While in the process of completing a post on quite a different topic, I happened across this photo, taken after the recent “closing” of the Lincoln Memorial. I found the photograph distressing and inexplicably haunting. Surely I hadn’t written about these events – or had I?
I awoke this morning remembering a post from my earliest days of blogging. Written in 2008, it seems equally relevant today, though not in any way I could have imagined at the time. I’m reposting it here with only an edit or two for clarity and the addition of these two quotations from an 1859 letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Pierce. The first is both relevant and amusing.
I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have perfomed the same feat as the two drunken men.
The second is merely relevant.
Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.
(Re-posted from June, 2008) In recent weeks, Cuban policies limiting citizens’ access to certain goods and services have been liberalized. Farmers no longer are required to purchase materials from state-run stores, and it’s now possible for more individuals to rent cars.
Restrictions on personal cell phone ownership have been eased, and bans lifted on the purchase of electronic or electrical consumer items of all sorts, including computers, televisions, pressure cookers, rice cookers, electric bicycles, microwave ovens and car alarms.
Raul Castro’s reforms have been scrutinized closely for practical as well as political significance. While apparently desirable, they are filled with a certain irony. In a nation where most individuals are not allowed to purchase a car, car alarms seem somewhat beside the point. The scarcity of many basic food items and the prohibitive cost of others make the possibility of possessing an electric rice cooker or microwave seem just slightly amusing.
While the sudden availability of televisions, computers and cell phones has created a bit of a stir in the world outside the Island, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez and others suggest Raul Castro’s easing of restrictions instituted by his brother Fidel is nothing more than bowing to the inevitable.
At this point, there is no stopping the influx of technology into the country, so it makes sense to get ahead of the curve and gain political advantage wherever possible. Even more cynical observers suggest that easy availability of cell phones simply provides one more way for the government to keep track of its citizens.
In any event, the reforms have been noted with cautious approval and general agreement that, while the reforms are lovely, they probably are cost-prohibitive for most Cubans. Writing in the April 1 Washington Post, Manuel Roig-Franzia notes that “Cuban state workers make an average of $19 a month… (while) car rentals in Cuba – also managed by the military – are among the most expensive in Latin America, with vehicles typically going for as much as $100 a day.”
Because such items and services must be purchased with Cuban convertible pesos, a stronger currency than the national pesos paid state workers, things become even more difficult. Cubans who receive tips from tourists or have money sent in from abroad have access to convertible pesos, but the existence of a de facto dual monetary system does little to increase purchasing power across the board.
The same issues arise when it comes to a less-publicized but symbolically important March 31 move by the Cuban government to lift restrictions on Cubans’ freedom to enjoy resort beaches, stay at luxury hotels or purchase services provided by the hotels.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent economic difficulties for the Castro regime, the practice of keeping Cubans and tourists apart became so rigid it was known as “tourist apartheid”. Some of the most beautiful places in the country were off-limits to Cubans, particularly Varadero Beach, Cayo Santa Maria and the Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio Province.
For most Cubans , being allowed to move beyond that “apartheid” and indulge themselves in the luxury of a hotel stay will be as symbolic as the right to purchase a computer or DVD; it simply is too expensive. A quick look at current rates published by TripAdvisor tells the tale: a night in Havana? $201 to $369. A little stroll along Varadero at sunset? $169 to $305. Guardalavaca? $255. Guardala? Coming in high, at $455. There was a listing at Guama for $3, with a description that proclaims “twice the charms”. If not a misprint, it’s either the world’s best bargain or the world’s worst decision: who knows?
In any event, it doesn’t take a genius to do the math. Quoting Roig-Franzia again, “on [the salary of the typical Cuban], it would take nearly two years to earn enough for one night at the Saratoga.”
Resort living and luxury hotels aren’t for everyone, of course. Even as an American with every right in the world to head off to the Hilton, I prefer to make other choices. I suspect there are Cubans who feel the same. If I were Cuban, I’d be far more interested in regaining my right to travel to places like the Vinales Valley.
One of Cuban’s most remarkable natural attractions, it’s been declared a National Natural Monument and included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1999 as “a cultural landscape enriched by traditional farm and village architecture.” Surrounded by mogotes with rounded tops and steep slopes, the valley is a luxurious mix of tobacco, taro and bananas, unusual plant life and exquisite vistas. For decades Cubans showed off their treasure, until access was limited by the government. In the words of Rafael Ferro Salas,
“The old road was closed. Now only the rented vehicles of foreign tourists travel the new route, and those carrying visitors invited to the spot by government officials. For Cubans who live in the island nation, traveling is prohibited on the access road leading to the valley’s vantage point, the site where the view is loveliest and most unforgettable.”
In words of unutterable poignancy, he goes on to add,
“Pinar del Rio is full of natural beauties. The most beautiful sites are being left like a footprint in the fog of memory. So far no one knows when the day will come when they can go back to traveling among them.”
Writing in Babalu, Val Prieto notes some uncertainty whether areas such as the Vinales Valley are now accessible to Cubans. It may be the lifting of restrictions applies strictly to tourist beaches, hotels and services. Whatever the final result, the changes certainly stimulate thought. Whatever happens in the next months, whether Varadero, the Cays, the Vinales Valley and other prohibited sites become open to all Cubans, it remains a fact that for years Cubans have been barred from their own country, banned from visiting sights celebrated world-wide for their beauty and historical significance.
For a Cuban to be banned from Vinales is not unlike an American being banned from Yosemite, prevented from traveling to or enjoying its splendor because the government prefers to reserve it for those who will pay well for the privilege.
What others experience can be hard to imagine. But imagine for a moment being banned from the Everglades, while tour boats filled with foreigners are granted special passes to enjoy the wonders of the River of Grass.
Imagine being banned from Anasazi ruins throughout the Four Corners area because a politician prefers to show off the sites to his cronies.
Imagine being banned from Cape Hatteras because the government intends to restrict contact between you and visitors from other countries.
Imagine being banned from Death Valley for the sole purpose of buttressing your government’s sense of entitlement and control over your life.
Imagine being banned from Niagara Falls only because the government has the power to do so and decides it will do so for the pleasure of exercising power.
Far too many people across the world experience such prohibitions as bitter realities. Far too many people live unnecessarily restricted lives, and far too many leaders seek to reduce the freedom of their people simply for the sake of power and personal aggrandizement.
Prohibitions like the banning of Cubans from their national treasures generally are preceded by other, smaller restrictions and lead almost inevitably to other constraints. The freedom to travel, to assemble, to speak without fear, the freedom to participate fully in the life of a country or community – all those freedoms begin to erode whenever the state unilaterally declares this or that to be “off limits” and then makes trespassing those limits punishable by law.
We could imagine otherwise, but we would be wrong.