April 22, 2013
BASEBALLS, BIRDS, AND BUICKS IN CUBAp> HAVANA – It was the stupid baseballs nearly did me in. As a pleasant gesture of international amity, and on the advice of a travel expert, I packed four brand-new baseballs in my checked baggage as gifts to kids in Cuba. I watched my buddy, Steve, lumber through Customs with his quarter-ton of electronic equipment – all duly listed by serial number and accompanied by an affidavit attesting it was for our use only, not for sale or distribution – and proceed fairly smoothly to the exit. Meanwhile, Maria, the clerk in my line, pointed at my small duffel and asked, “Frutta?”
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“Open.” Which, of course, I did, trying not to fumble nervously with the straps. She picked up a package of two baseballs, gazed at it, turned, and arched her eyebrows at me.
“Baseballs,” I repeated, thinking, “Isn’t this Cuba? Don’t they know baseballs?” For the next half hour, it appeared she didn’t. She squeezed them, sniffed them, bounced them on the floor, asked if they were for “practice or for playing,” and finally X-rayed them – all the while keeping me within arm’s reach – and then let me go. Maria explained she was just doing her job. If her job is to unnerve an elderly, innocent Americano, she deserves a raise. A few yards away, someone else had it worse: A young man who Maria confided was a suspiciously frequent traveler, was having his large sacks of luggage fine-tooth combed by her comrades’ blue rubber gloves.
It’s difficult to fathom the reason for all the suspicion and security, which is more palpable than during my last visit about ten years ago. Surely Cuba no longer fears invasion from its powerful neighbor to the north; such an action would disrupt the commerce and arouse the ire of several European Union countries engaged here. So our differences seem to be expressed mostly in (alleged, but never proven) hugger-mugger operations amazingly reminiscent of “Spy vs. Spy,” the long-running cartoon series in Mad Magazine. A great number of Americans, in the absence of any evidence, believe that the battleship Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor in 1898 by nefarious Spanish saboteurs; and almost all Cubans apparently believe that the French munitions ship La Coubre, carrying military materiel for the Revolucion, was blown up at the pier in Havana in 1960 as an act of “terrorism” by the CIA at the orders of President Eisenhower. Americans charged into battle crying, “Remember the Maine!” Cubans cry, “Patria o Muerte!” – Homeland or Death! The Cubans have the last laugh in that exchange, however: There used to be an American eagle atop the tall column on the Malecón commemorating the Maine, but it was toppled by Fidel’s revolutionaries exactly as Saddam Hussein’s was by American forces in Baghdad. And you can tell by the direction the equestrian statues along the esplanade are facing whether the riders fought for or against the first revolution against the Spanish. Those who fought for it are facing inland, with their horses’...er, behinds facing their enemies. There are symbols everywhere.
There are cops and soldiers everywhere, too – in some parts of the city at every crossroads. There is no stopping, even for hitchhikers, anywhere along Embassy Row or near President Raúl Castro’s house. I sense a wariness toward these guardians of the state, wariness born of a fear of their capriciousness: rather like the fear we Yankees sometimes feel driving through small Southern towns. The cab driver who drove me two hours east this morning was probably unlicensed. I had to pay him in the cab before we got to the surveillance cameras at the airport; and every time I saw him pull his seat belt across his chest I knew we were approaching a military checkpoint. My copies of the English-language Havana Reporter (hardly an unbiased source) extol gains in recent years toward private ownership and entrepreneurism as progress “toward the perfection of the socialist revolution,” and it’s true that hundreds of small towns in the hinterlands got electricity. running water, and sanitary systems after the defeat of the counterrevolution. But as our genial and very savvy driver/interpreter, Luis, lamented, “You can’t afford to stand still for a second here; you have to keep finding ways to make more income even if you’re on a pension.” Luis’ father is a Hero of the Revolution, shot down and killed while strafing the Bay of Pigs invasion.
But we’re not here to investigate Cuban society, though the subject is inescapable. Our crew is here to follow a group of American birders conducting a survey under the auspices of the Caribbean Conservation Trust. Their goal is to record the health of the various migratory and endemic species, and the health of their natural habitat – a humanitarian project for the environment. We’ve interviewed their leaders, and I had a great on-camera chat with a professor emeritus from MIT as we sat on a stone wall in “Che Guevara’s Cave,” a fascinating dark limestone grotto in which Che and the commanders of the Western Army hid out during the 1962 Missile Crisis, when there was a credible threat of getting nuked at any moment. The professor had a clear goal in mind: The more we know about environmental conditions here (not a high priority of the government), the more credibly we can argue for conservation efforts and possibly even cooperation between our currently feuding governments, which every year tighten restrictions between them
Meanwhile, amid the serious observations, I’m again enchanted by being surrounded by the automobiles of my youth. “Fifty-six Buick!” I cry, and Luis nods. “There’s my father’s ‘53 Chevy!” Luis nods again; he wasn’t around then, but he knows his years. He drives a Lada. Lots of black smoke everywhere; I think piston rings for old cars may be hard to come by here.
The official revolutionary fervor isn’t going to go away soon; we might best see how we can accommodate and eventually soften it. And we might stop banning Cuban cigars from our shores. Maybe then they’ll let us bring in American baseballs without suspecting us of counterrevolution.