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Cuba in cycles: a writer looks back

Q&A: Tom Miller was one of the first American journalists to explore Fidel's Cuba.

Tom Miller, Cuba books
U.S. travel writer Tom Miller. (Nick Miroff/GlobalPost)

HAVANA, Cuba — Twenty years ago, U.S. travel writer Tom Miller became one of the first American journalists to explore Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. Miller’s book, “Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba,” took readers on a grand tour of the island: its books, baseball, music, cuisine and tangled politics, with an ear for biting humor and an eye for amusing contradictions.

It was a snapshot of the island taken just as Cuba was sliding into its post-Soviet economic crisis, and the book, which Lonely Planet says “may be the best travel book about Cuba ever written,” was republished in 2008 (Basic Books) with a new introduction.

Miller lives in Tucson, Ariz., but has traveled back to the island regularly. He’s written for The Washington Post, The New Yorker and The New York Times, and has led educational tours for the National Geographic Society and other organizations. He recently sat down with GlobalPost in the bar of the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, where, he noted, Graham Greene set parts of his famous novel "Our Man in Havana," and where U.S. reporters holed up in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

GlobalPost: It’s been nearly 20 years since you traveled all over the island, cataloging its quirks, charms and frustrations. And one thing that’s striking is the number of similarities between the moment you captured in "Trading with the Enemy" and Cuba’s current economic crisis. Then, as now, there was a growing of tolerance for criticism and calls for limited reforms. Does that suggest we’re on the cusp of a new period of changes, or that Cuba is going around in circles?

Miller: There have been some changes, but the most significant thing is that Cuba’s still here — the country and the government. I’m more surprised about how much things have stayed the same. I don’t see a lot of differences on the streets. For most people, life is still day-to-day or week-to-week.

I think the major difference is that the ins and outs of the black market — for food or clothing or an internet connection or construction materials — have become even more integrated into people’s lives. I think in order to understand communism, you must see raw capitalism, and that’s what the black market is.

GP: Is that the future here?

Miller: No. It’s a holding pattern, but it holds on very well. It’s not going to go away until something more appealing takes its place.

Things here move in cycles. It was true under Fidel. There would be a few years of hardliners getting their way, then two or three years of softliners — people who want to broaden the economic and intellectual and personal lives of people.

And now that Raul’s been in power for a few years, you’ve seen a cycle. Except that at least under Fidel, there was a younger generation coming up. With Raul’s colleagues from the military taking charge, I don’t know if there is another generation ready to assume decision-making. But I’m more comfortable talking about the street than the politics.