Frozen Time in Cuba

May 2, 2017

Some 25 years ago, Tom Miller parlayed his various enthusiasms, baseball, oboe playing and a seemingly boundless patience in dealing with Fidel Castro’s bureaucracy into this remarkable look at a society largely closed to outsiders —particularly American citizens—since 1958.

 

   The title refers to the various federal laws that have been the basis for the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba since 1960s.

 

    My interest was also grabbed by the fact that Miller spent some time inside and outside Guantanamo Bay Naval station back before it won notoriety for its prisoner of war camp some years later. I was surprised not to have encountered the book earlier, given that I spent a year at GITMO 15 years later as a U.S. Navy public information officer.  I thank Guam’s Dianne Strong for alerting me to this book; she is one of the few persons of my acquaintance who have spent any time outside Havana or GITMO.

 

   As a sometime reporter, I have to admire Miller’s skill in conceiving this cross-country journey via Cuban rental car and success in pumping lots of information out of dozens of hitchhikers, sugar cane cutters, cigar rollers and local officials about the reality of this society, far beyond the pervasive official propaganda pounded home to the population on political rather than commercial billboards across the countryside.

 

    Miller makes clear his affection for the Cuban people, who seem to endure while putting up with food shortages and empty stores, as well as government-imposed ideology and orthodoxy that must be difficult to bear day-to-day. They still —especially those in the countryside and less exposed to information about the outside world — seem to be having a pretty good time.

 

    My job at Guantanamo Bay largely consisted of arranging clearances and guiding visiting reporters around the 45 square miles of the base as well as editing the base newspaper. I learned a lot about the history of the base while on the job, but never once set foot outside of the gates, closed to most since 1958. Before the Revolution, many of those stationed at GITMO lived in surrounding villages. Weekend leave train trips to Havana were once possible and common. Cuban-American hostilities and the kidnapping of servicemen ended all that a long time ago.

 

   I was particularly amused by a naïve local American TV crew which wanted me to help them book their reporting trip to Guantanamo by way of Havana. Doesn’t work that way, I explained.

 

   Nearly 25 years after its publication, I think the book is still right to suggest that both GITMO and the surrounding villages are indeed frozen in time. Both base residents and journalistic visitors for years have been comparing GITMO to the ancient TV show Mayberry RFD, given its surface similarities to 1950s America.

 

   Other things have changed, suggesting a gradual thaw in local relationships. By 2007-2008, the Base Commander was meeting monthly with his military counterparts off-base for lunch and information exchange, largely about baseball and movies or so I heard. One product of this liaison was a continuing supply of Cuban chocolate bars, one of which spent a few months in our refrigerator before being consumed.

 

   There is a large resident community of Cuban nationals on base, who were allowed to retire there after many years of toil. My wife Remedios worked with this group and picked up on one error of Miller’s book, in which he suggested Cuban retirees weren’t receiving their promised retirement allowances due to the embargo. Indeed, a major duty of the fewer than six Cubans who remained on the job during our tenure was to pick up and carry the cash retirement payments to the recipients living in the villages; the success of this arrangement was a source of pride to those aware of it on base.

 

    I think that Americans in 2017, who seem endlessly whiny about how things are going for them, might benefit from reading this book, which should leave them happier with what they’ve got. One thing seems certain to me: regardless of the present or future U.S. president, events are moving toward a much more open Cuban society in which a future American author will not face quite the challenge that Miller did back in the 1990s. Given the “frozen in time” situation of Cuba which continues to prevail, the changes to come will likely be either good, disruptive or both.

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