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Originally published July 21, 2009 at 5:39 PM | Page modified July 22, 2009 at 4:42 PM

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Bruce Ramsey

A trip to Cuba confirms the need to end the U.S. travel and trade restrictions

Columnist Bruce Ramsey reflects on a trip to Cuba. There, he wondered: Why does my government not want me here?

Seattle Times staff columnist

Our government forbids travel to Cuba. It makes exceptions, including one for journalists, and some people break the rules. I note that the Seattle Public Library stocks more than a dozen Cuba travel guides, so people do go there.

I did. I saw what a tourist might see — no more.

The first thing you see are the old cars. Perhaps 10 percent of cars in Havana, and more elsewhere, are Chevys, Fords, Dodges, Plymouths and Studebakers from 1949 to 1958. These antiques are fabulous. Many are lovingly cared for. I don't know that Cubans prefer old cars; more likely it's because under Castro it has been hard to buy new ones.

The next thing you see are the signs. A sign is a public voice, and in Cuba the only such voice is the government's. Just now it is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its seizure of power under the banner "Revolución" — an idea meant to be historical only.

Other signs support the "Five Heroes" imprisoned in the United States for betraying illicit Cuban exile flights. I had never heard of them, and wondered if any Cuban would ask me about them. No one did. No one asked me any hostile questions. The Cubans welcomed me.

What they thought, I never really knew. To the tourists, mainly Europeans, the government sells Che Guevara T-shirts, but I never saw a Cuban wearing one. When I got bumped from seats on a bus, one Cuban called it "complete socialism," but it was the only comment like that.

Several Cubans asked if I thought President Obama would lift the embargo against them; I said I thought he would.

Cuba has two currencies: the peso, for average Cubans, and the dollar-convertible peso, called CUC. This is the good money, and is what the foreigner gets. With these, a can of cane-sweetened Coca-Cola, imported from Mexico, costs $2.50; a gallon of 94-octane gasoline costs $5.20. These and some other things I saw priced only in CUC.

The notable thing about Cuban socialism is the atrophy of retailing. On a walk through a middle-to-upper-class neighborhood in Havana, I saw a most meager selection of packaged food, grain, bread, meat, produce and fish, all in separate shops. The only fruits were papayas and pineapples. The grain place was dispensing cheap Vietnamese rice, labeled, "Not more than 20 percent broken grains." A pescaderia had pieces of fish turning gray.

My guidebook said food in Cuba was not so good. My meals were all good, but then, I was eating in places where I had to pay in CUC.

In a rural town, I stayed with a family that let the spare bedrooms to tourists. This family's income was in CUC, which enabled them to support a 25-year-old Moskvich car with a screwed-on spoiler, a musical horn, a DVD player and a window decal that insolently said, Yo soy malo — "I'm bad." They were enterprising people and fine hosts.

Sitting at this family's table, I had to wonder: Why does my government not want me here? Communism? A dead virus, no longer infectious. After 50 years, the point of the U.S. embargo is — what? Not to buy Cuban sugar? Do we so cherish Coke and Pepsi sweetened with syrup from subsidized corn?

I flew out of Cuba on a three-engine Russian Yak 42. As I passed the crew on the way out, I pointed to the logo on my baseball cap: Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

"Your plane?" asked the stewardess.

"No. Yours," I said, as I thumped the Russian bulkhead. "After this."

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bruce Ramsey

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle native. He was a business reporter and columnist for many years before becoming an editorial columnist, a job, he says, in which he is paid to be opinionated. He says his editorial lodestones are,"liberty, and what works." He is married to an immigrant from Hong Kong, where they once lived, and they have one son.
bramsey@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2057

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