relations, and other issues have divided, rather than united, Cubans of all ages to the point that they will probably no longer be the solid Republican voting bloc that politicians hoped—turning Cubans into (‘gasp!’) just another Hispanic group pandered to by Democrats ad nauseum. In fact, Cuban-Americans, over time, may possibly cease to even call themselves “exiles,” reflecting the reality of living in another country for half a century.
If less and less people want to go back, what incentive is there to open an embargo that gives your group identity, legitimacy and government funding?
The Castros, the PCC and the Euros that Love Them
So as much as there are people that want the embargo to go away (capitalists, leftists, some politicians and some Cuban exiles), there are others that benefit from the blockage (other conservatives, military establishment, most of the Cuban-American contingent in Congress and other Cuban exiles).
Yet before the Venceremos brigade and the editorial board of Mother Jones starts cheering that I’ve joined the barricades, there’s plenty of blame to spread on the other side. In fact, a lions’ share of the blame goes to the dynamic duo that started this whole mess—the Castro brothers.
It is now common knowledge that the US embargo is a huge reason—perhaps the only reason—that the Castros have remained in power for half a century. With an economic embargo, Fidel and company can blame any and all shortcomings of the regime on American aggression. Regardless of the ineptitude of the government, the embargo stands as the great Yankee bogeyman that keeps Cubans, on the surface, loyal to the Communists in general and Fidel in particular.
Don’t just take my word for it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated that the Castros “do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalization with the United States, because they would then lose all their excuses for what hasn’t happened in Cuba in the last 50 years.” Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, wrote in his 2005 book Portraits and Profiles that Castro would be out of power within three months if the embargo was lifted. Aznar’s words carry an interesting weight, considering that Spanish companies have worked extensively with the Cuban government, particularly in tourism.
Along with the Castros, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) and its apparatus of terror also benefit from economic closure. With an economic embargo comes an embargo of information, the perfect mix for paramilitary thugs to exact fear into the populace. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and the Rapid Response Brigades function because the Cuban people have no independent access to information about any alternative to the status quo.
End the embargo, and the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. Woe to the government spies, snitches and CDR block captains that day. Old scores will be settled, neighbors may turn on each other, and the bloodshed may be too much to comprehend.
However, another wrinkle was added to this tale recently. In order to collect hard currency to maintain their power, Fidel and Raul threw the Communist Manifesto out the window and opened limited investment in Cuba to foreign, non-US companies agreeing to joint ventures with the Cuban government. Companies such as Spanish resort conglomerate Melia and Italian telecommunications giant Telecom Italia snaked into the Cuban economy, creating businesses and infrastructure to pump tourist cash into government coffers. How happy would they be to have an embargo lifted, and Hilton Hotels, Coca-Cola and Verizon nipping at their heels?
The Post-Castro Cuba, more questions than answers
Needless to say, lifting the embargo will be but one element in a process leading to what is widely considered a post-revolutionary Cuba.
The next step involves supplanting the Castro regime. All outside efforts to do so have failed, and the internal opposition is relatively rudderless, divided into factions that seldom work together. An interesting article in the Journal of Democracy highlights the difficulties in creating regime change, even with the lifting of an embargo.
Even with a regime change, however, the massive volume of questions that need to be answered—in a relatively short time—would confound even our founding fathers. Here is but a sampling:
- Would the government maintain its current structure or change to something more in line with new ideologies?
- How would elections and political campaigns work?
- How would political parties organize?
- What would happen to the old PCC? Would it be outlawed, like the Nazi party in Germany, or will it be reorganized as one political party among many?
- Would the PCC have to dismantle its apparatus of intimidation, the CDRs, Rapid Response Brigades, etc., in order to participate in democratic politics?
- What is to become of former officers of the old regime, particularly ones considered “criminals”?
- Would institutions of civil order and public maintenance be maintained?
- What would be the military’s role in this new system?
- How would Cuba re-define its relationship to the United States?
- How would Cuba re-define its relationship to allies of the former government, such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil?
- How can the Cuban economy be changed to a capitalist model? Should it be changed at all, or should there be a hybrid of capitalist and socialist elements?
- If government businesses are to revert to private ownership, how will that process work? Will former party leaders suddenly become billionaires as in Russia? Will workers get first crack at shares in new corporations, with full voting rights to boards of directors as well as executive management?
- What is to become of the business relationships made before the regime change?
- How will services like education and health care—cornerstones of the propaganda of the previous regime—continue in the new system?
- How will taxation work?
- Will “full employment” continue to be the goal, or will the process of job creation and unemployment change?
- How open is “open”? Will information be open and accessible, or will some form of censorship exist?
- What protections for basic rights will exist?
- How will crime, law enforcement and incarceration be affected?
- What is to be done about the “legacy” of the Cuban Revolution? Should it be written out like a Stalinist purge, denounced loudly and openly, or integrated into the narrative of Cuban history, focusing both on accomplishments and failures?
This is but a fraction of the problems that will exist in the post-Castro island. Few of them will be resolved right away, and with all regime changes comes some measure of bloodshed—some more than others. My hope is that the process of transition will be as painless as possible.
However, do not expect a Singapore or a Taiwan overnight: the socialist system will probably be weaned slowly from Cuban society, rather than risking a massive revolution with potentially catastrophic side effects.
Finally, I wanted to get back to the original question about the embargo. The tensions between Cuba and the United States, apart from strict ideology, also amount to a crisis of irrationality. Embargos have a tendency to entrench longstanding hatreds and prejudices, and Cuba is no exception.
The voices of reason and pragmatism, however, have been drowned out in the din of obstructionist rhetoric and ideological saber-rattling.
The need for regime change is evident, at least in my eyes. But I’m not naïve enough to say that a quick insurrection will make things great again. The first step is normalization between the two countries. Let reason and rationality prevail, utilizing points of political and economic convergence, and we the openings can happen sooner rather than later.
For the sake of Cuba and the United States, let’s hope and pray that reason can prevail.
And for all the Cubans in Miami and Union City, time to end with a little nostalgia. Here’s a 1932 travel film about Havana. Note the “newly” constructed Capitol building, as well as the snappy straw hats on the Prado. Enjoy.
You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part V
The Old Fortress of Havana, in Habana Vieja
Sometimes it’s missed in all the political nonsense, but there was a Cuba before the revolution. That Cuba was the focus of today’s tour of Old Havana, or Habana Vieja.
San Cristobal de la Habana, Havana’s full name, was founded in 1515 and started out as a launching pad for future Conquistadors such as Hernan Cortes, Hernando De Soto and Francisco de Coronado. King Phillip II of Spain designated Havana an official city in 1592, and it soon became one of the biggest cities in the Americas, third behind Lima and Mexico City. The great Spanish treasure fleet, the armada of ships laden with gold and silver from across the continent, gathered in Havana’s harbor for the annual journey to Spain. It also became the center for sugar, coffee, tobacco and especially the African slave trade.
Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features many of the important buildings that harken to Cuba’s glorious (and not so glorious) colonial past. The narrow lanes, colonial and neo-classical architecture, and cobblestone squares have undergone extensive renovations, making it the most tourist-friendly area in the whole city.
That’s the problem. Old Havana, being landmarked, has few, if any, actual Cubans in it. They just didn’t fit with the tourist model, I guess. Most tourists, after all, look to get away from reality, and the everyday Cuban’s existence is way too fucking real.
So Old Havana is your slightly Disneyfied version of itself. It has the look and feel of a Latin Colonial Williamsburg sans the goofy actors that would make it a ghastly idea: “And on your left, folks, is Padre Eduardo baptizing a heretic before he is burned alive. On your right you’ll see our friendly slave auctioneer, Pablo, with a new crop of young bucks from the Gambia. Say Hola to the nice people, Pablo!”
It got even goofier when we reached the Hostel Ambos Mundos, a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. Now, there’s a lot to like about Hemingway: his terse writing style, his depressing dramatic arc, his propensity to find gin bottles in all sorts of places.
Yet the Ambos Mundos was a little too Hemingway—too terse (it was smaller than I thought), too depressing (did you see the tourists? And their black socks?) and the gin bottles were neatly stacked next to the Havana Club Rum. I could see why he moved to Idaho in 1960, to eventually enjoy a date with the business end of a 12-gauge.
With one look at the pathetic “Papa” look-alike out front taking pictures with tourists, I could’ve used a 12-gauge as well.
One sight that was somewhat of a relief was a working church. Since John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Cuba has enjoyed a good deal of religious freedom. Churches, synagogues, even mosques were advertising their services openly. The Cathedral of Havana, dating from the 1700s, is the center of Catholic life on the island—a life that was officially put on hold for quite a few years.
They were advertising Good Friday services, which tells me there’s more than one bearded revolutionary that Cubans listen to.
Once the Presidential Palace. Now the Museum of the Revolution.
For some interesting armaments—and a good laugh—try the Museum of the Revolution, only a minute or two by bus from Old Havana. The Museum of the Revolution was once the Presidential Palace, from 1926 until 1959, and looks pretty much as it did when the July 26th guys came in 1959, signaling a change in management. The first floors have the old presidential office and cabinet room, to show just what kind of a bastard was Cuba’s last pre-revolutionary president, Fulgencio Batista.
Left or right, there is no argument that Fulgencio Batista was a colossal prick and a real asshole. Batista was president during two stretches of time, from 1933-1944 and 1952-1959. He basically ran the show behind the scenes between these two stretches. He became a typical Latin-American strongman: silencing all opposition, curbing civil rights, engorging himself on government funds meant for public programs, and worst of all, enriching himself off of corrupt deals with American companies and American organized crime figures such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.
Batista's Office. Prick never saw it coming.
Even the US—which will tolerate ANYONE so long as they don’t utter the “C” word (hint—it’s not cancer)—couldn’t stomach Batista much longer. So it was a relief, somewhat, when he fled into exile on New Years Day of 1959.
The story of that movement is told throughout the rest of the museum, often in interesting and amusing ways. One thing I appreciated was the dioramas of the 1953 Moncada barracks attack, and the 1958 Santa Clara offensive. Nobody makes good dioramas anymore, with the neat cardboard roofs and trees topped with green sponge—although a couple of the roofs need to be replaced.
The Wall of Cretins is definitely a must-see, especially if you’re a fan of bad caricatures from the early 1990s. On the wall are overwrought cartoons of Batista in his officer’s uniform, Ronald Reagan as a cowboy and George H. W. Bush looking sickly and prissy in Roman armor, which makes me wonder whether there are Cuban agents in Skull and Bones.
Take a look outside, towards the back, and there sits a fair amount of military vehicles surrounding the crown jewel of Cuba: the Granma, the boat that took the boys home in 1956 to begin the revolution. It’s surrounded by glass and guards, although the T-34 tank and the fighter wings had no such protection. I dared not ask if the Granma was available for charters during the daytime. I didn’t see any fighting chairs on the back, either.
The Granma. Unfortunately it isn't open for charters or "booze cruises."
Yet the revolutionary lovefest can get downright silly. The Che wing (like you didn’t expect one) is off the main route and is lit in an eerie low light. His effects are displayed in a box as if in a funeral parlor. Yet the commanding feature of the room is its goofiest. Dominating the room is a giant diorama scene of two life-sized figures—Che Guevara and his buddy Camilo Cienfuegos—plodding through the jungle. The whole image smacked of the natural history museum: two Cro-Magnon men with fatigues and automatic weapons.
I haven’t yet mentioned much about Camilo Cienfuegos, but he definitely forms a Cuban “trinity”, if you will, with Che and Fidel. Cienfuegos is something of a good-ole-boy character in the revolutionary story: not as ideologically tight-assed as Che, nor as militarily tight-assed as Fidel. Cienfuegos was famous for his good humor, rapport with regular Cubans, and his reckless courage (he preferred to fight standing up, rather than ducking for cover).
When early man refuses to work for a living... (it's too easy)
In a sense, he embodies all Cubans: good-hearted, sociable with a high degree of solidarity that makes one lose all sense of reason or logic.
Logic does pop up, however, in a more sinister way. All through the museum, I kept wondering why we needed to drive two minutes to a museum that was clearly within walking distance. A jaunt down the blocks from the palace revealed why. Remember that tourism in Cuba is designed to keep reality as far away as possible from the tourist, and that neighborhood was all too real.
Dilapidated old buildings. Apartments with, little, if any, furnishings. Locals milling around or walking to and fro, in what looked like hand-me-down clothes from a decade earlier. A sign saying that “Water was coming Sunday,” which may or may not have been wishful thinking.
The local store, however, topped it all. It just didn’t seem like a store. There were a few meal sacks, a scale, and an old lady behind empty shelves and a giant chalkboard. On this chalkboard had beans, coffee, sugar, corn, cooking oil – all commodities rationed to all Cubans. Yet there were what I thought were dates, and I pray to God that they weren’t. If so, then this shop hasn’t seen coffee since January. Same with sugar, probably the same with corn.
The place that promised water for Sunday.
This was not a place to spend CUCs, unless you plan to subsidize a family for a month (which can be done with 20-25 CUC).
The cat was out of the bag a long time ago, so all this wasn’t that surprising. What amazed me was the effort it took to actually AVOID this place. If you’re ashamed of something so much, I guess you’ll go to any lengths to not confront the situation.
Yet there’s no time for too much contemplation—our chariot waited for another visit with functionaries. After lunch, we went to the Friendship House, a house with a tragic love story too convoluted to remember, but was now home of the tour company and also the institute that is its parent company, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, or ICAP. ICAP’s purpose is to promote “in all possible ways the relationships of friendship towards Cuba.”
This seemed sincere enough. The Friendship House staff were very nice, and the two speakers who spoke about ICAP were very friendly and open to our questions—even mine, which at that point needed to be asked.
In America, if you call for the end of the Cuban embargo, certain words are thrown in your direction: commie, leftist, pinko, granola, hippie, drape-smoker, dopehead, Castro-lover, Che-lover, socialist pig, etc. etc. Frankly, the ending of the embargo labels you an outsider, an outcast, and a freak.
I am none of the things above. In fact, I was probably the cop that put you in jail for being these things.
Yet it is becoming clear to me (and to others in power as well) that the embargo does nothing but cement Fidel in power as he uses it as his bogeyman to scare Cuba into submission. Although I see a different conclusion, I do have a similar objective.
Frankly, groups like mine, in large part, are already affirming what they believe. It was mostly preaching to the choir—and a loud choir, at that. To them, I’m the greaser out back revving my Harley during the Ave Maria while smoking a joint and fingering Mary O’Shaughnessy from St. Agnes down the street.
Now I’m going to sound really arrogant, but I’m being as fair as I can. If this embargo is to be lifted, its guys like me that have to be convinced.
Even though the “direct action,” is noble and can often get the attention of people in power, the guys like me have a more direct “in.” We know the people in power, went to school with the children of the people in power, and have more direct access to actual powerbrokers. Jose Serrano and Bernie Sanders may listen to the Venceremos brigade, but real power in Washington see them as a nuisance, not as a viable policy option.
So I asked the nice ladies if ICAP were spearheading any efforts to get conservatives like me to come research Cuba, and (this wasn’t said, obviously) conservatives who resent the fact that they must listen to official rhetoric at 3 in the afternoon without the requisite rum sloshing.
The translator issued my demands, the ladies smiled and gave a confusing answer that I forgot (even though I understand Spanish). Asking the others, my question wasn’t answered—not like I was actually expecting a straight answer.
A little counter-revolution: capitalist merchandising at the Plaza of the Revolution.
The last stop was at the Plaza of the Revolution, the center of Cuba’s revolutionary government. It’s a plaza in the academic sense of the term, in that it’s a common space between a lot of important landmarks. Basically, it’s a paved lot in front of the grotesquely huge Marti Monument, and facing one of the most fearsome buildings in Cuba—the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT.
The front of the building has a huge wrought-iron rendering of the famous Korda photograph of Che Guevara. This made perfect sense: in the early days, Che was responsible, along with Raul Castro, of rounding up and “administering justice” to dozens of Batista apparatchiks—justice largely administered through a 7.62 mm slug straight to the temple.
The Interior Ministry. Where snitches give stitches (Thanks, Britton for the quip)
The guards in front were nervous about me taking pictures of the place. Maybe they wanted to drown out the torture sessions inside, where counterrevolutionaries are subject to full-length Bertolt Brecht plays in the original German followed by generous choruses of Guantanamera. That would make any man talk. I’d start after Act I of Mother Courage (note the forced irony).
The night brought more important concerns. If the revolutionary rhetoric didn’t brainwash me, the sports hysteria certainly did—I was concerned about my Industriales. Industriales of Havana was playing game 7 of the national baseball championship with Villa Clara, and any nighttime excursion will involve this game somewhere.
Mr. D affirming his Cuban baseball affiliation.
Industriales basically equates to the New York Yankees of Cuba. Since its inception after the revolution, Industriales had been Cuban champion 11 times and were looking for ring # 12. According to the bartender at the Riviera, our first stop, the team has suffered from a piss-poor bullpen, thus forcing this final game.
By the time we got to a music club in Miramar, the game was well into extra innings, and the dance floor was not as packed as Cubans crammed into the side bars to watch the game. The gaggle of whores approached once, but then kept their distance. We were of a different mind that night—can the Lions of the Prado win against the bumpkins from Santa Clara? And why was I giving a shit about a 7-hour ballgame by amateurs that can’t turn a decent double play?
On the last out of the game, the place exploded. People were hugging, kissing, high-fiving all over the place. The DJs and the band suddenly sprouted blue Industriales gear and chanted their praises well into the night. Even the hookers seemed happy, though it could be because the tourists would be shelling out more in this celebratory mood.
We continued dancing for an hour or two more. It was an awesome time.
For one night, being in Cuba seemed downright normal, even in spite of the lunacy of daylight.
For Part VI, we’ll see a “literacy museum”, a visit with a Castro, my first encounter with dissidents as well as my most counter-revolutionary act to date.
Leave a comment
Filed under Uncategorized
Tagged as American History, Camilo Cienfuegos, Che Guevara, Civil Rights, Comedy, Commentary, Communications, conservative, Cuba, Cuba embargo, Cuban history, Cuban Travel, Cultural Literacy, current events, Education, Educational leadership, Fidel Castro, Fulgencio Batista, Habana Vieja, Havana, History, Humor, Humour, International relations, Latin America, Latin American history, liberal, Opinion, Plaza of the Revolution, politics, Social studies, Teachers, Teaching, Travel, U.S. History, Venceremos Brigade, World History