Parting Thoughts About Cuba
After the discussion, we walked to the Museo de la Revolución. The idea of putting the Museum of the Revolution in the former presidential palace of the dictator Fulgencio Batista was clearly symbolic. The history of Cuban political development is illustrated here from the slave uprisings to joint missions with the former Soviet Union. The building has neo-Classical elements, and was decorated by Tiffany of New York.
Our last evening was spent at La Guarida, a well-known restaurant that served as the setting for the main apartment in the film Fresa y Chocolate. The three small rooms of this converted apartment are reached by climbing three flights of steep, run-down, and poorly lit stairs. There's an extensive selection of Spanish, French, Italian and Chilean wines. I understand it's a tough reservation, but if you ever visit Havana, make plans.
Finally, a series of observations. Cuba has what I call a "septocracy" - an oligarchy of 70-year-olds (interestingly, similar to China's leadership). When Raúl Castro came to power, there was an opportunity for Cuba's "politburo" to be filled with younger members, but that didn't happen, because the septocrats didn't want to hand over their power. Real reform will come when both Castro's are gone. There have been changes in recent years, but these are slow and few. Cuban citizens have been allowed a degree of personal freedom - they are now allowed to use cell phones, for example (although they are relatively expensive for most Cubans); and are taking more trips outside the country.
Today there are still the issues of free speech and releasing political prisoners (Cubans do not have access to the internet; a Cuban intranet exists, but is tightly controlled by the government). Part of the dilemma is that the older generation still remembers the brutal poverty of the pre-Castro days, while the younger generation has no memory of this, and just sees how different their life is from young people outside Cuba (and since younger people don't have access to the internet, they don't have a sense of the world). Political repression has remained consistent over time.
While the embargo has had a significant effect on ordinary Cubans, our gaining a better understanding of the Cuban reaction to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, how that led to the invitation to the Soviets to attempt to base missiles in Cuba, and in general, our country's conduct in the region after the Spanish-American War, opened my eyes to how others think of the United States. There was a lot of discussion of the power of the Cuban-American population in Florida, and how that affects efforts to lift the embargo. This subject has a host of cross-currents, but the ordinary Cuban gets caught in the middle. The embargo has cost US farmers and other producers billions of dollars of potential exports. I personally worry that, with two generations having grown up during the US embargo (which isn't recognized by our allies), we're losing the opportunity to show how great it is to live in freedom. Cubans have little in the way of reference points with which to understand how their lives could be better. I believe the fastest way to liberalize Cuba would be to remove the embargo, as the greatest effect of the embargo has been to give Fidel Castro an excuse for his economic failures.
Finally, the stories about 1940s and 1950s cars are accurate. I've attached a series of photos of cars, and in one of them you can see a recent Audi in the parking lot. An Audi is not a car used by most Cubans, and I understand that it probably belonged to an athlete of some sort (in Cuba, athletes are placed on pedestals, and béisbol is truly the national sport, probably watched more than in the US).
A really fascinating trip that I'd like to repeat in five years or so (especially after the Castro's have left the scene). If you get the opportunity to visit Cuba as part of a People to People program (the only way Americans can legally visit Cuba), I urge you to go. You won't soon forget the experience!