On my way home from Cuba the other day — Havana via Montreal — I had all my souvenirs confiscated at the US-Canada border. I’d spent a week in Castro country and had loaded up on about $75 worth of T-shirts and small gifts. Instead of lying to the customs officials and saying I’d been in Montreal visiting friends, which would have been easy enough, I decided to tell them the real story: I’d gone to Cuba on an assignment for a golf magazine. Good-bye, T-shirts.
I’m not really blaming the rules-bound customs guys at the border checkpoint north of Burlington, Vt. US law says that any goods purchased in Cuba — with the strange exception of literature — must be confiscated. “You should have checked the State Department website,’’ one of them told me, and he was correct. But setting my own travel sloppiness aside, the law that says you can’t bring home a small bag of gifts from Cuba is absurd. If I remember right, we lost 58,000 good Americans in Vietnam, and 40 years later you can bring home just about anything from that nation. China, Russia, Albania, Burma, the dictatorships of Africa — please, spend some money there, bring home souvenirs for your kids.
But don’t spend a peso in Cuba.
Why? Because wealthy and politically well-connected Cuban Americans — most of them in the Miami area — are still furious about what happened in 1959. Some of them are friends of mine. I know their story well and don’t blame them one bit for being angry. Even allowing a 25 percent discount for nostalgic exaggeration, it’s true that those families had a very nice life in Cuba before the revolution. Many of them worked hard for that life and that property, and it was taken away from them with no compensation. Show me someone among us who would not be angry about that.
So for the last 54 years the Cuban diaspora has pressured elected officials to insist we do no business with Cuba, and they have done this in order to punish Fidel Castro. The irony, of course, is that the embargo did not loosen Castro’s hold on Cuba. In fact, he cleverly used it to his own advantage: Support me against the American demons! And his brother is playing basically the same game.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. For one thing, Cuba before the revolution may have been paradise for certain families, but it was hellish for others. Our pal Fulgencio Batista was as corrupt as the Cuban waters are warm. Now, if nothing else, there is an adequate health care system and universal literacy.
But spend three days walking every street in Old Havana as I just did, and you’ll encounter some of the saddest scenes on earth, a museum of poverty with glorious, tattered, colonial architecture as background. Ride out into the suburbs and you’ll find the squalor of Soviet-style apartment buildings. Rust-stained, poorly built, aesthetically bankrupt — no one should live in such monstrosities.
To my kind, far-left friends: I’m sorry, but this is not what a success story looks like.
And to my angry far-right friends in the Cuban American community: The people you have hurt are your own people. At this point the best revenge you could take on the Castro boys and their revolution is to let Americans flood the place, let Cubans understand precisely what they don’t have, and could have, and should have, in the way of material comfort and freedom of movement and speech. Open the door and let the air in and the ridiculous propaganda signs SOCIALISMO O MUERTE will soon be blown away. True, there is poverty on other Caribbean islands with no socialism and no Miami lobby. But Cuba is richer in resources and history. It deserves better than to be a victim of dueling egos, wounded pride, and stubbornness. Like Castro’s Marxist experiment, what the United States has done for the past 54 years has not worked. Kids can’t get needed medicine, adults can’t leave — that’s what the embargo and Castro communism look like. On our side, at least, let’s try something new.Roland Merullo is the author, most recently, of the novel “Lunch with Buddha.’’ He can be reached at Roland@RolandMerullo.com.