Adios to all that

Old passions run high over the fate of a little boy, but both Cubans and the exile community are ready to embrace a new future -- together.

Published December 17, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Visiting Havana is like stepping back in time two or three decades, with ancient Chevys tooling around the streets and revolutionary billboards fading in the sun. But visiting the Cuban capital at the height of the tensions over 6-year-old Elian Rodriguez feels anachronistic in a different way. Once again the United States and Cuba are locked in the old stalemate that has prevailed since 1962, at a time when change is both necessary and inevitable.

The right-wing consensus that once ruled the Cuban exile community with a conformity that mimicked communism is breaking down; the post-Soviet economic crisis is gradually making private enterprise acceptable in Cuba; the commercial and agricultural lobbies in Washington are pressing for access to the island's markets; and the sanctions that were expected long ago to destroy the Castro regime have failed.

Walking along the sea wall of the Malecon one afternoon recently with hundreds of thousands of Cubans demonstrating for the return of Elian, it was remarkable to see how firmly Fidel still holds power. Workers, schoolchildren, students and soldiers lined up not only obediently but energetically to march against imperialismo.

How any of the cheering demonstrators truly felt about the Elian affair and the future of their country was difficult to discern. Maybe they were all feigning enthusiasm to impress the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution cadres overseeing their performance.

Or maybe they weren't. While the rhetoric blaring from the loudspeakers was strident and banal, the demonstrations nevertheless seemed like a huge citywide festival. Unlike their defunct Soviet sponsors, Castro and his cadres learned long ago how to season their authoritarianism with salsa.

And whatever ultimately happens to Elian, his plight permitted the Cuban authorities to show that they still possess organizing muscle and considerable popular support -- even in a period of terrible economic deprivation.

Judging by the size and spirit of the daily rallies outside the U.S. Interest Section, it appeared that the Miami exile directorate had overreached badly this time and offended the pride of the people back home. Their attempt to take a 6-year-old boy from his natural father presented Castro with a perfect symbol of the suffering inflicted on Cuban families by three decades of American sanctions.

In a country where children fall ill and die because they lack medications that, if not for sanctions, would be available from U.S. drug companies, the loud professions of concern by the exile leadership for the well-being of one little boy ring unctuously hollow. Havana's Catholic prelate has urged the return of Elian to his father and the lifting of sanctions on food and medicine.

Earlier, at the Miami airport, I had observed this political stalemate from the other side, as scores of exile families boarded a plane for Havana with enormous duffel bags of Christmas bounty. For a flight scheduled to depart around 8 a.m., all passengers were required to show up at least five hours earlier to fill out multiple forms and clear their baggage through security.

Such onerous conditions didn't appear to discourage any of the travelers, however, as they sipped cafe con leche and waited patiently in long lines. A stewardess told me that the airline always flies a Boeing 777 on this route, because only the largest jets in its fleet can accommodate the crowds who now want to make the short trip across the Florida Strait.

When we landed at Josi Martm International Airport, waiting outside the terminal to greet the flight was a large, excited crowd of people barely able to restrain themselves from rushing through the doors. The demand for travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans is so intense that direct charter flights are now being allowed from New York and Los Angeles, besides Miami. The first New York flight on Dec. 3 was fully booked a month in advance.

As one of the Cuban-Americans making his first trip back explained to me, these mass pilgrimages are a clear repudiation of the old attitude toward the homeland in his community. Intimidating accusations of treason against those who wish to visit Cuba have lost much of the force they once possessed.

"I'm feeling torn about the embargo," admitted Mario, a businessman from Long Island. Formerly convinced that sanctions should continue forever, he now believes that ending them may eventually bring down the regime he despises. Like certain American policymakers, he also suspects that Castro prefers the status quo, so that he can blame the United States for Cuba's continuing economic decay.

"I was brought up to think this was all evil," mused another son of exiles, as we sat on the patio of the Hotel Nacional a few nights later. An executive of an American television company, Henry had come down for the Havana Film Festival, defying the old taboo. "But in spite of the horrible conditions here, a lot of the people seem happy. It's very confusing." He does feel certain of one thing, however, which is that the embargo should end as soon as possible.

For younger Cuban-Americans like Henry and Mario, ideology is giving way to their relatives' need for food and medicine. But humanitarian considerations are hardly the sole reason why the American sanctions policy is increasingly discredited. With a highly educated labor force and vast natural resources, the potential for economic growth in Cuba remains enormous. Castro has grudgingly acknowledged market forces, permitting some expansion of private agriculture and enterprises.

The urgent preservation of Old Havana's gorgeous but crumbling architecture, for instance, is being partially financed by small businesses set up under the authority of city historian Eusebio Leal, who more resembles an entrepreneur than a commissar. Yet he has set aside a significant share of his growing budget to improve conditions for residents of the neighborhood, a slum where residents rioted a few years ago over the lack of clean water and decent services. His vision of a flourishing community with prosperous small businesses, refurbished housing, popular cultural institutions and new schools sounded more social-democratic than Stalinist.

These are modest hopes, however, in a broad and dismal landscape of poverty. The depressing truth is that those who have dollars in Cuba now eat well, while those who have pesos are often hungry. Clever as he is, Castro has discovered no way to stabilize the dual economy left behind by Soviet Communism's collapse. Old revolutionary ideals of equality and sacrifice are being challenged by the flourishing black market. I couldn't walk two blocks in town without being offered stolen Cohiba and Monte Cristo cigars at a tiny fraction of their official price.

Globalization has won. The Revolution -- and the counter-revolution -- are dead.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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