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A Moment in History

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    Even Fidel tries to avoid the word "communism" these days. He now prefers to to be known as a socialist, exchanging his trademark fatigues for a business suit during his visit last spring to France, where he sipped chablis in wine country and reportedly expressed disappointment upon learning that his country's climate was too hot to produce respectable vintages.

    For white wine Castro--he has even given up cigars--1994 was a bad year. The sugar crop failed and the economy went south, while wishful pundits predicted his political demise. In August, anti-government riots broke out on the Malecon, the boardwalk along Havana's waterfront.

    This year has been considerably kinder to the Caribbean island's ruler of three-and-a-half decades. He made the cover of Time magazine. Tourism and foreign investment are up, and the country's tattered economy is rebounding from the pounding it took following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Last month, the Cuban National Assembly passed a law designed to encourage further investment by permitting foreigners to own up to 100 percent of an enterprise. Also last month, despite U.S. restrictions on travel and investment, 50 executives for some of America's largest companies flew to Havana and dined with Castro, with the blessing of the Clinton administration.

    Moreover, in the past year, the U.S. and Cuban governments have talked more than at any point during the past three decades, culminating in the joint announcement of a new immigration policy in May. Then on August 5, the one-year anniversary of the boardwalk riots, the Cuban government marshaled a half-million marchers to protest, instead, the American economic blockade.

    Hayward math professor Delvis Fernandez, who was in Cuba at the time and heads a Cuban-American group promoting better bilateral relations, observed the rally and was stunned to see Castro "maybe 20 feet away," strolling down the Malecon amidst the masses. Despite general dissatisfaction with the government and its policies, the country's president, commander-in-chief, party secretary and prime minister remains personally popular, both inside his country on the international circuit.

    This coming Saturday morning, Castro is scheduled to speak to the United Nations 50th Anniversary Celebration, along with President Clinton, Yassir Arafat, Boris Yeltsin and other world leaders. John Kavulich, who heads the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, forecasts an outbreak of "Fidelmania."

    "Fidel will walk in to the U.N. to a standing ovation like you wouldn't believe," Kavulich predicts. "His visit overshadows the visit of every other head of state. Everyone wants to meet him--academics, politicians, journalists, heads of state."

    A growing chorus of voices stateside believes that the United States embargo, ostensibly designed to bring Fidel Castro to his knees and speed the transition to an free and democratic Cuba, not only has strengthened the Cuban leader's hand, but cost the U.S. both economic opportunities and the clout to nudge Cuba towards democratic reforms.

    The U.S. policy does not cause undue pain to the country's political elite or the newly emerging mercantile class that can afford to supplement government rations with purchases of food and household items in the dollar stores.

    Instead, the embargo hurts the kids who sell their bodies to tourists and beg for cheeklits in the dusty, smelly back streets of La Habana Vieja, and the toothless, elderly couple scraping fly spit off potatoes that have begun to turn.

    In July, former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote President Clinton that "there is no longer any moral or ideological justification for the U.S. embargo."

    "This ... does not mean that I approve of the restrictions of liberty or the violations of human rights practiced by Fidel Castro's regime," Arias noted. "Indeed, I have long been an outspoken critic of that regime. However, if 'merely punishing the enemy is self-defeating,' to punish the people who are victims of this enemy is abominable."

    So why continue a cruel and ineffective policy?

    "It's South Florida, nothing else," Congressman Esteban Torres (D-Los Angeles) said during an April tour of Cuba's biotechnology institute. He calls the right-wing Miami-based Cuban-American Foundation "a major PAC and influence," and thinks it's time for a change.

    "The Cold War's over and a lot of adjustments have to be made."

    Although anti-Castro sentiments dominate the political culture of the South Florida Cuban exile community, moderate voices have begun to emerge. Among them is Eddie Levy, who says, "You know, 35 years of the present policy--the embargo and the aggressive behavior--has brought nothing in the way of results. So it's time to try a different approach. To sit down and talk like civilized human beings."

    It's also time, he adds, "to take the foreign policy policy away from the most reactionary elements of the Cuban American community in South Florida, to give American policy back to Americans."

    Levy thinks Castro might be ready for political reform and democracy, and that the outside pressure merely impedes progress towards that goal. "We've got to get him out of the bunker. From the bunker, he's not going to do it."

    First, he thinks, the U.S. needs to respect Cuba's sovereignty. "They are the government... The U.S. government doesn't give in to pressure from another nation. Cuba has pride. It is a sovereign country. No country will allow another to dictate its politics. It's as simple as that."

    "The way to create a more open society in Cuba--everything has to be done gradually--is to give them space to breathe. ... End the embargo. Let them do things without being on the defensive. "

    Later in the day, Eddie's wife Xiomara rides through Havana on a tour bus and points to the home in which she once lived. "The director of Strawberry and Chocolate lives here now," she says. There is no trace of bitterness in her voice.

    For Cuban Americans who lost property following the 1959 revolution, it is difficult to forgive, and impossible to forget. Nonetheless, more and more are coming back to Havana to come to terms with history.

    Alma Weintraub stops the bus and walks up to the doorway of the three-family home her family owned when she was a teen. A bearded man comes to the door. She introduces herself as a member of the family who once lived there. "Oh, the polacos," a woman nearby says knowingly. Jews in Cuba are variously described as "turcos," "polacos" or "syrios," depending on which region of the world they're from.

    Weintraub is detached and not overly sentimental as she tells her story. Her family had built two stories on top for their friends. A lot next door, still empty, was set aside for the house that would be built for Alma after she married.

    She remembers Havana of the 1950s well, and points to the hotel where she celebrated her "quince"--her 15th birthday. In those days, Meyer Lansky, the organized crime figure who built some of Havana's fanciest hotels, would chat with her in Yiddish, she says.

    Weintraub's family left in 1960, when she was 19. "We left the place with the housekeeper, but they wouldn't let her keep it."

    The Cuban government now controls the property and allows an international organization to use it. "We owned the place mortgage-free," she says several times, and tells the story of how her father sold a partnership interest in a Bay Harbor, Florida development to pay for the house that the Cubans later confiscated.

    Wouldn't the investment in Bay Harbor, Miami's toniest retail address, today be worth millions, I ask.

    She doesn't answer.

    I ask again.

    She just tightens her lips.

    Night falls in Havana, and a large group tries to get seated at a paledar, one of the family-operated home restaurants that are becoming common in Cuba.

    They are named "paledar" after a Brazilian soap opera that aired in 1992 on Cuban television, capturing the nation's imagination, my friend Arturito explains.

    The series featured a destitute woman who sold sandwiches at the beach and overcame her poverty by building a prosperous chain of fast food restaurants.

    This paledar, L'Azotea, is on the second story patio of a building on a busy street. A lighted sign hangs from the patio. The establishment's success is already evident. An addition is being built off the stairway in back.

    The tables are all full, so we continue on. Along the way, Arturito tells about another paledar that has been serving in the living room and now has expanded into a bedroom. "I think they will soon be looking for a new place to live," he laughs.

    Four blocks away, on a residential street, we enter a doorway marked only by the house number. We walk down a long hallway, past 1950s-style bookshelves and fireplaces, to a patio in back, which is covered in a canopy of grapevines.

    Our group takes up most of the back yard and divides into several tables. Around midnight, two of the tables are finishing desert, while at our table, the entrees haven't arrived. We soon learn that the restaurant had only a handful of plates, and the cook was waiting for the others to finish so that the plates could be washed and reused.

    The Brazilian soap, no doubt, left out episodes about inventory management, and supply and demand.

    In a hotel courtyard, the party official arrives late and apologizes profusely. He shakes his head and lets out a deep breath, explaining that he had stopped at the clinic to pick up a prescription that he could only get on a certain day of the month, and he had to wait in line nearly an hour. That this occurs is not surprising; it's nearly impossible to keep to a schedule in Cuba, and anything from crumbling infrastructure and a scarcity of goods to general craziness can turn a simple errand into an unexpected ordeal. What is surprising is that a man of his stature didn't pull strings or send a subordinate.

    "I have to wait in line like everyone else," he assures after I rib him.

    He talks about the country's new investment law, which loosens restrictions on "joint ventures"--partnerships between the state and foreign investors. He is candid about the mistakes of the past, but asks that I not name him in print, for he is not an official spokesperson. "The socialist system is not a system of equality," he explains. Rather it is one in which "you work according to your capacity and receive according to your needs."

    The revolution attempted to create an "equalitarian" system that would provide for all, he says, but the idealism brought some problems with it. "We have a principle within the system that the biggest advantage becomes the biggest disadvantage."

    "If you work or don't work, you have the same rights. It doesn't matter if you work; you receive the same rights, and this became a big problem in the end. It was a problem that people were not stimulated to work."

    Recently announcing that it would have to end guarantees of full employment and trim bureaucratic fat, the Cuban government began downsizing its bureaucracy. "We have to cut back on our employment. We don't know how to manage this situation. This is a very big problem for us," the official admitted.

    There is no firm estimate on the number of people who will be layed off: "Half a million, three hundred thousand, six hundred thousand... there are different numbers."

    Some of the slack might be picked up by growth in joint ventures, which he says currently employ about 160,000 workers. About the same number are self-employed, he estimates.

    Along Obispo Street in Old Havana, an economic miracle is occurring amidst the crumbling and long neglected buildings. Jose Fernandez, who owns a Miami real estate and investment firm that bears his name and was a key force in the revitalization of Miami's chic South Beach (SoBe) district, excitedly points to the signs of gentrification. He notes that an Italian cruise ship terminal will soon open in the old stock exchange building, and that sidewalk cafes, theaters and art galleries are sprouting like weeds.

    "There is a real estate boom going on in Havana Vieja," Fernandez declares. "It's going to be the next SoBe, the next SoHo."

    The Cuban-born naturalized American is eager to put together an investment group to participate in Old Havana's coming renaissance, but notes that U.S. law hinders such a move.

    It's an odd paradox that while the Cubans are embracing entrepreneurial capitalism and hustling investments, American businesses are held back from doing what they do best. Odder yet is and that the United States has become the party driven by ideology rather than pragmatism. If it continues to perpetuate a failed Eisenhower-era Cold War policy, the U.S. will be left out of the post-Communist Cuba that will be built with the investments of the Canadians, the Mexicans, the Spaniards, the Italians and others unencumbered by the burdens of a bizarre historical relationship.

    Cuba, too, risks destroying its nascent economic miracle if it continues to march against the tide of history by denying its people elemental freedoms such as the right to select their leaders by popular election or allow a competitive press to debate the country's future in the unrestricted marketplace of ideas.

    Memo to Fidel: A mutual acquaintance asked me to FedEx five copies of this issue to New York so that you could see it on Friday. I hope that you will seize your moment in history and announce to the world on Saturday that Cuba is ready to schedule internationally supervised elections and remove the police state stereotypes that discredit your accomplishments and give your opponents a reason to continue the blockade. You have built a country that is healthier and and more literate that its peers, a multi-racial society unpoisoned by pervasive racism and obscene disparities of privilege and wealth.

    Now take the next step.

    You have written that history will absolve you. That absolution will come quickly if you take the risks needed to advance history.

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From the Oct. 19-25, 1995 issue of Metro

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