(original title: The End of the End of the Revolution)
By ROGER COHEN | New York Times
ON MY FIRST DAY IN HAVANA I wandered down to the Malecón, the world’s most haunting urban seafront promenade. A norte was blustering, sending breakers crashing over the stone dike built in 1901 under short-lived American rule. Bright explosions of spray unfurled onto the sidewalk.
I was almost alone on a Sunday morning in Cuba’s capital city of 2.2 million people. A couple of cars a minute passed, often finned ’50s beauties, Studebakers and Chevrolets, extravagant and battered. Here and there, a stray mutt scrounged. Washing flapped on the ornate ironwork balconies of crumbling mansions. Looking out on the ocean, I searched in vain for a single boat.
It was not always so, 90 miles off the coast of Florida. In 1859, Richard Henry Dana Jr., an American lawyer whose “To Cuba and Back” became a classic, sailed into Havana. He later wrote: “What a world of shipping! The masts make a belt of dense forest along the edge of the city, all the ships lying head into the street, like horses at their mangers.” Over the ensuing century, Cuba became the winter playground of Americans, a place to gamble, rumba, smoke puros and sip mojitos, the land of every vice and any trade. Havana bars advertised “Hangover Breakfasts.” They were much in demand. The mafia loved the island, the largest in the Caribbean; so did the American businessmen who controlled swathes of the sugar industry and much else.
Then, a half-century ago, on Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro brought down the curtain on Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship. America’s cavorting-cum-commerce ceased. Miami became Cuba’s second city as, over the years, hundreds of thousands fled communist rule.
The confining shadow of Fidel’s tropical curtain, on the 50th anniversary of the revolution, was captured in the emptiness before me — of the Malecón, but even more so of the sea. I noticed over subsequent days that Cubans perched on the seafront wall rarely looked outward. When I asked Yoani Sánchez, a dissident blogger about this, she told me: “We live turned away from the sea because it does not connect us, it encloses us. There is no movement on it. People are not allowed to buy boats because if they had boats, they would go to Florida. We are left, as one of our poets put it, with the unhappy circumstance of water at every turn.”
It is unnatural to perceive the sea and a distant horizon as limiting. But in Cuba a lot of things are inverted, or not as they first appear. A repressive society long under a single ruler — the ailing 82-year-old Fidel still holds Cubans in his thrall even if he formally handed the presidency to his younger brother, Raúl, in 2006 — develops a secret lexicon of survival.
Through a labyrinth of rations, regulations, two currencies and four markets (peso, hard currency, agro and black), people make their way. Stress is rare but depression rampant in an inertia-stricken economy. Truth is layered. Look up and you see the Habana Libre, the towering hotel where Fidel briefly had his headquarters after the revolution: it began life as the Hilton. The seafront Riviera hotel, now so communist-drab it seems to reek of cabbage, once housed the rakish casino of the mobster Meyer Lansky.
Turning west along the seafront that first gusty day, I encountered a strange sight that summoned the United States from its tenebrous presence: a phalanx of poles, topped with snapping flags displaying a five-pointed Cuban star against a black backdrop, bearing down on the eastern facade of a boxy concrete-and-glass structure that houses the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. The flag barricade was put up to block an electronic billboard on the side of the building. In 2006, U.S. officials put political slogans on the billboard; it now transmits news not otherwise accessible to Cubans.
This seafront tableau is laughable: the United States unreeling red-lettered strips of unread news into a sea of black flags and defiance. It captures all the fruitless paralysis of the Cuban-American confrontation, a tense stasis Barack Obama has vowed to overcome. Diplomatic relations have been severed since 1961; a U.S. trade embargo has been in place almost as long; the cold war has been over for almost two decades. To say the U.S.-Cuban relationship is anachronistic would be an understatement.
But changing it won’t be easy. As with Iran — the only country with which noncommunication is more pronounced — bad history, predatory past U.S. practices and the expediency for autocratic regimes of casting the United States as diabolical enemy all work against bridge-building. When, a little farther west down the Malecón, I met with Josefina Vidal, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North American department, I found her anger as vivid as her elegant purple dress.
“I once saw a slogan on that U.S. billboard saying Cuban women have to prostitute themselves because they do not have the resources to survive,” she told me. “This is totally unacceptable, a violation of the Vienna Convention!” (The Vienna Convention of 1963 regulates consular relations.)