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OK, this is Not a Candidate Diary [feel free to borrow that header any time you want].

I want to spend a few moments talking about Cuba, Castro's Cuba, and Cuba after Castro, which are three different things.

Since 1999 I have traveled to Cuba nearly 10 times. As a historian I have gone there on a variety of projects. The first was for my dissertation-cum-monograph on the history of West Florida from 1785-1810. I've also traveled there for a preservation project with which I am associated, called "Ecclesiastical Sources in Slave Societies" project, which seeks to preserve records related to slavery in the circum-Caribbean. Finally, my most recent project is a coffee-table book on the history and culture of people living in Havana Viejo, the old part of the city.

During my visits there I spent a great deal of time walking around the Old  City, walking the neighborhoods, the Malecon, visiting with and talking to people, sitting in non-tourist bars, and generally getting to know a small segment of the Cuban population. I know a great many people there who I would call friends.

When I first traveled to Cuba in 1999, the country was just then emerging from the "Special Period"--that time after the fall of the Soviet Union when all aid to Cuba was cut off. The result was not just starvation but also vitamin deficiencies that led to severe health problems. Walk around Havana and you see now-adults in their late teens to mid 20s who have deformities and other chronic health problems that are the result of this "Special Period."

What I also saw, however, was a Cuban people with a kind of resilience and can-do attitude that people in the U.S. admire as traits in ourselves. Cubans are legendary do-it-yourselfers, able to fix most anything. A Cuban male who cannot take apart and put back together an automobile would be regarded with some kind of suspicion. I instantly made friends there and was fortunate enough to spend time in peoples' homes.

They also love Americans. I happened to bring with me a copy of the May 1999 Cigar Afficionado, which dealt with the Embargo. When I showed it to people and opened to pictures of Jessie Helms, they cried "Diablo, diablo!" Pictures of Chris Dodd brought cries of "Amigo, amigo!" "We're not so far apart," I thought.

One thing I noticed was that there were not many pictures of Fidel around. That is, I expected to see posters, billboards, and signs with his picture. Sure, there were revolutionary slogans everywhere, but no Fidel. There were small pictures of Che, however. These had been spray-painted on buildings like graffiti using a stencil. They could be found on many blocks.

I asked a friend about the Fidel thing. He said "No, no pictures of Fidel. If there were pictures of Fidel they'd have to post guards to prevent the pictures from being defaced." I noted that there were pictures of Che all around, though. "That's different," he said almost reverently, "that's Che."

When I returned again in 2002 the country had changed. Policies designed to increase European tourism had the effect of bringing some wealth to Cuba, but mostly to the areas that had tourism. In fact, the non-tourist areas remained in abject poverty, but the tourist areas had become sort of free-for-all areas. It's hard to describe, but Cubans became more intent than ever on making money. In any way possible.

One of the most curious phenomenon was the jinotera. This is a woman who hooks up with a foreigner for a period of time from a few days to a week. The foreigner provides food, clothing, a place in a hotel, nights out, and western luxury goods such as televisions, etc. In return the jinotera provides sex. Cubans are adamant that it isn't prostitution, and the word jinotera translates from Spanish as "jockey," symbolizing that the women "ride" the tourists. Occasionally male jinoteros are seen, but not often.

When I returned again in early 2003 something had changed, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I finally realized that the whole country had become like jinoteros. The almighty dollar, combined with the destruction of the Cuban economy by Castro's regime and the Embargo, made scrambling for that dollar all-important. Everyone wanted to sell you a service. Gone were the days of "all in this together" and where a foreigner could be seen as something other than a source of money.

I've been back a half dozen times since then, and each time the country tips a bit more toward state-sponsored jinoter-ism. Castro's regime actively encourages the people to pimp themselves out in order to bring in the [now] Euros that prop up that economy.

I could get into plenty of debates about dropping the Embargo, which I favor ending. Open trade with that country would end Castro's regime faster than anything.

But what people don't understand is how little Castro himself matters to the Cuban people. In their daily lives, he's just not all that important. Cubans are afraid of two things.

One is the black-clad police that take them away to jails and torture them. The other is the Miami mafia of exile Cubans who plan to descend on Cuba and take back the land and houses that were confiscated after Castro's revolution. As a frequent traveler to Cuba I'd have a hard time saying which they fear more.

Of course, the Negras as the black-shirt police are called, scare the hell out of them and usually hassle the darker-skinned people more than the lighter skinned people. After all, lighter skinned people might be tourists from Italy, Spain, or some other country. While I was there in 2004 there was an American who would, each night, go to a bar, get drunk, get in fights, bust the place up, and get deposited gently back in his hotel room by the police. The next night he’d repeat. I’m almost convinced that an American could literally get away with murder in Cuba.

But the Cubans’ fear of the Miami Mafia is more real, stoked by Castro on a daily basis. One reason Cubans support the regime is because everything that emanates out of Miami reinforces Castro's propaganda that they'll lose what little they have if the Miamians are let back in.

As for Castro? Well, on my last trip there last year, a friend described him this way: "He's like that crazy uncle who comes to your house at holidays, and sits in a corner wearing funny clothes and mumbling incoherently to himself." He just doesn't matter that much.

So, his resignation is kind of a non-event. Raoul controls the army, which owns most of the industry in Cuba. Two years ago he had a massive purge that got rid of most anyone in the upper ranks who might be disloyal. His hold on power is absolute. After that there are two very competent economists who could help lead Cuba's economy into the modern era but who will nevertheless maintain an absolute grip on power. People may change, but the regime will carry on after Fidel dies.

Of course, these quick impressions do not convey they full extent of my experience there. It would be hard to do so in a short blog. But I believe that Castro’s resignation is an essentially meaningless thing for the Cuban people. They suffer, and will continue to suffer, until either the Embargo or the entire regime goes into that long dark night.

Some pictures:

OK, now they're in Flickr. Not well organized, but they're there.

Originally posted to AndrewMC on Tue Feb 19, 2008 at 01:17 PM PST.


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