March 8, 2008

What I learned in Havana talking to ordinary Cubans


The secret love affair between left-leaning elites and Cuba goes on no matter what. No sooner had Cuba's aging Fidel Castro resigned, than a common narrative emerged in liberal papers like the New York Times: positive changes could be coming to the hemisphere's last bastion of communism.

On Cuba's northeast coast, meanwhile, 24 ordinary Cubans -- men, women, and children -- boarded a boat under cover of darkness. They set off across the Florida Strait to America -- presumably unaware of the media's upbeat Cuba narrative playing out in the country of their dreams. They landed in South Florida, reported the
Miami Herald. They're among tens of thousands of Cubans who have escaped their island in recent years.

Coming when it did, their escape underscored yet again the glaring perception gap regarding Cuba dividing ordinary Cubans and leftist elites in America and abroad. You have to wonder if Cuba's apologists have ever talked with ordinary Cubans, those living in Cuba or who escaped from their island prison to America.

Nearly every night, boat loads of fleeing Cubans cross the Florida Strait -- and even more Cubans now take a longer and safer route through Mexico. That's according to official statistics cited in a New York Times
article published a year and a half ago.

Given Raúl Castro's inability to inspire confidence among his subjects back then -- when he was acting president -- it's perplexing that the Times recently described the newly elected president as a "practical" and "no-nonsense" guy who is less wedded to ideology than his brother Fidel. All because of his "decision to begin his tenure by meeting the Vatican's top diplomat, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a possible go-between with the United States and Europe."

Cuba, however, has played this game before -- inviting Pope John II to Cuba for a historic visit in January, 1998. Back then, many liberals also interpreted this as being a sign of Fidel's good intentions, evidence that positive changes were coming to Cuba.

It never happened.

Within a few years, the government cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy initiatives -- most notably the Valera Project -- by tightening its grip on power and making mass arrests. Kangaroo courts sentenced 30 journalists up to 28 years in prison in April, 2003, provoking international outrage.

So much for the Vatican's influence on Raúl and Fidel.

Why does nobody take Raúl at his word? After the National Assembly voted him president -- unanimously, of course -- he pledged to make no radical changes. And he noted that he'd closely consult with his ailing big brother. Members of Cuba's privileged communist elite must have been happy to hear all that.

Visiting Havana

The media's problematic reporting on the Castro brothers brought to mind a week-long reporting trip I made to Havana in 1996, 12 years ago, in mid-December. While reading recent news reports about Raúl Castro's government -- including cautiously upbeat ones -- I was struck by how things in Cuba today are as bad as when I visited.

Then and now, salaries average about $19 a month, not enough to pay for basic goods such as soap, cooking oil, and medicine. Then and now, Cubans giving interviews to foreign reporters insist that only their first names be used, fearing they'll be punished for speaking their minds. Some won't talk at all, of course.

It has been like this for nearly half a century. Accordingly, if Raúl Castro is indeed a democratic reformer in disguise, he'll face a major challenge in repairing the psychological and social damage that he, his brother, and members of the communist elite have wrought in a state that owns all property, most businesses, and punishes those who dare to exercise civil liberties we take for granted. Some Cubans have bravely protested or fled the island. Others play along with the charade and pay lip service to it.

Take religion, for example. When I asked a Havana school teacher how she'd be spending Christmas, she told me: "Why, there is no Christmas in Cuba!" Pointing to a little girl, she added, "She has never known a Christmas!"
It was one of many telling anecdotes I gleaned during my week-long trip to the hemisphere's last bastion of communism. Coming to power in 1959, Fidel Castro eradicated nasty bourgeois influences such as Christmas -- a holiday no longer fit to celebrate under his communist ideology.

I was a Caracas-based journalist when I went to Havana. On assignment for the Dallas Morning News, my subject was what Cubans thought about the historic visit to Cuba being planned for Pope John Paul II.

Traveling alone is no fun. I'd gotten an absurdly low-priced package trip to Havana that was for two people, not one. So I invited along a Venezuelan acquaintance named Fiffy. She had a gift for putting people at ease, and she occasionally helped me out with my not-so-perfect Spanish.

Like more than a few sophisticated and well-educated Venezuelans, Fiffy was not a huge fan of the United States, but nor was she a raving anti-American. Neither of us had ever visited Cuba. The place fascinated us.

It was during our first afternoon stroll in Havana that a cheerful teacher beckoned us inside to visit her classroom, having spotted us looking into the grade school's street-level windows. She introduced us to her charming and smiling class of uniformed students. They greeted us on command. I didn't tell the teacher I was a journalist.

"We're tourists," I said. It seemed like the safe thing to say.

Soon after arriving the previous afternoon, I ran into serious problems with customs at Havana's Jose Marti airport -- all because my well-worn U.S. passport raised eyebrows among Cuban officials. They claimed it was too shabby to be taken seriously. Having traveled for years in the back pocket of my Levis, it was a bit creased around the edges. A tiny corner of my photo was unglued.

"No señor, this is not acceptable!" a man wearing dark military-style fatigues told me. "I don't think they'll let you in." He added, "You'll have to take another flight back to Caracas."

Alternatively, he explained, I could spend a week in a detention facility and then leave on my return flight. "Don't worry. It's not like a prison."

Read the rest of the article at The American Thinker.