Jewish World Review April 9, 1999 /23 Nissan 5759
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Having been fortunate enough to snag an assignment to cover the Baltimore Orioles-Cuban all-stars baseball game—the first time a major league team has played in Cuba in 40 years—I was running about the city, enjoying mojitos and fine music. During the week before the baseball game, several dozen U.S. pop musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, Joan Osborne, David and Don Was, Mick Fleetwood and Burt Bacharach—came to town as part of a musical exchange to write, record and perform with Cuban artists.
Throughout Havana, news crews chased after the U.S. celebrities, including actor Woody Harrelson, who was inexplicably part of the delegation. At the patio bar of the luxurious Hotel Nacional, the famous offered sound bites on U.S.-Cuban relations. Bacharach told Bravo that cultural exchanges of this sort will make it "easier for us to all get together. Music should be shared."
Raitt told a band of Cuban journalists that it was "good to be here while Cuba is still not so under the influence of the West." And Harrelson, swiping at American moral superiority, told a Fox News reporter, "You think you’re a free person? Try driving without a seatbelt. Or try driving a motorcycle without a helmet. Try smoking a joint. There’s oppression here, no doubt it exists, but why do we keep idealizing what we have?" At the end of the week—hours after the Os defeated the Cubans in a well-fought, extra-innings game, 3 to 2—Cuban and American musicians gathered at the Karl Marx Theater for the climactic concert.
There wasn’t much overt politics to the show. The most explicit song was performed by Raitt, Harrelson, Pablo Menendez and Ray Guerra: "Cuba Is Way Too Cool," with lyrics poking fun at the United States, portraying it as a bully in its relationship with this island nation: "Big bad wolf, you look the fool... If you’re so mighty, tell me, where’s the threat?" It’s hard to argue that Washington, with its absurd 37-year-old travel and commercial embargo, has not been less than heavy-handed in dealing with Cuba. And before an audience that included a bronzed George Hamilton, rapper Michael Franti proclaimed, "This week with the baseball game and the concert—this signifies a new time. This is a time when things really began to change."
But in Cuba, life has gotten less cool for free-thinkers, and recent changes in internal policies haven’t been positive. Should I have been surprised that the American musicians I spoke with backstage were unaware that the island was in the middle of a severe government clampdown? The artists were in Cuba to make music, not to assess the political scene. Nevertheless, it was difficult to applaud for a song hailing Cuba’s coolness after having visited a Cuban writer named Luis. Two weeks before the ball game, four dissidents were sentenced to prison for publishing a critique of the 1997 Cuban Communist Party platform.
Scores of activists were detained prior to the closed-doors trial.
(Canada, one of Cuba’s largest investors, protested the verdicts vigorously, as did the European Union.) In the first two months of this year, at least 17 independent journalists were arrested. In Havana these days, police are everywhere. They’ve cleared out what once was an extensive prostitution trade; they also are sending a signal: We are watching. Cars are routinely pulled over, papers and passengers checked.
In February the government passed a harsh anti-sedition law that severely punishes Cubans involved in disseminating "subversive" information.
(The law was approved shortly after the Clinton administration angered the Castro regime by announcing minor measures to increase contact between Cubans and Americans while maintaining the embargo.)
Luis was upset about the anti-sedition law. He can no longer work with foreign journalists, as he has in the past. He has lost much of his income. Were he to act as a translator or consultant for an overseas newspaper and the paper ran a story the government deemed harmful to the revolution, Luis could be imprisoned for two decades. "The new law came as a surprise," he said. "After the Pope visited in early 1998, dissidents could meet in people’s homes. Sometimes a security officer would visit and warn them not to overstep. And in December, the government approved Christmas as a paid holiday. That was a sign of tolerance. The new law ends all of this."
Why the new round of repression? "Since the collapse of the Soviet Union," Luis explained, "the government has been forced to open some areas of the economy and that gives independence to part of the population. The worst nightmare of Fidel Castro is to lose power. And Castro was mad about the latest Clinton steps. He sees no relaxation, just the United States trying to stimulate subversion and get people to behave against the government."
Luis yearns for American periodicals and books, which the U.S. government does not permit to be sold in Cuba. A family member craves a copy of Dr. Strangelove, which she has never seen and which is not shown in Cuba. Luis spoke of a Cuban who went to America and wanted to buy a computer printer he could not acquire officially at home.
The U.S. government, citing the embargo, would not permit him to bring the printer back to Cuba. It is madness that Washington makes the plight of people like Luis harder. If Americans could travel to Cuba, if U.S. firms could sell goods to Cuba, those who do not back Castro’s status quo would be reinforced. "The U.S. embargo should be lifted," said Luis, who supported the ban until the fall of the Soviet Union. "The embargo and U.S. policy are the bogeymen that are used to justify the inefficiencies and incapacities of the Cuban government to deliver. It gives Castro the excuse for what he does." Castro—who, to be fair, does preside over a developing nation with less visible poverty than many Latin America nations—justifies his repressive practices by pointing to the threat from across the Florida straits. I’d like to see him try to rationalize the oppression without that threat.
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers