Above Photo: Havana, Cuba (2017). Pedro Szekely via Flickr.
I was very fortunate to have been able to travel to Cuba a week ago as part of a delegation of American authors, poets, and writers to participate in the 31st annual International Book Festival. The Cubans included my first book, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror, in the permanent collection of the Cuban National Library, and there was a small ceremony to commemorate it.
I had several impressions as a first-time traveler to Cuba. I spent most of my career at the CIA and on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff either living in or working on the Middle East, and I have almost no familiarity with Latin America. I found the Cubans to be very friendly and profoundly proud people. I was able to meet with scores of intellectuals, poets, artists, professors, and medical professionals. A common sight was a group of people sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee, and debating literature, Afro-Caribbean culture, music, and even women’s studies. The education system is very strong in Cuba, and literally everybody in the country is schooled in literature and history, with a strong concurrent background in science and math.
Another thing that struck me almost immediately was how poor the country is. The US embargo has caused great damage to Cuba and to the Cuban people. But Cubans are very resilient. They’ve learned over the past 61 years how to tough it out. They don’t tolerate pressure from US, the Chinese, the Russians, or anybody else. They’re fiercely independent. They would rather do without than be told what to do.
As soon as I walked out of the Jose Marti International Airport, I noticed that 1950s cars are everywhere. It was like being on a movie set. On my first day I saw at least five ‘57 Chevys, as well as Cadillacs, Plymouths, and Dodges. I saw three Fords that dated to the 1940s. The story that the Cubans tell is that, when Havana fell to Castro in 1959, the cars’ owners fled to Miami, thinking that they would be back in a few months to reclaim their property. But they never came back. The cars, homes, and property were all abandoned. And because of the embargo, there are no spare parts. As I said, the Cubans are incredibly resourceful. When one of these cars breaks down, they make new parts from scratch, they modify parts made for other cars, or they cannibalize other cars.
The embargo has more important costs than just a lack of car parts. There is nothing available for infrastructure. Pipes, cables, tools, medical supplies, you name it. They’re all blocked. I learned at dinner one evening that Cubans can’t even get birthday candles. A woman at the restaurant was celebrating a birthday. And because there are no birthday candles in the country, her husband held his lighter above the cake and she blew that out after all the patrons sang “Happy Birthday.”
Think of it this way: Cuban scientists have invented five different vaccines, including a vaccine for lung cancer, that are saving lives around the world, but because of the blockade, they can’t get syringes for their own people.
Another night after dinner, our group was driving back to our hotel when we noticed that the neighborhood we were driving through was completely dark. “Oh, this is normal,” our tour guide Gustavo said. Blackouts happen around the country literally every single day. There just aren’t enough spare parts to keep the electrical grid healthy and running. Although the blackouts happen daily, he said, they only last two or three hours and people are used to them. Resilience is the name of the game.
Another thing that has struck me in Cuba is that the food is terrible. I was actually looking forward to the food very much. But it’s awful. The choices are few—again, thanks to the embargo. There’s always pork, chicken, and fish, but the quality is not up to US standards. I never encountered any beef. There was lots of rice. But beans are in short supply, as is pasta. Squash and tomatoes are in season right now, so they’re included with every meal. And that’s it.
Gustavo, the tour guide, explained that because the US bans literally all trade between the two countries, including food, Cubans eat what they can raise or grow. As a result, there aren’t many choices when you go out to eat. You get what they have. Many restaurants don’t even have a menu. You get whatever it is they were able to get access to that morning. One day might be chicken, another day fish, and another day pork. Rice is ubiquitous, as is fruit, but even bottled water is in short supply.
I noticed long lines one afternoon outside a grocery store. Gustavo said that this, too, was normal. Everything is rationed because of the short supplies. Maybe today is for chicken, he said, but tomorrow is for laundry detergent. Maybe the day after is for cooking oil, and a day after that is for flour and eggs. Again, you get what you get.
None of this seemed to have much of an effect on the Cuban psyche. I suppose you can’t miss what you’ve never had. So instead of wallowing in their own misery, the Cubans focus on the things they can control. Children, as I said, are very well-educated. They get lots of opportunity for physical activity, they play baseball, and study literature, math and science, and history. Every Cuban child is encouraged to go to college and to study whatever interests him or her. But medicine is what is promoted the most. I saw a dozen billboards lauding and congratulating Cuban doctors and nurses who have gone overseas to help fight Covid, to care for the poor, and to help other countries’ overwhelmed medical systems. “We Are Proud of You,” the billboards said. “You Should Be Proud of Yourself, Too.”
I spent one morning at the Fidel Castro Center. It’s a former colonial mansion that has been repurposed into something akin to a presidential library in honor of Fidel. One of the things that I learned was that Fidel demanded in his will that nothing be named after him. He wanted no monuments or memorials, no streets, schools, airports, or anything else to bear his name. The Fidel Castro Center is the only exception, thus its modesty. Furthermore, there are no statues in honor of Fidel, his brother Raul, or Che Guevara anywhere in the country. Fidel said that he did not want his persona to detract from the meaning of the revolution. The revolution, he held, was about socialism, not about personalities. Nonetheless, Cubans quote him, love him, and honor him by speaking cogently and in-depth about the revolution and about what Castro wanted to accomplish for the country.
I spent another afternoon in Old Havana, the center of the city founded by the Spanish in the early 16th century. The buzz of life there was undeniable. There aren’t a lot of shops; remember, because of the embargo, there’s really nothing to buy. But the squares, plazas, and streets are spotlessly clean and are named for artists, poets, writers and heroes from the revolution of 1895—not the socialist revolution, but the fight against the Spanish. Cubans are extraordinarily proud of their history, of their independence, and of their place in the world.
On our second day in Havana we met with Vice President of Cuba and Director of the Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) Pedro Rivas and Director of the Nicolas Guillen Foundation, Nicolas Guillen II. Nicolas Guillen was UNEAC’s founder and first president, as well as Cuba’s first poet laureate. Cuba’s Director for Combatting Racism and the country’s former Ambassador to Angola also joined the conversation, which focused on racism in Cuba. The interesting thing, at least to me, was that I honestly didn’t know that there was racism in Cuba. I learned that what the Cubans call “racism” is nothing at all like the American definition.
The Cuban government is a slow-moving bureaucracy just like every other government. Very, very few Cubans are just white or just black, and everybody makes free use of the term “mulatto,” a word meant to describe people of mixed race, which went out of fashion in the US years ago. While most Cubans are racially intermarried and everybody is a shade of brown or olive, for whatever reason the Cuban census, Cuban schools, and job applications still ask for race, which is always listed as “white,” “black,” or “mulatto.” There’s no distinction between indigenous and mulatto or between blacks of African, Afro-Caribbean, or Afro-South American ancestry. So the problem is not that anybody is discriminated against. The problem is that government forms still ask for race! The Cubans we spoke to remain outraged.
That same day, we went to see Ernest Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) in the town of San Francisco de Paula, west of Havana. The place was positively inspirational. This is where Hemingway wrote his most iconic novels in a room on the top floor of a tower that he built in 1946 to overlook the city of Havana and Havana Bay.
As gifted as he was, Hemingway was also volatile. His alcoholism and domestic violence were legendary. Hemingway met with Fidel Castro only once, well after the start of the revolution, but just before Fidel had consolidated his control over Havana. They reportedly got along famously in this meeting. But Hemingway soon left for the United States to spend what was a year at the Mayo Clinic for cancer, liver failure, depression, and other effects of a lifetime of alcoholism. On a break from his year at the Mayo Clinic, he returned to his vacation home in Sun Valley, Idaho, where early one morning he put his shotgun in his mouth and quite literally blew his head off. Hemingway’s fourth wife returned to Cuba, where she again met with Fidel. She donated Hemingway’s beloved home to the Cuban people, as well as all of its contents, with the exception of some unfinished manuscripts. She gave Hemingway’s two cars to the two housekeepers, and she gave Hemingway’s famed fishing yacht, The Pilar, to the boat’s captain. You can see the boat, the pool, the tower, and the graves of Hemingway’s four dogs, Black,” Negrita, Neron, and Linda on the property, and you can peer into the house’s open doors. The building has been open since 1962 as a museum and research center.
On our fourth day our group attended the 31st annual International Book Fair, technically the reason for the trip. I want to put this book fair into some perspective. First, the event is absolutely massive. The authorities welcomed one million Cubans, nine percent of the entire population, to the fair. (That would be the equivalent of 27 million Americans attending a book fair.) There were tens of thousands of people inside the 16th-century Spanish fort where it was held, and there were tens of thousands more standing in line to get in. For books! Hundreds of publishers were represented from every country in Latin America, as well as Spain, Australia, Austria, China, Iran, Angola, and even Western Sahara. There were very, very few books at the fair about Fidel Castro, but there were more than I could count about Jose Marti, the father of modern Cuba, and about the CIA. I saw books in English and Spanish called “The CIA’s Crimes Against Cuba” and “Operation Condor: The CIA’s Crimes Against the Cuban People,” among others.
Seeing these books inspired me to go to the Museum of Historical Denouncement. Cool name, right? It’s a new museum across the street from the Moroccan Embassy in the Mira Mare section of Havana dedicated to preserving the evidence of American crimes committed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, where a group of CIA-trained Cuban mercenaries attempted to invade the island to overthrow Fidel and to end the revolution just as it was getting started. The invasion was a disaster for the United States. John F. Kennedy said that approving it was the greatest mistake he had ever made. And one thing that the Cuban people are very, very proud of is that Cuba sued the United States after the Bay of Pigs. Although the US never admitted guilt, it paid millions of dollars in compensation to Cuba. Fidel later said, “I don’t care about an apology. The money is the apology. It’s the first time that the Americans ever had to pay for their crimes.”
When I was the senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2009-2011) under the chairmanship of then-Senator John Kerry, I was instructed to do a study on the US anti-Cuba propaganda outlets Radio Marti and TV Marti to see if they were cost-effective and necessary. The stations are broadcast from Key West, Florida and are almost universally ineffective in doing anything. The Cubans jam some of the signals and of the ones that get through to Cuba, nobody listens to them unless baseball games are being broadcast in Spanish. One of the things that I learned on this trip was that every Cuban can pick up radio stations from Miami pretty much all the time. Radio stations from all over the United States are audible after sunset. There is no reason to spend the American taxpayers’ money on ineffectual, wasteful propaganda.
On TV, there are several local Cuban stations that are boosted so that they are viewable all over the island. But the Cubans also have cable TV, and cable has pretty much everything, including CNN, HLN, BBC, MTV, all of the ESPN channels, Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, and stations from Mexico, Venezuela, France, Italy, Russia, and China. On the day of my arrival, I was able to watch President Biden’s State of the Union address, in real time, with Spanish subtitles.
Furthermore, internet access in Cuba is ubiquitous. I’m told that it’s significantly better than what it was just three years ago. There are no blackouts on news sites. I read The Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal every morning with no problems, in addition to the alternative media sites that I normally read. Don’t believe what you’ve otherwise heard about “Cuban censorship.” It’s a lie.
I also learned something else about Cuba that struck me as both surprising and interesting. The Cuban government allows students from all over the world to attend medical school in Cuba completely for free, so long as the students promise to serve poor communities in their countries when they graduate. Each student from a non-Spanish speaking country must first study Spanish for a year and then enter medical school. Students currently being trained are from Morocco, Palestine, Haiti, Djibouti, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Russia, China, Colombia, Venezuela, and all across Africa. There are even five students from the United States.
On my fifth day in Cuba, I was sitting with one of my fellow attendees at breakfast when she said that she wasn’t feeling well. She looked a little flushed and said that she thought she had a fever. She told me that she would skip the day’s planned events and remain at the hotel. By early afternoon her fever was raging, and her husband took her to a local hospital. She was diagnosed there with dengue fever from a mosquito bite. Dengue fever is endemic to Cuba, so medical professionals know how to deal with it. She was given an injection, an IV, and pills to take with her back to the hotel.
Her husband told me later that she was feeling better within a few hours, and by the end of the next day she was mostly feeling like herself again. The problem, though, was at the hospital. Because she is not a Cuban citizen, the healthcare was not free. Instead, she was charged $130 for her treatment. It was an incredible bargain. The hospital only takes credit cards; patients can’t pay in cash. But because of the embargo, American credit cards don’t work in Cuba. Neither do Paypal, Zelle, Venmo, CashApp or any other such money transfer service. Not only that, but you can’t even access your US bank account online from Cuba. The US government forces ISPs to block the sites from anybody trying to access them from Cuba. It took hours, but my friend was finally able to pay the hospital after getting the Minister of Health personally involved. It took the entire day.
I’m sure most of us have been to a hospital for treatment at some time in our lives. When you check out of the hospital you are normally given a print out with instructions for once you get home. Drink plenty of fluids, take your medication on time, etc. Well, because of the embargo, there isn’t enough paper. The doctor had to hand-write the instructions on the back of an envelope. There’s a shortage of printer cartridges anyway, so trying to print the instructions would have been useless even if there had been paper. This is just a fact of everyday life in Cuba.
When I was serving in Bahrain in the mid-1990s, a part of my job as the Economic Officer at the American Embassy there was to press the Bahraini government to drop its participation in the Arab embargo against Israel. The Arab countries at the time would not do business with any Israeli company. That was called the primary embargo. It was the secondary and tertiary embargoes that we were working against. The secondary embargo was when Arab countries wouldn’t do business with companies that did business with Israel. (That’s why there was no Pepsi in Bahrain, for example.) The tertiary embargo was when the Arab countries wouldn’t do business with any company that did business with any other company that did business with Israel. It was that harsh. And the US government was 100 percent opposed to it.
But that’s exactly what we do to Cuba. I asked several of our Cuban hosts why they don’t just trade with Canada, Spain, the UK, or other western countries. They said that US policy on the embargo was to sanction those countries and companies that did business with Cuba at the secondary and tertiary levels. Our hypocrisy on foreign policy couldn’t possibly be any more evident. It was infuriating.
Cuba is a 45-minute flight from Miami. American Airlines flies there six times a day. I urge all of you to make the trip, if you are able. I’ve been to 70 countries around the world. But rarely have I had my eyes opened, rarely have I been so enlightened, like on this trip to Cuba. Go to Cuba. Experience the culture, the music, the poetry, and the history. Learn how the Cuban people live and see how resilient they are.
Our government is simply wrong on Cuba. We would benefit from full diplomatic relations right now. We would benefit from a close working relationship with the Cuban government and the Cuban people. The Cuban people love Americans. Almost everybody in the country, literally, has a relative living and working in the United States. It’ll be a lot of work, but it can be done. And we would all be better off for it.