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Embargo Games

Obama Halts American Trips to Cuba

by KEN SMITH

Until recently, Americans could travel to Cuba as part of academic, religious or research groups. But according to travel writers for USA Today and other major newspapers, government approval for such trips has come to a halt. This is despite a program authorized last year by President Obama that encouraged “people-to-people” visits to Cuba by Americans. (That brings up the question, Who is really in charge? But, that’s another issue.)

The half-century embargo of Cuba has not worked — if anything, it has solidified support of Fidel Castro by the Cuban people. It is time to begin normalizing relations. I’m not interested in politics or commerce, but rather I like Afro-Cuban music and I would like to visit Cuba to learn how much of that tradition remains before it is infected by pop music from elsewhere in the world.

The Detroit Free Press reports that almost no organizations with previous people-to-people licenses from the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) have received renewals for visits to Cuba. Advertised trips have been scrapped and organizations “are left to wait without any updates or information.”

Here’s one example of how silly the embargo of Cuba is. Late in life, Cuban musician and singer Ibrahim Ferrer became a member of the internationally successful Buena Vista Social Club, formed as a result of a documentary film by Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders. In 2004, Ferrer won a Grammy, but was denied permission by the U.S. government to receive his award in person under a U.S. law that prohibits entry by “terrorists, drug dealers and dangerous criminals.” Ferrer, who was then 77-years-old and quite harmless, had previously performed in concert in the U.S.

Ferrer was dumbfounded by the decision, saying, “I don’t understand because I don’t feel I’m a terrorist. I am not, I can’t be.”

In 2004, the year before Ferrer died, I saw him in concert in Juan-les-Pins, France. It was an extraordinarily good show. As Ferrer came on stage, the French crowd of several thousand became reverentially silent. As he began to sing, the audience would recognize the song within the first few notes, and applaud. The concert was more than two hours long, and yet the 77-year old Ferrer appeared to have even more energy the longer he was on stage. Incredibly great music. Most of the 20-member orchestra were over 60 years old.

Americans are missing much with the embargo of Cuba. In addition to great music, what else are we not allowed to see and hear?

Last year, UNESCO added Mexico’s mariachi music to the list “intangible cultural heritage” in need of preservation, and rightfully so. I have been to the mariachi festival in Cocula, about 35 miles (60km) west of Guadalajara. Cocula is famous for being the birthplace of mariachi and the annual festival attracts Mexico’s top bands. Afro-Cuban music deserves the same UNESCO recognition.

If the American political leaders fear that visitors to Cuba will be impressed by and then embrace communism, an embargo is the wrong answer. The best way to expel any positive thoughts might be to encourage visits to communist countries.

In 1989, I was visiting friends in Würzburg, Germany. During this visit, it was announced that the Berlin Wall was coming down and that Germans would be allowed to travel to the East and West. My friends had cousins they had never met in Meiningen on the East German side, about a 90-minute drive from Würzburg on the West side. We decided to go.

At the border, I was surprised to see a tall wire fence. This was far south of Berlin and there was no wall. But, the gate was wide open and there were no guards, nobody, not even other tourists joining us on the drive. There was a guard tower, made of wood, that looked something like the U.S. Forest Service fire watch towers. The East German guards did not even shut the door of the tower as they left.

It was a sad scene in the plaza of Meiningen, a town that now has a population of 20,000, but was much less then. The river running through the town was obviously polluted with garbage and a thick cover of oil streaks (“gasoline rainbows” was how J. D. Salinger described such things, but that makes it sound too benign). Buildings were covered with industrial soot. Nothing had been painted in decades. It looked like a movie set for a World War Two movie, and this was 44 years after the end of the war during which Meiningen was greatly damaged by bombing raids.

This visit was two days after the border was opened. The plaza was filled with local East Germans and street peddlers, including many Vietnamese, selling such things as Madonna T-shirts for US$20. How did the peddlers get there so quickly? How did the East Germans get so many American dollars? In addition to the T-shirts, there was other junk being sold and the East Germans were clearly unsophisticated about the prices of such consumer items.

My German friend angrily spoke to a dozen or more peddlers, saying, ”Das ist nicht richtig”. Meaning, it is not right to take advantage of these people by selling junk at such inflated prices.

Then, two Soviet army troops walked into the plaza. They had Asian facial features and were likely from the eastern part of the Soviet Union. I was told the East German government would use Soviet guards from other parts of the communist bloc because they would be less likely to become friendly with the local Germans.

The Soviet guards wore dirty, cream-colored uniforms. They held their AK-47s with a finger near the trigger guard. They looked like mean and stupid bullies and my German friends were clearly intimidated.

One German friend whispered to me, “Sie sprechen kein Englisch”, don’t speak English (difficult because I don’t speak German). I wanted to stay, but my German friends insisted that we leave immediately and get back to West Germany.

I do ramble. My point here is that a visit to authoritarian Cuba might convince most people to avoid that system of government. Further, Cubans and Americans meeting each other would likely do some good. So, I recommend (not that anybody asked) full and open travel by Americans to Cuba. I’ve heard that some Americans are visiting Cuba and that Cuban immigration officers oblige these Americans by not stamping their passports. But, that would not work for me because I would want to write about a visit to Cuba.

Ken Smith is a semi-retired American living in Mexico for the past five years, after four years in France, two years in Denmark, and another year bouncing around Europe. He recently edited and wrote an introduction for a book of essays by his friend Joe Bageant, Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: the Best of Joe Bageant. Smith’s blog is at http://kvsmith.com.