Cryptic Cuba

che buildingI wasn't even on Cuban soil when I first witnessed Cuban ingenuity at work. At the Cubana Air ticket counter in Cancun I met my group leader, Ellen, who was checking in luggage under her name for a man who had gone over his 40-pound weight limit. It was obvious the woman at the check-in counter had seen the routine (scam?) before and was sympathetic. The idea was familiar to all who knew Cuba and what might have seemed sketchy in the U.S. seemed perfectly fine here, helping each other out.

On February 14th, I traveled to Cuba with a Witness for Peace delegation. This seemed like one of the best ways to travel to Cuba legally. Although I had definitely considered entering the country on my own, the thought of a $7500 fine deterred me.

I was hoping to find out what was really going on in Cuba, to sift through the American and Cuban propaganda and to try and see past the Buena Vista Social Club, Elian Gonzalez, cool old cars and images of the cigar puffing dictator -- or was it president? I knew there was more to this country, but I didn't know that finding it would be so hard.

There's a saying in Cuba that whenever there are two Cubans together, there are three opinions. If you add in an American and 45 years of no communication, then you have a lot of misunderstanding and misperceptions as well. Cuba is not the utopia Fidel Castro preaches or the bastion of oppression that the United States claims. Perhaps Ben Corbett, Colorado writer and author of "This is Cuba: An Outlaw Culture Survives," says it best. "I've always thought Cuba is like an onion," observes Corbett. "The more you peel, the more your eyes burn, but the richer the flavor."

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Severed Ties

Before I left for Cuba, President Bush was busy ratcheting up anti-Castro rhetoric, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro was busy shooting back. Just a week before our delegation arrived, Rev. Raul Suarez, one of our contacts in Cuba, was denied a visa by the U.S. for a trip in which he was to lecture at various churches and colleges for Black History Month, and Castro had accused the U.S. government of some 600 attempts on his own life. The same month Ibrahim Ferrer, of the renowned band Buena Vista Social Club, was also denied a visa by executive order of the President, preventing him from collecting his Grammy Award in person.

For Bush, the "I'm tuff on Cuba" rhetoric is an election year tactic to win votes with the anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Florida. Although Bush's anti-Castro sound bites might buy him a couple votes in Florida, they also fuel Castro's anti-imperialist flames in Cuba. Castro uses instances such as the denial of visas as proof of American dislike for Cuba.

This back and forth is just the latest round in an on-going battle of ideology and politics between the U.S. and Cuba. It was 45 years ago that the young Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro traveled to the U.S. on an invite from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. After defeating the Batista regime he came to the U.S. where he met with then Vice President Richard Nixon.

January 1, 1959 was the first day of the revolution in Cuba and later that year, Castro would pass the Agrarian Reform Act, which put limits on land holdings and expropriated land from foreign landowners. Many U.S. corporations lost land, thus enraging the U.S. government.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba officially started on March 17, 1960 when President Eisenhower ended sugar purchases and oil delivery to Cuba. Since then the embargo has evolved and changed many times, and currently includes restrictions of travel between the U.S. and Cuba.

Witness for Peace

kidsWitness for Peace (WFP), one of the American organizations which is allowed to travel to Cuba, doesn't attempt to hide its agenda, which adds another filter to viewing Cuba. WFP's shtick is to attempt to change U.S. foreign policy by educating U.S. citizens abroad, who will then go home, write letters, and educate others about the effects of U.S. policy. They run trips to Central and South American countries. With the WFP delegation I was given access to doctors, economists, Cuban government representatives, U.S. Interests Section officials, campesinos (peasant farmers), artists, religious leaders and a member of parliament.

As I packed my bags for the trip I still felt a little like a smuggler. Even though it's completely legal, I felt a sense of secrecy packing large bottles of Tylenol and Alka-seltzer to donate. Our group was urged to bring all kinds of donations to help ease the shortages of basic goods -- like clothes and medicine -- that Cubans face daily due to the embargo. Similarly, telling airport personal that my final destination was Havana felt naughty.

There's no denying the forbidden fruit factor. One lawyer in Cancun questioned me incessantly about the legality of my travel, until I had to leave just to breath. He practically accused me of subversive activities before he realized it was, in fact, legal for me to be traveling to Cuba.

Cuban Pride

farmersWhen we arrived in Havana, our delegation stayed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, a dorm-like complex attached to the Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Pogolotti neighborhood. We first arrived during a blackout, which was the only one during my eight-day trip, and ate dinner under a battery-powered light.

Rev. Raul Suarez, director and founder of the MLK center, sits in Cuba's Parliament and he spoke to us about Cuban-U.S. relations. Like most pro-revolution Cubans he points to free healthcare, free education, low infant mortality rates, long life expectancy rates and a literacy rate equal to the United States as proof of the success of the revolution.

"I prefer the revolution with all its errors -- that are not few -- than the virtues of democracy that the U.S. is trying to globalize," says Rev. Suarez. "With the revolution there is hope for fixing the errors."

Many Americans, however, feel that they would like to see another revolution happen in Cuba -- one that brings democracy to the island. In fact, the Miami Herald reported on May 6th that the Bush administration is planning to spend up to $59 million over the next two years "to help promote the goal of a democratic Cuba."

And while Bush plans to spend his way toward trying to oust Castro, other Americans believe that the best way to change Cuba would simply be to lift the travel ban, let American culture pour into the island and do its dirty work. But many don't realize the extent to which American pop culture has already permeated Cuba through the Internet, movies and music. When I told some people I met I was from Colorado, they called me a cowboy and compared me to Mel Gibson in the movie "Maverick."

Likewise, few Americans comprehend Cuba's intense national identity.

"I have no concern about the culture," says Ariel Moriyïàn Rojas, our Cuban trip facilitator who traveled to the United States twice on speaking tours. The charismatic 29-year-old works for the MLK center and has a construction business. His father moved to the United States in the mid-80s. His brother later moved to the United States in 1992. I asked Rojas if he considered staying in the United States during one of his trips, or considered seeking refugee status. He shot a back a definitive, "No."

"When I was there many people offered me things," says Rojas. "You know, 'If you stay here, I'm going to give you that car. If you stay here, I will promise you a job'. And after one year you can claim your family, your wife and your son. And because of the benefits you have of being a Cuban, legally you can stay there [in the U.S.] without any problems. So I got many offers. I didn't want to stay."

For Rojas, Cuba is home.

Democracy at Work

cigarsAfter the U.S. travel ban to Libya was recently lifted, Cuba became the only country that we liberty- and freedom-embracing Americans cannot legally travel to without permission and a special license. North Korea, Iraq (before the fall of Hussein), Pakistan and China are all reasonable destinations for Americans, but not Cuba. It is also therefore the only country on the U.S. Department of State's Terrorist Countries List where we cannot travel (the other six being Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, North Korea and Sudan).

In Cuba the embargo is referred to as the Blockade and it's likened to the naval blockade the British Imperialists placed on the colonies before the American Revolution. Castro blames the embargo for a lack of medical supplies and Cuban farmers blame the embargo for forcing them to acquire their equipment and pesticides from countries that are further away (which makes them more expensive to import).

During Clinton's time in office it seemed things were changing for Cuba when he initiated the "person to person" visa. Bush later nixed this easily obtainable visa to gain support with the Cuban exile community. But in December 2001 American farmers started to trade with Cuba for the first time since 1959, and these efforts, heavily lobbied and pushed through by farmer-friendly politicians, resulted in $250 million worth of trade in 2003 (http://www.fb.com/news/nr/nr2002/nr1122.html).

More mutually beneficial legislation was in the works when the travel ban was almost lifted in October 2003. An amendment to the 2004 Treasury -Transportation Bill passed the senate 59-36 and the house 227-188. The rider called the Dorgan Amendment would have made it illegal for the U.S. to spend money enforcing the travel ban. However, when it landed on the President's desk, the Dorgan Amendment disappeared. In a backroom in Washington, democracy was hard at work.

It's ironic that legislation was so undemocratically removed, but the reason was simple and intuitive for all Cuba watchers: Florida. With most of the influential Cuban exile community living in Florida, President Bush couldn't risk losing any votes in the state that will be so important in 2004, even though recent polls suggest that half of the Cuban exile community would like to see the travel ban lifted (www.lawg.org).

"This is the problem of democracy," says Rojas. "You can talk all you want but nobody listens."

The Haves and the Have-Not's

manAcross from the MLK center is a bar where a few of the delegates and I convene nightly. The bar is a cafeteria-style restaurant that doubles as the local liquor store. To sit in it is to witness reforms in Cuba first hand. Cubans with dollars come in droves to buy fried chicken, beer and rum, a scene that didn't exist 10 years ago. Under fluorescent lights we sat with three guys, Magdiel, Luis and Leonel. As usual in Cuba, it didn't take long for the conversation to get political.

"We just want to meet Americans," they would say, and then add, "How many in Iraq have to die for you to realize?"

The three seemed to know more about American politics than most college friends of mine, asking us about Colin Powell and other cabinet members. They threw out a reference to the Torricelli Act, the now infamous 1992 legislation signed into law by George Bush Sr. that strengthened the U.S. embargo, and they pointed to various American interventions abroad.

I couldn't help but think how close we were, geographically and politically, but also how far apart we were. We agreed that George W. Bush was out of control, and then one of their cell phones rang. Cell Phones? It's true, I guess there is almost nowhere on this planet where you can get away from them, but it still caught me off guard.

In 1992 after the collapse of the USSR, Cuba lost virtually all of its imports and the sole market for its main crop, sugar. The situation lead to "The Special Period" which is comparable to the Great Depression in the U.S. Castro was forced for the first time since he took power in 1959 to make capitalistic concessions to his people, partly to quell any potential revolts but mainly to allow people to eat.

Among some of the reforms were the granting of licenses for personal businesses such as cafeterias and the decriminalization of the dollar (previously, it had been illegal to use U.S. dollars in Cuba). With remittances from Cuban exiles living in the U.S., Cubans could begin to afford food and sometimes televisions.

Leonel offered to buy us a round, a wad of rolled up U.S. twenties emerged from his wallet, and soon the next round of Bucaneros slid across the plastic table. It was clear now that Magdiel, Luis and Leonel were reaping the benefits of the dollar economy and that we were talking to a pretty privileged group of Cubans.

"Sixty percent of Cubans have no access to dollars whatsoever," explains Corbett in "This is Cuba." "In Cuba the average state salary is 200 pesos [$10 a month]... enough to purchase the bare essential foodstuffs that will last an average Cuban only 10 days. The other 20 days are spent struggling and scraping and stressing out, hustling and worrying about the next meal."

The truth is my group and I didn't run into this silent majority. Aside from a conversation with a few locals at a bodega (the stand where Cubans go to get their food rations) we didn't meet the Cubans living in despair, the 60 percent who don't have access to dollars because they don't have relatives in the U.S. or do not have jobs in the dollar economy (driving a taxi or working in a restaurant). They're stuck in peso poverty and depending on whom you talk to, it's the result of the U.S. embargo, Fidel or both.

Because Leonel and Luis held jobs at an oil refinery, they also had access to the Internet. They knew about Kobe Bryant's trial and they said they read the Washington Post and the New York Times all the time. They were obviously paid a lot more than the standard 200 pesos per month that is the average Cuban salary, and therefore lived much more fruitfully than the average Cuban who would only dream of going out at night for a beer.

"I want the embargo dropped just to see if Fidel and the revolution are full of shit," says Luis.

Freedom of Speech

Although many Cubans are proud of the success of the revolution there's an undeniable question: If the revolution is so great, why can't Cubans have free access to media and travel to the outside world?

Although Internet access is limited for Cubans, like everything in Cuba, there's a way around the rules for some. For Luis, it was surfing the web at work for his engineering job. But, if he had wanted to go with me to Ambos Mundos, the posh hotel where Hemingway penned "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and check his email, he would be forbidden.

Likewise, he or any Cuban with enough dollars cannot stay at any of the swank beach hotels in Varadero, Cuba's Cancun equivalent, or any other hotel. For this reason tourists receive bracelets to wear when cruising Varadero to show that they aren't Cuban.

"No doubt," Corbett writes in "This is Cuba." "If you dropped a young Fidel Castro into Cuba today, he would likely start a fresh revolution against his own regime."

Viva la Revoluciïàn

"What will happen when Fidel dies?" is the burning question. It's the question businessmen in Miami, London and New York are dying to find out and the question nobody can answer. George W. Bush may have us believe that Cubans will riot and throw flowers to arriving U.S. peace keeping troops, as they did in Baghdad. But after meeting Cubans I think it will be anti-climactic.

"It won't be the same with the disappearance of Fidel," says Rev. Suarez. "Could be better, could be worse, but we have faith."

As Americans, it seems we are led to believe that the Cuban revolution is made up of one man. Perhaps once it was two, but Che was killed long ago. But Cubans recognize the revolution is by and for the people. They know its benefits and disadvantages. "The revolution has provided the most valuable resource, the human resource," says Rev Suarez about the free education given to Cubans.

At the end of my stay in Cuba, I took off from Jose Marti International airport in an old Russian plane with some answers but with many more questions. It wasn't the cars, the music or architecture that I thought about, though; it was the words of my new friend, Ariel Moriyïàn Rojas, who fears capitalistic influence but understands the necessity for normalized relations.

"I work everyday for the embargo to be lifted," he said. "But I light a candle every night for the embargo to stay."

John Peabody is a 23-year-old writer who lives in Colorado.

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