CUBA, Sí

Cuba (TGS) – It is still naive to think that the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba are now on a nice glideslope with respect to trade and tourism between the two countries. Similar naive assumptions were made regarding Russia, thinking that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia would naturally take its place in the community of nations. Things did not really pan out that way.

While Cuba is opening its door to the free world, there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to be done. Cuba refused humanitarian assistance from the Archdiocese of Miami to aid victims of Hurricane Matthew rebuilding in Eastern Cuba, while accepting aid from Japan. Flights to Cuba on American carriers are half full. And American businesses report they are still preparing to do business with Cuba, not actually doing business. Cuba’s economic growth remains slow, with Venezuelan subsidies decreasing and the “peace dividend” from improved relations with the U.S. hasn’t happened yet. The U.S. – Cuba relationship is not a full blown one yet in the economic, diplomatic, or cultural sense, the lifting of the limit on Cuban cigars notwithstanding.

Watching Cubans expertly roll handmade cigars was one of the many pleasures of my tour in Havana from 1991 to 1993. Scuba diving, hiking to a wonderful waterfall by an orchid farm, biking the countryside on deserted highways, visiting remote towns with artifacts purportedly from Christopher Columbus himself were also highlights. I remember seeing the Pan Am games in Havana. During the opening ceremony the crowd did the wave and Fidel stood and did the wave too while his comrades sat. On the second go ‘round, they all did the wave. We saw some great baseball played with real Cuban flair, with the shortstop batting a ground ball to the second baseman who barehanded it and turned a double play against the American team. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was on hand and signed baseball caps.

Economic growth in Cuba today is slow but at least there are some economic relief valves with a small, uneven private sector. Cubans have always been inventive and given a chance will flourish.

I was lucky back then. The requirement that diplomats submit a diplomatic note for travel outside Havana was not yet in effect, so I could go everywhere, except Guantanamo. At least everywhere I could go on half a tank of gas. I never knew if we’d find gas once we got outside of the capital.

That was during the “Special Period in a Time of Peace.” Translation: It was a tough time given the end of the Soviet subsidies. There is talk now of another “special period” as economic growth remains slow. In the early ‘90’s Cubans were really struggling. The U.S. Embassy in Cuba, where I was stationed, had thousands of Cuban applicants for visas and we mainly had to say “no.” One young man told me that if I turned him down for a visa, he was getting in an inner tube and floating to Florida. He said if he died on the way it was on me. Another family made their escape when a small plane from Florida landed on a lonely road and they jumped in and made the trip back to Florida safely. Not long after our tour the Hermanos de Rescate a private plane was shot down by the Cuban Air Force. Tensions were high then and people were desperate.

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Economic growth in Cuba today is slow but at least there are some economic relief valves with a small, uneven private sector. Cubans have always been inventive and given a chance will flourish. Who else could keep Hudsons and DeSotos running for so long?

Cubans were naturally curious about foreigners. When people asked where I was from I said, guess. Poland, Russia, Germany, were a few of the guesses, but I said, ‘no, mucho mas cerca! No, a lot closer!’ Americans were rare in those days and it was difficult to make friends. Contact with Americans could lead to reprisals, so most were wary. But we did make one great friend. Hiram.

Hiram was the master equestrian we visited at Luna Park on Sundays. He trained the Cuban national team, had terrific horses and because he had traveled internationally and was a well known apolitical sportsman he felt safe enough to invite us into his home. It was an honor and another treasured memory. We also went to a park to see the Boxer Club in action, and ended up taking home a puppy named “Luna” that went with us from Cuba, to the U.S., Russia, and Mexico.

But while we were able to travel freely and found Cubans friendly but wary, official relations were not good. On a trip out of Havana to visit potential refugees I found blood in my hotel sink, thanks to Cuban intelligence services. They followed us everywhere, even onto a cane field road when we got lost. And they flattened our tires and put nasty substances, maybe from the Boxer Club, under our door handles. That was “official harassment.” I understood, having lived in the Soviet Union, that the Cubans learned their Cold War tricks from the masters.

While tourists in those days were scarce, there were a few American prisoners during our tour. I visited, brought magazines and news from the States and tried to get a sense of their conditions and report any mistreatment. One American had hijacked a plane and had expected to be welcomed into the revolution with open arms. It was not working as well as he had planned.

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It is still naive to think that the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba are now on a nice glideslope with respect to trade and tourism between the two countries. Similar naive assumptions were made regarding Russia, thinking that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia would naturally take its place in the community of nations. Things did not really pan out that way.

I am happy to see Cuba opening up. If you go, your high school Spanish may not do the trick. The Cuban variation is a tantalizing dialect that drops many of the endings so the phrase “Esta aqui atras,” or it’s here behind, becomes “‘ta qui tras.” You may want to practice up. As it stands now, it is still a process to get to Cuba, with rules, travel categories and logistical challenges. Old timers in Miami reminisce about the days when stars would fly down to Cuba for lunch from New York, spend the afternoon in Havana and fly back. The U.S. Embassy website has great tips and information on today’s travel environment and they will be happy to help you if you find yourself in an emergency.

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba will also be working hard to improve relations on all fronts. Pushing the Cubans to liberalize, to not blame the United States for their own shortcomings, and encouraging Americans to find ways to realize commercial projects. I hope that the character of Cuba continues to shine through. There is something refreshing about being in a capital that does not have the chain hotels, restaurants and stores that you see all over the world. For better or worse, Cuba is uniquely Cuba. As the song goes, “Cuba, que linda es Cuba.” Cuba, how beautiful is Cuba. Beautiful, frustrating, admirable and alluring. You have to experience it to understand. The music, the antique cars that still cruise the streets, the beaches and the countryside combine to make a culture as rich and smooth as a Cuban cigar. If you get a chance, go.

This report prepared by Thomas Armbruster for The GeoStrategist.