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May 2003

DISPATCH FROM HAVANA

 

CASTRO ARRESTS 75 DISSIDENTS AFTER U.S. DIPLOMAT NAMED THEM ON TELEVISION

 

By Henry William Brownejohns

 

HAVANA, Cuba - It is the least I can do for the people of Philadelphia to file this post-card in their honor, from my perch here in Central Havana, crumbling, low, loud, hot, breezy, malodorous, and off-limits to all but the reckless and determined.  For the readership of this epistle will by now have weathered the narrative of the late war in the most irritating fashion - through their television-boxes - effectively circumnavigating their consciences, and going straight to their gut.

     While on the contrary, it has been my anachronistic pleasure to sit out the war in Iraq with the scarcest trickle of unreliable information, much hearsay of surprising accuracy, and a natural and accurate sense of distance.  In Havana, nobody makes too much effort to get the news, and yet everybody seems to know exactly what is going on.  Of course, the swankiest hotels provide cable news networks in their rummy bars, but Cubans are not allowed in these places – they are reserved for foreigners with billfolds full of dollars.

     I myself have experienced this most thoroughly filmed and rehearsed of all wars the way the world must have experienced the conflicts of old – through reports several days old circulating through the gossip networks; overheard conversations on street corners; snippets of fact gleaned from unashamedly prejudiced newspaper accounts; and the rare appearance of genuine expression in paint or marker upon a public wall, though quickly obscured by official whitewash.

     The Cubans I have spoken with are opposed to the belligerence, and immensely sympathetic to the sentiment as they have heard it from their neighbor to the North.  The expression “the State but not the People” has been offered up countless times by Cubans who know all too well how a government comes unattached from its populace.  The war, they know, is the idea of the administration, and is not a fair representation of the American will; just as Castro’s three decades of idling following his one decade of progress and triumph does not represent the wont and desire of the typical resilient Cubano. 

But for this American, to accept so much sympathy from so many Cubans only made the travesty of current events the more miserable – how did the American government cease to represent the general will of its people?  The Cuban national character, perhaps more than any other I have come across, is possessed of sympathy in vast quantities.  While political socialism here has surely failed, the social element of it is robust – people help strangers and friends with equal fervor and with equally little expectation of reward.  And so I have not been surprised when this sympathy pours over into their perception of the turmoil in American politics – they are sorry to see us suffer, and they know what it is to take international ridicule of one’s country and government personally.  But it is perverse, if I consider it, to be consoled so much by the subjects of an autocrat, on the topic of the health of my own democracy.  Yet this is the direction the sympathy flows here, from South to North, in spite of History.

     The Cubans know the difficulty we face in arriving upon their shores in search of the pleasures of travel, as surely as we have heard of the difficulty they face in arriving on ours, in search of a life worth living.  There is no comparison.  As unconstitutionally preposterous as the quasi-prohibition of American travel to Havana may be, it is only an approximation of the universal restrictions imposed on the movements of Castro’s citizens.  Thus, stepping off an airplane in Havana, clutching one’s black-market boarding-pass and his unstamped passport, one is instantly more understanding of the plight of the Cuban citizen and the cunning necessary to even subsist here; but such understanding can only go so far.  And yet when I announce the country of my origin, I inevitably fall behind in the exchange of sympathy. I am still perplexed by the nuance of the idea: to know just how tumultuous and unwell the United States currently is, and to still crave it and honor it without compare.  This is the Cuban stance, and it is enough to make a yankee demagogue want to hurry home and get to work.

While I have been here, two airplanes have been hijacked from the airport and brought, by the pin of a grenade, to Florida.  Also, the ferryboat that plies the five-minute route between the two sides of Havana harbor was seized at knifepoint, and motored thirty miles out into the Straits of Florida before it ran out of gas, and the perpetrators were apprehended.  Dr. Castro, following the lead of his autocratic protégé in Washington, has declared these acts Terrorism, and has thus had a free reign in enforcing his punishment for it.  While those Cubans who made it to Florida will serve five to ten years in American jails for air piracy, the trio who was captured aboard the ferryboat was executed not yet a week after their crime was committed, as an example to others.  In Washington, the Bush administration finds itself without a response consistent with both their remorseless bellicosity and their obligatory American pose in support of human rights (especially as an undisclosed number of Afghan and Arab prisoners continue to fritter away their lives at Camp X-Ray, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, of all places - accused of much the same vague crime, and as scantily protected by international convention). 

The problem is, at its heart, that the recent prosecution in Cuba of the anti-dissent laws is largely the result of American meddling.  The single American diplomat here, Mr. James Cason, a Bush appointee, has made a habit of going on television and naming those Cuban activists with whom he had been meeting – secretly, or so thought the activists.  He thus incited Dr. Castro to arrest them (upwards of seventy-five such friends of Mr. Cason have now been apprehended), and the administration foolishly expects the Cuban people to rise up in armed protest.  This is not even a remote option, a thing immediately clear to anyone who has even spent an overnight among this tranquil society.  Instead, those opponents of the regime who think they are likely next to the gulag become afraid and desperate, and seize boats and planes, endangering themselves and the civilians on board.  Once this sort of measure has been resorted to, it is all too simple for Comandante en Jefe to mete out the ultimate punishment under the premise of fighting the War against Terrorism, leaving the U.S. flabbergasted and useless, too afraid of being called hypocritical to stand up, even once, for what is right and honorable.

 

This accounts for the political climate here, but I cannot conclude without pointing out to my housebound readers what a minute fraction of Cuban life is concerned with such things.  Life is much too challenging here, from hour to hour, to spend one’s mental energy contemplating the machinations of officials and generals.  I have said everybody here knows, somehow, what is the latest from the Middle East; but they do not preoccupy themselves with it.  Yet nobody here is a defeatist or a fatalist; on the contrary, I sense less resignation here than I did on the streets in New York during the long run-up to the fighting.  Either the climate here is as favorable to the cultivation of loony optimism as it is to bananas and sugar, or the political philosophy that has evolved here – patience and fortitude – is not as simplistic as my sensibilities made me think at first, but is instead like the pure pragmatism that carried our own country through its worst times, and hopefully will again.  A healthful, sensible United States is the best hope for beleaguered Cuba; the deteriorated state of this marvelous place is all the more evidence that our own affairs are far from well-handled.

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