What can I be sure of after only one week in Havana? Very little. There are exceptions to every pattern, and sometimes more exceptions than patterns. But a few claims, I think, are possible:
1. The sea and this island in it are stupendously beautiful even to someone longing for people and places up north.
2. The people of Cuba are sincerely warm and friendly. And, although they know the history of U.S. aggression, they sharply distinguish the U.S. government from the U.S. people. They are surprised and delighted to encounter the latter. (Americans might do well, likewise, not to identify the Cuban people with their government.)
3. The poverty here does not approach that in much of Latin America and the Caribbean — despite the blockade (what Cubans call the embargo since the U.S. effectively prevents other countries trading with Cuba too).
4. The safety, security, life expectancy and in many ways the quality of life are high by any standard. Key West has worse food, more alcoholism, more militarism, and more money.
5. U.S. tourists will love Cuba. For the left, Cuba has socialized education, healthcare, and a basic income guarantee. For the right, Cuba has meat, machismo, meat, the war on drugs, cigarette smoke at the next table, and more meat. Welcome here are atheism, Catholicism, Santeria, and whatever else you’ve got. For everyone, Cuba has the beauty, culture, and adventures to match any destination in this part of the globe.
Could I live in Cuba and write in Cuba? Possibly not. The rebels in Cuba rebel against the failures of their government, and that runs up against two problems. (1) People read. (2) The government fears dissent as U.S.-funded propaganda for regime change (which a lot of it is, to the tune of $20 million U.S. tax dollars per year). In the United States I can write because no one reads and the government trusts everyone to go shopping and watch TV — which is full of commercials, unlike Cuban TV, thus producing more shopping.
The opening between the U.S. and Cuban governments is very, very strange, because the United States does indeed want to radically change or overthrow the Cuban government, and the United States allows terrorists who have repeatedly and openly attacked Cuba to live free in the U.S. For over a half-century the U.S. has used Cuba as a lab for testing military techniques, propaganda, infiltration, sabotage, and bio-warfare — with the result being complete failure. But without recognizing the absoluteness of that failure, much less regretting the immorality of the crimes, the U.S. wants to “normalize” relations with a government it hates and wants to put an end to.
Will this normalization become a series of embarrassing new attempts to change Cuba in ways not tried before? Or will it lead to actual normalization in the sense of mutual respect and cooperation? One way in which I think a more positive result can be advanced is with an emphasis on education. This is more important than raising the flag at the embassy or allowing the importation of fancy Cuban soap. We need student exchanges, academic exchanges, and educational tourism.
Cubans shouldn’t believe that U.S. roads have no potholes. They should come to the United States to see homelessness. And extravagance. They should see people walk by without saying hello on streets with no music under skies with no sun. They should add the flaws to the positives that they’ve learned from Hollywood’s version of perfection. And if, when they start respecting copyrights, they ingest a little less Hollywood, so much the better.
Americans shouldn’t believe the vast emptiness that fills the part of their brains where history is supposed to go. They should come to the Museum of the Revolution to learn Cuba’s modern history. They should come to the Museum of the Ministry of the Interior to see the collection of weapons and gadgets captured from the hapless CIA. They should learn that their own government has for decades blown up buildings and airplanes, poisoned crops and livestock, spread diseases, and generally engaged in low-scale one-sided warfare (aka terrorism) against Cuba. Tours of Hemingway sites should include information on how he died.
American tourists should get free rum and cigars if they pass a quiz upon leaving a museum:
- What did Cubans want in 1898? (Hint, the United States is currently bombing [fill in current nation] in its name.)
- What did they get instead?
- What nation has killed 3,000 Cubans in terrorist attacks?
- Why has Cuba not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq in response?
- Has Cuba ever organized any attack on the United States?
- Why does the United States want to overthrow the Cuban government?
Five correct answers should be sufficient to pass the test. As answers to #6 “To fend off the Communist takeover of the world” should get the tourist a sympathetic kiss and a gentle kick in the ass. “To spread inequality” or “to increase poverty and insecurity” or “to maximize environmental destruction” should get the tourist a free pass to visit a Cuban psychiatric clinic. Anything along the lines of “The plutocrats who control Washington want to get their claws on Cuba too” or “Those wronged in the revolution are still in a rage” or “The mob wants its casinos and brothels back” should be considered close enough to win a free song by a live band on the steps of the museum.
And what if those who lost property in the revolution are compensated to their satisfaction, while the Cubans who have suffered under the blockade and the terrorist attacks are compensated to their satisfaction? This is, after all, part of the negotiations underway.
And what if the mob is shut out and the plutocrats partially restrained?
And what if U.S. public opinion evolves along with the acquisition of relevant information? What if the U.S. public were to insist on normal relations with Cuba that are actually normal?
If Cuba comes off the ridiculous terrorist list, the educational exchange opportunities could really open up. I hope Cuba knows how incredibly little Americans know, and how much difference it makes when they know something. Cuba has produced good movies. It should produce a new one, in English, with the Cuban Five played by five previous Oscar winners. That would be worth more than another pig farm.
And while I’m giving unsolicited advice: Here is the second priority: Build that wall higher along the sea, because it’s rising and we want this beautiful city to stay right where it is.