Thursday, July 04, 2013

Cuba Paradox

Pam and I spent part of Independence Day getting as close as most U.S. citizens (or visa holders) will get to Cuba. We are both very lucky to have traveled to Cuba -- the only country in the world to which travel is forbidden for most citizens of our "free" country.

In 2003, I used a license from the U.S. Treasury Department (under the Trading with the Enemies Act) to accompany a study tour to Cuba that was jointly offered by Bridgewater State College (as it was called then) and Cape Cod Community College (as it is still called). BSC/U offered only one more study tour before losing its license.*

Almost a decade later, Pam had an opportunity to follow, this time under a license for a literary tour of Havana, led by author Tom Miller. This was an opportunity she could not pass up: Pam had been Tom's research assistant when he was writing Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro's Cuba, first published in 1992.

When I had traveled in 2003, Fidel Castro was aging, and I thought I was witnessing the last days of his Revolution. When Pam went earlier this year, I was glad that she could bear witness to Cuba as it has been -- for better or worse -- before the inevitable change.

This seems to have been the main motivation for BBC journalist Simon Reeve as he prepared the one-hour documentary Cuba 2012 (full program embedded above). Traveling just last year, he captures a moment after Raúl Castro has liberalized restrictions on small businesses, but before other changes, such as the ability to travel abroad that began the day after Pam's visit this January.

At 30:40, Reeve notices that an elementary school near the site of the Bay of Pigs invasion features an illustration of a rifle, with the admonition that Cubans should learn to shoot, and to shoot well. As a Brit, he is taken aback, whereas in the United States this bit of propaganda would be considered a good idea by some gun-industry lobbyists and their allies.

At around 43:00 begins quite an interesting sequence about real estate. In a park where I am pretty certain I encountered a lot of artists selling their work in 2003, people were wandering about with classified ads for real estate pinned to their shirts. One of the agents working the park had come from a rural area to Havana to sell cheese, taking advantage of the reforms that allowed for such private enterprise. Almost immediately, she realized that she could make a lot more money selling real estate, as a half-century of an ossified housing market has suddenly opened up.

This woman's exuberance in her new career reminded Pam of research we had both read a few years ago. Money can buy happiness, up to a certain point. That is, research has shown that happiness is independent of income, above a certain level. For those barely making ends meet, though, incremental increases in income do tend to bring more happiness, and the excitement of this home seller certainly bears this out.

Reeve does an excellent -- if sometimes awkward -- job of bringing the viewer story after story of ordinary Cubans who are finding ways to benefit from what he calls Cuba's "Second Revolution" (forgetting to count the one in which they threw off the Spaniards). Toward the end, however, he extrapolates a bit too far, though. He assumes that if a little change brings a little happiness, then sweeping change will bring sweeping happiness. That certainly remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, for North Americans curious about a country they do not yet have the Independence to visit, this film is a one hour very well spent.

*In order to avoid another recount in Florida in 2004, the Bush brothers (President George W. and Governor Jeb) declined to renew more than 90 percent of academic licenses to travel to Cuba. The strategy worked, so that questionable voting practices were displaced to Ohio, where they were less expected.

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