The NCAA basketball tournament is entertaining; the presidential primaries are ever compelling; and the arrival of spring is welcome.
But, man, I wish I was in Cuba this week!
Consider some of recent and upcoming developments involving the U.S. and the country that lost track of time:
— President Obama arrives at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport at 3:50 p.m. today for a three-day visit. Within a couple of hours of his arrival, he will do a walking tour of Old Havana and take in the sights, including Catedral de San Cristobal.
— Last week, the president eased travel restrictions to Cuba, which will allow Americans to visit Cuba (and take commercial flights there) without signing up for expensive, U.S. government-sanctioned, “educational” tours, like one that Patty and I were on in late January and early February.
— Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which operates Sheraton hotels, among others, signed a deal to refurbish and manage at least two hotels in the Havana area, including a 186-room hotel in the upscale suburb, relatively speaking, of Miramir. Most hotels in Cuba are government owned (you can tell by the service and shortcomings), and Starwood will be the first American hospitality chain to run hotels there.
— The Rolling Stones will perform in a free concert Friday at the Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana arena in southwestern Havana.
The New York Times has given wide coverage to the developments and the Obama trip. The centerpiece in today’s paper, for example, is a story under the headline “Obama Hopes Cuba Visit Can Be Harbinger of Political Change.” Above the headline is a tantalizing, five-column photo of a “barber shop,” consisting of a single chair on a crumbling floor, with a customer, a barber and several men standing and sitting around.
“Mr. Obama’s trip, rich with symbolic significance, represents the start of a new era of engagement between the United States and Cuba that could open the floodgates of travel and commerce, and that has already unlocked diplomatic channels long slammed shut. But it also underscores the deep disagreements that persist between two countries separated by only 90 miles but a wide ideological divide.”
It’s hard to imagine the plight of most Cubans and their impoverished circumstances unless you’ve been there. Among other things, the basic essentials of life — decent food, clothing and shelter and reliable transportation — are very difficult for many Cubans to come by. Several times on trips to outlying parts of the island, we saw people dispersed around intersections — just hanging around, to all appearances — waiting for military personnel to randomly stop private vehicles and arrange transportation for those waiting for rides.
As I outlined in two earlier posts, the Cuban economy is upside down, with professional people like doctors and engineers — all paid by the government, of course — making about $30 a month, while people in the hospitality industry (those working on tips) and taxi drivers making that much and often much more each day.
It is truly f_____ up. And the damage, repression and discouragement that communism and the Castros have inflicted on the Cuban people makes the blood boil when you see it up close.
And as much as we might hope that Cuban-American relations will improve and that Cuba will begin to emerge from its quaint but pathetic time warp, almost everything depends on whether any light bulbs go off in the heads of Fidel, who would be 90 in August, and Raul, who is 84. Raul has said he will step down when his current five-year term as president expires in 2018. If he does so, it’s anyone’s guess what will ensue and who will rule.
The country’s first vice president, 55-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, is considered the leading candidate, but another Castro — Alejandro Castro Espin, Raul’s 50-year-old son — also looms as a possibility. Espin is a blowhard who has said Cubans “have known positive and successful experiences under socialism,” and Diaz-Canel’s views have been described as similarly hardline.
All in all, the prospects for long-term improvement in the lives of Cubans looks quite dim. All we can do is hope for enlightenment and change and, in the meantime, admire President Obama’s attempts to chip away at longstanding barriers between the two countries.
Here is President Obama’s Cuban itinerary:
Arrival at Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, 3:50 p.m.
Meet-and-greet at U.S. Embassy, 4:50 p.m.
Sight-seeing in Old Havana, including the Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, 5:40 p.m.
Wreath-laying at the José Marti Memorial, morning
Official welcoming ceremony, Palace of the Revolution, morning
Meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, morning
Entrepreneurship summit, afternoon
State Dinner at the Palace of the Revolution, evening
Address to the Cuban people at El Gran Teatro de Havana, morning
Meeting with dissidents and civil society leaders, morning
Baseball have between the Tampa Bay Rays at Cuban National Team at Estadio Latinoamericano, 1 p.m.
Departure from Jose Marti International Airport en route to Buenos Aires, Argentina, afternoon