- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

I have never been to Havana, though I’ve long wanted to go. It’s one of those storied cities of the mind that you’re afraid an actual visit might spoil — like Buenos Aires or Alexandria.

Yet the other day I got the distinct impression I had been to Havana. It hit me as I was reading a piece by Oswaldo Paya, the Cuban dissenter awarded the Sakharov Prize in 2002 for refusing to be cowed by Cuba’s commissars. His petition calling for free elections and a decent respect for human rights garnered 11,000 signatures — an impressive tribute to the courage of those who signed it.

These days you can almost feel the hope in Cuba as it dawns on people that the Maximum Leader may yet prove mortal. Imagine: Havana without his omnipresence. It would be like Moscow without Josef Stalin.

Mr. Paya begins his article by quoting a friend visiting Cuba from Chile. Asked what he thought of Havana, the visitor replied: “Well, it’s an impressive city, but it gives the impression of having been evacuated 40 years ago by people who when they return will find it frozen in time and in ruins.”

That’s much the same impression St. Petersburg left when it was still Leningrad. Touring the city when there was still a Soviet Union, you could see what it must have been like once upon a golden time — the graceful Georgian architecture along the Neva, the grand prospects, the broad boulevards and great squares. It had been the Venice of the North, a vision of Peter the Great realized. But by 1983, when I was there, the city had been overtaken by war, revolution and the greatest scourge of all: Marxism-Leninism, a criminal conspiracy in the guise of a socio-economic philosophy. It held sway for the better part of a century. Or rather the worse part.

Stalin was long gone by the 1980s, thank Heaven, but the Great Thaw was only slowly under way. The dual nature of Soviet society was clear even to this naive visitor: There was one Russia for the favored class (party members, compliant intellectuals, KGB types — the nomenklatura) and another for mere Russians.

We foreigners were in the privileged class. The huddled masses at the museums were shoved aside to let us enter first. We could shop for luxuries in the dollar stores while the mere people had only worthless rubles. After dark, the streets of Moscow and Leningrad were filled with black marketeers, prostitutes of any and all sexes, penny-ante speculators who wanted to buy our dollars or blue jeans or anything else from the West. Another familiar type came out at night, too: ordinary Russians who wanted only to leave, and hoped we could help them.

To quote Oswaldo Paya: “The government might as well post a sign: ‘Citizens of Havana, this is not your city. It is a playground for foreigners. You are merely background. … Your money is worthless. Press your face against the glass and watch the outsiders who, by despotic decree, are your superiors.’ ”

Senor/Comrade Paya even tells the same bitter joke I first heard in Moscow: A little boy, asked what he wants to be when he grows up — a policeman, a fireman, a doctor, a soldier? — replies: “A foreigner.”

To think, this is the capital of what was once the Pearl of the Antilles — a center of commerce and education. There was a time when Havana was a magnet for refugees from Europe’s tyrannies; now its own people flee on flimsy rafts.

One day, because of voices like Oswaldo Paya’s, Cuba will be free. That day may come sooner than anyone dares hope. Because of voices like Andrei Sakharov’s, Leningrad is St. Petersburg again. And one day Havana will be Havana again, and Cuba Libre will be more than the name of an old-fashioned cocktail.

I’ll drink to that.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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