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Coming to Terms with the Real Havana

by TOM CRUMPACKER

My interest in things Latin started as a teenager in the 50’s when I read W. H. Hudson’s 19th century novel Green Mansions. It’s about a young Englishman who lives with an old Indian in the mountains of Venezuela and falls in love with his daughter Rima, a fairy-like creature who talks to the animals and birds in the forest. I’ve spent an increasing amount of time in Cuba in the past five years and some of my friends claim I’m being “romantic” in my enthusiasm for the country and it’s people. They’re probably right. Here’s a paradox: the real world, the one we see, actually exists out there for all of us, but we each also create it for ourselves. Perspective is a key word for me. I think all honest individual perspectives have value, the trouble is they’re also too limited. It’s in society or community with others that our perspectives broaden and our contradictions are transcended.

Cuba is a very different kind of society than ours, and one needs to have or adopt a broad perspective to appreciate it. Looking at it through our US politico-economic lens, making comparisons based on our standards, won’t do the trick. Some of the things I like about Cuba are the strong sense of equality among people, the strong sense of community, the relative lack of commercialization. Many people there have found ways to live productive, high quality lives outside the rat-race of consumption-accumulation. I’m comfortable living among people who are trying to improve their lot in life by collective action. I’m not saying it’s for everyone, in fact I think most Americans wouldn’t like it.

In order to understand any people, one needs to know their history. The last century and a half has been one long struggle for Cubans. Against slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism and blockade. For social justice, equality and above all national identity and autonomy. Some Cubans criticize their government (openly and without fear). But I’ve never met anyone on the island who wants US business to return and run things again. They are entering the global economy on their own terms, and in this sense they differ from the rest of Latin America. They are attracting capital even though their foreign investment law prevents companies from having more than a 49% interest in the profits ” in joint venture with the government — this is how they finance their education, health care, social services and safety net. They (perhaps naively) believe that collective human action rather than just blind market forces can affect the direction of history. In a sense it might be said they are trying to put themselves in position to determine their own destiny by giving up some of the short-term economic benefit they could have otherwise had by submitting to US commercial domination.

I just returned from spending the winter in the capital city. Today’s Havana is the fastest changing place I’ve ever seen. To the Habaneros I know, change indicates a desire to experiment, find new ways of doing things, progress. Cooperatives have become the main form of property ownership. Their new small scale urban and organic agriculture methods are being studied by many foreign experts, especially from the Third World. Wide assortments of fresh fruit and vegetables are brought every morning to their open air markets from their community gardens. Their goal is to reduce dependence on foreign imports and become self sustaining. Not all the changes are for the good, increasing auto traffic for instance ” and the rapid growth of tourism is endangering the commitment to equality and social justice. The present situation with money–US dollar vs. Cuban peso, with different uses for each (Cubans obtaining many of their life necessities on a collective basis) ” looks to me like it can’t continue much longer. They say that if you want to see socialism, you have to go to the smaller towns and countryside. Capitalism is bursting through in La Habana, but it’s the good kind, the mom and pop store kind that we used to know when we were young.

Habaneros are coming out of a very hard period for them in the nineties. As they say, it was then, when the dogs and cats were disappearing from the streets, that the Yankees tried to bring them to their knees with the Toricelli and Helms-Burton laws. But now they’ve survived and there’s pervading sense of pride and optimism. I saw some incredible theater, art, music and dancing in Havana this winter. Their cultural heritage is mostly African and Spanish but you can also see the Yankee influence, particularly in music and sports. Construction and architecture are booming. When I first went there in ’97, Habana Vieja looked like London after the blitz. With the help of the UN and Spain, the plazas, churches and other buildings are being restored to their 18th and 19th century glory, slowly and carefully, much like what happened in Venice 30 years ago. Canada, France, Germany, China, Italy and many other countries are contributing to beneficial projects in the city.

In spite of present US policy, Habaneros are very friendly to American visitors. They are a very well educated people and they know enough to distinguish the ruled from their rulers. But I feel ashamed to be an American when I see these policies continuing: blockading Cuba by threatening and punishing foreign companies who dare to do business there; preventing medicine, medical equipment and nutritional food from reaching Cubans by unreasonable financing conditions; funneling money to groups in Florida who are trying to destabilize the Cuban people’s government; conducting a relentless propaganda campaign against the revolution while prohibiting us from traveling there to learn what is really happening.

I think present US-Cuba policy says a lot more about the lack of democracy here than in Cuba. Congress took charge of Cuba affairs in the ’80s and there have been bills pending to normalize relations between the countries for at least five years. Despite a clear majority in favor, a few powerful men called “party leaders” have prevented votes on these bills. Since the Cuban people have no lobby here to push and pay for change, nothing happens.

In any event Havana is an interesting and exciting place to be these days, especially for those visitors who want a different kind of experience. Because the travel restrictions are unconstitutional they’re not being enforced, they’re just being used to frighten people out of going there. If you’re one of the very few who get penalty notices, however, to be safe you need to demand a hearing within thirty days. Since our government doesn’t want a court ruling the matter apparently will go into perpetual abeyance.

TOM CRUMPACKER is with the Miami Coalition to End the US Embargo of Cuba. He can be reached at: Crump8@aol.com

 

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