Yesterday on Babalublog, I posted three quotes found in a press release for some new campaign to keep the Bush administration from tightening the screws on cultural exchanges. Both Sean Penn and Danny Glover I dismiss out of hand. Those two have apparently never met a leftist dictator or aspiring dictator they didn't like. But Cooder, a figure from my generation and my music, that stung. Justifiably incensed, I've written a response to Mr. Cooder. Since I am having difficulty finding an email address for him, it is at the moment an open letter I share with you.
As a child of the late sixties, it is with great disappointment that I am driven to write this letter. I have always been something of an admirer. When the Buena Vista Social Club came out, you refrained from making uninformed political pronouncements, at least I didn't hear any, so I welcomed the opportunity you provided for Cuban musicians and went out and bought the CD. Yesterday, I was blindsided when I came across the quote above which I find not only stupid but offensive. It is exactly commentary like yours which encourages further restriction. Well-intentioned people, without prior knowledge of facts, go down to Cuba where every move and meeting is orchestrated and return regurgitating the party line, serving as stooges for the Castro regime, a regime so oppressive that per capita it rivals some of the most notorious dictatorships in history. The Cubans you met could not tell you the truth. Truth is illegal in Cuba, as are dissent, independent newspapers, and meetings on the street of more than three people.
The only "gangsters" in this case are those in the Castro regime who live in plenty, siphoning off the spoils of tourism and the national production, while keeping the populace in deliberate misery. Yes, there are people in the United States who make money. There's Western Union which charges you a hefty percentage to send dollars to your relatives. The Cuban government which takes 25% of the already reduced amount to exchange it for near worthless -even in Cuba- currency. There are those who ship packages at $13.00 a pound, packages to relatives, packages made necessary by the lack of everything from food to shoes to toothpaste. There are the pharmacies that make money off shipping everything from aspirin to vitamins to antibiotics to antipsychotic drugs, shipments which are made necessary by their scarcity in Cuba. There are whole cottage industries which have sprung up in the desperate quest of those you call "gangsters" to help their families on the island. Lest you console yourself with the lie that all this want is caused by the embargo, please note that there is no embargo on food and medicine. Further, whatever hardship on the regime the porous embargo might impose is far and away superseded by the colossal mismanagement of the economy by the Havana Mafia. Take sugar, traditionally Cuba's premier export. Production is at Depression Era levels. Cuba has to import sugar. And that is but one industry.
As a Cuban American, what I find most galling, however, is your revicitimization of a people who have been wronged. Over a million Cubans were forced to flee, the majority of whom were not rich, were not supporters of Batista, many of whom supported the revolution before it declared itself Communist a year after the fact and even some who supported it afterward. Not all of us reside in Miami. How cavalierly you dismiss our suffering. How is this possible?
For a moment, Mr. Cooder, visualize George Bush and his government taking your home, your motor vehicles, stopping your royalty payments. From this moment on, you cannot say a single bad thing about him or his government. You cannot go to the supermarket to buy what you want. You will be given a ration card of provisions you may buy in a single month, provisions which will only feed you for about two weeks, less than slaves received. If you want to continue making your music, you must compose paens to the glory of the Bush government for the sum of twenty dollars a month in a currency that is virtually useless in procuring more food. Your neighbors across the street are charged with watching you.
Faced with this new reality, you decide on freedom, escape to, say, Germany, where you do not speak the language. You arrive penniless in a somewhat xenophobic country. Years later after much struggle, washing dishes maybe, living as a de facto second class citizen, you are comfortable. Then you read an article in which some punk ass German rocker calls you a Hamburg gangster because you have the nerve to demand that your new government not treat with the Bush administration. Doesn't feel good, does it?
The problem with even well-meaning people is that they start out with the colonialist presupposition that Cuba was always on par with countries like Haiti. While freedom is something you exercise each day, it is quite acceptable that those little brown people are deprived of the same, as if they are genetically unfit to have a say in their own lives. Take a memo: the supposed compassionate talking points of the liberal left are a shameless and ignorant exercise in hypocrisy. And you, Mr. Cooder, have not only fallen for it hook, line, and sinker, but are using your celebrity to expound it.
Someday, when Cubans are free to speak to foreigners, news organizations, and the like, you will have egg on more than your face. Until then, I suspect I shouldn't wait for the apology that I and thousands more like me deserve. Don't kid yourself, the politicians and policies exist because there is more than ample support for them in the community you malign.