Forbidden Tropical Fruit

President Obama’s opening to Cuba has enflamed those on the right who still live in the 1950s, but even the once stalwart and monolithically anti-communist Miami community of exiles is of two minds. Several of its leaders joined the Obama entourage. No doubt they feel the geriatric Castro regime is about to gasp its last, and the inexorable tide of the capitalist west is poised to engulf its latest socialist hold-out. Russia, China and even the once hermetically sealed Albania have long ago abandoned the true faith. Only North Korea hangs on, and Cuba, quarantined by us for a disease it would love to get over.

So. Hooray for our side, I suppose. But the great mystery is why anyone without a family connection would care enough to pay the place a visit. Sure, capitalist tools are itching to flock there to peddle cellphones or Fords, to open Starbucks, Walmarts and hotels, but who’s going to stay at them? And why? To see ’57 Chevys?

Yet a great wave pf tourism is predicted. Frankly, I don’t get it. I get jaded cruise ship addicts who will go anywhere a mega-liner drops anchor. Having circled the Caribbean a dozen times, they will welcome any fresh port to swarm. But frankly, you’ve seen one beat-up victim of colonialism and you’ve seen them all. And the Stalinist version is particularly unappealing. In the Caribbean they come in only two flavors, lumpy islands and flat islands. But away from their glorious beaches and endangered coral reefs, most are pretty grim, outside the tourist enclaves.

I suppose for those who have never seen how fifty years of totalitarian rule can wreck, retard and demoralize a culture, Cuba might provide a handy object lesson. But I got to see smidgens of Russia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and East Berlin shortly after the Wall came tumbling down. I got the big idea. The Beach Boys and Corvettes were preferable to the latest five-year-plan and the Stasi. The aftermath of communism was poor, ugly, trapped, hopeless and desperate to catch up – often by embracing capitalism’s worst excesses.

I suspect one reason so many Americans want to go to Cuba is because for years their government told them they couldn’t, and shouldn’t even want to. Castro was the Big Bad Wolf. And yet, we thought corrupt, pre-Castro Cuba in “The Godfather, Part II” looked cool, and we liked Desi Arnaz, Tito Puente, “The Buena Vista Social Club,” and Gloria Estefan just fine. Cubano sandwiches are to die for.

So, now that the door is open a crack, Americans are likely to feel, “Take that Cold War! So there Nanny State. You said we couldn’t go, so we’re going.” If that’s the case, this reliable contrarianism could work to our benefit in the hands of a wily president able to think in terms of the bank shot. Why couldn’t we make it government policy to demand that people under the age of 30 spend all their time playing video games, tweeting, haunting Facebook and texting their every inane thought? At the same time, they would be forbidden, under pain of fine and social ostracism, to ever visit libraries, museums, symphonies, operas, ballets and told especially to never be caught dead studying math, science or engineering. Within a decade, a renaissance to rival that of Florence would be under way. Indian and Chinese students could no longer find any available slots at American universities.

As for me, I’ll give Cuba a pass. I’ve seen rundown ruins of once lively places. I grew up in the Rust Belt, before it rusted. The off-limits places I want to see are all ancient and unfortunately in the hands of Islamist fanatics, so Western tourists are likely to be unwelcome, shot dead or thrown in the clink. I’m afraid I’m going to have to kick the bucket before I get to cross off my bucket list Persepolis, Palmyra, Damascus, Baghdad, Baalbek, Shiraz, Samarra, The Valley of the Kings, Aleppo, Isfahan, Nineveh and Tyre. And next to them, Cuba seems like pretty small beer.

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