Author’s Note: The troubled land of Palestine provides preciously little of it right now, that is why I offer you my article about Cuba, for change and hope. In Cuba, the local Jews are fully integrated in the society and exercise their abilities for the common good. While we hear of the growing social differences in Palestine, Cuba shows the opposite way. The title is taken from a poem by Nicolas Gillien, the Cuban poet.
Cuban rhythms are heard in Montparnasse on lively Parisian nights. In Tel Aviv, Buena Vista is screened non-stop. Europeans drink the Cuban cocktail El Mojito: a stream of lemon that blends with Cuban silver rum over peppermint leaves. Around the world, Cuban cigars are displayed on the shelves of the upscale stores, and the Swedes and Canadians walk around showing off their Caribbean tan. Cuba is back after ten years of dark oblivion, like an atomic submarine emerging through the ice pack. It is in fashion, and following the fashion, I took a plane to La Habana Jose Marti airport.
Havana is blooming at the entrance of its deep bay, and the old cannons of the Three Moorish Kings’ Fortress still protect the narrow channel. Huge Cadillac and Buick limo of the 30-40s, showing their age, solemnly roll her streets, like domesticated dinosaurs, taxis of the Jurassic Period, as unrushed as old battleships. The former mansions of colonial planters and American Mafia, domesticated and showing the wrinkles of age, are now occupied by ordinary folk like you and me.
Well-worn like a favourite old sweater, unpretentious and cosy, Havana is a safe town. One can walk her streets any time, day or night, sober or drunk. In the permanent class war fought on our planet, Cuba remains in the hands of its people. Beefy riflemen do not loom in front of her palaces. It is the only place outside Europe, where you don’t constantly run into riot police and tough bodyguards lurking in dark glasses. Your eyes immediately notice the absence of ubiquitous signs of globalization – there are no Coca-Cola or McDonalds. Even better, there are no ads at all. Nothing calls you to buy a new Hoover or oh-so-necessary new washing powder. TV carries no commercials. Poor Cuba pays double in order to broadcast the sport events without ‘sponsorship’ ads. This country opted out of the rat race, it stays clear of IMF, it does not seek American loans, and its officials do not traffic in heavy briefcases stuffed with Franklin notes and destined for Swiss banks.
Cuba turned out to be a total surprise for me. Years of propaganda convinced me that it is a poor totalitarian country headed by a senile dictator. The reality was completely different. There is no suspicion, secret police, armed guards, and ‘mind police’. Cubans write wonderful poetry, shoot original films, freely discuss or write on any subject. Thanks to the American embargo, they remained immune to the American mass-media influence. In comfortable movie theatres they screen French, Spanish and even Iranian films. It makes you wish that America’s blockade of Cuba would be extended to the rest of the world. However, there is no anti-American mood on the streets – because every second Cuban has a relative in Miami.
There are no brawls and street fights; the caballeros and campaneros do not even quarrel with each other. In a month, I never heard a voice raised in anger. Cubans seem to have surgically removed their acquisition drive and channeled their energy into music and love. The perfect beauty of Cuban men and women, the descendants of the Spanish settlers and African slaves, emphasizes the Utopian nature of Cuban Socialism. They look like ideal creatures from a future world envisioned by Campanella or Moore. Men are handsome and manly. They ride the sierra in their broad-brimmed hats; their blue eyes of Galician hidalgos look friendly and courageous. The implacably shapely legs of mini-skirted girls – a result of sun, good diet, health care and genes make Cuba the place to restore one’s damaged belief in the good nature of Man. This is a place to give your shopping mania a rest and pause to live and ponder life. Utopia does exist, and it is in the Caribbean Sea.
Lest I be suspected of any bias, I search compulsively for the dark spot on this incomprehensibly lovely picture and I find it. The Cubans are bad cooks. There is no decent dinner to be had for love or money, even a lot of money. With food, Cubans can do the impossible and spoil even an omelet. The local food is bad for the stomach, but good for the waistline. This fault is a sign of Providence, so we would not mistake Cubans for angels.
A society is judged by its attitude to children, mused Chesterton, the original thinker, who unfairly remembered only for his Father Brown stories. He would consider Cuba the only right society in the world. Cuban kids do not beg and steal, they are not used and abused, they do not have to work for a living, they do not know hunger. The cute, clean and joyous children in shorts and scout neckties walk the Havana streets in the crocodile formation (as Brits say), holding hands. Their dress is colour coded – the kids of elementary school wear blue, while the high school students don mustard highlighting their smooth dark skin.
I banish the dreadful thought that Cuba could become like her Latin American neighbors, that these kids would wash the cars of the punters instead of schooling, and these gorgeous girls would give themselves away not for love but for money. But Havana remained steadfast after the collapse of Moscow, Berlin and Warsaw in early nineties. Until then, the Soviet Russia was Cuba’s main treasurer, supplying the island with fuel and technical equipment, buying her sugar and guaranteeing a certain minimal living standard for the rebel republic. Moscow’s pro-Western coup d’etat of 1991 put an end to all that. The victorious nomenclature convinced the people, that the Russians would live as good as the Swiss, provided they cut off the Cuba aid. Cuba was the reliable ally and the outpost of socialism on the American continent. Yeltsin’s Russia did not need outposts. To the hearty approval of New York Times, Moscow turned the valve off.
Cuba was left without fuel, its Soviet-made technology rusted without spare parts. The US embargo turned into an Iraq-style siege. Cuba could not sell its sugar. Official Washington counted the days before Havana’s collapse. Radio Marti broadcasting from Miami promised the Cubans a rosy future, if they would only surrender. Cubans switched to fried bananas and rice, water and electricity were in short supply, important projects were frozen. In such circumstances, the elites of poor countries leave their poor to their own fate, rob the state treasury and run to Geneva.
The Cuban elite, the barbudos, proved to be different. These are the men and women who had repulsed the CIA-trained mercenaries at Playa Giron, smashed the South-African armour in Angola, and did not flinch in the face of nuclear threat. And they still remain with their people, despite the temptation to cross over to the victorious side. Like a big family, all Cubans became poor, but did not lose their dignity. They remained poor, but equal. Poor but proud. They shared their rice and smiled. They withstood the temptation where everybody else failed.
For a visitor from a land, where the difference between the poor Deheishe and rich Ramat Aviv is bigger than the gap between Upper East Side and Upper Volta, it was a lesson in humility. I discovered the country where children do not beg, where there are no homeless, where everybody has access to health care and education. Incidentally, it is the country without a class of noveau riche adorned with golden trinkets, without yuppies in flashy Mercedes cars and without overpaid generals and greedy thugs.
There is a reason for the current upsurge of interest to Cuba. A new wind is blowing in the world. The decade of neo-liberal ascendancy is over. It was an awful decade, though Tom Friedman would tell you otherwise. It started with the collapse of Soviet Union and with destruction of Iraq. It continued with Oslo treaty, establishing apartheid in Palestine, and bombardment of Serbia. In America, democracy was pushed aside in favour of corporate rule behind a flimsy veil of irrelevant elections for figurehead puppets.
The mainstream American press became as servile to the new rulers as Brezhnev’s Pravda. Not a word can be heard on behalf of the weak and defeated, be it Palestinians or Iraqis, Cubans or Haitians or America’s own exhausted and overworked labor force. The incredible fusion of the power of the media and entertainment industries projected Beverley Hills fantasies to a world that has seen its poor grow poorer, while the rich became fabulously rich. We now inhabit a planet where the difference between the poorest and richest strata in the social order rivals the disparities in the ancient Roman Empire. The high life of rich bankers and their coterie has been paid for by the desperate poverty of untold millions.
If we keep up at this pace, the gulf between rich and poor will certainly expand and we will leave to our children, a world of homeless, rootless, migrant workers, and the super-rich and their bodyguards. As has happened previously in history, the dark forces are bound to overreach. The market economy wet dream ended with the Seattle bang. People found their voice in the Web, while Seattle and Prague proved that the West is not spiritually dead. The siege of Iraq is slowly eroding and the mean spirit of Madeleine Albright has departed. As Churchill said after al-Alamein, it is not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
As I walk the past the jolly cafes of Montparnasse, I find myself drifting back to my memories of the rhythm of Cuban life and miss them badly. Where are you, my green lizard with eyes of wet stone?..
(Mr. Israel Shamir, is one of best-known and most respected Russian Israeli writer and journalist. He wrote for Haaretz, BBC, Pravda and translated Agnon, Joyce and Homer into Russian. He lives in Tel Aviv and writes a weekly column in the Vesti, the biggest Russian-language paper in Israel.)