CUBA? Sí: An Ambassador’s Viewpoint on Trade and Travel with Our New Friends

By Thomas Armbruster:

Some Americans may think that we are now on a nice glideslope with respect to U.S.-Cuba trade, tourism and relations.  We made that mistake too with Russia, thinking that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia would naturally take its place in the community of nations.  But while Cuba is opening there is a long way to go and a lot of work to be done on both sides.  Cuba refused humanitarian assistance from the Archdiocese of Miami to aid victims of Hurricane Matthew rebuilding in Eastern Cuba, while accepting aid from Japan.  Flights to Cuba on American carriers are half full.  And American businesses report they are still preparing to do business with Cuba, not actually doing business.  Cuba’s economic growth remains slow, with Venezuelan subsidies decreasing and the “peace dividend” from improved relations with the U.S. has not yet happened.    It is not a full-blown relationship in the economic, diplomatic, or cultural sense, the lifting of the limit on Cuban cigars notwithstanding.

Watching Cubans expertly roll handmade cigars was one of the many pleasures of our tour in Havana from 1991 to 1993.  Scuba diving, hiking to a wonderful waterfall by an orchid farm, biking the countryside on deserted highways, visiting remote towns with artifacts purportedly from Christopher Columbus himself were also highlights.  We saw the Pan Am games in Havana.  During the opening ceremony, the crowd did the wave and Fidel stood and did the wave too while his comrades sat.  On the second go ‘round, they all did the wave.  We saw some great baseball played with real Cuban flair, with the shortstop batting a ground ball to the second baseman who barehanded it and turned a double play against the American team.  New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was on hand and signed baseball caps.

We were lucky.  The requirement that diplomats submit a diplomatic note for travel outside Havana was not in effect, so we went everywhere, except Guantanamo. At least everywhere we could go on a half tank of gas.  We never knew if we would find gas once we got outside of the capital.

That was during the “Special Period in a Time of Peace.”  Translation: It was a tough time given the end of the Soviet subsidies.  There is talk now of another “special period” as economic growth remains slow.  In the early ‘90’s people were really struggling.  We had thousands of Cuban applicants for visas and we mainly had to say “no.”  One young man told me that if I turned him down for a visa, he was getting in an inner tube and floating to Florida.  He said if he died on the way it was on me.  Another family made their escape when a small plane from Florida landed on a lonely road and they jumped in and made the trip back to Florida safely.  Not long after our tour the Hermanos de Rescate private plane was shot down by the Cuban Air Force.  Tensions were high then and people were desperate.  Economic growth today is slow but at least there are some economic relief valves with a small, uneven private sector.  Cubans have always been inventive and given a chance will flourish.  Who else could keep Hudsons and DeSotos running for so long?

Cubans were naturally curious about foreigners.  When people asked where I was from I said, guess.  Poland, Russia, Germany, were a few of the guesses, but I said, ‘no, mucho mas cerca! No, a lot closer!’  Americans were rare in those days and it was difficult to make friends. Contact with Americans could lead to reprisals, so most were wary.  But we did make one great friend.  Hiram.  Hiram was the master equestrian we visited at Luna Park on Sundays.  He trained the Cuban national team, had terrific horses and because he had traveled internationally and was a well-known apolitical sportsman he felt safe enough to invite us into his home.  It was an honor and another treasured memory.  We also went to a park to see the Boxer Club in action, and ended up taking home a puppy named “Luna” that went with us from Cuba, to the U.S., Russia, and Mexico.

But while we could travel freely and found Cubans friendly but wary, official relations were not good.  On a trip out of Havana to visit potential refugees, I found blood in my hotel sink, thanks to Cuban intelligence services.  They followed us everywhere, even onto a cane field road when we got lost.  And they flattened our tires and put nasty substances, maybe from the Boxer Club, under our door handles.  That was “official harassment.”  I understood, having lived in the Soviet Union, that the Cubans learned their Cold War tricks from the masters.

While tourists in those days were scarce, there were a few American prisoners during our tour.  I visited, brought magazines and news from the States and tried to get a sense of their conditions and report any mistreatment.  One American had hijacked a plane and had expected to be welcomed into the revolution with open arms.  It was not working as well as he had planned.

I am happy to see Cuba opening up.  If you go, your high school Spanish may not do the trick.  The Cuban variation is a tantalizing dialect that drops many of the endings so the phrase “Esta aqui atras,” or it’s here behind, becomes “‘ta qui tras.”  You may want to practice up.  As it stands now, it is still a process to get to Cuba, with rules, travel categories and logistical challenges.  Old timers in Miami reminisce about the days when stars would fly down to Cuba for lunch from New York, spend the afternoon in Havana and fly back.  The U.S. Embassy website has great tips and information on today’s travel environment and they will be happy to help you if you find yourself in an emergency.

The Embassy will also be working hard to improve relations on all fronts.  Pushing the Cubans to liberalize, to not blame the United States for their own shortcomings, and encouraging Americans to find ways to realize commercial projects.  I hope though that the character of Cuba continues to shine through.  There is something refreshing about being in a capital that does not have the chain hotels, restaurants and stores that you see all over the world.  For better or worse, Cuba is uniquely Cuba.  As the song goes, “Cuba, que linda es Cuba.”  Cuba, how beautiful is Cuba.  Beautiful, frustrating, admirable and alluring.  You must experience it to understand.  The music, the antique cars that still cruise the streets, the beaches and the countryside combine to make a culture as rich and smooth as a Cuban cigar.  If you get a chance, go!

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.

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