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GP19Mar03:  Cuba Libre? 

Apres Castro.  With the de facto loosening of trade and tourist regulations, one step at a time more Americans and more American goods are drifting down to Cuba.  We are  beginning to export something other than family cash remittances and the fusillade of barbed messages over Radio Marti to this mythic island.  Our renewed contact with the Stalinist sunshine paradise, along with the musings of policy wonks in Washington, have led to renewed speculation about what happens when Castro dies.  Of course, people have been wondering since at least the 90s and he’s still there, immortal as ever.  He’s had a 1,000 laughs at his enemies, so many of whom are long gone.  Surprisingly, we think Cuba will have even more impact on events in this hemisphere than it does today, but more on that later.   

A Half Century Behind.  Pico Iyer, our favorite travel writer, goes back to Cuba frequently.  In his writings, we can get a  good idea of where the country’s at and what’s not going to happen next.  “The other great achievement of the Castro government, of course, is that its overnight arrest of history has left the island furnished with all the musty relics of the time when it was America’s dream playground, and many parts of Cuba still look and feel like museum pieces of the American empire….  The most aromatic of the culture’s features are, in many respects, the backward-looking ones:  the savor of rum in bars that Hemingway once haunted…..”  (See Iyer, Falling off the Map, “An Elegiac Carnival,” p. 58)  Our own suspicion, however, is that Cuba’s museum quality is inherent in the blood of the place, a clinging to the past that’s bigger than Castro.  As in so much Latin American poetry and painting, where you hear and see motifs popular in America 50 or even 100 years ago, Cuba has a purchase on the past.  But for the vast improvements in both health and education, and the suicidal murder of its economy, the core of Cuba holds to the ways of yore. 

Roving Reporter.  Alston Beinhorn of Toronto, escaping an unusually brutal Artic winter in Canada, just took a gander at Havana and its precincts.  He shares his observations with us: 

“The Cuban economy has run on a dual US Dollar/peso system since the 90s, precipitated by the abrupt end of the Soviet sugar subsidies.  But only those few in the tourist trade, or those with remittances from relatives in the U.S., have dollars.  Without dollars, you don’t have a full belly.  The rest are provided about half their required food from the government,  and they spend an inordinate amount of time finding the other half each month.  Ninety-nine( 99.44)% of all Cubans are quite skinny.  The government provides the following staples per month via a ration book at local stations:  3 kg. rice/beans; 1/4 liter cooking oil; 6 lbs. sugar; l bar soap every 3 months; 1 liter detergent every 3 months; 4 ounces coffee; l tube toothpaste for 4 persons for month; 1/4 chicken up to 13 years old; 8 liters of yoghurt.  Milk is $1.60 per liter and only available in dollars.” 

“There are 57 universities, 69,000 doctors, and 32 mango varieties in Cuba, whose population is 11,000,000.  Education and medical care are free to all.  All medical prescriptions, however, are priced in dollars and available only to those with dollars.  The best hospitals are for foreigners only.  Foreign tourist hotels, managed and minority owned by European and Canadian companies, are off limits for all Cubans.  It is Cuban apartheid by the government, as described by one Cuban.” 

“The most highly sought after job in Cuba at the moment is bell hop at any of the foreign hotels.  As well, taxi drivers, tour guides, and chamber maids live relatively well on U.S. dollar tips.  Doctors and other educated professionals are better off than farmers.” 

“Foreign investment in Cuba is at the direction of the government, which offers only selected strategic ventures.  The Cuban government has majority ownership, while 100% of the equity capital is foreign.  The government has full control of  planning, budgets, hiring and firing employees, etc.  The word is that foreigners regularly get stiffed by the government, which rides its small bills.  The foreign investment pace has slowed.  Yet a recent U.S. food product sales program by U.S. producers insisted and obtained dollar cash payments in advance for several million dollars.” 

“Cuba is expensive, the cost for foreigners pegged at 130% of Washington D.C. prices according to the U.S. Interests Section.  We agreed.  Food, hotels, taxis, and liquor are all tres cher.  This will have to change when Cuba starts to really compete with the likes of Cancun for American tourist dollars.  For now, the government is raking in all the dollars it can get just to make ends meet.” 

“Cuban cuisine must have suffered terribly since the revolution, when just finding sufficient nourishment has been the sole object.  Since 1994, the government has allowed home owners to open small restaurants in their homes, called paladares, which are open at dinner only to 12 tourists at a time….  The local beer, a lager called Crystal, and Old Havana rum, are excellent.  Hemingway’s daiquiri, at an unchanged El Floridita, is truly superb.  The mohitos, though, are only average, except at one paladar with stunning Cuban food, called La Casa de Adelaida, which uses only family recipes supposedly over 100 years old.” 

“Old Havana, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, is fortunately being saved.  It is a truly booming 20 block grid, with boutique hotels, restaurants, museums, and cathedrals, all housed in the exquisite original colonial buildings.  No Louis Vuittons yet, but such fashion stores seem close to happening.” 

“The rest of Havana  is  crumbling down, wonderful buildings unpainted and unmaintained.  Streets teem with people … at all hours of the day.  The Malecon, the perfectly arched seawall running from Old Havana about 10 kilometers down past Miramar, the former upscale residential district, is truly grand.”    

The Buena Vista Social Club.  Just a few years back, Wim Wenders made a movie called the Buena Vista Social Club which celebrates the Cuba that never dies.  Available as a video or a sound recording, it captures those wonderful musicians whose lyricism results in an uneasy marriage of Marx and music on the island.  One suspects that the music, even more than the ever-strong Catholicism, is the key element in the national character that will abide when Che and Fidel have become no more than memories.  “Cuban music and dancing” reports Beinhorn, “are what keeps Cubans loving life.” 

Sine Fidel.  Without Fidel.  There’s no telling what the government will look like after Fidel.  No likely successors are being groomed; no plethora of talent is sitting just offstage.  But what happens inside Cuba is not the interesting question. 

As we have said before, it is the countries at the margin that, for good and bad, are making history happen these days, as the major powers, such as the U.S., France, Britain, Germany,  Japan, and Russia stumble over themselves.  The end of the Cold War has diminished the power of the big guys.  Cuba has long stirred the imagination of all Latin America, and we do not know what will be unleashed when it is no longer there in its present incarnation.  What will happen throughout Latin America when Cuba is transformed by Fidel’s passing?  We suspect quite a lot.    

Play Resumes.  In a full length book on Cuba , Cuba and the Night, Iyer remarks that it is a videotape that simply never advances:  “It’s like history’s on the pause button here.  Everywhere else in the world, everything’s either on fast-forward or rewind.  This is the only place I know where everything’s moving and nothing ever changes.  It’s like instant replay around the clock.”  Another kind of Cuba that is no longer on pause would surely become a catalyst for all sorts of things throughout Central and South America, finding its real place in the sun.  We are on the verge here of something equivalent to the flowering of the bureaucratic European union in the Old World or the Western-financed advent of capitalism in agrarian China.  A new Latin American  alliance is in the making, with swirls of Cuban cigar smoke in the background, and it will not find its direction in the North. 

Best of the Week.  Old friend Tom Canning passed away last week.  He was our Global Laureate (see 16, 20, 22, 30, and 32 under “Business and Poetry”), faithful host of an annual Boxing Day party, a sometimes colleague in a host of adventures, a wonderful father of 5 equally eloquent children, and—to boot—the right guy with whom to enjoy steak and martinis for lunch, preferably a long lunch.  Oh, and he could sing on endlessly in his cups.  He exited quickly and gracefully, and we know he is now recumbent with other immortals on some high Grecian peak composing witty couplets to amuse the gods.

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