I see that both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have denounced President Obama's plan to visit Cuba next month. Obama should first insist that Cuba make “serious concessions,” Rubio says. Cuba is too “evil and oppressive” to deserve a presidential visit, says Cruz.
I note that neither Cruz nor Rubio had the grace to mention that he has never actually set foot in Cuba. Not that it would matter to them. Facts don't generally matter when they conflict with a politically useful tenet of ideology. Their ideology postulates that Cuba is a communist dictatorship, a police state, a threat to American interests.
Well, I'm sorry. I have only spent a week in Cuba; I'm just back. But I worked as a journalist in Moscow and Eastern Europe in the 1980s. I was spied on and harassed by the KGB in Moscow. In Nicolae Ceaucescu's Romania, the Securitate arrested and expelled me. I know a real, evil, oppressive communist police state when I see one. I didn't see one in Cuba.
Cuba is by no means a liberal democracy. I was reminded of that every time I tried to use the Internet in Havana. Access is tightly controlled by the government and it doesn't work very well. If I were a Cuban citizen, I would know that if I wanted to start a movement to oust the Castros and remake Cuba as a free-market economy, I'd expect an encounter with the police, and quite possibly time in jail. But I suspect for most Cubans, oppression amounts to the strictures of poverty, of waiting in line for rationed goods, of dealing daily with the dead hand of bureaucracy. At the top of this post, there’s a picture I made of a woman, her eyes dull, waiting interminably in a shabby Havana office for a notario to put a stamp on some document. That’s oppressive, but it’s not the Gulag.
Let's review the reasons put forward decades ago to justify the American embargo against Cuba, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and all the tragicomic efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro with implements like exploding cigars.
It was said that Cuba was part of the global communist conspiracy to subvert democracy and export revolution. That may have been true in the 1960s, when Che Guevara went to Bolivia to organize a guerrilla war. It may have been true in the 1970s and 1980s, when Fidel sent Cuban troops to Angola to assist an anti-Western faction in a civil war there. But it has been decades since anyone has produced credible evidence that Cuba is trying to export anything more dangerous than cigars.
It was said that Castro's regime took away the people's freedom of religion. That may have been true in the 1960s, and it may still be true that if you want to rise in the Cuban communist party, it would be best to do your praying at home rather than in public. But I have seen lots of active churches in Cuba, and lots of people praying in them. They're not just Catholics. There are Baptists, Russian Orthodox, and santeria practitioners, like the cigar-smoking gentleman at left, who sold me a blessed candle to take into a nominally Catholic church. If the Castros once persecuted the faithful, they're not doing it now.
It was said that the Castros took away private property and prohibited free enterprise. And there's no doubt that they confiscated many estates, haciendas and factories that belonged to the Cuban elite, many of whom are still frothing at the mouth about it up in Miami. But I have eaten several times this week in restaurants that Cubans are establishing in private homes.
In the picture at right, you see a man named Perez, whom I found sitting in the doorway of his renovated house on Calle Industria, a few blocks from the Malecon in central Havana. He told me that he had worked 17 years as a cook in a tourist hotel, saving whatever hard currency came his way. His daughter and son-in-law also worked in the tourist industry and saved their money. Under recently liberalized Cuban law, they invested their savings to renovate the house and turn it into a B&B, which they own. It's called 3M Hostal Havana, and you can make a reservation by email. I would recommend it. It’s true that most of the Cuban economy is still government property. But the nose of the capitalist camel is under the tent.
It was said that Castro had a totalitarian grip on the Cuban people, monitoring their every word for hints of sedition. That may once have been true. But take a look at the picture at the lower left. It's a family in a park in the Havana neighborhood of Regla, on St. Valentine's Day. The park happens to have wi-fi availability, for reasons I can only guess at. So Havana families gather there with their cell phones or the occasional tablet, and use the wi-fi to call and Skype relatives in Miami. This particular family was calling to show the baby, at left, to her godmother in Miami. When a big stranger with a camera (me) came up and asked if he could photograph them, the family smiled and said, “Sure!” They went on with their conversation.
I have been in police states where people were afraid to talk to foreigners, let alone be photographed by them while talking to the enemy. I used to visit a Russian historian, Roy Medvedev, who would surreptitiously slip me an aerogram letter with the understanding that on my next trip to the West, I would mail it to his twin brother Zhores, who was living in exile in London. That was how members of divided families in totalitarian police states communicated with their relatives. They did not Skype on an open internet connection and smile for the camera.
Is it enough change? I don't think so, and I don't think the Cuban people think so. They're perfectly aware that their country is impoverished, their mass media are propaganda organs, and that not all of the blame for their condition can be laid at the feet of the American embargo, much as the ruling party would like them to believe it should be.
The question is, what American policy will promote more change? Barack Obama is saying that Cuba has changed sufficiently to justify more people-to-people contact, more diplomacy and more trade, and that these will enhance the prospects for more positive change.
Cruz and Rubio are saying that Cuba is still beyond the pale. There's a certain inconsistency in this. They're perfectly happy, for instance, that America does business with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a dictatorship governed by a single kleptocratic clan. It cruelly oppresses much of its population, especially women. It does not permit freedom of religion, or of speech. It has nationalized American companies. Its extremism gave birth to the mastermind behind Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks, as well as most of the men who executed those attacks. If there is a more dictatorial and oppressive country in the world, I wouldn't want to visit it. Compared to Saudi Arabia, Cuba is a bastion of liberty.
But that's a fact, and if there's one thing that's evident from this year's presidential campaign, it's that a good ideologue never lets facts interfere with his preconceptions.
Cruz and Rubio, I imagine, might be satisfied if Fidel and Raul were to commit seppuku on the Malecon and leave a note confessing that their revolution was a horrible mistake. That will happen about the same time Donald Trump apologizes for besmirching John McCain's courage, or Rubio says maybe he was a little rash to try to shut down the government over funding for Planned Parenthood, or Cruz decides that maybe his close adviser Jesus doesn't really want him to carpet bomb Syria. Don't hold your breath.
In the meantime, a realist wants to fashion a more constructive American policy toward Cuba. I hope he does.