November 18, 2013

Cuba Behind the wall

Americans are voracious for Cuba. Tour operators are standing in line to work through the complex paperwork required by the U.S. Department of Commerce to get licenses to take Americans to Cuba. Virtually any Cuba trip they put up on the market sells out within days. Americans are eager to lay eyes on the enigmatic island that has been denied to them by their own government for half a century.

Cuba, the central pillar of the Caribbean archipelago, the sea's largest island, only 90 miles from Florida, is still barricaded behind an iron curtain maintained by the U.S. government, a residue of the political conflicts of the early '60s. Nixon opened the door to communist China in the early '70s. The Soviet bloc collapsed in Eastern Europe. But in the Caribbean, the Cold War continues.

Since it is illegal for American companies to do business in Cuba, the island is off the grid in ways that few places today are. There is no American Express, no Mastercard and no McDonald's in Cuba. Cuba is outside the sphere of Corporate America. Under Cuban socialism, there are no advertising billboards. For Americans, who are exposed to thousands of advertising messages every day, the absence of corporate branding and ads is jarring. Even in China signs are in English. Not in Cuba.

Many say that Cuba is "stuck in time," and when you are in Old Havana, surrounded by old colonial architecture and well-preserved American cars from the 1950s, it is hard to escape the impression that you have passed through some kind of time warp and at any moment the camera will pan to Rod Serling, explaining that it's just another day, in the Twilight Zone.

Beyond the most obvious differences, other differences impress themselves on you gradually. Cuba is a poor country, but Cuba does not have the standard third world social structure with a small number of rich barricaded behind walls surrounded by masses of abject poverty.

The country's economic struggle is obvious. The infrastructure is crumbling. Public transportation has collapsed, replaced by an informal system of independent taxis that will give you a ride in their vintage, patched-together vehicles almost anywhere in town for one dollar in CUC (Cuban convertible currency). People in the tourist areas hustle hungrily for ways to get your money, by singing you a song, selling you something, letting you take their picture, or taking you home for a romp.

But though the country is obviously poor, there is no homelessness, almost no violent crime. The streets are safe. Healthcare is free for everyone, as is education through the college level. It is a society built on an alternative set of values. As close as it is to the U.S. geographically, culturally it is remote. A 45-minute plane ride from Miami and you may as well be in Kathmandu. And in the age when immersion in foreign cultures is near the top of the list of interests of American travelers, that makes Cuba a premium value.

And yet, though Cuba has been blocked out of American view, a black hole in the Caribbean, for 50 years, the histories of the two neighboring countries are tightly interwoven. With the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuban Missile Crisis and all that followed, Cuba has been tightly wound up on the political affairs of the U.S. And before Castro, Cuba was a satellite of the U.S. Most of its productive lands were held by U.S. corporations. Havana was the world headquarters of the Mafia.

The U.S. and Cuba: so close and yet so at odds, like feuding Siamese twins. But the feuds are strictly on the political level. There is no animosity between the American and Cuban people. Americans are consumed with curiosity about Cuba and are driven to visit by any means available. American businesses, especially tourism businesses, can't wait for the doors to open. Cubans love Americans, are hung up on American culture, and many are trying to come to America to live.

What politician will find, as Nixon did with China, that the opening of Cuba can be his or her historical landmark? The embargo will end. The barriers will eventually come down. Everyone knows they will, but as with the Berlin Wall, no one knows exactly when. Many say the time will come when the Castros die or give up power and the Cuban exile community of the 1960s in the U.S. passes on. But why should the whole world wait for these eventualities to tear down an outmoded embargo? The U.S. trades has open doors with China, Russia and many countries that are socialist, monarchist or fascist, many that have virtually no human rights. Why single out the Cuban people for such punishment?

For now, there are openings in the wall through the people-to-people travel that allows cultural exchange in spite of the economic embargo. It was started by President Clinton in the 1990s, virtually curtailed under Bush, and then opened up again under Obama. For now, there is a crack in the wall and Americans are rushing to make it before it closes again.

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