Orin Gordon

IN London, I’d often hear Brits say that they must visit Cuba before it changes. They mean the Cuba of beautiful classic cars that are more than 60 years old. Of old Havana, a magnificent architectural space that transports the visitor to Spain. The lovely Malecon, the Havana seawall. The socialist Cuba of brave people who resisted decades of American bullying, and the capitalist corruption of los exilios, kept at arm’s length in Miami. And the music. Every hip Londoner had a CD of Buena Vista Social Club, a soul-stirring Cuban masterpiece. Cuba remains on the bucket list of many.

Attending a conference of the Caribbean Broadcasting Union as head of BBC Caribbean 20 years ago, the irony of holding it in a country where citizens couldn’t phone in to radio shows to berate the government was lost on us. We noted the embrace of glitzy capitalism at a superb, Spanish-owned resort at Varadero, a place on Cuba’s north coast that’s as beautiful as any you’ll see in the Caribbean.

In Havana, we also saw the heart of Cuba. Restaurant musical entertainment wasn’t CD music playing in the background – it consisted of three guys on cuatros serenading us at our table.

But when I talked to Cubans away from the tourism bubble, a picture of a painfully two-tiered society and widespread poverty emerged. The spoils were not shared, socialist style. Varadero-flavoured capitalism embraced concurrently with an absence of democratic accountability was not a good fit for everyone.

Earlier, I’d visited Miami to cover the political tug-of-war over Elián González. In 1999, his mother and ten others drowned when their small boat sank during a dangerous crossing of the Florida Straits. Elián survived, was rescued at sea, and united with relatives in Florida.

They wanted to keep the traumatised child there. His father in Cuba, who hadn’t known or approved of the trip, wanted him back. The father got custody and the child was taken back to Cuba. Everybody lost.

At Cuba Libre, a Cuban restaurant in Islington, north London, I’d eat my favourite pork dish, Masitas de puerca Habanera and Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians, a beans and rice dish), and wash it down with the best mojito in town. Appropriately for Caribbean fare, the restaurant didn’t do dinky little portions on fancy plates with side garnishes. You got proper, Schwarzenegger-sized servings. With fried plantains too. Takeaway was always necessary. Same story in Miami, at the well-known Cuban takeout joint, La Carreta. Culture was a valuable Cuban export. Let’s go now, before it’s too late.

Decades earlier, the Caribbean had experienced anti-Castro, exile-backed terrorism – the bombing of Cubana Airlines flight CU455 off Barbados on October 6, 1976. Murdered were 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese (students on the way to Cuba to take up academic scholarships) and five North Koreans. Despite legal manoeuvrings too detailed to get into here, the men responsible – two Venezuelans and two Cubans – haven’t been properly tried and sentenced.

Caribbean Community support for Cuba over the years has been forged on sound principle. Caricom countries have consistently condemned and called for an end to the long-anding American embargo – a sustained act of foreign policy cruelty. Cuba has been generous with its medical knowledge and expertise.

The issue, in 2022, is that Caricom countries’ stance on Cuba has barely evolved in four decades, and it’s time that it did. There’s something one-note about their position, mainly because of the absence of any call for democratic governance in the country – the establishment of a machinery for democratic voting, holding of general election to choose a government, and tolerance of dissent and the right of assembly.

At the recent Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Caricom leaders who ended up going despite the threat of a boycott over President Joe Biden’s invitation-snub of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, took turns gently chiding their host.

“It is my hope that there will be no future summits (from) which any head of government will be omitted”, said Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda. In contrast to the twice-elected Browne, his Cuban counterpart President Miguel Díaz-Canel was hand-picked by a coterie of Communist Party members after 62 years of uninterrupted rule by a Castro... Fidel, then Raul. Raul Dorticós (1959 to 1976) was president in name only. Fidel, the prime minister, ran things. He merged the two offices in 1976. At no point in any of this decision-making of 63 years was the Cuban people involved.

In LA, T&T’s Keith Rowley made reference to democratic governance several times, without explicitly applying it to Cuba, or Venezuela. Vincentian prime minister Ralph Gonsalves, a no-show in solidarity with his comrades, had last month found the time to travel to Havana to pick up the Order of José Martí, Cuba’s highest honour. I doubt whether the five-times-elected Gonsalves spoke with any of the people who’d recently been jailed for protesting for the right to vote.

America has had a long, terrible history of bad foreign policy engagement with Cuba, has coddled anti-Castro terrorists, and aided and abetted covert acts of terror against the island’s rulers. They retain Guantanamo, Cuban territory, to circumvent their own judicial system. But it’s time that Caricom found a way to nudge Cuba on democratic governance, while standing up for her. Those beautiful old cars? Many are repainted rust buckets, retained because of the embargo. Owners would’ve got new cars if they could. Let’s stop romanticising Cuba to death.

The author is a media consultant, at oringordon.com

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