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Jewish World Review March 15, 2001/ 20 Adar 5761

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports


American dream lives in Havana?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com --
HAVANA, Cuba | It's hard not notice that Americans are all over Cuba and, parenthetically, that the Helms-Burton Act and the U.S. embargo are ineffectual.

Cuban people are suffering deprivations most Americans can only imagine, while U.S. citizens miss out on a variety of business opportunities. Despite our efforts to strangle the Cuban economy, about 150 other nations are enjoying trade relations and business associations with the Cuban government.

The only person who seems to benefit from our draconian policies is Fidel Castro. How convenient of us to provide him an enemy to hate and an excuse for the failings of his regime. As long as the United States appears to behave badly, Castro can believe -- and perhaps convince others -- that his contempt is justified.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans are ignoring our policies. No one's saying how many Americans visit the island illegally. Cuban officials record every boat that docks at one of the country's 17 marinas, but they politely decline to divulge numbers.

Whether they count those who come by jet from Canada, Mexico and Jamaica isn't clear. Cuba doesn't stamp American passports and welcomes anyone who is friendly. The unspoken understanding is that American policies toward Cuba aren't worthy of allegiance.

A Floridian and veteran visitor who was docked in Marina Hemingway, for example, says he fills out all the proper forms with American customs, signs papers promising he won't spend any money while he's here, and then does what he wants. "Yadda, yadda, yadda. They know it's bull," he says.

Cubans are delighted to welcome Americans and their dollars, which have become the preferred currency since Castro legalized it in 1993, a step he took to funnel dollars from the flourishing black market into the mainstream economy.

The effect has been creation of an economic apartheid. Cubans with access to dollars, primarily through coveted tourist industry jobs, can buy quality products at "dollar stores," while state employees who earn only pesos stand in line for government-subsidized goods.

It's not surprising that well-educated Cubans clamor for jobs as cab drivers, bartenders and hotel maids. A chemical engineer mixing daiquiris at Havana's Parque Central Hotel might collect $20 a day in tips, while his state-employed counterpart earns a comparable amount monthly. One cab driver left his job as a military jet pilot. Another gave up his engineering job, saying, "It beats peddling a bicycle 25 kilometers to work in a factory."

But what about all that education? Training? Talent?

"You can have talent or you can have food," he says. "Eating is better."

The dollar economy is changing the way Cubans think. When hard currency is freely exchanged for goods and services, it's tough to ignore the connections. Hard work equals more money equals better goods equals a better life.

These capitalist constructs, which Americans embrace as inalienable rights, are considered counterrevolutionary here. Yet as Americans' feet continue touching Cuban soil, these ideas are slowly taking root.

If, as our official policy claims, we really want to encourage open economies and a peaceful transition to a stable, democratic form of government, the most direct route isn't through embargoes or other punitive actions, but through increasing Cubans' exposure to Americans and Western values. Castro would hate it.


JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.

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