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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Travel

A glimpse of Castro’s Cuba

Posted May 16, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel.
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By DON ROBINSON | [url=http://www.Gazette.net]http://www.Gazette.net[/url]

The story that follows describes a trip to Cuba taken this past January by Smith College professor Donald Robinson. His son, David Robinson, a native of Northampton who now practices architecture in Houston, Texas, took the photographs.

Responding to the jailing of dissidents and execution of three hijackers by Fidel Castro’s regime, the Bush administration recently declared that Americans would no longer be able to get permits for educational and cultural visits to Cuba. Trips like the one described here will no longer be possible for Americans until the ban is lifted.

I traveled to Cuba in January. Fidel Castro is 76 years old. I wanted to visit this bastion of Communism before the old revolutionary passed from the scene.

I have never doubted that Castro’s regime represses meaningful dissent, but I have always admired Cuba’s pluck. Through the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis, Cuba had the protection of the Soviet Union. Since 1990, however, it has survived the unrelenting hostility of the most powerful nation on Earth pretty much on its own. I wanted to see for myself how it was faring.

I am a professor at Smith College. My chance to visit Cuba came from an invitation to attend a four-day conference with a group of 2,000 academics from Latin America, the Caribbean, North America and Europe. The conference was being held to celebrate the 150th birth-anniversary of the “Apostle of the Cuban Revolution,“Jos‚ Marti (1853-1895). Marti, an important literary figure (poet, essayist, journalist) in the Hispanic world, is an icon in his native Cuba.

I invited my son David, an architect and photographer, to come along. David’s interests were less political than mine. He wanted to see the buildings of Habana Vieja (the old city), relics of the old city wall, museums, the cathedral and capitol building - and especially Che Guevara’s Institute of the Arts, an amazing collection of buildings designed and built in the early 1960s on the gorgeous site of a nationalized golf course in suburban Havana.

In January, it was not hard to make arrangements to visit Cuba. At that time, the U.S. government granted a permit to anyone intending to do “full-time research.” As a professor of government with a specialty in constitutional development, it was no stretch for me to say that I would be engaged in research. A travel agency that specializes in travel to Cuba got tickets for us to fly from Miami to Havana and back.

Despite my apprehension, there was no hassle in getting to and from Havana. When David and I each returned with a box of cigars (openly listed on our declarations), a customs officer in Miami waved us through without a question.


Cuba has been gearing up lately to welcome the tourist trade, partly as a way to replace the income lost when the Soviet Union, its principal patron during the Cold War years, collapsed. The Bush administration has recently announced new restrictions, aimed at terminating educational and cultural exchanges with Cuba. But Canadian, Latin American and European tourists will still travel there in droves.

When we were there in January, what impressed me most was the relaxation we felt, wherever we traveled in Havana. David’s fluency in Spanish made it possible to move freely throughout the city. Wherever we went, we found a ready welcome.

Havana is well-policed, but no more so, I think, than downtown Washington, D.C., and for the same reason: to make sure that visitors are safe. David took his cameras wherever he went. He would ask people for permission to take their pictures (it was never denied), and he took photographs of buildings and streetscapes freely. No one ever asked what he was up to or tried to interfere.

Perhaps the most remarkable instance of this relaxation occurred at the concluding session of the conference we attended. The spacious, well-appointed auditorium of the International Conference Center was filled. The audience included - besides the participants in the conference - a group of flag-waving children in the balcony, including Elian Gonzalez, and (a great thrill for me) Theofilo Stevenson, Cuba’s famed Olympic heavyweight boxing champion.

On the dais, a long table on a low stage in front, sat the dignitaries: Madame Dominique Mitterand, widow of France’s ex-president, representatives of the embattled government of Venezuela, various other figures who brought messages of greeting, and Fidel Castro. Castro wore a dark blue suit and necktie. He is a big man, and he moves slowly. But when he speaks, his vigor is evident.

I will return later to what Castro said. Let me focus for a moment on security.

David and I had arrived a few minutes late for the start of the event. To get in, all we had to do was show our conference badge. No metal detectors. No questions about David’s three cameras.

We found a place in the middle of the hall, near a translation phone. Seeing Castro, David wondered whether he could go down the main aisle to get closer to take a picture. We decided, better not to.

Eventually Castro was introduced to speak. As he rose to move to the podium, many photographers clambered down front. David quickly joined them. All stood about 20 feet from Castro, clicking away for several minutes. Castro meanwhile warmed up, noting that he had come with a prepared text, lest he yammer on too long. His audience shared his amusement at this bit of self-deprecation.

I have attended many events in Washington over the years where the president of the United States was present. The contrast between Havana and Washington could not be greater. Washington is security-obsessed. Murderous attacks on Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, and doubtless other less well-publicized attempts on the lives of presidents, not to mention the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, may justify this precaution. But Castro is not without enemies, and Cuba must have its share of mentally disturbed people.

I do not doubt that there were security officers in those two halls where he appeared at the “gala” and at the concluding session. But they were not evident, and they did not interfere with activities by foreigners that could have carried menace.


Jose Marti is not well-known in the United States - though there is an enormous equestrian statue of him in Central Park in New York City, at the head of the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). The inscription on the pedestal there reads, in part: “Apostle of Cuban Independence, Leader of the Peoples of America and Defender of Human Dignity, His Literary Genius Vied with His Political Foresight….”

Born in Cuba, Marti was arrested at age 17 by Spanish colonial authorities for subversive activites. Deported from Cuba to Spain and released after a brief imprisonment, he lived in exile in Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela for several years. In 1881, he moved to New York City, where for 14 years he worked with exiles, including many Afro-Cubans and Puerto Ricans, to build a movement for Latin American independence from the Spanish Empire.

Marti was primarily a poet and essayist. During his years in New York, he also worked as a journalist, reporting for newspapers in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina about affairs in the United States. His 1882 obituary of Ralph Waldo Emerson begins, “There are times when the pen trembles…. When a great man disappears from the earth, he leaves behind pure splendor, a desire for peace, and a hatred of noise.” In 1885, he offered another brilliantly appreciative obituary, this time of Ulysses S. Grant. His 1887 essay, marking the bicentennial of the U. S. Constitution, contains one of the best summaries of the framing of the Constitution I have ever read.

He was also a sophisticated lover of the music of late 19th-century Europe, including Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Bizet and Wagner. He regarded music as the most powerful form of art.

In 1895, Marti returned to eastern Cuba as part of an expeditionary force that had been training in the Dominican Republic. On May 19, in one of the first skirmishes of the war that would come to be known in the United States as the Spanish-American War, he was killed in combat, at age 42. The war raged on for three more years, ending in Spain’s capitulation and Cuba’s independence (compromised though it was from the start by an American military occupation).

Marti is remembered in Cuba for his humanism and his courage. In his speech at our conference, Castro said that even professional soldiers immediately recognized and respected the dignity and bravery of this frail little man.

Speakers at our conference cited him particularly for his cultural influence, for his poetry and his appeals to universal human values. There were panel discussions devoted to his literary achievements, his organizing efforts in building a pan-Latin movement among exiles in New York City, his progressive ideas about women and racial issues, his notions about politics and constitutions.

Close ties between religious and colonial authorities troubled Marti’s relations with the Catholic Church. Nevertheless Jesus, whose inspiration he freely acknowledged, fascinated him. In some ways, Marti seems to have been a forerunner of “liberation theology,” a body of thought that views Jesus Christ as a champion of oppressed peoples. A Bible and Freemason tracts were found at Marti’s bedside when he died. Cuban, Russian and Puerto Rican scholars at the conference were fascinated by these links between Marti and Christianity.


Marti’s iconic presence is everywhere in Cuba - far more so than Castro’s, whose image is almost nowhere to be seen outdoors in Havana, or Marx’s, for whom a major theater is named, but little else. The international airport in Havana bears Marti’s name. There are several statues of him in downtown Havana. One is at the head of the Prado, the main promenade. Another is atop a huge memorial to him in the Soviet-style plaza at the center of the defense and intelligence agencies. (Che Guevara’s image and slogan, “Hasta la victoria siempre” - Unto victory, forever - are on the front of the intelligence agency.)

Each year, on the anniversary of Marti’s birth, Jan. 27, university and high school students re-enact the March of the Torches from the campus of the University of Havana to the gates of the prison where Marti was held in 1870, a distance of about one mile. This year, about 30,000 people, mostly students, took part in the march, which began at 11:30 p.m. It commemorates a similar demonstration that took place on Jan. 27, 1953, in defiance of General Fulgencio Batista, the U.S.-backed and Mafia-friendly dictator. Batista was overthrown by Castro on Jan. 1, 1959.

What specially interested me at the conference was how Marti was presented: as the anti-Marx. It was not explicit, but it was unmistakable to anyone familiar with Marx’s thought.

Foreigners (French, Spanish, American scholars) used Marxist language when talking about current world conditions. Their papers and speeches were all about the “contradictions” of capitalism and its imperialist dynamic, “objective” factors propelling the economy, the violent, terminal agonies of capitalist systems.

This is Marxist talk. It is not the language of Jos‚ Marti. And it is not what interests Cubans when they speak of his legacy. They are more interested in Marti the prophet and exemplar of culture, his ideas, images, memories and hopes.

Culture, said the Cubans again and again, is fundamental. What matters is what people think. They lauded Marti for rejecting the old Roman slogan, “divide and conquer.” We must unify oppressed people, so that together we can prevail over poverty, ignorance and tyranny, they said.

In his closing speech, Castro strongly struck this post-Marxist theme. He skillfully juxtaposed the humanistic rhetoric of Marti and the bellicose words of George W. Bush. He spoke to us the day after the President’s State of the Union address, which was full of fire and brimstone about weapons of mass destruction and how American armed forces would smash Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

Against this backdrop, Castro urged this company of intellectuals to carry on the struggle of ideas. Ideas do deeply matter, said Castro. Don’t ever lose sight of Marti’s idealism, he urged. “In the face of weapons, plant ideas.” These were Castro’s final words, spoken three times, with quiet fervor.

Again, the remarkable thing was the un-Marxist flavor of it all. Marx the materialist was absent; Marti the idealist took his place at center stage.

Another speaker at the closing session, a Venezuelan, echoed the “Communist Manifesto” when he said that a ghost stalked the oppressors of Latin America. The ghost he invoked, however, was not marching armies of the proletariat. It was the spirit of Sim˘n Bolˇvar, the early 19th century champion of Latin American independence, and Marti.


On Marti Plaza, at the head of the Paseo in downtown Old Havana, David and I saw knots of men in intense argument, gesticulating, fingers in one another’s chests. We were not close enough to overhear their words, but the vigorous public debating reminded me of the Speakers’ Corner at Hyde Park in London, famous worldwide as a place where political debate goes on without interference by authorities.

I was heartened to find such activities going on in the heart of a Communist dictatorship. In Havana, it is called “the Hot Corner.” Only later did I learn that this plaza is indeed famous in Cuba as a place for heated arguments - about sports, though, not politics.

I tell this story on myself as a warning to be careful in interpreting what we see in other lands.

I left Cuba thinking that it is time for the United States to adopt a new posture toward Latin America.

Castro will not live forever. When he passes, there will be a scramble for his mantle. He is revered in Cuba, and for good reason. During the 1950s, leading a ragtag band of guerrillas, he overthrew a thuggish regime, ending a half-century of oppressive Yankee imperialism.

From the outset he faced American hostility. Soon he allied himself with the Soviet Union and consolidated a Communist regime. But he also banished illiteracy (UNESCO estimates that over 700,000 adults learned to read in the first year of the Cuban Revolution) and established a medical system that is still the envy of Latin America.

For 44 years, he has withstood the enmity of the most powerful nation on Earth. He has played the complicated, often treacherous game of international politics with considerable skill.

For most Cubans, Castro has become an avuncular figure, almost mythical, the nation’s primary source of cohesion. When he is gone, the Cuban people will measure would-be successors partly in relation to this legendary figure.

This brave, vibrant people, about whom there is so much to admire - what sort of neighbor have we been to them? The answer is inescapable: not a good one. Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, we tried to take advantage of them. Now they are caught in a dangerous crossfire between an aging Communist dictator and an American administration that, even more than its predecessors, is intent on taking domestic political advantage of the hatred between Cuban authorities in the Caribbean and their cousins in Florida.

The Bush administration’s provocations and Castro’s response in cracking down on dissidents have dashed any hope for reconciliation in the near future. We will apparently have to wait for a better opportunity, when current leaders, set in their mutually destructive ways, lose their grip on power.?


Donald L. Robinson is the Charles N. Clark Professor at Smith College where he teaches political science.

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