When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

13 December 2006

Less America here than almost anywhere else in the world

Cuba famously lies 90 miles from the Florida coast. But it seems farther from America than anywhere else I've been on any of five continents. Some cultural influence crosses the strait: when I introduce myself, young Cubans mention a recent Keanu Reeves film that shares my name―and which was, frankly, rather terrible. But still, there is less America here than almost anywhere else in the world. It is an absence of America so strong that it requires a joint-venture of sorts between the American and Cuban governments to keep it in place. Cuba's otherness stems as much from America's wilful embargo as it does from any policies of the Cuban state; and it is America, not Cuba, which has insisted on Cuba's isolation.

Poverty has gone hand in hand with this isolation. But try to sort out how much of it has been due to the American embargo, and how much to Cuban policies, and you will quickly get lost. Unless, that is, you have embarked on the search with a well-drawn road map of ideological preconceptions.

I would prefer to draw my own map, but this is a frustrating place to go exploring. I've been to see presidents and ministers in other countries equipped with no more than a business card and a polite if sometimes persistent telephone manner. In Cuba my calls are met with equally polite and persistent requests to call again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, for the duration of my stay. This would be easier to take if I had not first spent six months awaiting a visa to enter the country, on the grounds that this was the time needed to set up meetings for me once I got to Havana.

It will be difficult for me to answer my colleagues' questions about who is up and who is down in the power struggles, and what will happen when Fidel Castro, who is clearly very ill, dies. And perhaps the government might have equal difficulty answering my own questions on those same subjects.

Correspondent's Diary, Havana: The isle is full of noises - Economist.com

P.S. The Economist's elegant, brief backgrounder on the current situation in Cuba takes thirty seconds to read and is more lucid than anything I've read on the subject in an American newspaper this year:

Fifty years on, Fidel Castro's communist revolution has left Cuba with little to celebrate. As long as the ailing Mr Castro, Cuba's unelected leader for the past 47 years, remains in charge, democracy is off the agenda and economic reform is unlikely. The latter is much needed: a combination of tourism, aid from Venezuela and China, and remittances from the 1.2m Cubans living in the United States prop up the failing economy. Cuba struggles to profit from its most valuable natural resource, nickel. A thicket of red tape deters private enterprise.

Although in theory America maintains an embargo against Mr Castro's government, in practice contacts are growing fast. Europe has generally been more keen to engage Cuba, but Mr Castro's penchant for political repression has hurt relations. Foreigners are eager to see if Mr Castro's brother and likely successor, Raúl, is more reform-minded.

If you want to quickly educate yourself about (or bluff your way though) any current issue, these beautifully crafted little executive summaries are the place to start, and the links to in-depth magazine articles will allow you to actually learn something, should you so choose.

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