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The government capitol in Havana was designed to replicate the Capitol in Washington, though the locals take pride in saying it’s bigger.

They love us down in Cuba.

We are assured of this everywhere we go on the island. It feels genuine, without irony and without the sense that the sentiment is the result of a directive from La Oficina Gubernamenta de Propaganda y el Sentimiento Feliz.

“We like Americans,” they tell us, time and again, from every city and every barrio, from Havana to Santa Clara. “We don’t like the United States government, but we like Americans.”

It’s nice to hear, of course, when you’re an American visiting a country with such a curious relationship with its nearest neighbor. For Americans of a certain generation, Cuba has long been an enigma, a mystery that seemed vaguely scary way back when.

If Americans have a notion of Cuba at all these days, it’s likely an amalgamation of grubby revolution, godless communism, dangerous beards, improvised cars, angry exiles, lively music, failed assassination attempts, stinky cigars and an excess of rum.

We recently spent a week there to unravel what we thought we knew.

After nearly 60 years of being pais non grata to the United States, Cuba got a visit from President Obama last year in a first-step effort to normalize relationships. He was the first president to step foot in Cuba since Fidel and Che deposed Batista, the Mafia and the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. back in the 1950s.

Normalization would be nice, obviously, but lifting the trade embargo would be even better.

That’s another constant you hear from people if you’re an American in Havana. We talked to an architect, to a diplomat, to college students and to senior citizens at a community center and they all told us the same thing: the U.S. embargo is killing Cuba.

It’s a “fact” Cubans have embraced since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia left Cuba to fend for itself. For about 40 years, the USSR managed to keep old-fashioned communism alive in Cuba with sizeable stipends in exchange for sugar, the island’s primary resource. Cuba’s unholy alliance with the Soviets allowed the U.S. to whip up Cold War fears with a convenient nearby enemy. Then, all of a sudden, boom!, the Kremlin said adios to Cuba. But that didn’t keep every American president from shaking their fists at and/or ignoring the island nation.

A scene from a farmer’s market in Cienfuegos.

Cuba has been working through abandonment issues since its population nearly starved to death during what they now call the “special period” in the years after the Soviets disappeared. With Russia a lost cause, Cubans turned their attention to the United States and to the embargo. Because what else could they do?

The U.S. is Cuba’s nearest neighbor, so it sort of makes sense that the average desperate Cuban would want to make friends. They hear about New York. They hear about L.A. They are intrigued. And maybe they could benefit economically without the sanctions.

For the most part, Cuba is still a horse-and-cart country. Nearly everyone works for the government because virtually everything runs through the government. The basic monthly wage is the equivalent of 27 American dollars. Everyone is guaranteed free housing and free health care. University and trade-school education is also free. Food staples are exceedingly cheap and available from neighborhood bodegas. Free preschools, free senior care.

It might sound like a progressive Democrat’s ideal, but all this free stuff is difficult to sustain when the economy is in free fall. So Cubans end up with a lot of mediocre free stuff. And there is really no incentive for a citizen to attend university when the guy who is driving a patched-together ’54 Buck for tourists in Havana is earning more in a single day than a government functionary makes in a month.

That’s not to say that capitalism isn’t alive, if not well, in Cuba. To survive, everyone needs to improvise some sort of gig, some of it with the government’s blessings. Bed-and-breakfasts are huge, for instance, and so are paladares (private restaurants opened in homes). Virtually every shack along the beautiful, tropical shores of the Bay of Pigs — remember that place? — is open to tourists.

Also, black-market capitalism seems to be a thing. A visitor to the country can purchase dirt-cheap cigars from vendors who sidle up surreptitiously, as if they’ve got high-grade heroin for sale.

The embargo will be lifted, eventually, after American capitalists figure out that there’s money to be made on the island and when they accept that free enterprise in Cuba is complicated. Or when communism eventually collapses under the weight of its incapacities.

It may or may not happen during the Trump administration, and that’s okay, according to the experts in Cuba.

“Cuba isn’t losing any sleep over Trump,” said Carlos Alzagaray, a Cuban diplomat. “The attitude here is that it couldn’t be any worse than it’s already been.”

A billboard outside the Che memorial in Santa Clara

If anything, Cubans seem rather bemused by America’s plight these days. “You’ve replaced no-drama Obama with all-trauma Trump,” Alzagaray said.

When that day finally comes, when access and trade with the United States open up to Cuba, we’re led to believe that it will be embraced like the dawning of a new age. Best-case scenario, the economy will prosper with a new emphasis on capitalist principles, allowing an upgrade to its generous social programs.

A philosophy student, Maria, says she hopes to see a McDonald’s franchise in every neighborhood someday.

Virtually everyone we met in Cuba said they yearn for better access to the Internet. It’s difficult for Cubans to keep up with the rest of the world these days, we are told. The messages they get from tightly controlled media are limited. Billboards everywhere still propagate Big Brother-like nationalist propaganda. On the bright side, some local black-market entrepreneurs earn a nice living by downloading information off the ‘net and delivering weekly pacquetas from their thumb drives, at about $2 a pop, to those with a hunger for outside influences. For the most part, the pacquetas include very little useful news, but are mostly filled with celebrity and entertainment items from around the world.

We’re told that Jimmy Fallon is very popular in Cuba.

Hearing the party line day after day, a visitor can easily develop the sense that the embargo has become a handy justification for the country’s malaise. Some might say that the embargo absolves Cubans from making an effort to self-determination. Surely Cuba has had enough time to work through its issues, to massage its systems, to reinvent itself, even under the weight of its creaky autocracy.

While that might be partially true, it doesn’t absolve the United States from carrying out a policy against Cuba that can only be referred to nowadays as petty and venal. The embargo is payback for a forgotten history, at the expense of generations that continue to suffer the consequences. How easy would it be to allow some free trade to its nearest non-border neighbor, to 11 million people who have never consumed a Big Mac? Fidel is long gone. Raul is on his last legs. The U.S. trades with China; we’re on speaking terms with Russia. But, somehow, Cuba gets our cold shoulder.

The political intellectuals in Havana will tell you that the exiled Cubans in Miami have an outsized influence on American-Cuban policy. In Florida, a state with a significant influence on national elections, no presidential candidate since Nixon wished to risk losing the Cuban vote, which could swing Dade County, which could swing Florida to an opponent. So U.S.-Cuban relations remain in statis, for no good reason, forcing Cuba to build trade relationships with third-world banana republics with no more future than their own.

Nevertheless, Cubans tell us they love the American people even as they despise American policies. It sounds like a broken record. Even Maria, the philosophy student who yearns to eat a Big Mac someday, apes the party line about, about the goodness of the American people and the not so goodness of the American government.

I didn’t mean to deflate her sense of what Americanos are like, but I thought she should know that the people from the U.S. are the government. U.S. citizens, after all, elect the boobs who continue to nurture our country’s petty institutional grievances.

Former Monterey Herald Editor Joe Livernois is a Monterey writer. See his collection of photographs

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Fred Hernandez April 28, 2017, 7:57 pm

    Very pithy. And always a splendid read from Joe. Above all else, I relearned that US policy is indeed pathetic and waaaaaaay out of touch.

  • david fairhurst April 28, 2017, 10:17 pm

    Nice but personal insight. You forgot to mention how Castro used the male youth of Cuba as Soviet fodder. There were over 50,000 Cuban troops in Angola in the late 70’s early 80’s alone to fight for the spread of Communist Utopias such as they had in Cuba. And wasn’t it J.F. Kennedy and then Johnson that created our anti-Cuba policies in the first place? And you are right about the “boobs” we elect, Clinton and the enabling of Communist North Korea to develop Nuclear weapons and then Obama doing the same for Iran.
    In a Nation were the Government owns everything and everybody there is no incentive after all aren’t they really just slaves to the State? I do agree that the “Cuban” community in South Florida welds to much influence because of our politics and as a “swing state”. As much as I despise Obama and the horrible things that happened under his administration I think he did the right thing regarding Cuba, perhaps for the wrong reasons however…(his kow-towing to Castro was shameful). I do think the best thing for both the Cubans and us is robust trade, visiting American and Cuban tourists (spending their money) and people just meeting other people and learning that we really are all pretty much the same. I am envious Joe for I too would like to visit, travel and see Cuba.

    • Tim Smith April 29, 2017, 8:34 am

      You’ve got a way of bringing things down fast Dave. Maybe you should get a job in missile defense?

      • david fairhurst April 29, 2017, 4:48 pm

        Look, I liked what Joe wrote, I just want to remind people that it wasn’t all roses and manna from the State under the Communist dictatorship of Castro. It isn’t “gee whiz the U.S. is all bad” and “isn’t Cuba wonderful because everything is “free” there” (sadly the people there got what they paid for). And It is a false claim that the “American” embargo caused the poverty in Cuba, they had trade with the rest of the World. Same goes for Venezuela. It is the “progressive” “godless” and repressive regimes that cause the misery of the people they explot.

    • Peter Kwiek April 30, 2017, 12:38 am

      Robust trade is what’s needed, Dave? Is that a code word for a return to US extraction? How about reparations first? We owe Cuba a great deal for the decades of economic, environmental and political damage our policies and actions have wrought, before and since 1959. After 1959, when US backed Brothelcratic Dictator Bautista was finally overthrown, instead of trying to nurture and support the (relatively) democratic aspects of the revolution, we forced Cuba to dig in and turn to the Soviet Union.

      I wonder: If Cuba could ever somehow be made whole and we no longer deprived it of its ability to control its destiny and its resources and it could act from an empowered, independent position, such that Cubans no longer saw the USA as the place where you can get everything you can’t get there, I wonder if their attitude toward us would change.

  • Lou Panetta April 29, 2017, 6:37 am

    Beautifully written, Joe. Your discussion of the people and the mindsets is far more interesting than the usual of food, churches, and festival events. Cuba has fascinated me for years. You’ve painted a vibrant picture. Thanks.

  • Jamie Woods April 29, 2017, 8:35 am

    Nicely written as always.
    I’m sure that there is more ink in this particular pen,
    so, “Please sir, I’d like some more.”

  • Leslie Patino April 29, 2017, 9:44 am

    Great writing, Joe! Your observations are spot-on with what I observed and heard when I visited Cuba 2 years ago. I don’t remotely support communism–or socialism–as the Cubans referred to their form of government. I tell people that, standing before the remains of Che Guevara, I believe I finally understood what an atheist feels inside a Christian church. But I was fascinated with the people and the conversations I had with locals, (and the fresh guarapo). The coming years are going to be interesting.

  • Joe Livernois April 29, 2017, 10:05 am

    I should add that I really didn’t get into the music, the culture, the truly friendly people and the oddities along the way in this piece. That’s a whole other story.

    • david fairhurst April 29, 2017, 9:18 pm

      For music start with Charlie Musslewhite and the “Buena Vista Social Club. It is not only wonderful to listen to but an incredible story too. It is a true blessing that Musslewhite undertook this task.

      There was a vibrant music industry before Castro, lots of “Big Band” with that special touch of added jazz and calypso that made it distinctly Cuban. One of my favorite old recordings, introduced to me by my father, is “Esto es Cuba” with Ramon Veloz and Guillermo Portabales.

      There were factories producing records in Cuba and selling thru out the U.S. The U.S. had a love for Cuban music and embraced it’s influence. Heck, remember Ricky Ricardo? I only have one pre- Castro “Cuban Plastic and Record Corp” Cuban produced record left from my Dad’s collection. RCA did invest in and supported music all over the World, “back in the day”. Maybe there was some bitterness in the U.S. because after Castro sized power, the music stopped.

  • Dennis Mar April 29, 2017, 12:31 pm

    Wonderful first-hand reporting. While not having as significant relationship as between Cuba and the USA, both Haiti and the Bahamas (Inagua Island) are closer to Cuba than Key West is (using my ruler on a map).

  • bill leone April 29, 2017, 4:53 pm

    Great article Joe! My wife Diane & I plan to visit Cuba, as soon as my Spanish gets over 50% fluent.
    How did you get to Cuba, & where did you stay?

  • Marguerite McCurry April 29, 2017, 6:57 pm

    So good to see the Livernois way with words, again!! Keep on writing, Joe… you and Royal and a few others are keeping good journalism alive! thanks…

  • Danny Lewis May 1, 2017, 9:13 pm

    It’s nice to see my ‘spelling lessons’ to Joe are paying dividends. If only I had gained as much from Joe teaching me to play chess, I’d be the world champion chess player. Nice seeing your pieces Joe, well done!
    Danny Lewis

  • Jeanne Turner May 5, 2017, 1:17 pm

    Dan and I went to Cuba with Road Scholar in March of 2016. The local people to whom we spoke were very open and honest, answering questions and discussing the country’s current financial situation. We had a young tour guide on our bus on days we traveled. She was also very frank and open about Cuba’s precarious financial situation. What I took away from our trip was how much appreciation the young people have for the revolution and what it has meant for the people. Although lifting the U.S. embargo could greatly benefit these people, they are wary of U.S. investors coming in and turning Cuba into a Miami Beach. They so NOT want McDonalds dotting their landscape.

  • Jeanne Turner May 5, 2017, 1:21 pm

    P.S. Dan caught something on the plane from SFO to Miami so was sick by the time we reached our hotel – Hotel Nacional – in Havana. There was an infirmary in the hotel with both a doctor and nurse who treated him with a nebulizer for two days, free of charge, and procured some meds for him. All he paid was the taxi fare to bring the meds to the hotel.

  • Karl Pallastrini May 13, 2017, 7:52 pm

    Lets face it folks. Ernesto “Che” Guevarra, along with Fidel Castro were not interested in continuing the Bautista government, which was in the pocket of U.S. Capitol Investment Companies. Castro was the wild card. The Bay of Pigs was JFK’s first international disaster, and Cuba (or Cuber) as he referred to it, would suffer the sanctions of U.S. Economic Sanctions…supported by the Military…for many years after the sequence of events that led to Castro’s government. What was happening in Cuba is the same thing that was happening in South and Central America during that period of time. It was all about U.S. Corporate exploitation of natural resources for the purpose of one thing….profit. This is a sad, but all to familiar story of our past interventions in countries that had virtually nothing, but the natural resources that we controlled in the name of Capitolism. We need, as a nation, to own up to the expansionist policies that made so many Latin Countries subservient to the United States. Regarding Obama…perhaps his signature accomplishment was to open the lines of communication between the U.S. and Cuba. Yes, there will be a lot of problems and issues that will need resolution, but Cuba is an intriguing neighbor that can only enhance the cultural experience for America.