On July 20, the U.S. and Cuba reopened embassies in each other’s countries that had been closed since 1961. Lame-duck Kenyan socialist Barack Obama is not making like President Richard Nixon going to China. It’s like Nixon going to Orange County.
News of the Cuban embassy opening was met in the U.S. with a resounding, “Is that like Mexico?” News of the U.S. embassy reopening was greeted by the Cuban people with a resounding, “ABOUT BLOODY TIME.” But in Spanish.
I was in Cuba until July 19. The embassies reopened the day AFTER I left. Coincidence?
News coverage of the diplomatic breakthrough uncritically rehashed Cold War anti-communist Cuban tropes, such as The New York Times editorial describing Cuba as a “dynastic police state.” American media emphasized Cuba’s need to “expand political freedoms” or “improve human rights.”
Americans complaining about Cuba apparently have never heard of Latin America. Even if all the criticism of the Cuban government and economy were accurate, it mostly makes Cuba look great compared to the rest of Latin America.
I’ve been to Guatemala, where a U.S.-backed dictatorship massacred, tortured and disappeared thousands of people. I’ve been to Mexico, where they steal elections, wage a bloody drug war and murder 43 students for protesting a mayor. I’ve been to Ecuador, where entire swaths of pristine rainforest were torn apart by Chevron. I’ve seen machine gun-slinging soldiers and security patrolling Latin American cities. I’ve seen sprawling urban slums and rural peasants waiting to enter the 20th century. Cuba lacks these problems.
Cubans have enjoyed 60 years without Catholicism or advertising (save for billboards saying stuff like “socialism or death”). Catholicism, the original slut-shaming. Imagine a world without religion and marketing brainwashing generations that they need to consume the body of Christ and Listerine to be loved.
Yes, the Cuban state can be frustrating with its occasionally senseless rules and uncaring bureaucracy. It is as infuriating as talking to an American bank, health insurance company or airline.
If expanding democracy in Cuba means that Ron Conway or the Koch brothers get to buy elections there too, Cubans have other ideas. Would you rather have health care or Fox News? Would you rather have universal literacy or innocent black people murdered by police? While Cuba has its race problems, it has no need for #IfIDieinPoiceCustody. Cuba scores better than even the U.S. in its per capita rate of death from violence, diabetes or malnutrition.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution overthrew a violent dictatorship, the economic base of which was sugar plantations and mob-run hotels. Right-wing Cuban fanatics besotting Florida notwithstanding, embiggening democracy would not incline the Cuban people to vote to replace Raul Castro with Gloria Estefan and Marco Rubio. Given the chance to clamor, it would be for better Wi-Fi.
By contrast to our Yankee stereotype of Red Cuba as a bleak, Stalinist hellscape, here’s what I saw:
Young people with tattoos taking selfies. With selfie sticks, the ultimate in bourgeois decadence.
An Afro-Cuban poet performing a poem about Afro-Cuban music and rhumba, with sagging jeans and the U.S. $100 bill on his underpants.
A salsa percussionist sporting Beats by Dre.
Young gays cruising La Rampa at midnight.
I was walking along the malecon, Havana’s picturesque sea wall. A guy asked where I was from. I told him the U.S. Animated, he said, “We are brothers. July 20, the embassies reopen. You are my friend. In a gesture of our friendship, I give you this gift of chicharrones.” He handed me a white paper bundle of crispy pork skins. “And in turn you will give me the gift of a peso.”
My new brother hadn’t yet reaped the rewards of normalization and already understood that marketing means selling an identity, not a product. He was a chicharron-slinging Don Draper.
Then he said something I heard time and again from Cubans about tension between the U.S. and their country: “The problem is between our governments. There is no problem between peoples.”
Sounds like 21st-century socialism to me.