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Cuba, a place of cordial people despite their acute needs

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

If you can find a way to visit Cuba before Fidel kicks, do. No one knows what will become of that crumbling, frozen-in-time quality once El Jefe is gone, and the only way to compare the future with the present is to see the place now, before whatever is going to happen happens.

Of course, the U.S. State Department takes a dim view of Cuban tourism. Its contingent in Havana came aboard the Semester at Sea ship after we docked last month and explained U.S. policy thusly:

The embargo is a shadow of its former self, so lifting it tomorrow wouldn't change a thing; just because Castro isn't having people shot doesn't mean the political repression is less pervasive; and visitors like us only shore up his regime by providing the dollars he so desperately needs.

These statements did not go unchallenged, and a lively exchange ensued. It's nothing you haven't heard before: If the embargo is so ineffective, why not lift it; the U.S. has relations with other countries whose leaders do, in fact, have people shot; and so forth.

But go to Havana if you can, do your own investigation and decide for yourself whether the current policy makes sense.

Some things will strike you right away. First, Cubans are overjoyed to meet Americans. They know you've gone to some trouble to get there and believe today's visitors mean tomorrow's rapprochement.

You'll also see that just about everyone has a hustle, and why. People are not sick, starving and homeless as they are in India and Africa -- if anything, they are healthy, fed, housed and educated in ways that the poor in those other places would envy.

But Cubans are also worn down by years of shortages, and the peso can't buy much anyway. So the growing tourist industry, conducted solely in U.S. dollars, is an obvious source of black market income.

The upshot is that 8-year-olds want to sell you cigars, which are either counterfeit or stolen. Young couples, or people posing as such, implore you to accompany them to the store to buy milk for their baby, who may or may not exist, at absurd prices that will be partially kicked back to them by the clerk.

Average citizens approach you on the streets offering entree to the best restaurants, the finest music, the strongest drinks, all at special prices, and asking if you know Los Angeles or Coral Gables, where their cousins reside.

Old men with missing teeth and battered guitars follow you around singing "Cielito Lindo" for tips. Leathery old women chomping on foot-long cigars pose in doorways for tourists who are happy to pay $1 for the photo rights.

It's all quite congenial; if you decline, your new acquaintances will smile, nod and wish you a wonderful visit anyway, a marked contrast to India, China or Vietnam, where people are so desperate they'll follow you for blocks, hanging on your clothes, begging you to buy.

We had an audience with Fidel himself. Whatever you think of the old dictator, you have to grant that he's a major historical figure and one cagey chess player to boot. The man has outlasted eight U.S. presidents who did their best to starve him out, yet there he remains, 90 miles away, needling Washington and reveling in the role of elder statesman.

At age 75 he's still straight as a bayonet and every inch the orator. The longer he talks, the more he feeds on himself and the more passionate he becomes. The Semester at Sea students loved it. Most saw him as a celebrity who gave them bragging rights for years to come. One asked him if he'd had a role in assassinating President Kennedy. Castro jumped at the chance to recount all the CIA attempts on his life, and, 45 minutes later, concluded with a denial. I found the whole thing fascinating, right up to the moment I fell asleep.

For the record, Americans may travel to Cuba legally as part of a licensed group doing approved work. People also go illegally through a third country, taking care not the have their passports stamped so as to avoid trouble at U.S. customs.

As to what Cuba does with those dollars, it buys food -- in cash -- from the United States. So money spent on hotels and rum eventually finds its way back to U.S. agribusiness.

What could be more patriotic?

Sally Kalson can be reached at skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.

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