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Letter From Paris: The Cuban Dreamland

President Barack Obama landed in Trinidad on Friday and promptly proceeded to do what he does best: put out the fires in our relationships with other nations and their leaders that have been charred by the Bush administration's global bungling. After Obama calms the men and women who really want to be our friends, as well as those who want to make their marks by taking a swipe at our powerful capitalist democracy, our president proceeds to build consensus by using his extraordinary community organizing skills. Thank God the global mutilation of our reputation has stopped, and the healing has begun.

I liked the Miami Herald's take on the recent Summit of the Americas:

Healing the breach in the Americas

OUR OPINION: President's words, actions help to reconnect with a trouble region

Those who criticized the slow progress of the G20 or this summit are taking the short view and not taking into account the foundation Barack Obama is building that will enhance every other interaction the United States has with these various players, friendly or not, over the next what I believe will be eight years. Remember what Kevin Costner said in Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come."

And what of Cuba? Obama declared he "seeks a new beginning" -- including direct talks -- with the island's communist regime. Communist or not, don't we all?

Just checked, and I could buy a ticket today on Air France, a terrific airline, to travel from Paris to Havana on April 30th and return May 8th for €950 or about $1220. Husband James Morgan and I slipped into Cuba 10 years ago for our anniversary. I was struck by the island's electricity, which is both dreamy and horrifying. I came away with intense feelings about Cuba and began a fascination with the island that has lasted ever since. Let me tell you why:

Cuba has been luring people to its shores for centuries. It's like a Bermuda Triangle that sucks people in with its tropical lushness, heat, music, gambling, sex, rum, the freewheeling hospitality, and diverse Hispanic culture. There is something in the air that is like breathing heroin--of which people around the world have caught the whiff, and once they arrive on the island, they can't find their way out again.

In Havana, music floats through the air everywhere you go almost 24 hours a day, from opera to son, mambo, rumba, and more. Music has lifted up the Cuban people no matter who has abused or been a tyrannical dictator to them--and there have been plenty. Music feeds the Cuban soul. I happen to think this is a universal chord in which people around the globe can find release, common ground, and is a human levelizer. But in my opinion it's been a life saver for Cubans.

There is something almost mystical about Cuba's predicament. Cuba and its native inhabitants have been abused since the Spanish first set foot on the island's shores, when the native Indians were made slaves and soon died off as happened every place the Spanish colonized. The Spanish ruled Cuba for centuries, but whoever has been in charge of the island has taken advantage of its people, and that includes the country's own Batista, from whom Castro was supposed to have been saving his country, and Castro himself. For most of its history, sugar cane production controlled the economy, the class system, and Cuba's destiny.

There is also the matter of Cuba's prime location, which the Spanish, British, French, and Americans have fought over at various times:

Cuba is located in the northern Caribbean at the confluence of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Cuba is south of the eastern United States and The Bahamas, west of the Turks and Caicos Islands and Haiti, east of Mexico and north of the Cayman Islands and Jamaica.

No matter what the government claims, racism is alive and well in Cuba. Like everywhere else in the world, the lighter your skin, the more advantages you have. One of the most profound experiences of our trip was being in a store--I will not say what kind here for obvious reasons--and a man came up and asked if we were English. We answered, Americans. He proceeded to tell us that there were no human rights in Cuba. That Castro was "a motherfucker." That people were being put in prison, disappearing, being killed.

I asked him if he could leave. He said that a certain amount of people could apply every year and possibly get out, but he couldn't leave his parents. He had a wife and children. At a certain point, he moved us away from an open window. He told us that you never knew who was listening. He knew no one else in the store spoke English, so he was safe speaking with us, but he didn't know who might be listening outside. At the end of our conversation, I asked him what I could do to help him. He said, tell the truth about Cuba. And I have.

I wanted to help him personally more and tried a little. Not as much as I should have. It was hard to get through to him. Of course, he had no Internet. The only books, magazines, newspapers, etc. were accolades to Communism, Fidel, Marti, and Che. There was no access to the world outside. No openness, which stood out like hell, since Havana was crumbling around us. This beautiful city full of ghosts was like the lost Atlantis suddenly emerging from a dead sea.

It is time for American policies toward Cuba to change, but I must admit when I left there, I could see the point of trying to hold Fidel's feet to the fire. I felt sorry for the Cuban people and angry at this freedom imposter. As you've read over and over, there were doctors driving taxis, and professors being bartenders. Any service job in which American dollars could be gotten were the best jobs to have to supplement the pitiful $12 or so that the Cubans got paid per month to live. They had no meat or much of anything else at all.

Not only that they were prisoners on their own island. The people had big spirits and were survivors. They were very careful what they said to us, and we were known to be journalists, which was good and bad. One woman was so blown away that we could travel. That was the only thing she admitted to missing. She dreamed of going places away from the island where her life was playing out--not that she didn't love her homeland. We were supposed to have a VIP exit from the country, and the fellow who picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the airport wandered and wandered around once we got there. Turned out he didn't know what to do or where to go. He had never been to the airport.

I've had a compulsion to write about the island. This is a paragraph in a novel called Trulove Clement that I started but haven't finished:

From the time Tru was a little girl, George and Swan drank cocktails and told Tru their Cuban stories--what they'd experienced years before, when Havana still shimmered with chances for all to leave their dreary lives behind and find exotica, prospects for their fantasies to be fulfilled, their fortunes to be made in the Cuban frontier. Tru saw the memories still glimmering in their eyes that had seen it, in their taste for sweet rum and the music that connected deep in their souls and careened through them. The gambling was for more than money. It was a dreamland.

Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris. To see more of her work, go to www.betharnold.com. She would love to hear what you think about Cuba.

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