Obama travels to Cuba: Advice to enjoy your stay

by Atilio A. Borón

I just returned from Cuba and the news of your visit has caused a sensation. You will be the first acting U.S. president to visit your neighbor in 88 years (Calvin Coolidge had gone in 1928), narrowly separated by the Florida Straits and a singular history of hegemony by your country that began with the second president in United States history, John Adams in 1783 when he declared Cuba should be incorporated into the jurisdiction of the United States.

Later in 1898, Washington robbed the Cuban patriots of their victory against Spanish colonialism and kept the island and Puerto Rico and Philippines as well. They imposed a neo-colony with the Platt Amendment and supported whichever crook rose to power on the island, backing some of the bloodiest tyrannies of Latin America and the Caribbean. That is saying a lot, in a continent which suffered that exceptionally virulent plague.

The Cuban revolution put an end to so much crime and ignominy. The reaction of your predecessors in the White House? To condemn the rebel island for its desire of freedom and self-determination, for its loyalty to the historical mandate of José Martí. They did everything possible to do away with the revolution, and it all ended badly for them.

They caused thousands of deaths and enormous damage and suffering in the Cuban people, with a blockade that — if we were to estimate its actual value — would be equal to two Marshall Plans. Just one was enough to rebuild Europe after the Second World War; with two they couldn’t succeed in drowning Cuba. Doesn’t that tell you something?

You and your Secretary of State, John Kerry, have an enormous merit in being the first to recognize the total failure of United States policy towards Cuba. “We wanted to isolate Cuba,” said Kerry, “and we were the ones who ended up isolated.”

It is for that reason that you and Raúl Castro decided it was necessary to begin to undo the blockade and produce, this time for real, a new beginning. That December 17, 2014 was an historic day. Later the embassies were reopened, and now you will travel to Cuba and if your secret services permit it, you will be able to appreciate who the Cuban people are, their cordiality, their integrity, the freedom with which they express themselves without fear on any theme whatsoever, their pride for having resisted so many aggressions without ever giving up.

You can encounter many problems in Cuba, as there are in your country; but the Cubans never knelt down before anyone, nor will they ever! And despite such adverse conditions they have to contend with daily, they still take better care of the health and education of their people than what takes place in the United States. You will see that soon.

Given what I just said, and knowing that sometimes your advisors don’t have the expertise or may not be well prepared, let me convey some practical advice that will make your visit to that beautiful island more pleasurable.

First of all, don’t take U.S. dollars! I know that for the head of the imperial world and president of the only country that issues them, that advice may sound absurd, perhaps even offensive. As the psychoanalysts would say, it is a brutal narcissistic insult, but that’s just how it is. So, before boarding Air Force One make sure that the people in your retinue, and Michelle, change your dollars to euros. The dollar is not very useful in Cuba, not because of the Cubans but because of the stupidity of your predecessor, the brilliant George W., who must have gotten a bottle from someone and in his alcoholic drunkenness issued an executive order that claimed the dollars that circulated in Cuba came from narcotrafficking, and therefore were not acceptable to the United States Treasury Department. If you take dollars they will not accept them, because the Cubans can’t do anything with them. But because they are a very hospitable people they may change your dollars for CUCs, the convertible Cuban peso, but with a 10% discount. Keep in mind that after the Sterling pound, the Euro and the Cuban CUC are the two strongest currencies on the planet. Stronger than the dollar! This is a tough bone to chew for any president of the United States, so save yourself the bad rate: change your Dollars to Euros, and then when you arrive, go to an official exchange office — they’re called CADECA in Cuba — and change them to CUCs.

That way you can pay without any problem for the mojitos at the Bodeguita del Medio, or the rums that one can drink in the stupendous gallery of the Hotel Nacional, and buy the Cds of the great musical groups that liven the daily life of Cubans day and night.

You also are not able to buy the magnificent paintings and sculptures that the island artists make, nor can you do, with such religious fervor, what almost all your compatriots do upon arriving in Cuba: get into a 1955 open-top Cadillac convertible and cruise the most beautiful sites of Havana, and enjoy an unforgettable tour through the Malecón, letting the bracing sea breeze fill you with positive energy. Luckily for you, if you can arrive one day earlier you can attend the free Rolling Stones concert, because in Cuba, unlike most places in the world, those performances are free.

If you go with dollars you won’t be able to do any of that. Unless, before beginning your trip, you rescind that stupid decision of Bush, Jr.

Secondly, if your daughters don’t accompany you on this trip be sure and leave them the most recent photos of you and your wife, and take photos of them with you because Skype in Cuba doesn’t work. You can speak by telephone with them if you’re lucky but you won’t be able to see them, nor can they see you.

You see, there are many blockade regulations that impede or hamper Internet services to Cuba, and this is one of them. Another current norm prevents the laying of underwater cables from passing through Cuba for Internet transmission. Look at a map of all the cables that cross the Caribbean. You will see that the island has just one, and it barely functions: it’s the one that Hugo Chávez generously provided to reach the homeland of Martí and Fidel. It is the land that some North Americans like writer Ernest Hemingway and the sociologist C. Wright MIlls loved intensely. All the other region’s countries are well connected by those cables, except for Cuba.
There they will invite you to visit Varadero or Guillermo Key, which I strongly advise you do. But don’t try to find out where on the island you may be during the trip by using Google Maps. An unpleasant little sign will appear saying something like “in the location you are at, it is not possible to open this program.”

And don’t try to read the messages that your millions of “fans” send to your FB account, or count the “likes” or send a tweet on Twitter with an image attached. Since the main Internet connection is by aerial transmission except for a small amount of traffic on the Venezuelan cable, Internet communications are slow, expensive and unreliable. Same with telephone calls. Imagine how the ability of the U.S. economy to compete internationally would be affected if it had these problems!

Frightening thought. But let’s leave the world of business behind and go to your government’s favorite theme: “national security.” While you are enjoying Cuban hospitality, God wouldn’t want your Secretary of Defense to be sending to your email a photo of a supposed terrorist that they want to “neutralize” (euphemism for assassination) with a drone in Syria.

The most likely thing is that once the email reaches you and you steel yourself with patience for the time it takes to download the photograph, and then reply with your OK to the Pentagon boys, the target may be in the Seychelles Isles enjoying the ill-acquired money from the stolen oil in Syria and Iraq, with the complicity of your goverment and your European partners. Don’t even think about your Veep Joe Biden being able to send you a video of the latest massacre in Michigan, or the draft he prepared for your meeting with President Raúl Castro. Don’t think about reading the New York Times, the Washington Post or the international edition of Granma (in English) to learn about some local news.

Cuban problems, the inefficiencies of the revolution? No. The blockade, simply the blockade. And you are the one who can end that despicable informatic aggression; it’s within your powers and it doesn’t need to pass through Congress. In fact, I do recognize that there is very slowly taking place some progress in that area of connectivity and telecommunications, but there is still a long way to go and things are still the way I just recounted to you earlier. If you order your people to speed up the pace and permit Cuba to have the same connectivity access as Jamaica or the Dominican Republic, it would keep the flood of U.S. visitors who are arriving to the island — and the hundreds of thousands of Cubans living in Florida who are starting to visit Cuba — from talking negatively about the “useless and stupid bureaucrats in Washington”, as some people told me endlessly a few days ago, irritated by the problems with Internet.

Another practical advice: Cuban gastronomy is excellent. It has the flavor and variety of that wonderful melting pot of peoples and cultures that is Cuba, a virtuous fusion of Africans, Spaniards and Creoles. They will surely lavish you with true delicacies. Be sure and try the Cuban lobster, red like the revolution and an unforgettable dish. I lived many years in New England and they also have good lobster, but they don’t even come close to the flavor of the Cuban ones.

Of course, I don’t think the boys in your entourage will be feted with lobster and pargo, a magnificent Caribbean seabass fish, and they could feel let down because the choices at dinnertime are not many, even in the best paladares in Havana. Why? Because Cuba is greatly restricted in being able to import any goods, including food, or medications, from the United States. They can’t use dollars. They have to triangulate all their operations with third countries, the banks that handle their commercial transactions can have scandalously large fines imposed on them, like the almost 9 billion dollars the Treasury Department imposed on the French Paribás bank at the end of 2014. That fine was shamefully accepted by President Francois Hollande, who, instead of rejecting the fine, since U.S. law has no extraterritorial jurisdiction beyond U.S. territory, he limited himself to grumbling, “it seems excessive to me.”

De Gaulle turned in his grave! Besides, in the case of food purchases from the United States, the Cubans have to pay cash in advance, the only country in the world that has to do so. And they have to pay scandalous shipping costs due to the blockade laws which prohibit any ship transporting goods to and from Cuba from docking in any United States port for six months. Do yourself and your family a favor, avoid the curses and insults of the people of the United States who come to Cuba, and eliminate those restrictions. Besides, aren’t you one of those who believes in the virtues of free trade? Let the Cubans engage in it, too!

Lastly, Mr. President, I don’t want to take more of your time. I know that you are an educated man who, being a brilliant exception to the collection of rustic personalities who preceded you, like Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and George W. Bush, just to mention the Republicans, you must be anxious to converse with Fidel. That in reality is what is motivating you to visit Cuba in such an untimely way. You know that the Comandante will be 90 years old this August 13 and you want to congratulate him ahead of time, because in those days the island will receive a multitude of visitors.

Of course, you have to deal with affairs of state first with Raúl, but you know very well that Fidel is the last survivor of the great statesmen of the 20th century, and his life’s path extends well into the 21st century.

I assure you that a chat with him will enrich you: You will be speaking with an extremely educated person — you who have to meet with primitive and crude beings like Netanyahu, or eminently mediocre ones like Cameron, Rajoy and Hollande, or thieves like the oil monarchs of the Gulf, not to mention your little neighbors south of the Río Bravo, whose names I prefer not to mention but everyone knows who they are. You will be able to dialogue with a man who masters an overwhelming level of information, a statesman who far ahead of his time denounced climate change in the Summit of the Earth in Río de Janeiro, in 1992, and the threat which that implies for the human species, a theme that worries you too. He was also a pioneer in the promotion of biotechnology and nano-science in a small country that is harassed and underdeveloped. He has a unique political experience with a calm and courteous attitude and has a sharp sense of humor. Michelle will be enchanted with the respectful treatment she’ll receive, unlike the mistreatment women in your country suffer, even towards their presidents.

I know you’re quite aware that this being an election year, this can scare some voters, only some of the Democrats. Not those who support Bernie Sanders, who could deal a blow to the leadership and win the nomination of his party. Fidel could also speak about that with you, because he knows more than just about anyone the ins and outs of the political struggles and internal lines of the Democrats and Republicans. It could be a revealing conversation. He will receive you with his proverbial bon ami. Take a photo with him. Everyone does that: politicians, intellectuals, popes, artists, everyone. Guess why. Even your great grandchildren will appreciate it. Besides, it will be a well-deserved rest for you. I sympathize with you: insulted daily by the brutes of Fox network and surrounded by ignorant troglodytes like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. To talk with a learned man like Fidel will be a balm that will make the rest of your mandate more tolerable.

I will really close now, reminding you that Pope Francis, in an unprecedented gesture, went to Washington and spoke to a joint session of both houses of Congress. If representatives and senators had any sense, the least they could do to return the gesture of Francis, one of the principal if not the most important statesman in the world today, would be to act in line with the exhortation of the Pope and overturn the blockade laws now, no more delays. But the vast majority of them are narrow-minded and incurably backward politicians, completely unable to understand the world’s current problems. That’s why you shouldn’t depend on them; move forward and do everything in your reach to undo the internal blockade machinery. Use all your powers of the White House. After all, your enemies tied you hand and foot, they continue to attack and defame you and the reforms you undertook: financial, immigration, healthcare, they all ended up little better than disasters thanks to them.

This could be an exquisite vengeance. Latin America, always generous, offers you a last opportunity to enter history as a president who changed the course of events: free Cuba from the blockade and see that your representative in the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP speeds up the realization of a pact. Don’t forget, this dialogue is one of the great legends that Hugo Chávez Frías left us, a man of peace, of peace with social justice, who created the conditions for the parties to agree to converse in Cuba. Because as Francis said in his meeting with Patriarch Kiril, that island has become the place for dialogue par excellence. Don’t waste that opportunity, and if everything turns out right, you will return to Havana a few months later to back with your presence the peace accord and end of war in Colombia. And there, yes, with these two achievements, you would pass through the great door of universal history.

The great writer and linguist Umberto Eco, who recently passed away, said that a feature of good writing is its musicality. Convinced of that myself, something comes to mind that I believe is appropriate to conclude these lines, that sounds good, is musical. Surely you will remember that Frank Sinatra ends his exquisite interpretation of New York, New York, singing “it’s up to you, New York, New York!” We could say the same, summing up everything I’ve said, “it’s up to you, Barack, Barack!” It sounds just great. After all, in the final analysis, it wasn’t Cuba that blockaded the United States, just the opposite.