Political columnist James “Scotty” Reston once observed that Americans “will do anything for Latin America–except read about it.” So although the health of Castro and the future of Cuba have been much in the news, I’m still not sure that outside Miami, most Americans are paying any attention. Still, I thought I’d share some recollections of a trip to Cuba in 1999.
I was there as part of a U.S.-sanctioned visit of educators to Cuba. During that time, we had a chance to visit many Cuban schools and speak with (carefully vetted) teachers and administrators. We also heard more than our share of party officials. Here are a few observations:
1. Fidel is perhaps the best politician I have ever seen. Clearly, he’s needed great political skill to remain in power for so long. Case in point: There are no statues of Fidel in Cuba. Instead, the icon of the revolution is Che. It is his picture emblazoned eight stories high on a building near the central square where Fidel gives his address to the nation. So even after Fidel’s death, the hero of the revolution will “live” on.
2. In the end, the embargo hurts both Cuba and the U.S. I’m well aware of the human rights violations in Cuba, but there are certainly similar violations in countries like China, where we are only too happy to trade and do business. Shutting off all contact between the two countries allows the worst extremists in both countries to control what gets said.
3. Despite all their difficulties, Cubans retain a zest for life and a great sense of humor. This joke was a favorite among Cubans when we were there. A man dies and gets sent to hell. He is met at the entrance and offered his choice: imperialist American hell or Cuban socialist hell. What’s the difference, he asks? “In imperialist hell, you’re chopped up in little pieces, boiled in oil, then left to bake for a fiery eternity.” And in Cuban hell? “You’re chopped up in little pieces, boiled in oil, then left to bake for a fiery eternity.” In that case, says the man, the choice is easy. “I’ll choose the socialist hell. After all, in socialist hell, there may not be any oil … the cutting machine may be broken … the boiler may break down …”