Sunday, September 26, 2010

Confessions of a Cuba junkie

Cuban knickknacks

Up front, I confess that I’m a Cuba junkie. I’ll quit tomorrow, I tell myself. But I never manage to do it.
This sickness extends into my office where vintage cigar boxes, ceramic replicas of old Chevrolets and miniature Che Guevara statues are on display.

Jinetera at home

These Cuba mementos also include a three-foot wooden statue of a woman wearing tight jeans and no top.
She looks suspiciously like a jinetera, which is Cuban slang for prostitute. In my house, she wears a bandana around her bare chest for modesty's sake.
Not all my Cuba paraphernalia is quite so risque. There are books, of course, including “After Fidel” by former CIA analyst Brian Latell and “Without Fidel” by investigative journalist Ann Bardach.

 Titles aim for post-Castro era

I wonder what books will be next. By now, I imagine some writers are having trouble coming up with new titles about the post-Castro era.
Some of the best titles are already taken.
Andres Oppenheimer snapped up “Castro’s Final Hour” in 1992.
He wrote:
Cuba's socialist experiment had long been in bad health. Now, it was under intensive care. ...its death was near. The Comandante would be able to muddle through and stretch his final hour for a few months, perhaps even a few years, but his socialist dream was doomed.
Almost 20 years after “Castro’s Final Hour” came out, the Comandante is still kicking.

Cuba is a hard place to predict.
In 2006, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte told the Washington Post that Fidel Castro was very ill and close to death. He said:
Everything we see indicates it will not be much longer . . . months, not years.
This year, such predictions continued. Newsweek said:
Fidel Castro has been ailing for years, and 2010 looks to be his last year on earth.
Castro had intestinal surgery in 2006. He dropped out of sight for four years and admits now that he was near death.
Now 84, he resurfaced in July and has been making speeches wearing those familiar olive-green fatigues.
Castro’s refusal to follow a predictable path has sent me scrambling more often than I care to admit.
When I was a correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, we went on high alert anytime it seemed Castro was near death.
I wrote Castro's obituary in advance - Then we waited. And waited. And waited.
I was the Dallas Morning News bureau chief in Havana from 2000 to early 2005.
After my first trip to Cuba in 1994, I had become the point man in the newspaper's efforts to open a bureau in Havana.
At the time, only two American news organizations - CNN and the Associated Press - had bureaus in Cuba.
In November 1999, the Cuban government gave us the green light, along with the Chicago Tribune and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
All three of the newspaper bureaus have since been shuttered. Fidel Castro outlasted them all.
The newspapers were betting that Cuba was on the verge of change.
U.S. officials also expected a transition. The American government even named a transition coordinator.
A U.S. government commission also issued a big, fat nearly 500-page report. It said Uncle Sam was prepared to help a free Cuba learn how to do such things as clean waste water, screen airport baggage and keep trains running on time.
American officials were planning Cuba's future down to the last detail.
Then-President George Bush said he was getting ready for:
the happy day when Castro's regime is no more...
Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega said:
The United States.....will not accept a succession scenario.
But there was no transition to democracy. Cuba's socialist system endured.
Castro has now outlasted 10 American presidents. Barack Obama is the 11th.
Wayne Smith, the former top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, once told me:
There really is no other country of Cuba's size that has had such a profound impact on our foreign policy and that has so bedeviled us.
This is partly due to Cuba’s proximity. But Smith said:
it also has to do with the U.S. perception throughout history that Cuba was strategically vital and that it really should be controlled by the U.S.
Even today, U.S. officials are determined to influence Cuba's future.
Since 2007, the State Department has spent at least $93 million to promote democracy in Cuba.
According to the State Department:
Cuba is the only non-democratically elected government in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most politically repressed countries in the world....U.S. assistance for Cuba aims to empower Cuban civil society to advocate for greater democratic freedoms....
As for the future, I won't try to predict how long the socialist system will last. Cuba is a country of institutions. I’d argue that the socialist government isn’t as fragile as some people might think.
The armed forces control most of the economy and will certainly play a commanding role in the future.
My sense is that change in Cuba, at least for now, will continue to be painful and slow. But it’s impossible to predict what will happen.
Long term, I am optimistic that the lives of Cubans will improve. I say that not because I have extraordinary faith in any government, but because I believe in the strength, wisdom, determination and heart of the Cuban people.
But then, as I wrote in the beginning, I have a thing about Cuba.
Cubans are special to me. They don’t hesitate to open their homes to strangers.
Many are generous and unselfish, even though they may not have many possessions themselves.
I found that out one day when a Cuban artist knocked on my door in Tarara, east of Havana.
I had met him at a market in Havana a few months earlier. We talked. I showed him some family pictures, including one of my dog. I bought some of his art (all of it fully clothed, mind you).
Then suddenly, out of the blue, he’s at my door with a box.
“Open it,” he says.
Inside was another sculpture, of my dog and I.
He would not take a penny for his work. It was an unexpected, unsolicited act of kindness.
And it says a lot about Cuba to me.


El Yuma said...

Beautiful and heartfelt! I like the dog and the girl - but the girl more than the dog!

alongthemalecon said...

you're right, the woman's better looking.
besides, that dog sure did drool (even when there was no woman in sight)...