Letter from Havana

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro; drawing by David Levine

The hardest thing about going to Cuba is not getting permission from suspicious officials in the State Department, or persuading the Cubans to give you a visa, or taking the round-about route to Havana via Mexico City, Madrid, or Prague—although all of these are bad enough, and would discourage any but the most determined traveler. These hurdles, however, are merely preparations. The hardest thing is to avoid being seduced by the Cubans.

Anyone can be trained to resist the blandishments of sunshine and palm trees, of art galleries that stay open until midnight, and even of teen-age traffic policewomen who wear their skirts short and hang their handbags on the traffic lights. You can resist being flattered when everyone calls you compañero as though you were just another comrade-in-arms, being uncritically impressed by the new housing projects and schools, and wondering why all countries don’t have free medical care, funerals, and local telephone calls.

You can approach the Cuban experiment critically, and cast a cold eye on the excesses of a revolution that has turned the country upside down and remade it in a new image. You should have grave reservations about the methods of a regime that still incarcerates thousands of political prisoners, that has made some grievous economic mistakes, that has neither a parliament, a free press, nor a constitution guaranteeing civil liberties, and that has become nearly as dependent on the Soviet Union as it once was on the United States. You can deplore the consumer shortages that force people to wait hours for a quart of milk, the propaganda machine that urges them to “volunteer” for hours of extra labor or weeks in the sugar fields, and the absence of any legal alternative to a government that rules by decree.

You can do all of this, and maybe even feel a bit self-righteous as you contemplate the shortcomings of the Castro regime. But if you stay on awhile, as I did last January when I went down to observe the international cultural congress on under-development and colonialism, you cannot help being impressed by the spirit that animates the Cuban revolution and by the people who are carrying it out. Even the most jaundiced Western journalists seem to fall under the spell, if only momentarily, and speak with grudging admiration of the ability of the Cubans to survive the US economic blockade and build a new society that has clearly brought enormous benefits to the majority of the population.

THE LONGER YOU STAY in Cuba the more you become aware that it is not simply a state like any other, nor even a communist bureaucracy similar to the ones of eastern Europe. Rather it is a continual “happening,” a vast and somewhat chaotic laboratory where nothing is taken for granted and experimentation is the order of the day. Everything is subject to analysis and modification: the concept of…

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