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5 March 2001

A victory against Uncle Sam

When the US embargo threatened them with a crippling food shortage, the people of Havana turned thei

By Barbara Gunnell

A tall man, 50-ish, neat shirt and jacket, stops us in Havana’s Calle Obispo and offers to sell a local coin – face value less than 10p – for a dollar. I cannot resist, even though such street transactions are illegal in Cuba. The tres pesos coin carries the face of Che Guevara, and I’ve wanted one for two weeks now. Visitors like to collect them and they are therefore hard to come by.

The image is the famous one – the mane of hair, the beret low on the forehead, a star badge over the right eye. The coin’s legend is “Patria o Muerte” – Country or Death – a slogan you see often on roadside hoardings, usually accompanied by the face of the young Che, never that of the ageing Fidel Castro. Contrary to popular (American) myth, there is little evidence that the Cuban president, now aged 74, has ever encouraged a personality cult. Che remains the nation’s romantic hero and his face is everywhere. The barbudos (bearded ones) were early masters of spin and knew how to create, and make good use of, an enduring image of resistance.

I pay for this now universal symbol of youthful idealism with an equally universal symbol – the amoral dollar that is Cuba’s near future. Already, children have begun to beg not just for ballpoint pens and sweets – not even for “change” – but, not quite understanding the difference of scale, dollars.

Castro made it legal to trade in dollars in 1994, when he realised that tourism would have to fill the foreign earnings gap created by the collapse of the Soviet economy. But in recent years it has been the United States, rather than Cuba, that has been anxious to keep the dollar out of the country, apparently believing that, if deprived of the currency of globalisation and the American lifestyle, Cuba’s youth will rise up against the Castro government.

It is still an offence in the US for American citizens to trade or spend money in Cuba, though increasing thousands do as the country opens up to tourism. Those caught breaking the law can be charged under an old statute, “trading with the enemy”, and may be fined or imprisoned. It does not happen often, but nor is it entirely theoretical. First, the law acts as a deterrent to almost all American companies and most would-be American tourists. Second, it can always be wheeled out when needed.

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In February, Ry Cooder, guitarist and, more recently, entrepreneur of Cuban music, created rumblings when he visited Havana to meet members of the Buena Vista Social Club, a group of elderly dance-band musicians who, thanks to Cooder, have achieved international fame and private fortune. Republicans complained that Cooder’s trip was not “cultural”, as he claimed, but for profit. Departing President Bill Clinton, however, personally endorsed the visit, exercising one of his end-of-presidency waivers on the legislation in question.

Havana made the most of this topsy-turvy diplomacy. There had been reports of discontent among the city’s youth that the government was encouraging only the tourist-friendly traditional dance bands to play in Old Havana – and positively discouraging more youthful sounds. Just after Cooder’s visit, a photo of Castro was circulated around the world that showed him at a concert by Manic Street Preachers, the first major western pop group to play in Cuba since the revolution. So, while the US appeared to grudge a group of pensioners their twilight years of fame and fortune, Castro managed to align himself with international youth.

Cubans have a way of turning bad situations to their advantage. One example of this talent is of particular interest to the group I am travelling with. We are an organic “support group” visiting the city huertos – small vegetable plots which the government has turned over to neighbourhoods that will work them. We are, if you like, “digging for victory” in the wake of the US embargo of pesticides and chemicals. A few of us, including me, offer rather more enthusiasm than skill (though over a fortnight we do shift a lot of compost) and some of the gardening brigade’s tasks seem rather token. But we are harmless enough, paying our way in welcomed dollars. And we are learning – and going back to Britain to tell others – about Cuba’s green miracle. It is an astonishing success story born out of a desperate food shortage.

When the Soviet bloc economies collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost its markets and four-fifths of its income virtually overnight. The worst impact was on food. More than half of Cuba’s calorific intake was imported. Worse, the food that Cuba grew itself was almost entirely dependent on fertilisers and pesticides, 80 per cent of which were imported.

The urgent problem was to feed Havana’s 2.5 million residents, who were expected to take the brunt of shortages. Before the Soviet collapse, there had been no urban gardening at all and the city’s open spaces were uncultivated. By 1998, there were more than 8,000 officially recognised gardens in Havana producing food, cultivated by more than 30,000 people.

This is not to ignore the Cubans’ hardship during the 1991-96 “special period”. There was rationing and, in 1994, food riots; thousands attempted to flee the country. But by mid-1995, the country had overcome the serious shortages; and by the following growing season, Cuba had its highest-ever production of ten basic food items. Overall, food production in Havana grew from 40,000 tonnes in 1995 to 80,000 tonnes in 1996 and 115,000 tonnes in 1998. All organic.

This was the moment that US Senator Jesse Helms and Representative Dan Burton chose to twist the sanctions screw a little tighter with their Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, which reinforced the existing trade sanctions with threats of legal action against non-American companies who traded with Cuba.

The explicit aim of the legislation was to replace Castro’s government with one more friendly to the US. “We can now say, adios, Fidel,” Helms boasted in 1996 when his bill was enacted. But Castro is still there, and Helms’s consolation prize is a mocking mention in the “cretins’ corner” of Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, where he and Burton are thanked for introducing the law that strengthened revolutionary resolve. This has not stopped Helms being cretinous. In January this year, he welcomed George W Bush and the more assertive US foreign policy he hoped would follow. “Like a cat with nine lives, Fidel Castro is about to survive his ninth US president,” he said. “Well, I have a message for Mr Castro: the last of the cat’s nine lives has begun.” I’m sure you noted the strange logic.

But even if the new White House administration wanted to be tough on communism, Bush is unlikely to be able to maintain such a posture. Last October, international opinion forced the US to relent on the part of its embargo that hurt Cuba most – the sale of food and medicine to the island. This has left the US with a mishmash of rules that mainly disadvantage US business interests or prevent freedom of movement for its own citizens. It has become a prisoner of its own propaganda.

Meanwhile, Canada, Mexico and Europe, all of whom oppose the US line on trade with Castro, are taking advantage of America’s exclusion from the opportunities offered by Cuba’s burgeoning economy. If the US were to use the Helms-Burton legislation to act against Canada or Mexico, the two countries say they would take the case to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Similarly, Europe would challenge the US in the World Trade Organisation – and almost certainly win. The expression “hoist with their own petard” comes to mind.

America’s attempts to starve Cuba into submission have so far been largely self-defeating. But the endgame is far from certain. Cuba cannot continue to live in its 1950s time warp of Chevrolet cars, herbal medicines and dance bands.

Ironically, the most damage that the US could do to Castro now would probably be to lift all embargoes. First, the US tourists and entrepreneurs would descend on Havana in numbers. Then the shops would fill, not with missing medicines and children’s shoes, but with Levis and Nike trainers whose price tags would represent a month’s salary to many. How would that strike the research scientist who discovered the meningitis vaccine on a weekly wage of around $5 – and knows that his counterpart in a private foreign company can earn several hundred times that?

Official statements about “Dolarizacion” suggest that Cuba believes it can control the dollar’s insidious passage through the country. It may be true that by rationing and central control of housing, services and essential foods, the dollar can live at ease with the peso for a while. But the effect of tourism and dollars on Cuban culture will be harder to control. Cuba’s revolutionaries were once proud to rid Havana of prostitution and gambling; today, both are re-emerging. The dollar is doing more to destabilise the revolution than the secret CIA plans ever achieved.

Later this month, Cuba will mark the 40th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion by hosting an academic conference in Havana. US citizens – including Cuban Americans involved in the invasion – are invited, and the government promises to release hitherto classified documents.

The announcement seems to usher in a new era of trust between the two unequal nations. Until, that is, you remember that even if the American delegates are allowed to travel to Cuba, they will not be allowed to spend any money there. And that the hitherto classified documents about the Bay of Pigs fiasco are unlikely to reveal any secrets that the US government will enjoy hearing. The years of hardship have not robbed the Cuban leadership of its mastery of public relations.

Fairtrade Fortnight, which aims to raise awareness in Britain of the need for a better deal for developing world producers, takes place on 5-18 March

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