By Dr Palitha Kohona*
The ferocious American bald eagle, clutching its array of deadly weapons, has for almost 60 years persistently tried to gobble up the tiny Cuban Colibri. The Colibri, weighing only about two ounces, is the national bird of Cuba.
The plucky little bird, smartly darting around the eagle making careful and, at times, painful choices, has not only successfully avoided the eagle’s fiery talons but, in certain areas, prospered. But now that the eagle has ostensibly mellowed and softened its approach and replaced the urge to devour with endearing embraces, will the Colibri continue to survive?
Admittedly a ten-day visit to anywhere does not adequately equip one to write a thesis on the place. But the third such visit and extensive interactions with a range of locals, expatriates and those who had visited the country many times does encourage one to record ones thoughts.
On the face of it, the signs that greet a visitor to Havana immediately on arrival are impressive. The historic waterfront, Malecon, is clean and is being subject to extensive renovation under UNESCO supervision. As is the old town built by the Spanish conquistadors.
Imposing buildings that projected luxury and power under the Spaniards and during the period of American influence prior to the Revolution in 1959, and which were subsequently subjected to rapid degradation following the Revolution, are now being faithfully restored, not only as tourist attractions but as a expression of a nation’s pride in its past.
Families that occupied these buildings after the Revolution, are relocated to housing close by for the duration of the renovation and returned to the same buildings, now much improved, once the work is completed.
The waterfront bustles with people at night, laughing adults, embracing couples, children playing and the many fishermen. Havana on a Saturday night is like any other city in the West.
Thousands throng the waterfront and the nearby bars and cafes. The bars get crowded in the balmy evenings and the music and dancing is clearly spontaneous. The Cubans love music and dancing and don’t they have rhythm.
Hemingway, in his day, frequented the Floridita (for his daiquiri) and the Bodeguita (for the mojitos) and are places to be seen at. The city’s luxurious gardens are well tended although the grass may need more frequent clipping. The tree-lined suburbs could be in any well to do tropical developing country. Three million tourists stream in every year to lap it all up, now joined by hoards of Americans, including the Kardashians, Madonna, Mick Jagger and the Stones and many young people, despite continuing hassles with direct travel from the U.S.
The Casa Musica was filled with young Americans pretending that it was Spring Break. Dozens of daily flights from the U.S. are scheduled to commence shortly. The eagle’s charm offensive might produce better results.
The luxurious hotels built before the revolution, mainly to serve the needs of the U.S.- based mafia, have undergone face-lifts and are again attracting a different type of rich American.
The Alcapones, Lucky Luccianos and Meyer Lonskys and their proteges like Sinatra, Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner, are missing but rich U.S. executives are again getting attracted to the pretty young Cubanas in their very short shorts flaunting themselves on the sidewalks.
For almost 60 years Cuba has remained proudly defiant in the face of increasingly onerous U.S. pressure. One cannot but be impressed by the Cuban reaction to U.S. attempts to play propaganda videos focusing on human rights from the windows of the large US Special Interests building.
The plucky Cubans, not to be intimidated by the one remaining superpower, erected a tightly packed forest of flagpoles outside the windows of the U.S. Special Interests building and even flew black flags when necessary. To add insult to injury they retaliated with their own video clips of the gruesome torture of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo by the U.S. military. The US was forced to suspend its propaganda effort. The proud little Colibri not only confronted the US, but survived with honour intact.
With the thawing of relations, the propaganda war may be gradually easing up. But 65 years of anger and bitterness created by the confrontation and the daily hardships blamed on the U.S. economic blockade (Blockeo) of Cuba, which has continued to be tightened, has left a bitter after taste in many people’s mouths, which will be difficult to erase in a hurry.
Many Cubans feel that their daily life would be much improved if the U.S. blockade were lifted. But their is little willingness to make immediate compromises to obtain this concession.
Not that all Cubans dislike the U.S. Many travel to the U.S, study there, have many relatives living there, especially in Miami, love hamburgers, and Cuban artists make good money in the U.S., but a strong sense of Latin Machismo, which the charismatic Fidel Castro cleverly exploited to build a national anti American psychosis, continues to dominate Cuban thinking.
Any everyday problem, whether it is shortages of fuel, the irregular power cuts, lack of spare parts for cars, inadequately stocked super market shelves, tobacco plantations infested with a strange disease, withering sugar cane, etc. are readily blamed on the “Blockeo”.
A visit to Vignales along an impressive highway in a roaring Lada revealed that the main form of transport in that beautiful part of the country is still horses and horse drawn carriages. Blockeo, they complained.
The persistent economic pressure exerted by the U.S. has hurt badly but instead of succumbing to it, the leadership became more defiant and successfully mobilised the people against the U.S. Cuban pride and ingenuity have, in many instances, triumphed.
It has made them great innovators. Hundreds of American gas guzzling automobiles from the late 40s and 50s, Plymouths, Dodges, Vanguards, Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, Fords, etc. carefully renovated and maintained with parts from elsewhere, crowd the streets.
There are more Soviet era Ladas here than anywhere else. These cars lack air conditioning, doors may have to be opened from the outside only, windows may not work, but that they run at all is a credit to Cuban defiance and ingenuity. The dandies drive around noisily with the sunroofs down and the Yankees now descending in droves love to be photographed in them.
Prior to the Revolution, sixty years of American hegemony since the Spanish-American War, with its unqualified backing for a string of unsavoury dictators and later the heavy involvement of the U.S. based Mafia, did not exactly endear the giant neighbour in the north to the Cubans.
The failed attempts to restore the old regime, post revolution, including the fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs invasion, only helped to consolidate the anti Americanism in the popular psyche.
With the Blokeo being gradually lifted, it is likely that some of the strongest anti American sentiments would get diluted and replaced with a more accommodating acceptance of the U.S.
The rapid replacement of many, previously friendly, Latin American governments, with pro US regimes, will undoubtedly add pressure on the current Cuban attitudes. The continuously deteriorating situation in Venezuela, is a clear worry, as Venezuela became Cuba’s main benefactor following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The middle class continues to aspire to have more access to Western comforts, which would be further facilitated from the thawing of relations with the US. These factors could combine to influence the external and internal policies of the Cuban government and also its hold on the people. Tentative efforts to open up the economy are being made but one wonders if the change is arriving a little too late.
But in New York, the annual UN Resolution demanding the removal of the blockade was adopted in 2015 with the support of all members of the UN except the US and Israel.
The Government of Cuba has maintained solid control of the levers of power in the country continuously since the overthrow of Batista in 1959. First, Fidel Castro held sway and now Raoul Castro. Fidel, in particular, had a charismatic appeal with the population at large which was carefully managed to convey the impression of a revolutionary who was still part of the people.
The revolutionary leadership never appeared to have aspired to replace the Batista regime in acquiring worldly comforts, international approval or royal status but remained firmly rooted among the masses that brought it in to power. The continuing affection for Fidel is palpable. It is not uncommon to hear a Cuban, when asked about any national problem, say, “Fidel will solve it”.
The vicious American blockade, appears only to have strengthened the revolutionary leadership and the will of the people to resist. The superpower, USA, only a ninety miles away, was rendered totally impotent in its attempts to bring Cuba to heel.
Earlier, the cleverly developed connections with the former Soviet Union and the Non Aligned movement helped. Later effective military interventions in Africa shored up Cuba’s reputation and underlined the unbearable costs to a likely invader.
It is widely acknowledged that the Cuban military success in turning back the apartheid forces of South Africa, advancing with CIA backing almost to the outskirts of Luanda, Angola, later set in motion the chain reaction that ensured the victory of the MPLA in Angola, the independence of Namibia and the eventual defeat of apartheid in South Africa.
More recently, the Alba alliance helped. Pedro Ross, still with vivid memories, fought against the South Africans in Angola and, later, served as the Cuban ambassador to that country. Importantly, there is a continuing mobilisation of the entire people, the people against any invader, which would make even the super power, USA, think twice before resorting to arms.
Despite the severe implications of the blockade, Cuba progressed with its own efforts in certain areas. It has developed world-class medical and educational facilities funded entirely by the state, which have made the Cubans proud.
Thousands of Cuban doctors serve overseas and a large student contingent from overseas studies in Cuba. They have encouraged, at official level, the flowering of the arts.
I had the privilege of meeting painters who regularly strut the global arena, such as Mabel Poblet, Ernesto Rancarno, Eduardo Abela, Balzero, Juan Morera, Eduardo Ruben, and Alicia Leal, and photographer Cirenaica. Rancarno had visited me in Sri Lanka earlier.
The discoverer of the vaccination for Hepatitis 2, Conchita Campa, is now working on the therapeutic uses of Murunga and is keen to develop relations with the traditional medical community of Sri Lanka. National iconic heroes such as Alberto Granado of Motor Cycle Diaries fame or Argudin, Che’s body guard, still sprightly in his late seventies, have a sympathetic attachment to Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka.
Pedro Pedroso, the ambassador designate to Geneva, and Ambassador Edgar Ponce from Ecuador remain strong friends of Sri Lanka. The artists travel regularly, express themselves with relative freedom and live extremely comfortably. Many with household help.
But one could discern a latent yearning for the greater freedom of expression and commercial opportunities that they believe exist outside Cuba. Once, Cuban athletes used to dominate the Olympic middle distance running and boxing.
One gets the impression that the average Cuban wishes to leave the past behind and lead a comfortable life minus the Blockeo. They survived for 60 years the various attempts of the one remaining superpower to bring them to heel.
But now they may just want to enter a different era with dignity. As Harry the taxi driver observed, “The majority of the Cubans wish to live well, with many friends and no enemies”.
*Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona, the former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in New York, visited Cuba recently.