Cuba in cycles: a writer looks back

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.

GP: Back to the street then. Both sides of this long Cuba fight insist they know what the Cuban people really want. After 20 years of coming here, do you think you have a good sense as to what Cubans really think about all this? Have you figured Cubans out?

Miller: No. There are just so many variables having to do with profession, where you’re living, what your skin color is, what your diet is, how you get from point A to point B, and whether your car has three good tires or four good tires. And, for that matter, what you drink at night.

GP: So why are Cubans so enigmatic?

Miller: There’s no answer to that. To certain extent it’s historical. It has to do with washing up on the shores of U.S. culture and the love-hate relationship with the U.S. that goes back much more than 50 years. It goes back to the mid-1800s, to bullfighting versus baseball. One was considered enlightened and one was considered disastrous to the Cuban personality, and the Spaniards even outlawed baseball for a short while. A lot of good that did.

There’s a sense of rebelliousness here but also a sense of getting whatever advantage you can, and that’s been true for well over 100 years. Many Cuban personality traits that people try to fit into the Revolution in fact go back way beyond that.

GP: You’re an avid reader of all things Cuba, both in English and Spanish. Do you read any of the Cuba blogs?

Miller: Occasionally. I have a lot of friends who send me things. I’m trying my best to spend less time in front of a screen, not more. So reading a Cuba blog will generally reinforce what I already know, or I’ll dismiss it because I think it’s inaccurate. Usually the most strident stuff is inaccurate because it’s coming from people who have never been here.

GP: So what have you been reading about Cuba?

Miller: Oscar Hijuelos, who wrote "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" (which won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), has a brand new novel called "Beautiful Maria of My Soul" and I got an advance copy. It’s about one of the brothers from Mambo Kings, whose whole life is wrapped up in a song, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” and a woman he had.

GP: What about non-fiction?

Miller: Anne Louise Bardach’s book, "Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington." There’s a whole list of headlines I’ve lined up from different magazine pieces and newspaper pieces, starting at about 1990, with headlines like “The Last Days of Fidel…” or “Fidel’s Last…” And of course, there’s everybody’s favorite: Andres Oppenheimer’s “Castro’s Final Hour” (1992).

That’s a long hour. Wind the wristwatch, please.

GP: Do you think this is still Fidel’s country?

Miller: Absolutely. He doesn’t have to do anything to make it his country.

GP: Even though he hasn’t appeared in public in four years?

Miller: The problem is that every prediction about Fidel and every prediction about Cuba for the past 50 years has been wrong. It’s as simple as that.

GP: You’ve written a lot about (Cuban national hero and literary icon) Jose Marti. What do you think “Pepe” would make of present-day Cuba?

Miller: He’d throw up his hands and move to New York. Well, he already had a place there. That’s the thing about Cubans. New York is the only place they feel that energy coming off the streets that they feel in Havana.

GP: But what would Marti have to say about all this?

Miller: He’d say “Fidel, don’t take my name in vain.”

GP: Describe the trajectory of your personal feelings about Cuba over the past 20 years, and your sense that this is a place you want to spend time, that you have affection for. What’s the graph look like?

Miller: It goes up and down. I’m ambivalent. Almost always it’s been about Cubans, and not about Cuba. It’s been about the culture, and what’s been produced, and what literature comes out of here, what dancing comes out of here, what emotions come out of here, the frustrations and pleasures. This is a country that’s hard to embrace but impossible to let go of.

GP: What should the Obama administration do about Cuba?

Miller: Lifting the travel ban is an executive decision, not a congressional one. If Obama lifted the travel ban, he’d take a lot of [flak] for it, but he takes a lot of [flak] for whatever he does. Getting more [flak] is not a high priority for him these days, but at some point I suspect he’ll address it.

GP: Would a flood of American tourists ruin the Cuba of your book?

Miller: No, but to a certain extent that’s the secret of the U.S. embargo. In many ways Cuba has benefited from embargo — not the trade embargo, but the travel embargo. The four worst words here would be: Spring Break in Havana! Can you imagine hundreds of thousands of fraternity guys and sorority girls coming off cruise ships for a week of debauchery, with zero understanding about where they are?

GP: Varadero [Cuba’s main beach resort] could absorb that.

Miller: Varadero could. And the Cuban government would encourage it. But it would change the nature of this place.