A tale of two enemies

Two good indicators of the surreal lunacy in the relations between Cuba and the U.S. are the “mountain” of flagpoles in Havana and the butter patties we were served with our breakfasts as we traveled throughout the island.

The mountain, or more properly, jungle of flagpoles, many of them rusting and no longer operable, stands across the street from the U.S. Embassy in Havana. But don’t call it an embassy. This is the U.S. Interests Section. You see, technically the two countries don’t have diplomatic relations.

So the squat, 1050s building with the Great Seal of the U.S. by its entrance, with some 50 American employees–and just as many Cuban employees providing support such as maintaining the fleet of vans, cars and the U.S. Ambassador’s shiny, armored Cadillac–is not really an embassy. And the guy in the Cadillac is not the ambassador but the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section.

The 138 (one hundred and thirty-eight) flagpoles, each about thirty feet tall and ten feet apart, were installed in 2006 by Castro in insane retaliation for the comparably petty installation by the then U.S. ambassador of a rolling-lights sign, of the Times Square variety, on the top floor of the embassy. The sign contained provocative messages, including a quote from George Burns: “How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair.”

Fidel was not amused.

The flagpoles, no longer used, served the dual purpose of giving a diplomatic finger to the U.S. and obstructing the view of the offending sign to drivers coming up the Malecón, Havana’s oceanfront boulevard. More inconveniently, the flagpoles uprooted a parking lot used by American  personnel, whose Jeep Cherokees, Suzuki motorcycles and other vehicles imported from the U.S. are now strewn all over the streets surrounding the embassy.

Before the flagpoles, which went up in a matter of a couple weeks–a record for Cuban construction projects which usually proceed at the speed of mold–Castro had installed huge billboards facing the embassy, accusing then President Bush of being an assassin, a Nazi, a vampire and various other unpleasantries.

That gives you an idea of the tone of recent diplomatic relations between the two countries, particularly during the harder-line presidency of George W. It’s part surrealism, make-believe and schoolyard-style brawling: “You kicked me on the shin so I’ll punch you in the groin.”

Take that: Flagpoles partially block the view of the American
embassy (building on right), a.k.a. as the U.S. Interests
Section, in Havana. 

Our man in Havana: Black license plates are for diplomats, “201” for 
the American mission, and “100” for the Ambassador. In the sea of 
rattletrap vehicles in Havana this baby stands out like a black thumb. 

Differences between the two countries haven’t always been that frivolous, of course. Cuba has a sorry human rights record–though no worse than, say, Viet Nam where 58,138 Americans died and with which we now have full diplomatic and trade relations–and at one point Cuba sponsored Communist guerrillas in countries all over the world, specially Angola. Revolution became Cuba’s chief export.

For its part the U.S. has invaded Cuba, dropped biological agents to ruin its crops and once the C.I.A. considered a plot to kill Castro with an exploding cigar. Aside from that, the U.S. has done all it can to throttle the Cuban economy and as a consequence, the lives of people in the island.

Question is, after 50-some years why does this standoff continue?

For Cuba, waving the by-now threadbare bloody shirt of U.S. aggression may be the most effective way to distract the long-suffering population from the economic, and one might say spiritual, stagnation that grips the island.

The latest anti-U.S. propaganda campaign has to do with five Cubans convicted of spying in Miami. Signs about the incident are ubiquitous, including at the stadiums where the Industriales baseball team from Havana recently faced Ciego de Avila for the national baseball championship. (Ciego de Avila won even though the mighty Industriales are like the Cuban equivalent of the New York Yankees).

For all I could tell, the five Cuban mopes were spying, so I don’t know what the Cuban government expected the U.S. to do. Give them a reward? Say, a brand-new General Electric refrigerator for each spy and his family?

American obsession against Cuba, on the other hand, stems from a viral form of mental illness concentrated mostly in South Florida, specifically among the Cuban exile population. Call it C.O.D.–“Cuba Obsessive Disorder”–which in the vernacular also could be called “Flogging a Dead Horse.”

The causes of COD are unrelenting bitterness, rage and rancor against Castro and its government. Nothing will do short of killing Castro and all his Communist pals and hanging them from the nearest palm tree. Any voices calling for moderation or negotiation are quickly out-shouted by the anti-Castro hardliners.

My dad was one of those unrelenting Castro-haters until he died at age 94 and I could understand his fury. Here was a Cuban small-businessman who was slowly climbing up in the world when Castro came and took away the ladder. My dad had to flee and in his mid-50s found himself washing dishes (along with me on weekends) for minimum wage at Carl Hoppl’s, a restaurant in Baldwin, N.Y. Was he bitter? Yep. Pissed? Betcha.

But for all the anger by the Miami exiles, who have proven themselves to be very effective politically in the Republican Party, the Castro Bros. show goes on and on.

Indeed it occurred to me in Cuba that any more U.S. policies play into the hands of the Cuban government rather than against it. Both are working to throttle the Cuban people and the country’s economy, although coming from different angles.

While the U.S. government still proclaims a tough policy toward Cuba, there have been some small openings along the way. The U.S. does sell some food and medicine to Cuba–presumably including those breakfast butter patties from a dairy in New Ulm, Minn.–but only for cash. Our driver joked that some Cuban official with a suitcase-full of dollars had to go to the pier in Havana before anything could be offloaded from an American ship.

Pres. Obama also has loosened up travel restrictions to Cuba. Exiles now can travel to the island quite freely and we ran into Americans from California, Kansas and New York meandering around drinking mojitos, presumably as part of some people-to-people excursions. Two Cuban-American legislators from Florida already have protested these tours, saying they are a farce and prelude to an elimination of the travel ban.

Hey gringos, come back, no hard feelings: The old man was too 
busy watching béisbol in the living room of his house in Trinidad, 
a colonial town in southern Cuba, to talk to me.  But his wife 
explained that their son was a painter and a huge fan of Barbra
Streisand and Donna Summers. She expressed condolences 
for Summers’ passing a few days before our visit. 

4 thoughts on “A tale of two enemies

  1. Did you see your old family home. The Cuban-American law professor, who was our chaperone on my Cuba trip, stopped at her family home when we were there — causing panic. The current occupants were afraid she had come back to claim it.


  2. We did stop at my old home, but there was no panic. Just three old people and an amazing story, which I'll blog about soon. If things change down there, though, I wonder how that's all going to work out, with people from Miami coming back to reclaim their homes and businesses. Al


  3. Anonymous

    Just stumbled on this, but I thought I'd mention that 201 is not in fact the number for the American mission, but for the Swiss Embassy. There is an American Ambassador in Cuba, and that's the Swiss Ambassador, because ever since the US cut off official diplomatic relations, Switzerland took on the task of representing American interests in the country. Hence the name “U.S. Interests Section”; it's actually the U.S. Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana. The Cadillac-driving fellow you speak of (technically) reports directly to the Swiss Ambassador and his office.


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