Havana From the Ground

On my second day in Havana, an American journalist based there told me that it's easier to write about Cuba when you know nothing about Cuba. Certainly much of the rhetoric (and especially the media punditry following the report by the Congressional Black Caucus on April 7th of this year) reminds me of the story of the blind men with the elephant: each limb was believed to be the sum total of the animal in the same way that every perspective on Cuba is believed, by the raconteur, to be the entire, correct perspective.

I've listened to the lament of second-generation Cuban-American exiles, the sincerity of whose sense of inherited displacement I didn't doubt for a moment. I've listened to sputtering rants about "commies" and "despots" by fulminating American right-wing hysterics who've never been to Cuba or talked to any Cubans, but "know" Fidel Castro is the Devil because "everyone knows" it. They know it the way they know God is a heterosexual white male Republican with a gun. At the opposite extreme, I've listened to dreamy neo-Marxists singing the Revolution's praises, tut-tutting like 19th century Boston Brahmins wincing at the vulgar topic of money whenever the subject's of Cuba's troubling human rights history is raised.

All of these people feel they "know" Cuba, and perhaps they do, in their way. All of them bring their particular worldview to bear. If their impressions of the country and its people are colored at the outset, there's still little doubt that the mystique of the country has legitimately touched them all.

Last month, I traveled back to Cuba for the first time in forty years for a writing assignment for an American magazine. I'm not Cuban, but it was a homecoming. I'd lived in Havana with my family between 1966 and 1969 when my father was posted to the Canadian embassy. Unlike many embassy couples who socialized exclusively with other members of the diplomatic corps and their families, my parents maintained close relationships with Cubans, and not only the high-ranking government ones. Many was the night I fell asleep listening to Cuban musicians playing guitar in the living room, and all the houses we would live in throughout my childhood and adolescence were hung with vividly-hued Cuban art.

When you've lived in a place as a child, and loved it, there is no sense that it won't always be there for you to return to if you want to come back to it. But this year I finally did return, as an adult, as a writer, as a professional observer. The detachment of journalism struck me as the perfect framework for this homecoming, and the assignment was a journalist's dream in every sense.

I left our room at the Hotel Nacional that morning and set out to walk along the Malecón, the four mile seawall that runs east from the entrance to the Bay of Havana parallel to the coastline. On particularly windy days, the waves crash up over the seawall, battering it and flooding the streets. The architecture of Havana is still dramatic, but evidence of the embargo's depredation is everywhere A new friend laughingly told me that a party in Cuba requires just three people, a bottle of rum, and a guitar, and there was ample evidence of this. Another reminded me not to draw too many conclusions based on the festivity.

"In order to understand the reality of life in Cuba," he said, "you must live as a Cuban. You cannot do that, because you do not live here."

It was a flat statement of fact uttered without rancor. The subtext, unspoken as things so often are when Cubans are speaking with foreigners, was that North American privilege allows us a distance than can lead to supercilious condescension, or distortion, or both. Like the buildings in Havana, the pride of the Cuban people in their country and its history has managed to withstand hurricanes, meteorological and political, unbowed if not unscathed. They will happily celebrate the jollity of visitors, and even extend the hand of friendship when warranted, but they draw the line at having their lives explained to them by North Americans.

During the election and afterwards, Barack Obama said that he would not lift the embargo until Cuba released its political prisoners. While the stance is a laudable one by any democratic or humanitarian standard, there is an element of sophistry there: the embargo was not put in place for the purposes of human rights, and the United States regularly does business with countries whose human rights record is infinitely worse than Cuba's, the most obvious example being China. Until recently, Cuba has aggressively resisted what the Castro government has considered American bullying, to the economic detriment of the country and its people. As a consequence, the pro-embargo coalitions have been able to maintain their personal bearded Latin boogeyman living on his forbidden island in the Caribbean as a cautionary tale of what can happen when western-style democracy goes off the rails. Each has fed into the other's worst stereotype, and in the absence of diplomacy and dialogue, the Cuban people have been the casualties.

Both sides of the pro and con-embargo debate tout "the Cuban people" as their primary concern. But what does "the Cuban people" mean? If the goal of the embargo was to punish the Cuban government for its communist regime, it had failed miserably. The Castro regime has outlasted no fewer than nine American presidents. If it was, as has been lately claimed, to force the release of Cuba's political prisoners, that has also failed, since a country with no diplomatic stake in another country has no real bargaining or negotiating chips. If the goal of the embargo was to "empower" the Cuban people (in essence, to make their lives so unbearable that they'd rise up and overthrow their government) that has also failed. Poverty is never empowering, and imposed poverty tends to hurt the weakest and most vulnerable members of the targeted society.

Then, without warning there was a political "spring thaw" this month, the first in half a century. In quick succession came a series of decisive blows to the established wall between Cuba and the U.S. that has existed for nearly fifty years.

The report from the Congressional Black Caucus, who'd met with Raul Castro in Havana, urged the United States to rethink its longstanding antipathy towards lifting the embargo. It was welcomed by the majority of Americans, though it also managed to provoke an expected level of carping from some hard line conservative commentators for whom antipathy towards the notion of dialogue with Cuba's leaders has been a dependable talking point. This was followed by president Obama lifting the travel restrictions for Cuban Americans, volleying the ball over the net into Castro's court, urging the Cuban president to release Cuba's political prisoners so an end to the embargo could be contemplated. Castro volleyed back at a summit of Latin leaders in Venezuela, indicating a willingness to discuss anything and everything with the United States, including the release of Cuba's prisoners of conscience. "We could be talking about many other things," Castro said. "We could be wrong, we admit it. We're human beings." One last volley, this time from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, came in the form of an expression of optimism on the Obama government's part. "We welcome his comments, the overture they represent and we are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond."

Many ordinary Cubans see Barack Obama as the first light at the end of the nearly fifty year-long tunnel. At the very least, the new president's willingness to engage and discuss with traditional adversaries signals a welcome return to discourse and diplomacy after eight years of George W. Bush in the White House jumping across the world stage, waving his fists like a bellicose adolescent bully in his first jockstrap, browbeating and isolating friends and adversaries alike.

That having been said, while it's not hard to picture a response of measured optimism on the part of many of the Cubans I spoke to in Havana in light of this recent spring thaw, I can't help remembering the words of an English-speaking taxi driver, a former white collar professional who, when he found himself unable to make ends meet in his profession, started to drive cab. Passing the American Interests Section building (the defacto American "embassy," in the absence of a formal embassy which would require full diplomatic relations) he mentioned how the Cuban government does what it can to obscure the building with flags or electric billboards depending on the insults, verbal or political, flung by Washington at any given time.

"They love to taunt each other," he said of what many younger Cubans have come to think of as a political pissing contest between Washington and Havana, one that has left the Cuban people themselves in the crossfire. "My life isn't going to change [because of U.S. pressure on the Cuban government.] I'm going to have the problems in my house no matter who the [Cuban] president is. The American blockade has paralyzed the people of my country and has kept us poor. Our real oppressor is poverty. But maybe this Obama will be different. I hope so. I grew up with the Beatles and Phil Collins," he said, noting that the Miami radio stations are "so close we hear it all." Music is a great leveler, so we chatted briefly about British and American music. He mentioned the 1975 Chris de Burgh song, "Spanish Train," as one of his favorites.

The song is about a chess game between God and the Devil for the souls of the dead.

I asked him if he occasionally felt like the Cuban people were pawns in a larger political game between their own government's inflexible unwillingness to bend to the demands of the United States, and the Unites States' inexorable will to be obeyed. He smiled in the rear view mirror. "We've spent 400 years under Spanish rule, sixty years under the Americans, forty years under the Russians. The nature of the Cuban people is to survive, and we have. And we will. But," he added, "sometimes it's very, very hard."