An Introduction to Contemporary Cuba
Is it possible that the secret of Fidel Castro’s endurance comes down to
Latin American governments?
I have been following Cuba for two decades.Twice I led a group of stu-
dents from the University of California at Berkeley, teaching them how to
report on foreign affairs. The first such trip, in 1992, produced a maga-
zine, the Pacific. It captured the island’s early struggle to survive the end
of Soviet subsidies and trade. The second, in 2001, became the basis for
this book, portraying Cuba’s venture into a sort of never-never land be-
tween communism and capitalism. For more than a decade, from the time
Castro legalized trading in U.S. dollars in1993, the island has drifted be-
tween two opposing economic systems. Each chapter of this book offers
a different glimpse of what it is like to live in a place caught between these
two extremes. Even when Castro tried to get rid of the dollar at the end of
2004 and replace it with the convertible peso—known as the chavito,or
toy money—it was the dollar that continued to reign. Chavitos could not
be had without dollars, and no amount of economic hocus-pocus could
undo that fact.
My own interest in Cuba began in Central America in 1983 when, at
the height of U.S. involvement there, I reported on El Salvador for the
NewYorkTimes. No matter how savage the Salvadoran forces—the mas-
sacre of thousands of its own citizens, including an archbishop, priests,
and labor leaders, or the murder of American nuns and aid workers—the
Reagan administration supported the government. It was determined that
El Salvador not become another Cuba, a situation that, in Washington’s
eyes, had already occurred in nearby Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.
The American government spent more than a billion dollars to save El
Salvador from this fate, and nearlyas much to reverse the Sandinista revo-
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