Friday, June 17, 2011
By Anthony Paul, The Straits Times/Asia News Network
SINGAPORE -- In the bars and coffee shops of picturesque Old Havana,
colonial Spain's charming, decrepit contribution to Cuba's tattered
tourism industry, conversation swirls these days around the advent of a
New Cuba and its long-desired consequence: the end of what is now the
Cold War's longest-running melodrama.
Some delays in sweeping change seem predictable. The fiery Dr. Fidel
Castro, though seriously ailing and recently retired — in principle
anyway — from all leadership positions, still retains the ability to
inflame. (One recent example of Castrothink: Osama bin Laden was really
a United States spy, charged by the White House with staging the 9/11
Washington's imminent 2012 presidential election campaign could also
slow down developments. Many Florida-based Cuban exiles still have an
interest in keeping their homeland in punishing isolation while it's
still communist. U.S. President Barack Obama has said he favors
normalization, but he will need Florida's key electoral college votes to
win a second term.
The Cuban melodrama has been a stubborn thread through some of the late
20th century's most tempestuous periods. Cuban angst over a
long-standing, scandal-ridden alliance between U.S. capitalists and a
ramshackle dictatorship headed by General Fulgencio Batista sparked
Castro's 1959 revolution. U.S. financial interests here then ranged from
Cuba's tobacco and sugar industries to U.S. mafia bosses' control of
most of the nation's boisterous hotels, casinos and nightlife. By the
late 1950s, many Havana nightspots reportedly offered debauchery that
would make today's Bangkok blush.
In the revolution's wake came two serious military flare-ups. In 1961,
at the Bay of Pigs, Castro's forces decisively crushed an invasion by
1,400 Cuban exiles sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Two years later, in an episode that took the world close to nuclear war,
the U.S. successfully foiled an attempt by the Soviet Union to place
nuclear missiles on the island. For the past 51 years, Cuba has had to
endure an economic embargo imposed by the U.S.
Cuba is still very much a police state. Our tourist guide points out
plainclothes security personnel at hotels and highway stops. Whenever
the Arab Spring's street riots appear on my hotels' TV screens, a sign
claiming (falsely) that license fees are unpaid obscures the transmissions.
What younger Cubans cautiously call "the Septocracy" — for an oligarchy
of septuagenarians — is still in place. But Cuba's political scene has
changed perceptibly over the past few months.
Since taking over last year from Castro, age 84, his younger brother
Raul, 80, has foreshadowed transfer of power to a new generation —
possibly at a Communist Party leadership convention later this year.
Meantime, President Raul Castro, though he declared himself a
Marxist-Leninist much earlier than his brother and once had a reputation
for neo-Stalinist rigidity, shows unmistakable signs of straying into
counter-revolutionary revisionism in a manner pioneered in Asia by Deng
He recently ended restrictions on Cubans selling real estate and cars
and traveling abroad, announced the laying off of a million
public-sector employees, permitted banks to make loans to small
businesses and introduced income tax. The new leader's reform list also
includes the removal of subsidies for basic foodstuffs, and the release
of 52 prominent dissidents whose detention has been an important hurdle
to normalization of relations with the U.S. and Europe.
China has been a prominent cheerleader — for economic reform anyway. On
June 5, visiting Chinese Vice President --i Jinping signed a generous
agreement facilitating interest-free loans, economic aid and assistance
for irrigation projects, telecommunications, banking and oil and
liquefied natural gas processing.
Hampered by the embargo and communism's limited ability to encourage
hard work, the sluggish, centrally planned economy has long depended on
support from foreign friends: the Soviet Union until the early 1990s,
and most recently, Venezuela and China.
But the country's future as an exporting nation could be about to change
as radically as its communist system. Cuba claims to have located 20
billion barrels of oil in offshore fields. (U.S. oil sources reportedly
place estimates at half that figure.) By early October, a Chinese-built
rig contracted by Spanish oil giant Repsol is expected to drill the
first of a series of wells, the first major exploration of Cuba's
section of the Gulf of Mexico. State-owned China National Petroleum
Corporation, Malaysia's Petronas and India's ONGC are expected to join
Shortly after the 1959 revolution nationalized U.S. businesses,
effectively chasing abroad a large colony of Western executives and
perhaps 250,000 or so Cuban capitalists, all but two of the nation's
golf courses closed down.
The new administration has given preliminary approval for four large
luxury courses. But the lavish hotels and casinos that once lured so
many foreign visitors have a long way to go before they can compete
with, say, Las Vegas or Monte Carlo. They don't lack taxi services: An
armada of massive, relentlessly renovated American limousines — Havana
calls them "Yank Tanks" — is still left over from the fabulous 1950s.
But Cuba is still stuck with Castroite notions of what tourists should
be permitted to experience.
The lascivious hub of Havana's nightlife from 1939 was the Tropicana
nightclub in which Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasio, a man known as the
mafia's "Lord High Executioner," was a main investor. Sultry chorus
girls of limited virtue danced in even more limited clothing. These
days, the chorus wears, from the waist up, all-but-opaque muslin netting.
My home in Havana, the Hotel Nacional, a largely unrenovated icon with a
role similar to Singapore's Raffles, closed its famous casino more than
a half-century ago. The high point for guests is a tour of bedrooms
formerly occupied by mafia bosses.
Faded portraits of Anastasio, Cuba's top mafia bosses Meyer Lansky,
"Lucky" Luciano and the like stare down at us. In the grounds outside,
we are led into underground tunnels from where, during the Cuban Missile
Crisis, Cuban leaders awaited Armageddon. For a small tip, the concierge
at the nearby Hotel Sevilla Biltmore will take you to Room 615, where
Alphonse "Big Al" Capone liked to escape from Chicago winters and check
on his vast casino investments.
I found just one casino in Cuba. In a dilapidated animal park southeast
of Havana, near swamps that helped abort the Bay of Pigs landing, a man
keeps Fifi, a pet guinea pig, in a cage encircled by prizes that stand
on numbered openings to guinea pig-size tunnels. When released, the
animal darts into one of these holes.
Forget elegant roulette wheels and those hefty payouts Big Al's
croupiers may once have distributed: The animal's hole selection wins a
ticket stamped with the lucky number for a bottle of cheap rum.