Living with sanctions
Economic distress, which has deepened since the end of the Cold War, has not brought Cuba any closer to democracy.
HAVANA - On the potholed highway from the Havana airport, which like endless squares and streets is named after Jose Marti, a symbol of Cuba's rebellion against Spain, conspicuous signs welcome new arrivals. The portrait of Che Guevara in his beret and Fidel Castro with his beard, next to slogans marking 51 years since the revolution, can enlighten anyone who believes in sanctions.
A few days later, on a rural road, we watch horses lazily pulling carts, a common mode of transportation in Cuba, past a colorful poster proclaiming "homeland or death." Only once, in a restaurant in someone's home in the old quarter of the city of Trinidad, do we see a Cuban cast an angry glance at the pictures of Che Guevara and President Raul Castro and curse the regime under his breath.
In Plaza de Armas in the center of Havana, a newspaper vendor offers the latest issue of the official paper containing a speech by the elderly leader. The full version of course. This year is the 50th anniversary of the U.S. embargo on Cuba following the socialist revolution and Castro's alliance with the Soviets. The USSR disintegrated, but the old regime in Cuba remained.
Fifteen years ago, after the arrest of dozens of members of the opposition and the downing of two civilian planes by Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue ) an American organization of Cuban exiles, Bill Clinton placed restrictions on investors and business people operating in Cuba. Castro (Fidel ) went and Castro (Raul ) came, and the system (with slight modifications ) remained.
In the lobby of Hotel Habana Libre (formerly the Hilton ), which served in 1959 as Castro's headquarters, tourists from Canada are perusing a propaganda poster against "the American terrorists." When evening comes, they will dance and drink mojitos with crowds of Cubans, young and old, who flock to the seafront Malecon esplanade to watch the summer carnival.
The next day, in the resort town of Varadero, a young Cuban woman will invite them, in English, French and German, to a dancing lesson. Like the taxi driver, the waiter, the elevator boy and the saleswoman in the souvenir store, she is a state employee. Most are university graduates, whose wages are the equivalent of $10 to $15 a month. The state provides them with free education, healthcare and vouchers for rice, beans and oil. There's also a voucher for rum, the national drink. The main thing is to be happy.
Economic distress, which has deepened since the end of the Cold War, has not brought democracy closer to the little southern neighbor of the United States. The country is rafting distance from Florida's beaches, but its people are not allowed to buy a cellphone, not to mention a satellite dish. A female doctor who is sent (by the state, of course ) to another country has to leave her small children behind in the homeland as a deposit.
And yet 11 million Cubans do not rebel against the dark regime that has dominated their lives for more than 50 years. Fear of the long arm of the authorities, or devotion to communist ideology wins out over the shame of poverty (it should be noted that there is almost no hunger in Cuba ) and the longing for freedom.
The museum at the Bay of Pigs, which immortalizes the story of the failed U.S. attempt to have Cuban expatriates bring down Castro's regime, recalls the incident on the Mavi Marmara. The Israeli military's deadly attack on the deck of the Turkish vessel has joined the heroic ethos of Hamas and strengthened the group's stature among the Palestinian people. Those in the know say that nothing unites the Cuban people more behind the Castro brothers than hatred for gringos - the Americans who imposed a blockade on them.
To relieve the shortages somewhat, Raul Castro has led minor economic reforms, including the privatization of a number of sectors of the economy. But it's a long way from that to reform of Cuba's communist government, like the distance between Hamas in Gaza and democracy.
In Washington they are beginning to understand that sanctions alone will not lead Cuba on a new path. When will they understand in Jerusalem that economic distress and religious oppression, with no real hope for release from foreign occupation, will not lead the Gaza Strip on the right path?