The Last American in Havana
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The apprehension over the Bush administration's tough new crackdown on American travel and commercial dealings with Cuba was evident in the voice of the Cuban travel official who arranged my recent visit to Cuba under the auspices of the International Literacy and Education Conference. The conference, held annually, is an international gathering of educators, scholars and writers. The travel agency was one of the dwindling few American agencies licensed to handle educational and family visits by Cuban-Americans to Cuba.
The regulations that took effect June 30 will virtually ban all travel by Americans to Cuba, severely limit family visits by Cuban-Americans, slash the amount of money that can be sent to or spent in the country, and wipe out all sports and educational exchange programs. Since last October, hundreds of Americans have been denied licenses to travel. Several have been slapped with hefty fines, and referred for criminal prosecution. The licenses of a dozen travel agencies have been suspended and the property and assets of companies identified as Cuban controlled or owned by Cuban nationals have been seized.
Under the new regulations, if I had sought official approval to travel to the conference the day after I returned the request would have been denied. At the Miami International airport, I, and other conference attendees, were euphemistically branded "selectees." Homeland Security agents specially trained to tightly scrutinize Americans attempting airline travel to Cuba thoroughly worked us over.
The same apprehension in the travel agent's voice I heard in the voices of Cubans I spoke to in a plaza near the old presidential palace on the streets around the Capitolo, in Old Havana, at my hotel, and from an official tour guide.
Some asked anxiously if I thought Bush would be defeated in November, and if things would get better. Some Cubans groused about their plight, and the ubiquitous posters throughout Havana exhorted them to fight fascism, and defend the revolution, and the zealots in the neighborhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution hammered the U.S. But most seemed too preoccupied with trying to eke out a living and make the best of an increasingly deteriorating situation to engage in U.S. bashing.
In a bellicose speech to Cuban-American leaders in Miami in February that sounded as much like a Bush campaign speech as a pitch for Cuban freedom, Treasury Secretary John Snow promised that the tougher regulations would tighten the noose around Fidel Castro. But after 45 years of the embargo, and countless failed attempts to knock Castro off, a free market economy, democratic elections and free press seem further than ever from reality in Cuba. The embargo and the new tougher regulations make it even easier for Castro to saber rattle the U.S. while deflecting criticism for the island's growing economic woes, crime, black market dealings, and the comparatively privileged lifestyle of Cuba's elite much evident in the upscale sections near embassy row in Havana.
Though thousands of Havana's poor live in the stately, ornate homes on and around the Malecon where Cuba's wealthy businesspersons and government top cats lived in regal splendor before Castro seized power in 1959, the houses are crumbling and in disrepair. The food rationing, the consumer goods shortages, and the swarm of beggars, panhandlers, hustlers, and con artists on the streets are stark evidence of Cuba's economic misery.
European, Japanese and increasingly Chinese firms and banks have done business with Cuba for years, and European and Japanese made cars clog the streets, and foreigners can charge transactions through Master card and Visa though European banks. But it's American dollars that count the most, and Cubans desperately want and need hard American cash to buy goods cheaper and to further the island's development. The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America estimated that Cuban-Americans sent nearly $1 billion to family members on the island in 1996. That figure soared during the slight relaxation on travel by Cuban-Americans to the nation during the Clinton administration. At the hotel, when I asked to exchange a few American dollars for Cuban pesos, the manager implored me to keep my dollars.
During the past decade, the U.N. General Assembly has repeatedly condemned the embargo. In that same time, the Soviet Union has collapsed, China has marched toward a free market economy, and the U.S. has normalized relations with Vietnam. The political sea change in those totalitarian countries was accelerated by American cooperation rather than a get-tough approach. Even many Cubans who staunchly oppose Castro say that the best way to loosen Castro's lock, and push Cuba toward democratic reform is to relax restrictions. Even with the embargo, throngs of young people on the streets, clad in Hip Hop dress and sporting MTV hairstyles, are enthralled by American culture and consumerism.
But for now, a thaw in Cuban-American relations remains a pipe dream. And the apprehension that I heard in the voices of many Cubans will remain.