Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cuba Libre

Over the last few years, as I’ve watched the melodrama of US politics play out, I’ve been impressed by the number of my fellow Americans who seem to obsess over freedom. America is, after all, the “land of the free”.

I’ve come to believe that freedom is a little like good health. You don’t think much about until you no longer have it -- end up in prison and you’d probably think about it a lot. For some people, this also seems to be true when they just think they’re in danger of losing their freedom, whether or not that really is the case.

After the Republican party was booted from the White House in 2008 and (gasp) the Democrats took over, there has been constant warning and ranting from some folks about the loss of freedom that was about to descend on the nation.

The relentless message from many conservative commentators has been that President Obama is actively scheming to turn the US into a European socialist hellhole by eating away at freedoms that Americans enjoy.

The subtext (and sometimes actual text) behind this way of thinking is that no other country in the world, especially no effeminate European country, enjoys the kinds of freedoms that red-blooded Americans take for granted.

This abundance of freedom, so the thinking goes, is one of the innate blessings that comes from living in the greatest country on earth and sets America apart from the rest of the world. This is what most Americans are brought up to believe. Many, if not most, are not inclined to ever question it. Maybe they never have a reason to do so.

Living, as I now do, in one of those European “hellholes”, I’ve occasionally been thinking about this and trying to work out exactly what freedoms I’m being deprived of here in Finland.

Malecón waterfront in Havana. Photo: Antonio Malena.

I haven’t looked into the question in detail, but no conspicuous lack of liberty comes to mind, except for maybe the freedom to buy a military-style rifle that I don’t need and wouldn’t even want. Even that may not be entirely the case, and there may be other, less trivial infringements. But, as I say, I haven‘t really delved into the matter yet.

However, a bit of celebrity news recently made me realize that there’s a flipside to the question, that is:  what freedoms do Finns have that America denies its own citizens?

Surprisingly, there does seem to be at least one such liberty – Finns can vacation in Havana without flaunting the law. Americans can’t.

This was illustrated when super-star couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé made an unsanctioned anniversary jaunt to Cuba and caused a small uproar. It was a reminder that citizens of the US need a permission slip from our government to travel to a neighboring country only 90 miles off the tip of Florida, permission that Jay-Z and Beyoncé apparently didn't bother to get.

It seems strange to think this is still true in the year 2013. Much like the Castro regime itself (and all those vintage 1950s America cars prowling the streets of Havana), America’s policy toward Cuba seems like a fossil from a vanished era.

The rationale for the travel ban is that, since the Cuban regime has complete control over the country’s economy, any tourist dollars spent there supports the government’s violation of human rights. I doubt this rationale has been applied to any other authoritarian country (there was a similar proposal for Myanmar, but it went nowhere), and certainly not applied so stringently for the last 50-odd years, though since 2009 it has been loosened slightly for Cuban-Americans wishing to visit their homeland.

The difference, of course, is that the US doesn’t have a sizable contingent of émigrés from Myanmar, or from China, Egypt or other authoritarian country, exerting a powerful and very focused influence on US politics. It does, however, with the large community of Cuban exiles in Florida, vigilantly waiting, ever hopeful, for the eventual downfall of Castro’s communist state.

This diaspora, which started when the decidedly communist turn of Fidel Castro’s revolution alarmed many affluent and professional Cubans, reached as far as my childhood home in the Appalachian Mountains some 1300 kilometers (800 miles) from Havana.

When I was young, our town’s only surgeon was a doctor who had fled Cuba after the revolution. One of my classmates had likewise left the island nation with his family, settling in our little town, where his father was the county’s only veterinarian, or the only one we used.

(I still have an image in my mind of Dr. Oliva, under the beam of a flashlight, sticking his arm deep, up to his shoulder in fact, inside one of our cows as he tried to turn around a calf that was trying very hard not to be born. Or maybe that particular image is actually of my father when he, on a later occasion and recalling Dr. Oliva’s example, had to perform the very same messy procedure.)

Anyway, before this most recent celebrity foreign-relations news squall (the other being Dennis Rodman’s weird diplomatic mission to North Korea), I haven't had much reason to think about Cuba. Then there was also the news that the original Sloppy Joe’s Bar (fabled hangout of American expats and celebrities pre-revolution) has been renovated and re-opened after some 50 years. Suddenly, Cuba seems like a place I should think about visiting. Someday. Maybe. (My list of possible places to visit is already really long.)

At least two friends have visited the island, one an American who legally travelled there from Florida when, as a medical student, he took part in a humanitarian mission to deliver free medicine donated to the people of Cuba. The other is a German who has been there at least twice, in no small part because he is a cigar aficionado. Naturally, Cuba has special appeal for him.

Other people I know in Helsinki may have also made the trip, taking advantage of the package holidays to Cuba offered by Finnish tour companies. It would be tempting. My Finnish wife would have complete freedom to do it. I, on the other hand, would be violating US law, though I have heard that the Cubans don’t stamp American’s passports, so it might be a case of what happens in Havana, stays in Havana.

As I say, it would be tempting. Anyway, from what little I know about the matter (that’s a disclaimer), I have always felt that the US embargo against Cuba was unwise and counterproductive. If Cuban exiles wanted US-style democracy to take root in their homeland, wouldn’t more exposure to Yankee capitalists help move that program forward?

After all, nothing undermines communism like consumerism. Just look at China.  


  1. Sadly, I think the Republicans are right about Obama in general, but as usual, completely screw up (or flip) the details. Obama is really bad for freedom and civil liberties because he has failed to prosecute any Bush-era crimes and has normalized, codified and created permanent structures for all the awful Bush policies.
    I guess that was the change he promised. Yay!

    1. It is ironic that some (maybe many) on the left would consider Obama to be a very centralist, even “Republican”, president (as you allude to in the way he’s continued policies started under Bush). I suspect this is something that conservatives, many of whom see him as positively socialistic, can’t appreciate or maybe even comprehend.

      In one small positive sign, the administration seems to be coming down on the right side when it comes to eventually treating Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a full-fledged citizen and not an enemy combatant.

    2. A lot of conservatives place too much faith on the "reporting" in the "conservative" media and "news" sources. Hence they think Obama is a big bad socialist even though he probably shares more values with the Republican electorate than the Republican politicians do.

      I think the basic problem with Obama is that one needs to look for small positive signs.

  2. They always called Cuba "the jewel of the Caribbean". They says that it's insanely beautiful. I'd love to visit it, but I doubt I'll ever get the chance.