Kafka in a Guayabera
Vaclav Havel arrives in Miami on Sunday, as much a visiting rock star as a sainted political leader. The Czech president, who's jammed with both Lou Reed and Frank Zappa, even has a snazzy tour name for his South Florida jaunt -- ready-made for souvenir T-shirts: "Cuba Libre." And at $1000 a plate, his star-studded gala dinner at Coral Gables' Biltmore Hotel is a hotter ticket than either the Rolling Stones' or Bruce Springsteen's American Airlines Arena gigs.
For Havel, this stateside trip was originally intended to be a triumphal swan song -- the road may go on forever, but term limits remove the 66-year-old from office in February. Moreover, immediately following his Saturday Washington, D.C. tête-à-tête with President Bush, holding court in Miami allows the dissident playwright-turned-statesman to share with Cuban exiles his own lessons from decades of struggling against -- and in 1989, finally helping to overthrow -- Communist rule in his homeland.
But like most events that involve el exilio, Havel's visit is already causing him headaches before he's even set foot on American soil. Since it was announced in July, the Czech presidential palace has been abuzz with reports of warring Cuban-exile factions vying for Havel's blessing, a contretemps that sent Czech ambassador Martin Palous to town on a damage-control mission.
"Miami is a difficult thing," Palous told the Herald. "You have different opinions, different views, and various debates." Pointing to a society where "your tomorrow will be exactly like today," he insisted that "it's time to move on and change the situation." Palous was referring here to Cuba, but he could easily have been describing Miami, whose exile community often seems just as stuck in the past as its targets of opprobrium across the Florida Straits.
Indeed while Havel's Biltmore audience is set to include a who's who of exile heavies, from Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) chairman Jorge Mas Santos and Cuban Liberty Council (CLC) vice president Diego Suarez, it's doubtful any of them will actually be listening to what he has to say. Havel's entire life experience directly contradicts these exiles' 43 years-and-counting game plan -- namely, that meaningful change, in Cuba as in Czechoslovakia, can only come from within the country itself.
Fellow Czech writer Milan Kundera may be seen abroad as the embodiment of intellectual resistance to Communism, but his decision to leave Prague for Paris in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion was derided -- to this day -- by many of his fellow dissidents, who deemed such a move as ceding any voice in their nation's future. Kundera himself has acknowledged as much; he unapologetically refers to himself as a French writer now. And his novels, particularly his classic The Unbearable Lightness of Being, are filled with merciless lampoons of exiled Czechs in London and Paris, endlessly forming bickering opposition groups and nudging foreign envoys -- both oblivious about and absolutely irrelevant to what's really unfolding back in their native country.
Bringing it all back home: the Varela Project, a Cuban dissident-organized petition drive demanding a public referendum on civil liberties and private enterprise. It's an island-based movement that bears an uncanny resemblance to Czechoslovakia's own Charter 77, which Havel helped draft and circulate (and for which he was imprisoned by authorities) in 1977. Little wonder then that Havel has nominated the Varela Project's creator, Oswaldo Paya, for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Or that such an honor already has the fur flying among more-anticastrista-than-thou types in Miami.
Much of this rancor has coalesced around the Cuban Liberty Council, a breakaway group of CANF hard-liners that includes such crusty figures as Ninoska Perez Castellon, Luis Zuñega, and Ignacio Sanchez, all obsessed with maintaining the counterproductive economic embargo against Cuba, a head-in-the-sand outlook that blithely ignores virtually any developments-of-note south of Calle Ocho. You can hear these figures thundering away on AM radio, or waxing poetic on the Herald and El Nuevo Herald editorial pages, almost always evoking the legacy of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
There's something almost charming in the CLC's continual citing of our founding fathers, much the way one might admire a particularly precocious nine-year-old who has memorized the Declaration of Independence. Still we tend to bar nine-year-olds from making key foreign policy decisions, no matter how well-read they may be. Yet that's precisely the role afforded to this aging political rump. It has been able to leverage President Bush into keeping the embargo in place, riding roughshod over a majority of congressmen, from farm-belt Republicans to New England Democrats, as well as a growing number of less vocal Cuban Americans -- not to mention the wishes of Cuba's own dissidents.
The CLC's logic here is worth examining. In their eyes, the Varela Project (or any easing of the embargo) attempts to reform Fidelismo without erasing it in one fell swoop. To resort to language a nine-year-old can understand, no duh. This is precisely the point, to begin building a new Cuban society peacefully, through the painstaking process of democratic reform. It's this very thought that seems to terrify the type of folks personified in the CLC: that a new Cuba might emerge from the old without a bullet-ridden settling of scores, and without any exiles swooping in to take the reins -- in other words, Havel's bloodless Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Either the heavens are upended or the status quo, argues the CLC. There's no small irony in this being the precise defense Fidel offers up against his own domestic critics.
Of course, there's another threat on Cuba's horizon, one alluded to by Havel when he told the Washington Post that rampant consumerism "seems even more apparent in the post-Communist countries" than in the West.
This past spring saw a diplomatic flap in Havana when senior U.S. ambassador Vicki Huddleston began handing out hundreds of radios to folks around the city. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque blasted Huddleston's "subversion" at a public rally, declaring, "Our patience has limits. We are warning the American diplomats." Castro even hinted at revoking his nation's migration agreement with the United States if Huddleston continued acting as a sonic Johnny Appleseed. American reporters covering the affair assumed Castro was incensed over the notion of Cubans tuning in to the U.S.-run Radio Marti. Yet he could have been just as upset at their becoming Howard Stern fans.
On several recent visits to Havana, Kulchur was able to clearly receive a wide array of radio stations broadcasting out of Miami and the Florida Keys. Yes, the Howard Stern show came in clear as a bell, as did WLRN's mind-numbing talk-show host Joseph Cooper and "The Learning Experience" -- the daily dose of elevator Muzak which that outlet's management insists on calling jazz.
The thought of desperate Habañeros spinning their radio dial in search of some stimulating culture, only to land on NPR affiliate WLRN, raises the question: Haven't the Cuban people suffered enough?
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