Hysterical Blindness

Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits are casting off old illusions, so why is U.S. policy stuck in the past?

Even the most elaborate battle plan should always be adapted to the "facts on the ground," as we've been sagely reminded of late by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. One wishes that same proviso would be applied to the ongoing drama that still rages across the Florida Straits. At presstime, President Bush was poised to announce further retaliatory moves in the wake of Cuba's repression of its spreading dissident movement. Yet even if Bush holds off on his expected clampdown on travel to the island, those all-important "facts" remain studiously ignored.

The 42-year-old embargo endures as the cornerstone of U.S. policy with Cuba, singularly unsuccessful in its stated aim of toppling Fidel Castro, yet as oblivious to this reality as any of the bizarre combat pronouncements from Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. Theoretically this trade embargo should have created a veritable wall between Miami and Havana, with both cities frozen into the position each side's most intransigent ideologues envision. To the island's faithful Fidelistas, Miami's Cuban exiles are locked into a pre-1959 reverie and forever pining for their lost paradise, no matter how rose-colored that memory may have turned.

Accordingly, this past weekend's CubaNostalgia fest in Coconut Grove should have been a tribute to all things el exilio, the crustier the better. And if you were looking to perpetuate that stereotype, opportunities certainly did abound. Amid the dozens of festival vendors were walk-in replicas of fondly remembered Fifties-era Havana cafés and stores, all competing for attention with a sprawling life-size Malecón backdrop. Those unwilling to join the nearly 175,000 exiles who annually return to the island for a visit could at least settle for a faux-photograph with their sweetheart in front of Havana's famed seafront boulevard.

The kitsch factor was also in evidence: There were plenty of vintage posters for the now-defunct Pan American Airways. Decorating a fraternity house? Try the Pan Am poster featuring a scantily clad chica suggestively shimmying beneath a Visit Cuba logo.

But there was also plenty of modern-day Cubanismo to be seen. Yes, live bands were on hand to bust out an old-school mambo. However, their cha-cha-chas wafted past a booth selling DVDs of famed Cuban singer and guitarist Polo Montañez, tragically killed in a car crash on the island last year. These documentary and concert DVDs, apparently bootlegged off Cuban state TV, had a crowd of young and old spellbound around a small monitor, watching rapturously as Montañez strummed his way through the songs that made him an island fave. And not just to folkies.

During one recent visit to Cuba, Kulchur was able to catch a gig with rapper Papo Record effortlessly shifting from his own verse to a chorus from Tupac Shakur, ending with a heartfelt rendition of Montañez's "Un Montón de Estrellas" that brought down the house. If the reaction at CubaNostalgia is any indicator, Montañez's music seems to have just as much of a following among Miamians.

Movie buffs could take their pick of Cuba's cinematic output, including pirated copies of Fernando Perez's Life is to Whistle stacked next to compilations of prerevolution variety TV shows. The net effect was to establish one long artistic continuum, a concept once considered so offensive to exiles that when the Miami Film Festival screened Life in 2000, county Mayor Alex Penelas threatened to rescind a $50,000 grant. Only a year earlier, Los Van Van concert attendees had to dodge exile-lobbed bottles and D-cell batteries as they entered the Miami Arena to get their groove on to a, gulp, island-based band. Obviously things are changing.

Meanwhile the booth for NostalgiaCubana.com was anything but backward-looking: There sat videotapes of perhaps the most notorious Cuban film of the past few decades, 1991's Alicia en el Pueblo de Maravillas -- shown publicly in Havana for only three days before its satiric take on the absurdities of Cuban society so incensed government figures, it was banished to the dusty basement of ICAIC (the state-run film institute), where it remains hidden to this day. Unless, of course, you're one of the countless Cubans who owns a clandestinely dubbed copy of Alicia.

Indeed Cubans on the island are no more inclined to follow their aging leadership's Cold War script than are their brethren on these shores. And violating copyright law is most definitely a two-way street. Embargo or not, Socialism or Death! billboards now compete for attention with theaters screening the latest J.Lo flick; the vintage Cadillacs so beloved by foreign photographers still barrel down La Rampa, but these days, they're blasting New York hip-hop from their windows. On that recent trip to Cuba, as Kulchur waited in line inside a corner store, other happy consumers passed over the Cuban-made chocolates, choosing instead to fish Nestlé ice cream bars out of a freezer. Meanwhile one young entrepreneur meticulously arranged a sea of CD covers atop a Xerox machine -- from Alicia Keys to Frank Zappa -- and began running off photocopies that were undoubtedly bound for home-burned CDs. When asked what his CDs' going prices were, he just nervously winked and got back to work. Back at CubaNostalgia, one favorite was Frances Gómez's "Cuba's Most Wanted" cards, easily outselling the Cubanita thongs. The cards were a novel takeoff on the recent U.S. military-issued poker deck, with Cuba's political leadership portrayed in lieu of fugitive Hussein-regime Iraqis. ("I'll trade you a Fidel Castro for your Mickey Mantle; you give me your Pete Rose for my Minister of Sugar!") Kulchur couldn't resist buying a pack, excitedly heading for the cash register and inadvertently cutting in front of one elderly gentleman. Our hirsute, guayabera-clad fellow loudly harrumphed as Kulchur turned and fumbled for an apology. Taking note of Kulchur's pale Anglo features, this viejo sighed with a mix of anger and exasperation: "Must youalways be the ugly American?" Guilty as charged. And assuming it is indeed America's cruelly blithe treatment of Cuba's people that was being indicted here -- and not, say, Kulchur's new haircut -- it's a question worth posing to George W. Bush as he ponders the future of the embargo. If we're going to continually step on Cuban toes -- whether individually or as a nation -- let's do some good in the process. Given that the ferment engendered by contact with Western pop culture has already pushed thousands of dissatisfied islanders into signing the Varela Project's call for civil liberties, why not simply open the floodgates? Our friends in Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach can attest that few things are more havoc-inducing than suddenly unleashing 200,000 youngsters on a city. Varela Project leader Oswaldo Payá has called for U.S. tourists to flock to Cuba and join in demonstrations there -- so why not call Castro's bluff, lift the travel ban, and allow just that? As for sorting out the protesters from the spring breakers, that's Castro's problem, and one we should relish. Sure, it'll mean eventually having to suffer through commercials for Havana 2004: Girls Gone Wild!, but it also stands a much better chance of inducing change than maintaining the embargo for a 43rd year.

 
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