Restrictions on US tourists, sanctions against European trading partners: The regime of aging revolutionary Fidel Castro faces pressure under an intensified US embargo.
The two gentlemen in the breakfast room of Havana's Hotel Nacional don't want to reveal their names, and especially don't want to photographed. "Otherwise we'll get in trouble with the government," says one of the men, a sun-burned American who introduces himself as Bill. "Actually, we shouldn't even be here," his friend adds. "The president has made this trip illegal."
The president of the United States, that is. After all, Cuban President Fidel Castro has nothing against US tourists, who pump dollars into the Cuban government's coffers. Recently, however, hardly any Americans are daring to visit Havana, now that Washington has threatened its own citizens with substantial fines for doing so. "Our government supports dictators all over the world, but when it comes to Castro, Bush wants to bring out the big stick," Bill grumbles.
After all, this Los Angeles teacher just wants to see for himself what's happened to the island that supposedly poses a danger to the security of the western hemisphere. Following in Hemingway's footsteps, sipping a mojito, ogling pretty Cuban women – that's about the extent of his interest in Cuba. But back home in America, even that is considered a crime.
Trips to Cuba must be approved by the US Department of the Treasury. Washington used to turn a blind eye to Cuba travel. 40 percent of the 85,000 US citizens who visited Cuba last year went there illegally. But now the government has announced that it intends to tighten the reins again. Once again, the mood between Washington and Havana is as frosty as it was at the height of the Cold War.
In a 423-page document, the US government has described in detail how it intends to topple Castro. "This is my baby," boasts Cuban-born Otto Reich, the intellectual author of this sorry piece of writing. Although he has been replaced as the Bush administration's leading expert on Latin America, Reich, a former officer who is classified as a "terrorist" on Castro's island, is still pulling the strings.
The Cuban commander-in-chief has lived through ten US presidents since he marched into Havana 45 years ago, and each has tried to get rid of Cuba's revolutionary leader. Castro has survived an armed invasion, more than a hundred assassination attempts, and the longest economic blockade in post-war history. But now George W. Bush is tightening the screws on Cuba once again.
"Bush is trying to suffocate our revolution," says Rafael Dausa, director of the North America division at the Cuban foreign ministry. "Since he took office, we have been getting nothing but hostility."
This also affects US tourists: two American sailors were recently arrested because they organized regattas between Florida and Cuba. Medical students, who had previously received special permits for four-week training sessions in Cuban hospitals, will only be allowed to spend one week in this hostile country in the future. But these are petty annoyances at best when compared with the consequences Bush' confrontational approach is having on the Cubans.
Heart-wrenching scenes have become commonplace at Havana's airport, when locals say goodbye to their relatives from Miami. "The politicians have built a wall of water," complains 42-year-old physician Raul Garcia, weeping as he hugs his daughter. Ten years ago, his ex-wife took the girl and escaped to Florida on a raft. After that, Garcia's daughter was allowed to visit him in Cuba once a year. But now the US government is only permitting a two-week trip, once every three years.
"Only one person benefits from a tightening of the embargo: Fidel Castro," says a western diplomat in Havana. Even the Cuban exile community in Miami is divided over the issue. The old people, who fled the island at the beginning of the revolution, believe that any means of bringing down Castro are justified. But the younger generation prefers a peaceful transition.
People in Havana have begun to sense an atmospheric shift. "Time is against the radicals," rejoices diplomat Dausa, "they are now in the minority." The government is discretely cultivating ties to the more moderate members of Florida's Cuban community. In May, President Castro made a surprise visit to the annual emigrant conference in Havana, where he met with an opponent whom he kept imprisoned for 22 years, as Cuba's public enemy number one: Eloy Gutièrrez Menoyo, 69.
Menoyo, a native Spaniard, is a living legend among Cuban exiles. In the 1950s, he fought for the revolution at Fidel Castro's side. Following his victory, Castro offered him a ministerial post, but a disappointed Menoyo turned down the job: He didn't like the pro-Soviet course taken by the country's new rulers.
Gutièrrez Menoyo led a number of revolts against his former idol, and finally went into exile in Miami, where he trained a group of anti-Castro militants known as "Alpha 66." During an attempt to overturn the revolution with three fellow officers, he was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 1986, he was permitted to emigrate to Spain, following efforts by Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez to secure his release.
At first, Fidel Castro allowed his former comrade-in-arms to return to Cuba to visit relatives. The last time he visited Cuba was a year ago. Just before returning to Miami, he told his astonished wife: "I am going to stay here and fight for a new revolution."
Since then, Gutièrrez Menoyo has been receiving visitors at his sister's modest apartment in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. Although he is almost blind, he still has the fiery demeanor of the rebel. His organization, "Cambio Cubano," is fighting for an independent opposition: "The country is on the brink of disaster; we urgently need national reconciliation." After 45 years, many scores remain unsettled: "Castro holds the key to eliminating the hatred. He should initiate a peaceful transition."
Officially, no one pays attention to Menoyo. However, he maintains contact with government officials, and was even received by Castro two years ago. It helps that he keeps his distance from other dissidents: "It's a minefield. Many get their funding from the United States or are spies for the Cuban security services."
It's an open secret in Havana that Washington is courting some of Castro's opponents. US representative James Cason has handed out radios that enable them to receive broadcasts from US propaganda network Radio Marti, and he has invited them to meetings at his residence and given them access to the internet. Western diplomats concede that, in doing so, Cason has exceeded the limits of his diplomatic privileges: "He is proud of the fact that he's getting involved in politics here."
The effects of the US' pinpricks against the regime are beginning to show. Last year, Castro arrested 75 opponents, partly because they were seen entering and leaving the American's residence. In response, the European Union froze its cultural and scientific collaboration with Havana.
Now Brussels is hoping for reconciliation. Castro has been enjoying a diplomatic comeback in Latin America for some time. Argentine President Nèstor Kirchner will be visiting Cuba soon, while Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is supplying the island with oil. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva even wants Cuba to rejoin the Organization of American States (OAS); the socialist island's membership was frozen in 1962 under pressure from the United States.
Castro can thank Bush and his Rambo-like behavior for this new-found solidarity with other Latin American countries. The American Goliath has been waging an undeclared economic war against the Cuban regime. Miami Cubans are only allowed to send money to direct relatives, and the daily rate for visitors was reduced from 150 to 50 dollars. Washington is also tracking Cuba's international financial transactions. Foreign banks that assist Havana in processing foreign currency transactions are frequently punished with sanctions. "They treat us like money-launderers and drug leaders," complains America expert Dausa.
Many Cubans are worried that they may soon face a repeat of the energy crisis of the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union canceled its economic aid to former allies. Electricity is now in such short supply that, in some parts of Havana, the power is once again being shut off for several hours each day.
For the first time, Washington is taking steps against tourism, Cuba's most important source of hard currency. SuperClubs, a Jamaican company that had planned to open a number of hotels, was threatened with the closure of its operations in the United States. Horrified, the company quickly dropped its plans for Cuba.
Now even European companies feel intimidated. "Anyone who invests in Cuba can expect problems with the United States," says a German company's representative in Havana. These are not empty threats: This year, Washington has already imposed monetary fines on 60 companies for transporting Cuban goods.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan