Alan Dershowitz: Cuba, 60 Years Later
I finally made it to Cuba — nearly 60 years after first trying.
It was Christmas vacation during my senior year at Brooklyn College. Five members of Knight House – the poor folks’ version of a live-at-home fraternity at my commuter college – decided to visit Havana. Our motives were not entirely pure. Yes, we wanted to see the Old City and its cultural gems, but we also wanted to participate in its notorious nightlife. We were 20 years old and seeking post-adolescent adventures of the sort we couldn’t experience back in Brooklyn.
We never made it.
When we got to the Miami airport for the half-hour, $50 flight, we were greeted by a US State Department travel advisory. It seemed another young man – just a dozen years older than we were – who had been trying for several years to get to Havana, as well, had finally succeeded. The day we were meant to depart for Havana, Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army approached the outskirts of the city.
Disappointed, we returned to Miami Beach, where we had to be satisfied with Jai Alai and crowded beaches. Years later, I learned that members of a rival house, undeterred by a mere “advisory,” had taken the flight to Havana and partaken of its vices – vices which were soon to be ended, or driven underground by Castro’s revolution.
The disappointed young man who didn’t make it to Cuba in 1958 is now an old man, with different tastes and tamer vices, such as an occasional cigar and a Cuba Libra drink. Among my passions now are art and music, and Cuba excels at both. So my wife and I, with three other couples, set out on an age-appropriate adventure as part of a “people-to-people” cultural group. Travelers still need an acceptable “justification” to visit the long-boycotted destination. Mere tourism or the love of beaches won’t do. It has to be cultural, religious, educational or some other broad category of virtuous pursuit. You still can’t go there for the reasons we had in mind back when Castro had kept us involuntarily virtuous.
So we visited the studios and houses of Cuban artists — some established, others young and on the way to achieving international recognition. The visits were fascinating, as the artists regaled us with stories of their own experiences increasing Cuba’s artistic freedom and becoming part of the international art market. Some of them have become quite rich, at least compared with average wages for other occupations in the city, including lawyers and doctors.
The artists also told us of the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, which had been criminalized and repressed by Fidel Castro, though the daughter of his brother, Raul, was leading a movement for equal rights for gay Cubans.
Other positive changes were also visible. Tourism is thriving, and tour guides are among the growing middle class, along with home owners who rent out apartments to tourists. With tourism comes increasing capitalism and freedom of communication. We heard a diversity of views, including some critical ones, from Cubans we encountered, but we sensed some remaining constraints on full freedom of expression.
On Friday night, some of us attended a beautiful Shabbat service at the local synagogue. There was no rabbi, so the service was led by a group of teenage visitors from Argentina. The dining room table was set for 80 expected guests, who would feast on chicken and other delicacies not easily available to most locals. The woman who heads the Jewish community proudly described a recent visit to the synagogue by Raul Castro, who she said had a warm spot in his heart for Jews, if not for Israel, with which Cuba has no formal relations.
Tourist resorts are filled, and the food – mostly continental with a Cuban influence – is quite good. Prices are reasonable, compared to large US cities, but unaffordable to all but a select few locals.
The night life is vibrant, with Las Vegas-type spectacles at the old Flamingo, as well as jazz at bars. The 1950’s mafia controlled hotels – The National and others like it – have been refurbished and made ready for the anticipated influx of American tourists, as travel restrictions are lifted.
On the negative side, the effects of the failed Communist economy were evident. Beautiful old buildings – some of them architectural gems – are in disrepair, some of them crumbling.
The Cuban people suffered from the excesses of an exploitive, mafia-influenced authoritarianism under Fulgencio Batista, and then from the excesses of tyrannical Communism under Fidel Castro. What the future holds is uncertain, but to this American visitor, it feels like the Cuban people may be somewhat better off today than they were under either extreme.