Yes, this is partly about how Donald Trump wrecked the loosening of America’s ban on travel to Cuba. But for me it’s more than that. And it’s personal. And it's old. The story goes back sixty years.
In 1957, I was an Antioch College student in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Back then, there were only two drinking spots in town, and the students pretty much stuck to one of them. It was called the Trail Tavern. It’s still there today, a centuries-old building on the main drag that once served as a hiding place for escaped slaves on the underground railroad.
So one night, I was sitting at the bar in the Trail Tavern and a classmate of mine, one Bennett Kremen, sits down next to me and begins raving.
“Man,” he says, “I was just down in Cuba. There’s gonna be a revolution down there. Everybody thinks Batista has the country under control, but I was up in the mountains, in a place called Oriente, and they’ve got a whole army of revolutionaries. You should see the shit they’ve got. They’ve got jeeps. They’ve got howitzers. They’ve got trucks. They’ve got rifles. They've got mortars. They’ve got machine guns. They’re going to take over that country, man!”
“Uh oh,” I thought, “Crazy Benny is at it again. Maybe he’s been smoking a bit too much loco weed.”
That same week, a group of Cubans visited campus, representing some guy nobody ever heard of at the time called Fidel Castro. It wasn’t until about seven years ago that I ran into Kremen again and he admitted that he had brought the Cubans back with him, from his vacation.
At any rate, I sat in a dormitory common room while the Cubans had their say. They were planning to get rid of Fulgencio Batista, the dictator of Cuba, they said. Yeah, well nobody loved the guy. He was the kind of person Theodore Roosevelt defended with undisguised disgust when he said “They may be sons of bitches but they’re our sons of bitches."
I was only half listening to the Cubans. I wasn’t particularly political at the time and I had some books to crack. But I do remember them confirming what most Americans already knew anyway. Batista was an S.O.B., a brutal dictator, who had built an economy based on sugar prices supported by the U.S. Government, gambling casinos, and whorehouses. The visiting Cubans told us many illustrative atrocity stories to convince us of what we already knew. One story was about a Batista opponent whose eyes were gouged out in prison by Batista's police. I believed it. Batista was not a nice guy.
At they end of the talk, they told us they were collecting money for their cause and passed a hat around. That's not a metaphor. It was a real hat. I tossed in two dollars.
Now two dollars was not a huge sum, but it bought a lot more than you can get for two bucks today. With two dollars, I could have bought coffee every night in the college coffee shop for maybe two weeks. Or I could have purchased perhaps five hamburgers. Most important of all, two dollars was two-fifths of my weekly spending money.
All the same, as six decades of inflation have done their work, two dollars increasingly sounds like a cheesy contribution. Which is part of the joke I’ve been cracking for the last twenty years or so.
“One of these days I’m going to go down to Cuba to see what I got for my two bucks,” I’d say at cocktail parties. Sometimes it elicited an amused chuckle.
Then President Obama loosened up some of the restrictions on travel to Cuba. And I started thinking about actually going there. I’m under no illusions about the government. It's a police state. It treated Batista’s brutes with the same brutality they had treated others. Far too many Cubans died in front of Castro's firing squads. Some may have been innocent, or guilty of very little.
And yes, from what I know, the Castro government’s major achievement was turning desperate poverty into genteel poverty. But if true, I see that as an improvement, quite an improvement considering we've embargoed their economy for half a century. The people became better fed. They certainly became better educated. They have access to medical care that many Americans could wish for, even as the Cubans have to watch what they say, and to whom they say it.
I was hoping to travel there inexpensively. I hoped to sleep at Air BnB homes, where I could guardedly converse with Cubans about what they liked, and didn’t like, about their lives and their government. This was going to happen this coming winter.
And then along comes Donald Trump. For no good reason, other than to break something because President Obama made it, and to please a handful of aged Cuban refugees who can’t let go of their hatred for the dead Fidel, Trump slammed on the brakes.
Obama caused “illegal tourism” to Cuba, Trump declared in one of his typically incoherent rants. He was going to stop the illegality.
Can you still go to Cuba? From what the Washington Post reports, yes, if you have relatives there. Or if you get on a Cuban tour bus and let yourself get shuttled from site to site by government guides feeding you the party line. But hell, if I’m going to do that I might as well stay home and read about it on the Internet. Thank Donald Trump.
Once again, the problem child in the White House has acted like a six year old who goes to a classmate’s birthday party, breaks all the toys, throws the birthday cake on the floor, and then whines that all the other kids are being mean to him. In this case, the breakage was of less restrictive travel to Cuba. So I may never see first hand what I got for my two bucks.
Oh, about Bennett Kremen. In the early 1970s he traveled around parts of the United States, doing total immersion journalism. He worked in factories. He froze helping to build an arctic oil pipeline. He hung with students. He dug into Americans' lives and their thoughts, and turned it into a book called “Dateline America: dispatches from an altering nation.”
It got a friendly review from Kirkus. It got a snarky review in the Harvard Crimson from some college kid named Nick Lemann, who is today Dean Emeritus of Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism and a writer for the New Yorker. Go know.
Kremen pretty much gave up on journalism after that and went on to do other things. So far as I know, he has not been back to Cuba again. And thanks to Donald Trump, I am likely never to get there in my own lifetime. Another reason I so relish watching the Trump Administration implode into itself.