Cuban Lovefest

For a few bizarre hours on March 28, it was easy to imagine that Cuba's relations with the United States had suddenly changed, that all the agony and antagonism of the past 40 years had disappeared. After all, there was Fidel Castro in boots and military uniform striding across the infield of Havana's main baseball stadium to greet the Baltimore Orioles, the first professional American team to play in Cuba since 1959. The anti-American dictator politely doffed his cap during the U.S. national anthem--live on ESPN, no less--and cheered alongside Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Just hours after the Cuban all-stars fell 3-2 in 11 innings--and drowned their sorrows in the cases of Budweiser the visitors brought--a star-studded group of American and Cuban musicians took the stage at the Karl Marx Theater. Their first song, naturally, was a symbol-soaked rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." The emcee, American hip-hop artist Michael Franti, proclaimed: "Ten years from now we'll look back at today and see that this was the beginning of change."

Maybe so, but the harmonic convergence could hardly have come at a more discordant moment. For all the good cheer last week, relations between Havana and Washington have sunk to one of their lowest levels since the end of the cold war. When the Clinton administration proposed, in January, a set of seemingly innocuous measures (including the baseball game) to soften the U.S. embargo, Castro didn't only denounce them as an "insidious threat." His government launched an all-out assault on common crime and political dissent--both of which, it said, were part of the "enemy strategy." As a result, Havana today looks more than ever like a police state, with cops on nearly every corner stopping citizens, checking ID cards, speaking into lapel microphones. (The Malecon, the seaside promenade that used to be a center for activity legal and illegal, is virtually empty.) Talk about a paradox: two weeks before Castro received everyone from blues singer Bonnie Raitt to irascible slugger Albert Belle, four dissidents were sentenced to prison for printing a document critical of the regime--and for meeting with an official at the U.S. Interests Section.

The American promoters of both the ball game and the concert insisted that the events were about culture, not politics. And why not? For all the official enmity between the two nations, Cubans' passion for music and baseball is nearly matched by their fascination for all things American. But it was impossible to keep politics out. "It would be facetious to say that we're just here playing baseball or making music," said laid-back folk singer Jimmy Buffett as he watched the game from behind the Cuban dugout. "Where it all leads, no one knows. Like they say in 'Shakespeare in Love,' 'It's a mystery'." Castro tried to remove most of the mystery by choreographing nearly every step, from squelching publicity before the events to distributing tickets only to loyal workers. (Outside the ballpark, a few disgruntled fans looked for scalped tickets--$2 for a bleacher seat--while police officers milled around near a billboard that read: sports, the right of everyone.) The only thing Castro couldn't control was the game's thrilling finale.

The Music Bridges exchange was an even more intriguing experiment. Picking names out of a hat, the 50 or so Cuban and American musicians paired off for a week of creative fusion. In the palm-fringed patio of the Hotel Nacional, Joan Osborne tried out some sexy blues lyrics to accompany a Sergio Vitier melody, while the Indigo Girls--Amy Ray and Emily Saliers--riffed with Cuban guitarist Luis de la Cruz to come up with "Santa Elixir." At the concert, the first by American musicians in Cuba since Billy Joel performed in 1979, Music Bridges director Alan Roy Scott said: "What you are about to witness is the power of music to bring people together without thinking of other things." Well, not quite. Tickets to the concert were reserved for the Cuban nomenklatura, and the musicians couldn't help taking potshots at U.S. policy. In one song, as actor Woody Harrelson danced in the background, Bonnie Raitt sang: "What the hell are you so afraid of? It's only 90 miles away, a happy little island."

The musicians, apparently, didn't talk to many regular Cubans, or they would have discovered that the island is far from happy these days. Cuba's economic crisis has eased somewhat; more than half of all Cubans now have access to dollars (including more than $500 million in annual remittances from exiles), so they are eating and dressing better. Still the average salary still hovers around $10 a month. The problem is that the current crackdown, while effective in quelling rising crime, has made the struggle to survive--not to mention voicing an opinion--a "counterrevolutionary" crime. One top surgeon, for example, moonlights as a taxi driver but is so scared of getting his car impounded that he takes only back streets and asks passengers to hide in the back seat. Another doctor got so desperate that he started selling flowers on street corners with his girlfriend, a government worker. They doubled their income in three days before they got busted. "What we are witnessing here is like a novel by Kafka illustrated by Salvador Dali," says one party member, adding that just talking to a journalist could bring him a 20-year sentence. "It's totally absurd."

Equally absurd is the notion that Cubans could ever be truly anti-American. During the Music Bridges concert, as the audience danced wildly to "Walking on Sunshine," a Cuban intellectual smiled. "You see, this anti-Americanism is fabricated," he said. "The great paradox is that Cubans love America more than any other country." Despite last week's lovefest, the government still strictly limits the amount of American music on the radio, American fashions in the schools and American sports on television--because all are "ideological perversions." In the Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana, an elderly Cuban woman listens to bootleg American cassettes all day, partly out of defiance. "Fidel has tried to make us hate Americans, but that's made us love them even more," she says. Outside, a teenage boy in a stars-and-stripes muscle shirt sings along with the lyrics of an American song: "I can't live if living is without you. I can't live, I can't live anymore!"

Cubans, of course, are used to living without American musicians and ballplayers. When the stars did come for the first visit in decades, their presence was so underpublicized--and so fleeting--that many Cubans hardly noticed. Jimmy Buffett, for his part, said he couldn't stick around too long on his third visit to Havana, a.k.a. "Mojitoville." The surfer-songwriter had been checking the Internet and saw something that compelled him to return to his hideaway on St. Bart's. "There's a swale coming, and I wanna get back to catch it," he said, grinning. For Cubans these days, there are few swales to catch--and when one finally does come around, it succeeds only in making them long for more, if only to escape their Havana hangover.