THE BLOG
11/17/2006 04:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cuba Libre: An American Hangover

I am really dismayed by all this speculation about Fidel Castro's
state of health -- almost like undertakers, waiting for the corpse. Will
the disappearance of this man instantly change American policy, eliminate
the embargo of nearly half a century, and appease the Cuban-Americans who
are still feeling bitter and bereft?

These Cuban exiles, sad to say, have not helped their people. By supporting the American embargo, they haven't changed Castro's politics in the least; their stubborn vendetta has simply added to their countrymen's distress. Imagine if they had pressured our government to talk to Castro and lift the sanctions -- that would have broken the impasse and brought aid to their beloved country.

Three years ago, I had the good fortune to visit Cuba. I did not
smuggle myself in via Canada or the Bahamas, as some of my friends and
colleagues have done, but went under the auspices of the Chopra
Foundation. It was one of those rare group visas issued by the American
government for medical or cultural visits; they are almost impossible to
get today.

After the three-day health conference, many of us stayed on for the
rest of the week to visit Havana and absorb the country's atmosphere. We
drank a lot of mojitos and danced a lot of salsa, puffed on fragrant
Cohibas and bought souvenir T-shirts with Che Guevara's image.

Perhaps nowhere else on earth can you travel just 90 miles from your
nation's border and find yourself plunged into another culture, another
era, another world. Cuba is a fascinating blend of simplicity and
complexity, the raw and the romantic, the practical and the lush. There
are no commercial billboards, no neon signs, no strip malls. School
children all wear plain red outfits with white blouses. Ancient American
automobiles rattle along pock-marked roads, and many taxis are little more
than a bicycle-rickshaw pedalled by a young man.

At the same time, one is surrounded by brilliant colors, opulent
vegetation, round-the-clock music, and friendly people. Groups of
musicians play on the streets, in restaurants, in roof-top cafès. There
are no boom-boxes, no Muzac. Open-air markets sell colorful crafts and
vivid, original art. Havana's long seafront promenade, the Malecón, is
washed by ocean waves against a backdrop of elegant but decaying
buildings.

The unfortunate economic truth, of course, is evident: there is very
little money for restoration and new construction. Several families
sometimes live together in one apartment, and people are allowed to use
their homes as ad hoc restaurants, to earn a little money. Trained
professionals (doctors, engineers, teachers) often switch to menial jobs
(waiters or tour guides) because, with tips, they will actually earn more.
A single dollar bill is a much-appreciated tip for many services -- and
the dollar, in fact, is legal tender. There is no need to buy pesos.
Medical care is excellent, and free to all, but simple supplies like
Band-Aids, aspirin, vitamins are missing from pharmacy shelves. The
foreign visitor is politely requested to bring these items and distribute
them freely.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost a strong trading
partner and a major source of economic support. America has not stepped
into the breach. In fact, what few people realize, it was America's
rejection 47 years ago that caused Castro to turn to the U.S.S.R.
Initially, Castro was not a Communist, and his uprising against Batista
was tacitly approved and encouraged by the U.S. government. Three months
after his successful revolution, he went to Washington to see the
president. Eisenhower refused to receive him. Castro had a 15-minute
talk with vice-president Nixon, and returned to Havana empty-handed. We
know the rest of the story.

There is no bitterness or resentment today in Cuba against Americans.
Cubans blame the American government, not the people, for the embargo that
has isolated them and blighted their economy. Surely, they must also
remember that under Batista their country was not fully autonomous: it was
a playground for American tourists and a goldmine for American mobsters,
who ran the casinos, the prostitution, and the drug trade. Sadly, as
events unfolded, Soviet-style Communism replaced syndicated crime. Cubans
have paid dearly for their revolution.

I wonder what America might have offered them in 1959? And what can
we offer them today? Big Macs and iPods and Calvin Klein jeans?

I hope that Cuba, after Castro, will manage to establish democracy
and at the same time keep its vibrant, unique culture -- that wonderful
blend of African, Indian and Spanish. I pray that Cuba will not become an
American clone or colony -- a target for unscrupulous developers and
investors, a dreary suburb of Dade County, Florida.

After Castro, we should all make a toast, and mean it: 'Viva Cuba
libre!'