Cuba: A Visit in Three-Parts
One. Cuba today
Two. A mission to help Cuban kids enjoy their baseball
Three. Travel restrictions and opportunities
HAVANA — There’s a bug-in-amber quality to this strong city and proud country that would be fascinating and precious were it not for the sad truth that the people here are paying a very high price indeed for the nostalgia.
The half-century-old cars, the social system barely aware of the progressive developments of more than a generation exist so amazingly not by any design but by grim default: the economy is a mess, an oppressive American trade and economic embargo suffocates the people but not at all the system it is designed to grind to our will, the iron-handed government mismanages the social capital causing so many to flee, with their talents and gifts.
And this sad situation has gone on for decade after long decade, age after age, administration after administration. The buildings deteriorate around the citizenry, windows empty of glass, plaster and masonry crumbling.
There are so few jobs. There are no goods to buy, if anyone had the money with which to buy them. Were it not for the awesome energy, resilience and spirit of the Cuban people, you could think this place was doomed.
Havana is no small surfside town with houses on stilts. It is a great city, old and developed. Its architecture is legendarily rich and historic, reflecting the many styles and visions of the past five hundred years. Majestic old homes and edifices are everywhere — and everywhere they are in disarray.
There is no news in that. What is encouraging, though, is the surety that these amazing people survive and go on. What is infuriating, though, is the surety that they have to work so hard to so so. With an ingenuity that is startling, humbling, they make do; they salvage and repair and rebuild and jury-rig. They get through the day on less than we could imagine possible. Nothing is wasted, nothing goes unused. Their spirit and pride is battered by reality but refuses to be destroyed.
Tip your hat to them. They get the credit — not the governments, theirs or ours. And know this: When the cork is pulled from the bottle, as it eventually must be, this intelligence, strength, character and ingenuity will be a force like little we’ve seen. When those qualities are allowed the resources and breathing space to blend with the entrepreneurship and savvy seen so richly in those who fled, sometimes with so little, what was accomplished in Miami and elsewhere will have just as an enormous effect when it happens here.
It can’t happen too soon. The Cuban people have more than paid their dues to the governments that use and abuse them in their distant, petulant disputes. It is in no one’s interest anymore — no one’s — for the American embargo to continue to suppress the Cuban people in the cities and farms. It simply does no good whatever — these fifty years later.
Through every administration — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama — the United States policy is to punish the Cuban people for the “crimes” of its government. How is that our business? Does anyone imagine that the Castros or others are penalized by a half-century of deprivation? No, it is the people who are deprived and punished. For what? What was the offense of the Cuban people against us?
Over the same time, we have fought actual wars around the globe — and made up with our former bitter and bloody enemies. Vietnam. China. Russia. Grenada. (Grenada?) But not with Cuba with whom we have no war at all. We have seen whole regimes come and go elsewhere, and made our peace with that. But not with Cuba. American national policy has for too long been shaped down to the footnotes and appendices by a tiny number of people in South Florida — and the millions of Cubans are made to suffer as a result. Don’t doubt it, I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.
Enabled not diminished by the effects of the embargo, the leadership in Havana has used our policy to strengthen its grip, as rationale to never relax its tight rules, to block policies and opportunities, to avoid the Vietnamese or Chinese models of authoritarian control but loosened economic policies.
It is not working, as hard as the poor have to work just to get along.
We came to Havana on a humanitarian mission around baseball and kids [more on that in the next installment] and visited so many places and people who impress us with their capacities, even as they are denied the tools to use them appropriately.
The hallmark old American cars, kept going since the 1950’s with engines made from spare parts, from different cars all together, from lawn mowers, are symbols of what the Cuban people can do, must do. These old machines should have long ago failed but they rattle around the streets as if this were 1959 or 1964.
Less repairable are the mighty old buildings which are deteriorating before our eyes — by the thousands. These may not all be saved, no matter what the economy does. People pack into the buildings for housing because there simply is no where else to go. They have no money for glass or paint, for repair parts or tools and the building stock decays. When a building is condemned or, rarely, slated for rehabilitation, as soon as the occupants are moved to new quarters, new families sneak in for shelter. Empty buildings are stripped at night, by the “ninjas”, of wood planking, wire or piping. Not for resale but to patch together some other house. Gutted, the empty buildings sag and fall.
Those dedicated souls working to protect the nation’s heritage can’t keep up — and dread ther inevitable day when the next great hurricane hits the city and soaks its dilapidated buildings to total ruination. They have plans to save hundreds of the tens of thousands of buildings needing it, and the funds to save far fewer than even that. One wonders whether there will be time.
Through all this, all but the most blind visitor is dazzled by the energy of the people. Music is everywhere, and wonderful. The arts flash brilliantly. Friendliness and consideration are extended to strangers without reservation. Neither government has found the way to muffle that, try as they might.
Churches. Museums. Monuments. The Malecon. Havana is a treasure chest — a shrinking treasure chest — of marvels. But nothing of brick or mortar, nothing of marble or the sculptors’ genius, rivals the people of Cuba for worthiness and admiration.
How wonderful will it be when governments finally just get the hell out of the way?