Fidel is back in the news. George W. Bush is tightening travel restrictions to Cuba and the U.S. government will soon more carefully scrutinize cultural exchanges. The new restrictions were announced in October on the 135th anniversary of Cuba's struggle against Spanish colonialism and become effective this month. The misery under the Maximum Leader continues unabated.
Travel by Americans, the president says, only makes the suffering worse. The president, using a Rose Garden ceremony to emphasize his point, told an audience of Cuban immigrants that travel to Cuba only serves "to prop up the dictator and his cronies" without easing the misery that Castro, who lives sumptuously, has imposed on his people. The new restrictions still won't affect members of Congress, journalists, Cuban immigrants with relatives in Cuba or visitors with specific humanitarian and educational purposes.
Nevertheless, the tightening of the screws angers some Americans, accustomed to going where they want, when they want. Some of the angry are old lefties, still dreaming of revolution, who regard Fidel, the last of the Marxist despots, as their last remaining revolutionary hero. Others merely want to visit the island for its beautiful white sand beaches, the peacock blue sea, the music and the entertainment.
The extravagant floor shows at the Tropicana, which opened on New Year's Eve under the regime of Fulgencio Batista, remain a draw for tourists. The gorgeous dancers at the Tropicana are no longer topless and the casino is long gone, but Castro, for all of his Marxist priggishness, has not ruffled the feathers of the showgirls or even dimmed the famous chandelier lights of their hairpieces. But there is a difference. The Tropicana is only open to tourists with big bucks - the entrance fee is $85 - and once inside, the only Cubans a tourist will see are the dancers, the waiters and the busboys.
The luxurious Havana Riviera, built by mobster Meyer Lansky who lived in the penthouse when Cuba fell to the Fidelistas in 1958, has been elaborately restored. The lobby, with its cantilevered eaves, inspired by the fins of the Cadillac El Dorado, is open only to tourists. Unless they work there, Cubans are stopped at the door.
One tourist I know, an artist, returned from a 12-day architectural study tour of Cuba with a bright red baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the Cuban championship baseball team. He bought it in his hotel gift shop with dollars. Several Cubans stopped him on the street, begging to trade him pesos for it. One shopkeeper told him: "Senor, take anything in my shop and let me have the cap. We cannot buy one." A small thing, unless you are a Cuban baseball fan.