Cuba: As the Embargo Splinters

The old Russian Lada crawls in first gear up Prado Boulevard. A massive bullhorn strapped to the roof, rim mangled and straightened through the years. The woman's small brown knuckles tighten around the wheel, the other hand hoisting the mic to her mouth, crimson lips astir with Revolutionary fire in a fractionary delay with the snout of the tuba.

"Mañana! Todas para la Tribuna Abierta Antimperialista José Martí. For the victorious Pueblo Cubano, against the murderous Cuban Adjustment Act. Tomorrow unite!"

Past Hotel Sevilla she drifts, eyes scintillating, determined, possessed with purpose. Then onward, brushing by Hotel Inglaterra. Next Cine Yara and finally the Capitolio, where she spins a U-ee and begins the process over again. "Adelante!" she thinks. "I am a messenger. My mouth a Revolutionary tool. A small tool, perhaps, but one of importance and meaning."

A '53 Chevy darts around the Lada, nearly scraping fenders, and then a '44 Ford wagon, and a '51 Dodge coupe, people's taxis jammed panel to door panel. A steady stream of ancient iron. A melting pot of skin tones, faces and routine destinations. The woman in the Lada makes a point of stopping at Parque Central, where 100 men are engaged in the perpetual argument about who's better, the Cleveland Indians or the Cincinnati Reds, arms flailing hotly, hats torn off and slammed against knees; the eternal gesticulation; that special brand of Cuban machismo so vibrant you can see it floating in the air. The Lada rolls up to the curb.

"Tomorrow a march to the protest dome! Read today's Granma for details. We must show our Revolutionary strength in the battle for justice against the blockade. All are expected to attend!"

The men pause to absorb the woman's chant, mentally noting the news before launching back into the argument.

"Oye, Chicos! Did you hear me?" the bullhorn crackles. "Take some of that mouth energy and put it into your legs tomorrow, comprende?" A few men wave in acknowledgment as the woman floats off, banging a left on Calle Neptuno, thinking she'll probably stray down to San Lazaro and drop in on her grandmother to sip on a taza of cafe before heading over to Vedado to continue the mission. "But that might turn into a few hours," she reasons. "You know how grandmother likes to visit. Maybe I'll just stop at Jorge's to say hello. Or perhaps I should go to Angelita's cafeteria for a pork sandwich. Aí, mi madre, the possibilities are endless!"

Welcome to Cuba...

...combusting montage of the islandic hive, year 2000, forty-first anniversary of the Victory of the Revolution, fortieth anniversary of the decision of "Patria o Muerte," fortieth anniversary of the nationalization of all U.S.-owned Cuban property, thirty-ninth anniversary of both the Victory at Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) and the emplacement of the total U.S. embargo: that all-out de facto economic blitzkrieg, still smashing impoverished Cuban bellies.

Every Castro hobbyist and newshound knows Fidel's #1 weapon is propaganda. A visionary with a Napoleonic complex and cursed to an island, el Maximo Jefe's genius lies in media strategy. Many elements have led to the current U.S. liberal sweep on Cuba. The Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club should be awarded the Cuban medal of honor for its roll. And naturally, Elian Gonzalez, who washed up in an innertube from the Florida Straits on Thanksgiving Day 1999, rated higher than even the JonBenet Ramsey media quagmire.

Castro's Revolution is racking the points from the overwhelming media splurge, while throngs of tourists visit the island to "see for themselves," coming away knowing that Cuban people are good-hearted whatever their political pedigree, and that the whole thing boils down to two political forces bashing it out in the final round of a tired and bitter 40 year-old bitch match.

Understanding Castro's sense of humor, I wanted to volunteer to author the "Castro-Alarcón Law" to one-up the 1996 U.S. Helms-Burton bill, which states that the U.S. would not talk about normalizing relations until Castro and communism were gone. If that's the case, I figured, the "Castro-Alarcón Law" should read, "Until the U.S. has implemented a full Socialist society and has halted the brutal exploitation of one man by another and eradicated capitalism and the two-party electoral system, Cuba refuses to talk about normalizing policies." But Castro beat me to the punch. On the defensive for the past four decades, reacting to big brother's kidney shots, the Cuban government launched an all-out precedent offensive.

While the sum of Cuba's damages to nationalized pre-Revolutionary U.S. and Cuban holdings have been totaled to about $150 billion in U.S. courts (now collectible through the Helms-Burton bill, but postponed every six months by the Clinton quill), Castro took the initiative, suing the U.S. government in Cuban courts on May 31, 1999 for crimes against the Cuban people accrued since 1959, including the Bay of Pigs, terrorist bombings, and CIA interventions. The damages totaled $181.1 billion.

Then, amidst the summer hail of Elian this year, the Cuban government sued the U.S. government yet again in Cuban courts, winning an additional $121 billion for damages to the Cuban people, including malnutrition, disease, and death caused by the embargo. The U.S. government was found in contempt for failure to appear as subpoenaed.

On August 13, 1999, Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Byron Dorgan (D-ND), visited Castro on a diplomatic mission to feel out trade possibilities with Cuba -- the highest statesmen to visit under this premise in 38 years. Knowing that the blockade would soon sizzle on the congressional chopping block, the Castro regime searched for a new toehold in the international media. The 40 year-old Lucha, the struggle, could not go down in history under the ax of U.S. big business; the Revolution alone would win full recognition for the blockade's termination, or it would remain. Elian Gonzalez provided a medium for Castro to gain the spotlight in his age-old struggle of trying to get the rest of the developed world to take him and his Revolution seriously, which has been like pulling teeth.

The first protest march for Elian's return occurred in Havana on December 6, 1999, his 6th birthday, with 300,000 ralliers. Soon after, on January 15, 2000, ground was broken for the "Tribuna Abierta Antimperialista José Martí," (The Protest Dome, AKA "Plaza Elian" facing the U.S. embassy), which was finished in 80 days at the cost of $2 million, and inaugurated on April 3. Cuba's total cost for protesting Elian's return? Including T-shirts, transportation, propaganda, the whole salad, roughly $20 million.

Week by week since Elian's landing in Florida and after his June 28 return, mass assemblies and protests have been held islandwide. On May 1st, a million marched across Havana with Fidel. And on July 26th, the largest march in Cuban history occurred when 1.5 million shuffled down Havana's Malecón ocean drive to celebrate Fidel's attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. Last Monday, another mass swelling of Cubans passed to protest the Cuban Adjustment Act after ten Cubans boosted a cropduster and splashed, one killed, into the gulf only 40 miles from Cuba's northwest coast. Such a Cuban thing to do, trying to fit ten people into a cropduster. "Are they that desperate?" one may ask. Elian's boat went down for the same reason. Trying to cram ten people into a six-man dinghy. But when people die in the gulf, whether running to, or running from something, it doesn't look good for either side.

Public Law 89-732

The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act has that flippantly arrogant ring to it. That special CIA flavor, kinda like "Plan Colombia." Fidel's most itchy bone of contention with the U.S., the amendment directly infringes upon international sovereignty laws, granting permanent residence to illegal Cuban immigrants. The problem is that it; a) incites other Cubans to flee for the U.S. thinking it's an open-arms policy; b) is a discriminatory law, giving special preference to Cubans, ignoring nearby islands such as Haiti, whose immigrants are true political refugees but are regularly repatriated; and c) allows Cubans to become U.S. residents liberally when the majority are merely leaving the island to improve themselves economically.

The migration accord signed between Washington and Havana after the 1994 Balsero crisis (the first official treaty signed in 35 years) called to normalize U.S./Cuba migration laws to standard immigration policy, like Venezuela or Colombia for instance, allowing 20,000 Cubans to enter the U.S. annually by lottery, called el bombo. In the 1994 exodus, 30,000 Balseros were scooped up by the U.S. coast guard twelve miles from Cuba's shores and taken to the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base in southern Cuba (another thorn in Castro's side), then held in internment camps with about 10,000 Haitian refugees pending decision. While most of these Cubans were given U.S. residency over a period of years following the exodus, a policy of repatriation was set forth, and Cubans were regularly returned to Cuba under the wet foot/dry foot policy; should a Cuban actually reach U.S. soil, the Cuban Adjustment Act held sway, and should Cubans be picked up at sea, they were returned.

For the latest episode, while both stealing a cropduster and leaving Cuba illegally (or even conspiring to leave) is a crime under the penal code, the 1995 migration accord states that no recrimination will come to those who are returned. By all accounts, Cuba has lived up to this end of the bargain. Even during the Elian Gonzalez debacle a flotilla of 20 more Cuban refugees were repatriated from sea. But any ground gained with Elian's June 28 return has been dashed with the all-new cropduster crisis. As if the U.S. is saying, "We may have given you the kid back, but we're still boss in this game." Perhaps they gave the aviators sympathy green cards because one of their crew died. Either way, it's all part of the foul field of politics. Both sides know the score. But offering amnesty to the cropdusters violates the 1995 accord, which is worded to protect the lives of others who will probably now set sail, facing mortal dangers in the gulf.

Besides the immigration problem, the U.S. and Cuba have reached the first stalemate since the Carter administration, much to the chagrin of the powerful Miami exile. U.S. big business is pounding out lobbies to lift the embargo, which would have already been shredded had it not been an election year. Most estimates put the end of the blockade before June of 2001, with or without Castro. In 1961, pundits stood around scratching their heads wondering how Cuba got away. Foreign investment in Cuba is exploding, and it's evident that the U.S. isn't willing to let her get away again. The U.S. business community has no problems dealing with Castro, and they're tired of seeing their government pandering to a million Cuban exiles in Dade County when there's money to be made in the foreign market.

After weighing all the options, the woman thinks about Fidel. What would he say? Would he approve of her stopping to see friends? Would he expect more of her? Would she be the model New Revolutionary Woman for thinking of herself in this way? "Yes," she convinces herself, "I'll keep working through my lunch hour for Fidel, for the Pueblo, for the Revolution. I can eat later, tonight. We have the two extra dollars that Eugenio got in a tip last week from fixing the foreigner's car tire. Maybe Nina can run out and buy a pechuga de gallina for some rice soup. That would be nice. And I think we have a few ounces of red beans left."

Content with her decision, the woman continues down Neptuno. Subconsciously, she knows that they'll eat only rice and boniato roots for supper again, saving the two dollars for a special occasion. But for the moment, it feels good to know the two dollars are there and can be used tonight or tomorrow, or whenever she damn well feels like it. It is a daily routine, and tomorrow she'll think about the two dollars again. And the next day. And the next. She grabs second gear as another máquina tears past, blowing his horn, nearly clipping bumpers, screaming "Learn to drive!"

Quickly throwing the mic to her painted lips and shaking her small fist, she yells "Tu madre, idiota!" through the bullhorn. Then creeping forward she begins to hiss bastardo under her breath, stopping at bast..., thinking "I can't waste time with that fool. There are many fools, and I have serious work to do."

Turismo O Muerte!

They come and come. Alone, in groups of two to twenty, with starched tour-guides fluent in six languages, pouring through the cleaner, refurbished, more expensive parts of Havana where the industry keeps them corralled, consuming with paws outstretched in plastic currency. The extension of man. Sony mini-zoom camcorders gripped firmly, tucked into the orbital sockets creating a more acceptable, more distant reality. Onward they roam, dumb-happy with glazed eyes. Twin opalescent laser pearls numb with rum and romance. Narcotized with the Buena Vista Social Club and preconceived realities, they wander down cobble-stoned Obispo Boulevard like pink cattle, bank-owned chattel, thinking they've won some kind of battle by running the blockade. "Yeah, I'm a revolutionary, see my beret!"

Cuba is that final frontier. The last specter of unexplored wilderness in this our Wonderful World of Disney. The problem with tourists in Cuba, as in any developing nation, is the inability to saturate the culture. Most are affluent shleps slumming the Third-world for their annual week off, having little time to really get past the first layer. And even were penetration attainable, most would prefer staying in that museum niche out of fear, bouncing from one historic building to the next with other tourists rather than asking that group of wrinkled old guys if they can jump into a game of dominos, or if they can sit in on a classroom and admire the Cuban education system.

So most meet only the jineteros, the hustlers, smooth as syrup, which are truly a minority, and they come away thinking this is Cuba. Out of two million citizens of Havana, only about 2,000 are aggressive hustlers, working sections of the city which they trade off in groups. Their territory is along the Prado Avenue, around Parque Central, down Obispo Boulevard, and on La Rampa in the Vedado section. Tourist central. But as soon as you get two blocks off this main area, the real Cuba unfolds. Whether campesinos in Cotorro, washerwomen in Luyano, or film buffs in Habana Vieja, people are inherently friendly, they dig Americans and American culture, and they love to chat.

Only ten years ago, the English language, while not verboten to learn, was frowned upon by the Cuban government. Russian was the second language taught in highschool. Today, English is the required second language, both for its universal qualities, and also in gearing up for the predicted tourist explosion after the U.S. dumps the blockade. All who work or are priming for the tourist industry are required to take English classes as part of the curriculum in Cuba's tourism training center.

When the USSR vaporized in 1989, tourism was the chief aim at salvaging the defunct economy. At that time, the island only had about 300,000 visitors annually, mostly diplomats. Year by year, the accumulated visitations leaped by about 15 percent. By 1998, the island enjoyed 1.4 million visitors, 1999 saw 1.6 million, and the projected outcome for 2000 is 1.8 to 2 million, which has probably already been exceeded compliments of the Elian media war and its mesmeric draw.

The new airport in Cayo Coco will have the capacity to siphon off about 1.5 million travelers annually from the projected goal of 7.8 million tourists in the year 2008, the same year Cuba hopes to host the Olympic summer games. Cayo Coco and central Cuba are being designed chiefly for ecotourism, and the proximity to Florida will make this area a paradise for North Americans, while taking the load off of Havana. By the year 2025, Cuba hopes to accommodate eight million tourists per annum, making it the biggest tourist attraction in the Caribbean.

The woman taps the mic against the dash of the Lada. The wires have been loose for several weeks now, and today it took six taps to shake out the bugs, whereas yesterday it was four, and the day before three. But it works and it's her mic, and good equipment. "Ah driving," she thinks, tricklets of sweat beading her hairline. "The freedom of mobility. I think I'll make a pass along the Malecón. There I can drive a little faster to make a breeze."

Approaching the bend past Calle Perseverancia, she grabs third, looking out to sea, thinking about Florida just a stone skip away but leagues beyond comprehension, her sister in Miami and her aunt and uncle in New Jersey. She wonders what they're doing now. Laundry probably. Or making a late lunch, with her uncle out repairing phone lines. Soon it will be Easter again and they will visit and bring the money for new shoes like every year. "Maybe on Saturday we can go to the shoe store and pick out the ones we'll buy. But no," she reconsiders, "that's seven months away. But it's fun trying them on, and the smell of new leather is enchanting. Yes, Saturday. Nina and I. Girl stuff."

With these thoughts, she continues onward with the Revolutionary bullhorn, first slowing down at the Fiat dealer, thinking that those loafers need an extra good message, then off to the burbs all the while singing, "Tomorrow is the biggest march in Cuba. All are expected to attend. We must show the Yanquis our numbers! We must stand up against the illegal and genocidal blockade! Para Fidel! Para El Pueblo! Viva la Revolución!!!"

Generation Cub-X

On television day and night, Cubans bury their brains in subtitled films like Analyze This, Mario Puzo's Last Don, Bonfire of the Vanities, The Sixth Sense. And North American music, while not dominant by any means, can be heard throughout the island. From Baby What a Big Surprise to Dust in the Wind, Dark Side of the Moon, Breakfast in America, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, you name it. The big rage today is the Backstreet Boys, and Cuba's teens know every song by heart. "Gloria Estefan's a Cuban," they'll boast. "Santana has Cuban blood, too."

While some may believe that these cultural aberrations are part of the new global Americanization, between the mid 1800s and 1959, Cuba was by far the most Americanized country in the world, paling even Canada, which still can't broil a decent steak. It's an age-old tradition on the island to look north for influence, and to compete honestly. Cuban rap and hip-hop are the newest forms of music taking off in the streets. The hottest new band, Las Orishas, have even spun the Cuban folk song Chan Chan into metro beat, and you'll often see the rappers spin on their backs, tearing up the pavement in Afro-Cuban-L.A. breakdance hybrids.

Younger Cubans today have a whole different approach to life than previous generations. The Y2K generation is a culmination of frustrations and releases from past dissatisfactions and Cuba's "Special Period," a rite of passage and epoch of hunger and economic disaster of which the island is currently writing the obituary.

People today generally have more. The grocery shelves, while nearly bare a year ago, are now jammed with a variety of food items. Most Cubans are still only making about $10 a month, and while cooking oil costs $2.40 a quart and shampoo $1.80 a bottle, more remittances are coming in from family abroad. For those who don't share this luxury, petty illegal activity in the black market and tourist tips fill in the blanks.

Today's generation of 20 and 30-somethings is chock full of artists, musicians, writers, photographers. They're passionate achievers trying to tell the world their views through a wall of isolation, a very Cuban trait of the deepest pride, and the one thing they share in common with Fidel. They're revolutionary in the sense that theirs is probably the most unique voice to come out of Cuba in 100 years. They toil with which way to point the finger, to Cuba, to the U.S., to Fidel, to life, and the expression "Aí, Cuba!" before a momentary sigh to get through the day, has become the second-nature theme song of generation.

"Es difícil entender la realidad Cubana." (It's difficult to grasp the Cuban reality.)

When the words hit your ears, it'll be one of those sublime stop-time moments when the whirling world shifts gears into slo-mo and rolls to a complete standstill. When you come to understand the deepest implications of this phrase, you'll know you've finally arrived. You've hit the core. You've found the rhythm, and you're in. It's not like the catch-phrase "No es fácil" that you hear so often in Cuba. "Es difícil entender la realidad Cubana" is a whole different animal.

I've heard it said other ways. Witnessed the expression in the ominous body language of the people, in the bitchin' strut of lonely prostitutes in the empty amber shadows of the midnight alleys, in the amplified inflections of raw Cuban Spanish during red hot arguments. But for some reason the spoken words seem to floor the listener with intense gravity. Sliding off the any Cuban's lips, they seem to paint a multitude of dormant Cuban dreams. The single tongue of a culture searching for an identity, struggling against the grip of arrested development. The phrase, a smooth, sobering punctuation to 40-plus years of boiling frustrations continually resigned to pointless political motivations and loss.

Es difícil entender la realidad Cubana...

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