Curbing Cuba's happy holidays

Posted: Jan 12, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Unless they stay in a tourist hotel with CNN, visitors are insulated from the outside world, since information is controlled by the government and there's little actual "news" in the newspapers. A visit to the library requires official permission.

"We do not want to enrich the tyrannical government of Fidel Castro," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, says of the restrictions. A flood of American dollars under present circumstances would not reach the ordinary Cubans, and would only "fund his tyranny, his crackdown on dissidents."

Critics of the president's restrictions argue that they deprive Cubans of exposure to the contagion of freedom carried by the American tourist. But such American visitors have little contact with ordinary Cubans. When President Bush challenged Fidel Castro 18 months ago to allow free elections, free expression and a minimum of free enterprise in return for easing of restrictions and sanctions, Castro responded by rounding up dissident leaders and throwing them in harsh prisons.

Arthur Miller writes in the Nation magazine of a visit he made three years ago with several literary friends, including novelist William Styron. Castro joined them for dinner and favored them with a harangue that lasted into the wee hours. Fidel sleeps all day, apparently, and at 77 can stay up all night. The playwright was amused by Castro's histrionics and huge ego, and found the monstrous dictator "an exciting person who could probably have had a career on the screen."

He wonders why the dictator won't make a "graceful exit." Naturally it's all George W. Bush's fault: "Is it Castro's patriotic love of Cubans, conformist or dissident, for their country or is it the stuck-in-cement manic hatred of U.S. politicians, whose embargo quite simply gives Castro an insurance policy against needed change, injecting the energy of rightful defiance into the people?" The embargo "automatically explains each and every failure of the regime to provide for the Cuban people."

The dissidents starving in the filth of Castro's prisons - objects all of "Castro's patriotic love" - might not agree.