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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.

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.