HAVANA, Cuba - It's hard not notice that Americans are all over Cuba and, parenthetically, that the Helms-Burton Act and the U.S. embargo are ineffectual.
The Cuban people are suffering deprivations most Americans can only imagine, while U.S. citizens miss out on a wide range of business opportunities. Despite our best efforts to strangle the Cuban economy, some 150 other nations are enjoying normal trade relations and business associations with the Cuban government.
The only person, in fact, who seems to benefit from our draconian policies is Fidel Castro. How convenient of us to provide him an enemy to hate - just what the dictator ordered - and an excuse for all the failings of his regime. As long as the United States appears to behave badly, Castro can believe
- and perhaps convince others - that his contempt is justified.
Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Americans are ignoring our policies. No one knows how many Americans visit the island illegally, or at least no one's saying. Cuban officials record every boat that docks at one of the country's 17 marinas, but they politely decline to divulge numbers.
Whether they count those who come by other means - by jet from Canada, Mexico and Jamaica - isn't clear. Cuba doesn't stamp American passports and welcomes anyone who's friendly. The unspoken understanding, bothersome to one's sense of patriotism if not to common sense, is that American policies toward Cuba aren't worthy of respect or allegiance.
A Floridian and veteran visitor who was docked in Marina Hemingway, for example, says he fills out all the proper forms with American customs, signs papers promising he won't spend any money while he's here, and then does what he wants. "Yadda, yadda, yadda. They know it's bull," he says.
Cubans are delighted to welcome Americans and their dollars, which have become the preferred currency since Castro legalized greenbacks in 1993, a step he took in order to funnel dollars from the flourishing black market into the mainstream economy.
The effect has been creation of an economic apartheid. Cubans with access to dollars, primarily through coveted jobs in the tourist industry, can buy quality products at "dollar stores," while state employees who earn only pesos stand in long lines for government-subsidized goods.
It's not surprising that well-educated Cubans clamor for jobs as cab drivers, bartenders and hotel maids. A chemical engineer mixing daiquiris at Havana's Parque Central Hotel might collect $20 a day in tips, while his state-employed counterpart earns a comparable amount monthly. One cab driver left his job as a military jet pilot. Another gave up his engineering job, saying, "It beats peddling a bicycle 25 kilometers to work in a factory."
But what about all that education? Training? Talent?
"You can have talent or you can have food," he says. "Eating is better."
The dollar economy is changing the way Cubans think. When hard currency is freely exchanged for goods and services, it's tough to ignore the connections. Hard work equals more money equals better goods equals better quality of life.
These capitalist constructs, which Americans embrace as inalienable rights, are still considered counterrevolutionary here. Yet, undeniably, as Americans' feet continue touching Cuban soil, these ideas are taking root and, slowly but surely, finding light.
Which is the inescapable lesson for Americans visiting Cuba. If, as our official policy claims, we really want to encourage open economies and a peaceful transition to a stable, democratic form of government, the most direct route isn't through embargoes or other punitive actions, but through increasing Cubans' exposure to Americans and Western values. Castro would hate it.