With the death of Cuba dictator Fidel Castro, his 11 million slaves finally have a chance to claim the freedom that is their right.
Just yesterday, I said I wanted to return to Cuba when it is free. I think that day of liberation is coming soon.
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My Oct. 3, 1999, news article on a visit to Cuba in May of that year:
Cuba Today: An Inside Look
At The People And The Politics
Leaning against Havana's sea wall on a muggy, moonlit night, a bicycle taxi driver sums up his politics.
"Fidel Castro eats well," the Cuban tells us American visitors in Spanish. "We don't eat well."
The driver is a thin man, about 30 years old. In a nation of pesos, where U.S. dollars buy the best food, almost everyone is thin.
The man's three-wheel vehicle is parked at the curb on the Malecon, the city's promenade along the restless Florida Straits. Dark waters pound the rocks beyond the wall.
"What about the U.S. economic blockade, the bloqueo?" one of us asks. "Isn't that hurting Cuba?"
"Bloqueo, bloqueo, blah, blah, blah," the driver answers. Cuba's problem isn't the blockade, he says. It's Castro, the island's dictator since 1959.
The conversation surprises us, both for the depth of this Cuban's anger and for his readiness to complain about Castro to total strangers.
It is one of many surprises Cuba has for American tourists who, despite U.S. travel restrictions, are visiting the Caribbean island in growing numbers every year.
During this visit in May, I was struck first by the nation's poverty. The average Cuban makes the equivalent of $10 a month. Everything from toilet paper to medicine is in short supply.
Yet I was enchanted by the history and beauty of the land, the classic American cars driving ancient cobbled streets, and the friendliness of the Cuban people. And every step of the way, I was intrigued by the politics of Fidel Castro.
I traveled in a group of eight -- four from California, two from New England, one from Michigan and me from Pennsylvania -- who went to Cuba with Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based travel agency that regularly takes Americans to third-world nations.
We flew in through Cancun, Mexico. U.S. law doesn't allow tourists to fly directly from the United States to Cuba.
In our 10-day tour, we saw the cities of Havana and Matanzas. Our two government-approved guides took us to clinics, museums, schools and agencies of the Communist Party. We also were allowed to look around on our own.
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In Havana, we woke up to roosters crowing among the homes and palm trees around our hotel, the Kohly, just west of the Almendares River. Then we took a tour bus eastward into the light traffic of Central Havana.
We passed smoke-belching motorcycles, Cameo buses packed full of commuters and compact cars made in the former Soviet Union. The Chevys, Dodges and Pontiacs of the 1950s were rolling along, too. They accounted for about one-fifth of the traffic and nine-tenths of the chrome.
In Old Havana, we strolled the narrow Spanish Colonial streets. Here was a treasure of handsome buildings, many with iron balconies, colorful awnings and terra-cotta roofs. Graceful as they were, most of the structures were in desperate need of a coat of paint.
At Cathedral Square, we found the Catedral de Habana. Crowds filed in to admire its baroque swirls, massive doors and two bell towers, one famously thinner and taller than its pair. On the other side of the plaza, a guitarist and a violinist played "Guantanamera." They played it all day, every day.
Around the corner, we stopped at O'Reilly's tavern, where we debated NATO involvement in Kosovo.
Joseph Mutti, our British-born tour guide, declared that Yugoslavia never engaged in ethnic cleansing. The Kosovo Liberation Army, not the Serbs, started the killing, he said.
Mutti had moved to Havana a year earlier for what he called "political reasons." The Cuban government hired him to be an English-language news reporter on Radio Havana, from which he now broadcast the anti-NATO viewpoint.
To most of us, Mutti's position seemed extreme. "What about the mass graves?" we asked. "You don't know there are mass graves," he said.
"What about the Serb army raping Kosovar women?" "All armies rape," he said.
The argument was fueled by our mojitos, the mixed rum drinks that were a favorite of former Cuban resident Ernest Hemingway.
No topic was off limits during our tour, but occasionally we held our tongues.
At dinner, Mutti commented on the four Cuban dissidents who were sentenced March 15 to 3-1/2 to 5 years in prison. The members of the Internal Dissident Working Group had disputed the Cuban Communist Party's version of history and called for free elections.
"I agree with jailing them," Mutti said, "but not for such long sentences." He said the timing of their trial was bad, just before a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. On April 23, the commission voted to demand an end to human rights abuses in Cuba.
None of us said anything to challenge Mutti's support for jailing democrats. Instead, we told ourselves we were in Cuba to listen, or we were trying to be polite, or perhaps we were thinking about where those dissidents went.
Mutti assured us that, after Castro leaves power, "Nothing will change; the Revolution has been built over 40 years." I doubt any of us believed him, but again we were silent.
On the porch of a Havana mansion owned long ago by a sugar millionaire, we met with Eduardo, a retired Communist economist who didn't give his last name. Eduardo said Castro has given tourism the highest priority since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"Tourism has advantages. We can sell Cuban products without them ever leaving the country," he said. Already, tourism is Cuba's top industry, he told us. It brings in $2 billion a year -- far more cash than sugar, tobacco or nickel.
Cuba has had international aid to develop its tourism. Last year, Canada built the sprawling, modern Jose Marti Airport in Havana. Other foreign investors are lining up to build ocean-front hotels.
Eduardo noted that, in each of these deals, Cuban laborers must do the actual construction. The investors pay the Cuban government in dollars, and the Cuban government pays the laborers in pesos. Of course, the workers would rather have U.S. currency.
Cubans have been allowed to accept dollars since Castro legalized their circulation in 1993, but in most homes the coveted greenbacks remain scarce. Tourists are the only regular source of dollars -- as we could tell.
Everywhere we went, Cubans encouraged us to spend. What for us seemed a few dollars here and there for a meal, a ride, a trinket or a tip could amount quickly to several months' pay in Cuba. And some enterprising Cubans were making small fortunes.
Virginia Kohfeld of Santa Monica, Calif., asked Mutti whether Cuba's emphasis on tourism is creating two classes of Cubans, the rich and the poor. She saw similarities to the conditions that brought down former dictator Fulgencio Batista.
"Isn't it like Batista, when Cuba became the playground for the rich? Why wouldn't there be another revolution?" she questioned.
The situation is completely different, Mutti insisted. The Cuban people understand why their government is trying to attract dollars. Tourism helps pay for the free health care and free education so popular in Cuba.
Mutti denied that Cuba enforces a "tourism apartheid," keeping average Cubans away from the hotels and beaches where foreign tourists frolic. But official policy or not, most Cubans don't use those hotels and beaches. They simply can't afford them.
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The divide between tourists and Cubans became starkly clear the night of May 3, when the Cuban national baseball team played the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore.
Kohfeld, her husband, Jim, and I went to the Casa Che, a Havana boardinghouse, to join about 10 Cubans watching the game on television. With them, we enjoyed some beisbol heroics, then headed back to our hotel.
The game was still going as we walked in the dark. Through open windows and doorways along the streets, we could see the families of Havana huddled around their TV sets. From the nearby high-rises, we heard the happy voice of the Cuban play-by-play announcer.
Then we heard the distant thump-thump-thump of music. The beat grew louder as we continued on. Finally, we discovered that the offensively loud music was coming from the walled-off outdoor dance area at our own hotel.
It was Cher's recent hit song, "Believe."
All of Havana was watching the game. The Kohly Hotel was blaring Cher for tourists.
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The Cubans were so friendly I began to imagine I could speak Spanish. Even away from our translators, it was never difficult to communicate.
One Havana family invited me to their apartment for a cup of black Cuban coffee. We were strangers, and yet we managed a wonderful conversation. I knew some Spanish verbs. That helped.
In fact, Cubans have many things in common with Americans. With its eternal summer, Cuba has baseball all year. On TV, they watch American movies with subtitles.
The children are well aware of U.S. culture. Many wore T-shirts of "The Simpsons" and the Los Angeles Lakers. At the Corynthia Elementary School in Matanzas, a girl dressed as Princess Jasmine and a boy as Aladdin sang a Spanish-language version of the Disney song "A Whole New World" for us.
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In Matanzas, we saw some of Cuba's strengths and shortcomings up close. This city 50 miles east of Havana had doctors and dancers aplenty, but some basics of modern life seemed scarce.
While the city had an abundance, perhaps a surplus, of physicians, the healers we met had few supplies to work with. At a neighborhood emergency clinic, the doctors told us they had a severe shortage of antibiotics, high blood pressure medicine and birth-control pills. They also had aging X-ray equipment and little X-ray film.
But the doctors said they live in the neighborhoods they serve. They seemed to have a good rapport with their patients.
At a clinic for alternative medicine, magnets seemed the treatment of choice.
In one room, a doctor showed us two women lying on tables. One woman had a metal device the size of a toaster on her chest. The other had a similar device on her lower back. The magnets relieve pain, the doctor explained. In a hallway, lunchbox-size magnetic arches sat on the floor. On one, an elderly woman rested her aching feet.
The clinic also offered sonic therapy, light therapy, mud therapy, herbs, tai chi, nutrition counseling and psychological counseling.
At Matanzas' Teatro Sauto, we enjoyed excellent ballet in a sweltering hall. The 19th century theater had no air conditioning, at least none that worked. And there wasn't a single electric fan anywhere.
For us tourists, the performance cost $6 a seat. The Cubans paid 2 pesos, about 10 cents. The sticky heat was free.
But the theater itself was a work of magic -- its gilded ceiling decorated with images of the nine Greek muses, its stage high and deep, its acoustics quite fine. One look at the Cuban women flapping fancy hand fans in the balconies, and we were transported back 100 years.
The dancers, all local, were marvelously well-trained, and the crowd seemed to have a sophisticated appreciation of their performance.
At intermission, I went to the men's room. I discovered that public toilets in Cuba have neither toilet seats nor toilet paper. Guests are expected to carry their own stash of tissue.
Despite the ubiquitous billboards declaring "Viva La Revolucion" and "Patria O Muerte" (Our Country or Death), the Cubans we met were short on fervor for Castro's political and economic system.
Officials at the Union of Artists and Writers told us that Cuban artists expressed affection for the Revolution in the early years, but they've avoided the subject lately. Now artists talk more about themselves and the problems of the individual.
At the Young Communists League, a woman described how League members come up with new inspirational slogans every year. The organization seemed out of its era. Castro is 73, and the Revolution is old and tired.
For their part, the Cuban people are generally optimistic. At times, they grumble. The Havana bicycle taxi driver wasn't the only malcontent we heard. But most Cubans look forward to something better. Many study English.
In the Cuevos de Bellamar, caverns just outside Matanzas, Jesus, the cave guide, told us he learned English by listening to "American Top 40" radio announcer Casey Kasem, beamed in from Miami.
Jesus even quoted Kasem's motto: "Keep your feet on the ground, and reach for the stars!" The words echoed off the stalactites and stalagmites.
That was the ultimate in optimism -- a man in a cave speaking so hopefully of stars.
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On one of our last mornings in Havana, we visited the National Museum of the Literacy Campaign. Dumpy and inconspicuous, it looks more like a convenience store than a national museum. But more than any other place we went, this little building revealed the heart, soul and musty dreams of the Cuban Revolution.
Its pamphlets, records, uniforms and thank-you letters tell the story of youngsters in 1961 traveling to remote mountains and valleys to teach farmers how to read and write. To Castro's opponents, these young tutors represented the enemy, and some were murdered, martyrs to the Revolution.
One of the slain teachers was a young man named Manuel Ascunce Domenech, a distant relative of our Cuban guide, Alberto Domenech. Manuel's picture appears in at least three prominent places in the museum.
Our tour bus driver, Francisco, was one of the thousands tutored during the literacy campaign. When a museum official heard this, he dug up an old record book, and Francisco proudly showed us, on a page that certified he could read, a 1961 photo of him as a 16-year-old.
Cubans still argue about how much of their population was literate before Castro's reign. Communists and dissidents have widely differing statistics on the number of Cubans Castro's teachers taught.
Whatever the true number, the Literacy Museum reflects the idealism and great expectations of so many Cubans two years after Batista fell.
The exhibits remind visitors of an inspired time, a time when Castro himself called for free elections. And 40 years into his dictatorship, the aging artifacts invite the question: What have you done for Cubans lately?
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See also: "Castro and the magic billboard."