It’s about time: “Defying a threatened presidential veto, the Senate joined the House Thursday
Florida, where Gee Dubya Shrub needs to curry favor with the Cuban emigré community for the
next presidential election.
I went to Cuba with a group of tourists in 2002 on a cultural trip arranged by the
Seattle rock museum Experience the Music Project. The fact that
the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, which is supposed to be fighting
terrorism and drug trafficking, devotes 10 percent of its budget to tracking down “little old grandmas” who’ve arranged “to bike in
Cuba” is beyond belief.
Worse is the president’s pledge “to step up enforcement of the travel ban, by increasing
inspections of travelers and shipments to and from Cuba.” And worst is the Department of
Homeland Security’s immediate reaction that it would direct “‘intelligence and investigative
resources’ to identify travelers or businesses that circumvent the sanctions against Cuba.” That’s
just what’s needed, Tom Ridge’s minions busily terrorizing American tourists in the war against
I was only in Cuba for 10 days, not long enough to get more than a surface impression. But
as I wrote at the time, “waking up in Havana feels wondrous.” I took a lot of notes and turned
them into a three-part travel story, “Where
time has stopped.” It began:
From the look of the cars, or what’s left of them, it’s the 1950s. And nobody is hurrying to
work. The hush of dawn lasts until 10 in the morning, when the grocery stores finally open. But
the faint odor of petroleum from the nearby oil refineries already hangs in the air. It will last all
day, until a fresh sea breeze washes it away at evening.
It’s not only the sight of American-made cars from an earlier era — a 1951 Chevrolet parked
on its axles, a 1955 Studebaker in need of a paint job, a 1954 Chrysler cab in front of my hotel —
that lends Havana a feeling of stopped time. It’s the sleepy pace of daily life.
There’s no big-city bustle in Fidel Castro’s capital, population 2.2 million, unless you count
the crowds that pack the bus stops under the midday sun or the tourists that jam the clubs and
hotels at night. From every corner you can see empty stretches of impoverished streets paved with
dirt, dilapidated buildings with once-ornate facades now crumbling and blackened with age.
Though hardly a cure for the poverty, joyous Cuban music can be heard everywhere
day and night. I’ve come to think of it as the holy order of the clavé, and it may be something of
an antidote to bitterness. I have no other way to explain the graciousness and openness of the
Cubans I met. Even the persistent street hustlers selling cut-rate cigars and the pretty, equally
unavoidable prostitutes in the dance halls were remarkably pleasant, their aggressiveness just a
form of friendly persuasion.
Then, of course, there’s the stopped-time image of Che Guevara in his military beret, a distant
if famous memory of the ’60s, but still seen everywhere in today’s Cuba. Che’s handsome,
bearded face — on billboards and postcards, on T-shirts and posters — is not just an emblem of
the Revolution. It is the symbol, some would say relic, of a state religion.
If you go to
Che’s shrine in Santa Clara southeast of Havana, where he is buried beneath a gigantic
Soviet-style statue that commemorates both his decisive military victory over Fulgencio Batista’s
army in 1958 and his departure for Bolivia in 1965 to foment another (this time unsuccessful)
revolution, you will see him heroically outlined against the sky.
The words “Hasta la victoria siempre” (“Always to victory”) are inscribed on the statue’s
huge granite pedestal. He carries his rifle in one hand. His other hand, wounded in battle, is
wrapped in bandages. The dimly lighted crypt beneath the monument, where Che’s bones are
interred in a wall vault along with 30 others who died with him in Bolivia, has the sacred aura of a
martyr’s burial place.
The great man himself, Fidel Castro, far from being preserved in
amber, is a constant living presence with his own aura of grandeur and mystery. Yet the
75-year-old father of the Revolution -— whose ideas are law and, however dubious, communist
policy — is nothing if not a reminder of the past: a walking, talking embodiment of stopped
I went on to point out that the
pleasures of Cuba are many, its famous cigars in particular, “but fine dining is not one of
them. The food I ate was tasty (leagues beyond, say, Czechoslovakian cuisine). But we were
invariably served a monotonous diet of the “Cuban trilogy,” our tour leader’s phrase for chicken,
pork or fish (always red snapper).”
I noted, too, that music is a
daily devotion. “Because there are about 14,800 well-trained
professional musicians, most of them concentrated in Havana, the city’s restaurants and cafes,
hotels and dance halls come alive with the joyful sounds of swinging bands and lilting singers. In
my experience, only Vienna (though decidedly more sedate) can match the Cuban capital for its
devotion to music in daily life.” And finally, when some in the group were mugged after a baseball
game as they left Havana’s main stadium — a mugging that sent one of us to the hospital — it was
a too-vivid reminder that even where time has stopped and the music plays on, poverty and
violence still lurk like evil twins.