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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 6, 2003

Cuba, land of paradoxes, shares Hawai'i's struggle to define itself

By Robert M. Rees

HAVANA — Cuba's deputy director of foreign affairs for North America, Gustavo Machin, employs the Marxist-Leninist tenet that the end justifies the means, and that a society should thus be judged by equity of outcome rather than fairness of process. He admonished the visiting alumni seminar from Stanford University: "Do not apply the concepts of the United States to Cuba."

Universal access to education and healthcare are cornerstones of state ideology under Fidel Castro, guaranteed by Cuba's Constitution. But the state often lacks money to make good on its promises.

Photo by Robert M. Rees

Still, traveling the country's 825-mile length revealed uncanny parallels between one of the few remaining communist states and Hawai'i, if not the United States.

Cuba, like Hawai'i, is a multiethnic rainbow. According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, about half of Cubans are mulatto, 37 percent white Hispanic, 11 percent black and 1 percent "Asiatocos," primarily Chinese descended from the 35,000 Cantonese who arrived in the mid-1800s.

Contrary to what we sometimes hear, Cubans don't dislike Americans, only American policy. Typical was a street vendor on Obispo Street in Havana wearing a New York Yankees baseball hat while selling photos of Che Guevara.

The food and music of Cuba, which have grown out of the meeting of cultures, reflect the composition and spirit of the people. In the state-run El Aljibe Restaurant in Havana, we caught sight of Omaro Portuondo, the 69-year-old star of "Buena Vista Social Club," who combines the softness of Spanish guitars and flutes with the rhythmic heartbeats of African drums and claves. She was enjoying a lunch of moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians), a national favorite that features white rice, exotic sauces and black beans.

Along with ethnic diversity, the archipelagoes of Cuba and Hawai'i share similar modern histories. Both were shaped by colonization and sugarocracies during the 19th century. Both suffered fallout from the Spanish-American War and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny under President William McKinley. Both — Hawai'i in fact and Cuba de facto — became U.S. territories. Both went through upheaval in the 1950s, Hawai'i on the docks and at the polls in the Democratic Revolution, and Cuba in the mountains and cane fields with the overthrow of Gen. Fulgencio Batista.

As a result, almost all Cubans and at least some Native Hawaiians see their respective histories as still-incomplete struggles for self-determination.

Despite such parallels, it's the differences that stand out at first blush. Flying into Havana at night, the eerie darkness of a city of more than 2 million suffering from power shortages is startling. Going through customs, where authorities confiscate headphones, it's clear that Cuba is a police state. It is hardly comforting to hear our guide reassure us, "Cuba is not an authoritarian state. There are free elections for what we call the dictatorship of the people."

Not all apparent differences put Cuba in a bad light. If we judge by access and emphasis, medical care and education appear more advanced than in Hawai'i. In the Cuban Constitution of 1976, which installed the Partido Communista de Cuba as the sole political party, health and education were proclaimed as fundamental rights.

A leading surgeon in Havana, Dr. Roberto Fliestes, told us: "We can provide healthcare for everybody. We no longer die from diseases of poverty. Cuba has the system Hillary Clinton tried but failed to get." Access to healthcare is part of the nation's ideology.

Dr. Fliestes, an oncologist who earns $35 a month from the state, acknowledged that the national budget for medical care, $200 million, is woefully inadequate. He had been reduced to using latex glove fingers as drainage tubes.

Literacy and education also are seen as integral parts of the revolution. Fully restored with bullet holes, the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba — where Castro and 122 others launched their first assault on Batista on July 26, 1953 — now serves as a primary school.

In the former presidential palace in Havana, a caricature of former President Ronald Reagan is accompanied by the message: "Thanks, you cretin(s), for helping us to strengthen the revolution."

Photo by Robert M. Rees

Still, despite good intentions, the Cuban government is an oppressive dictatorship of the proletariat. The top-down rule, based on a pragmatic amalgam of anti-Americanism, nationalism and Marxist-Leninist theory and practice, emanates entirely from the whims of Castro, who, as the Cuban slogan goes, insists on nothing less than "Fidelity to the homeland, the revolution and Fidel."

Castro's sayings and images of Che Guevara, posted by young Communists in a cult of personality, are ubiquitous. Even the wall of a local bar in the tiny fishing village of Mata features a Fidelism: "We are a people of ideas, not a community of fanatics."

It is not these heavy-handed and corny homilies, so reminiscent of the darkness at noon in the Soviet Union and East Berlin, that account for Castro's having survived to celebrate the revolution's 44th anniversary. The United States also has handed him an enemy. In Havana's Museo de la Revolucion, the former presidential palace, a display called the Rincon de los Cretinos, the Corner of Cretins, features caricatures of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with the message, "Thanks, you cretin(s), for helping us to strengthen the revolution." It is an acknowledgment that America's embargoes on trade and tourism — extensions of the same vendetta that produced the Bay of Pigs and attempts to murder Castro — have solidified his revolution and Cuba's resolve.

The 1.5 million Cuban Americans who make up the Miami Exile Community in the key electoral state of Florida have further inflamed the U.S. vendetta. Driving by the grand mansions that once belonged to the wealthy in the Vedado and Playa sections of Havana under Batista, a Cuban friend commented dryly, "No wonder the Cubans in Miami are so angry."

Anger at the United States and the fiery right-wing antipathy of Cuban Americans help Castro to rally Cuba's 11.2 million people, even though the economy is in shambles. He continues to pursue what his billboards proclaim as "Victoria del Socialismo."

But while the people are poor, Cuba does not suffer the abject poverty associated with some Latin American nations. And the people, as if to answer the American embargo, are innovative and energetic. The average automobile must be close to 50 years old, but Cubans have learned to build parts from just about anything imaginable. The fleet continues to run and is a source of national pride.

Cuba has made some accommodations with capitalism to survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, once its biggest economic supporter and customer for sugar. About 90 percent of Cuba's workers are employed by the state, but there are now 200,000 farmers and 100,000 "cuentapropistas," small-business owners, who work quasi-privately on an incentive basis.

Because Cuba needs hard currency, Castro has created an economy where the dollar is king. The result is a two-tier system in which the poor have access only to pesos. To capture more hard currency, Cuba is focusing on tourism.

Where the American Mafia once frolicked and profited in Havana —the Hotel Nacional on the Malecon still features photos of guests such as Lucky Luciano, Anastasia and Meyer Lansky — Castro substituted "social tourism," highlighting the achievements of socialism. When that didn't work, "health tourism," featuring face-lifts and checkups, was tried. Now, in Pinar Del Rio, one of the most beautiful of the 14 provinces, eco-tourism is emphasized.

But the real hope lies in the same mass market relied on by Hawai'i. According to the Communist Party newspaper, Granma, Cuba will get close to 2 million visitors this year unless the "imperialist war on Iraq" gets in the way. In anticipation, Cuba is building new resort hotels. One area, Varadero, already is touted by guides and maps as "the Waikiki of Cuba."

Most visitors are Canadians and Germans, but travel limitations do not keep some 200,000 Americans from arriving annually. Many are Cuban Americans, but about 25,000 are Americans traveling without the license from the U.S. Treasury that is considered necessary to spend dollars in Cuba.

Castro wants tourism but fears the contact it will bring. Meeting rooms at hotels where foreigners are apt to meet with Cubans are regularly wired. One Cuban who extolled the virtues of the revolution in a public room at the Parque Central Hotel in Old Havana later acknowledged he had been talking for the microphones.

Surveillance and spying have become a way of life for Cubans. Anyone who wants a taste of where the USA Patriot Act is taking the United States need only visit. On the day we left, authorities arrested 87 Cubans suspected of collaborating with Americans assigned to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

Out of fear of retaliation and double agents, and because it has its own agenda, the United States does not communicate with Cubans in Cuba. Kathleen List of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana calls it "a non-fraternization post."

The vacuum left by the absence of communications is filled by misimpressions, stalemates and threats. Perhaps the best example is Guantanamo Bay. From the hillside on the Cuban side overlooking the U.S. Naval Base, one can see the Cuban and American minefields separating the two sides. In the distance is the American dream offered to Cubans: The only McDonald's in the country, as well as buildings that house prisoners from the war on terrorism.

Facing it on the Cuban side is a stark billboard, "Socialism or Death."

Still, Cubans cannot be said to be doing poorly. We went to a night baseball game at Havana's Estadio Latinomericano and saw with our own eyes players hitting .400 or more, while playing in shadows on a badly lit, uneven playing field.

Robert M. Rees is the moderator of 'Olelo Television's "Counterpoint" and Hawai'i Public Radio's "Talk of the Islands."