Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

In an `upside down’ world, Cuba is our closest enemy

By JONATHAN TILOVE

c.2002 Newhouse News Service

(UNDATED) I arrived in Havana to an unexpected VIP welcome, though they did not know I was a reporter, only that I was an American. I came home to a scolding interrogation from U.S. Customs, even though they knew I was a reporter.

In between I spent a week exploring the island of our closest enemy, discovering just how apt that description is.

After 40 years of propaganda and isolation, the Cuban people retain remarkable affection and affinity for Americans. At a time when we are forced to ask why so many people around the world have such a visceral and profound hatred for us, an American in Cuba can’t help but wonder, “Why do they like us?”

Over and over, Cubans reacted with a burst of delight when they discovered that I was not Italian, German or Canadian, but American. The response was too common and reflexive to be faked. There was no tinge of passive-aggressive obsequiousness, no hint of love-you/hate-your-country, despite the U.S. embargo that, intended to strangle Cuba into democratic reform, has helped render the island a beautiful ruin.

Where elsewhere there is maximum peril for Americans, in Cuba there is none. As the Gocubaplus Internet travel site — through which three fellow reporters and I had booked our passage — put it: “The world is upside down but, Cuba is a real safe place and, hey, you need a break!”

On the Havana street where El Duque, the New York Yankee pitcher Orlando Hernandez, once lived, I was greeted by three young men with whoops, high-fives, ghetto handshakes and a roll call of the location of their respective American relations — the Bronx, Miami, New Jersey. “America,” said one, thumping his chest where his T-shirt was embroidered with an American flag and the letters USA.

Fidel Castro entertains a steady stream of American visitors. The day after we left it was California Sen. Barbara Boxer, actress Julia Ormond and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, whose dinner with El Jefe extended well into the wee hours of a Monday morning. Castro, Hart told the San Francisco Chronicle, is a “great hang.” Jimmy Carter is due May 12 for six days.

The State Department has designated seven governments worldwide as state sponsors of terrorism: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria. That would be the axis of evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea), plus what might be called the auxiliary of evil (Libya, Sudan, Syria). And then there is Cuba, which, in the awful aftermath of Sept. 11, seems about as threatening to the United States as Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil.

There was a time when the world trembled on events in Cuba. But it has been a while.

The Cuban landscape, like an elaborate Warhol, is decorated with billboards of revolutionary sloganeering and images of its dashing hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara, dead since 1967, forever young. Lovingly preserved 1950s American automobiles, painted electric Caribbean blues and reds and greens, roll along Cuba’s roadways. (Near Guevara’s gravesite in Santa Clara, marked by an eternal flame that is the spitting image of JFK’s, we pass a gleaming ruby red Edsel. Guevara drove a mint-green 1960 Chevy Bel Air.)

The end of the Cold War, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, attained psychic finality with the collapse of the Twin Towers. In Cuba, Castro immediately interrupted his decades-long diatribe against the United States to express his emotional solidarity and sympathy with the American people. He offered medical help. Later, when we began bringing prisoners from Afghanistan to the Guantanamo U.S. naval base in Cuba, Castro promised to return escapees.

In the 16th century city of Trinidad an ancient wall bears a rare white grafitto scrawl — “No Al Terror.” No to terror. It is signed by the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. Nearby, Cuban boys play baseball on the cobblestone streets, a horse-drawn cart marking first base.

Our visit coincided with the 41st anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, the botched effort by CIA-backed Cuban exiles to reclaim the island. At the Bay of Pigs we encountered Rodolfo Perez Delgado, an 80-year-old veteran of the three-day battle to save the revolution, wandering across the sands. Today, he said, “The enemy is afraid.”

But which enemy? The beach on which he treads fronts a resort that is off-limits to Cubans.

“He’s loco,” said Raymundo Yoel Del Toro, whom we had picked up hitchhiking. He is a college student, majoring in tourism.

The real zeal in Cuba is for the American dollar, which since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of its huge subsidy, has become an accepted, even preferred, currency. Most of our nights were spent in private bed-and-breakfasts, most meals taken at restaurants fashioned from rooms in private homes. Both are legal.

According to the Heritage Foundation, Cuba’s black market is larger than its legal economy. Actual salaries are impossibly low. We met teachers who make $7 a month. Any contact with the tourist economy is a windfall.

“Whassup!” said the young man who greeted us our first night in Old Havana, part of an army of hustlers, fixers and friends-for-hire who operate in full view of Cuban police. He gave his name as Tony Montana, after the fictional Cuban exile who becomes a crazed Florida drug king, as played by Al Pacino in the 1983 remake of Scarface. He guided us to a friend’s private restaurant and our first black market Cohibas.

The most steadfast if idiosyncratic defense of the Cuban way came from the owner of a bed-and-breakfast by the Bay of Pigs. He is, at 35, a retired building contractor, running the business out of his home, which, he said, is “all paid for.” A Miami Cuban, he figures, has to work two jobs just to get a 30-year mortgage. Without state socialism, he believes, his neighbors, who live under thatched roofs, would have nothing. He wore a New York Knicks jersey and, like virtually every other Cuban we met, offered to sell us some black market cigars.

Our last night in Havana we dined at the neocolonial Hotel Nacional, the old haunt of mobsters, rat-packers and royalty, ordering from a menu adorned with photos of Winston Churchill, Kate Moss and Michael Keaton. The hotel sits on a bluff overlooking the coastal road.

Below us, after dinner, thousands of Cubans gathered before a temporary stage. It was the last day of the anniversary celebration of the Bay of Pigs. A rally of remembrance, perhaps. But no. It was a free concert by the salsa star Paulo F.G., singing songs of love.

Earlier in the day, a painter at the outdoor art market in Old Havana had thanked me, as an American, for seeing Cuba for myself. “Thank you for coming,” he said, adding,”Don’t believe anything the government tells you.”

Returning home through U.S. Customs in Nassau, the Bahamas, my colleagues passed unmolested. But I was pulled over for further questioning.

The State Department’s Cuba consular information sheet notes that several categories of travelers are permitted to visit Cuba “under a general license, without the need to obtain special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department” including “journalists regularly employed by a news reporting organization.”

But the Bush administration has been cracking down on travel to Cuba and these Customs officials wanted to know where I went, how much I spent, what I was working on. They told me to fill out a form so that the Treasury Department could determine if I had been trading with the enemy.

At the Miami Airport, there were soldiers with rifles. The nation had been alerted to a terrorist threat against financial institutions in the Northeast. A few days later, the target would be shopping centers. I was back from enemy territory, home safe in a world upside down.

Written by jonathantilove

August 2, 2022 at 4:45 am

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