The Huffington Post
By Joan Z. Shore
I am really dismayed by all this speculation about Fidel Castro's state of health -- almost like undertakers, waiting for the corpse. Will the disappearance of this man instantly change American policy, eliminate the embargo of nearly half a century, and appease the Cuban-Americans who are still feeling bitter and bereft?
Three years ago, I had the good fortune to visit Cuba.
I did not smuggle myself in via Canada or the Bahamas, as some of my friends and colleagues have done, but went under the auspices of the Chopra Foundation. It was one of those rare group visas issued by the American government for medical or cultural visits; they are almost impossible to get today.
After the three-day health conference, many of us stayed on for the rest of the week to visit Havana and absorb the country's atmosphere. We drank a lot of mojitos and danced a lot of salsa, puffed on fragrant Cohibas and bought souvenir T-shirts with Che Guevara's image.
Perhaps nowhere else on earth can you travel just 90 miles from your nation's border and find yourself plunged into another culture, another era, another world. Cuba is a fascinating blend of simplicity and complexity, the raw and the romantic, the practical and the lush. There are no commercial billboards, no neon signs, no strip malls. School children all wear plain red outfits with white blouses. Ancient American automobiles rattle along pock-marked roads, and many taxis are little more than a bicycle-rickshaw pedalled by a young man.
At the same time, one is surrounded by brilliant colors, opulent vegetation, round-the-clock music, and friendly people. Groups of musicians play on the streets, in restaurants, in roof-top cafès. There are no boom-boxes, no Muzac. Open-air markets sell colorful crafts and vivid, original art. Havana's long seafront promenade, the Malecón, is washed by ocean waves against a backdrop of elegant but decaying buildings.
The unfortunate economic truth, of course, is evident: there is very little money for restoration and new construction. Several families sometimes live together in one apartment, and people are allowed to use their homes as ad hoc restaurants, to earn a little money. Trained professionals (doctors, engineers, teachers) often switch to menial jobs (waiters or tour guides) because, with tips, they will actually earn more. A single dollar bill is a much-appreciated tip for many services -- and the dollar, in fact, is legal tender. There is no need to buy pesos. Medical care is excellent, and free to all, but simple supplies like Band-Aids, aspirin, vitamins are missing from pharmacy shelves. The foreign visitor is politely requested to bring these items and distribute them freely.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost a strong trading partner and a major source of economic support. America has not stepped into the breach. In fact, what few people realize, it was America's rejection 47 years ago that caused Castro to turn to the U.S.S.R. Initially, Castro was not a Communist, and his uprising against Batista was tacitly approved and encouraged by the U.S. government. Three months after his successful revolution, he went to Washington to see the president. Eisenhower refused to receive him. Castro had a 15-minute talk with vice-president Nixon, and returned to Havana empty-handed. We know the rest of the story.
There is no bitterness or resentment today in Cuba against Americans. Cubans blame the American government, not the people, for the embargo that has isolated them and blighted their economy. Surely, they must also remember that under Batista their country was not fully autonomous: it was a playground for American tourists and a goldmine for American mobsters, who ran the casinos, the prostitution, and the drug trade. Sadly, as events unfolded, Soviet-style Communism replaced syndicated crime. Cubans have paid dearly for their revolution.
I wonder what America might have offered them in 1959? And what can we offer them today? Big Macs and iPods and Calvin Klein jeans?
I hope that Cuba, after Castro, will manage to establish democracy and at the same time keep its vibrant, unique culture -- that wonderful blend of African, Indian and Spanish. I pray that Cuba will not become an American clone or colony -- a target for unscrupulous developers and investors, a dreary suburb of Dade County, Florida.
After Castro, we should all make a toast, and mean it: 'Viva Cuba libre!'