First Havana-Miami cargo service marks sea change for Cuba past and future

By Louis Nevaer, New America Media

When the Bolivian merchant ship, the Ana Cecelia, docked in Havana from Miami last Friday -- ambitiously labeled "Peace Boat" on its side -- it was set to unload its humble cargo of bedding and mattresses bound for the Cuban populace.

But the little-reported voyage quietly marked the first regularly scheduled commerce allowed between the United States and Cuba in a half-century -- and a sea change for Cubans on both sides of the 90-mile journey. In doing so, though, it also exposed a humanitarian barrier between affluent white Cuba and its largely non-white and impoverished population.

Since the Cuban revolution rolled into Havana on New Year's Eve 1959, exiled Cubans in South Florida have offered a narrative of their Homeland Recovered: Once Castro is ousted, they believed, they would return to rebuild and renew their country. And since October 1960, their desire for repatriation has been supported by a U.S.-imposed embargo on commercial and economic exchanges with Cuba, imposed by the United States.

The exiles' narrative envisioned a return to Cuba as it was during Camelot -- when sugar cane, tobacco and beautiful beaches would be the basis of a restored economy, and where fresh capital inflows would modernize Havana -- and the whole of Cuba.

Humanitarian Shipments

The world, however, has changed dramatically since then. There is a glut of sugar on the world markets. Almost no one smokes cigars any longer. In the intervening decades Cancun, Cozumel and the Maya Riviera have risen from the barren beaches of nearby Mexico, giving the world a Caribbean playground unrivaled anywhere.

There has also been a dramatic demographic shift in Cuba: a constant exodus over five decades of the largely white professional middle class has transformed this island nation into a society heavily populated by people of color -- who have no money.

Against that background sailed the newly restored cargo service between Havana and Miami -- the first commercial link between those ports of call. The "Peace Boat's" first shipment, which left the Port of Miami on July 11 and docked in Havana 48 hours later, included humanitarian aid -- mattresses and bedding.

Organized under the auspices of CubaPAK, a purchasing agent for the Cuban regime, the operator of the vessel is the International Port Corporation (IPC), which received licenses from the United States Department of Commerce and the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. The ship's registration and crew are Bolivian.

"It's a difficult, very complicated [process] we have requested through many stages," Leonardo Adega Sánchez, a spokesman for IPC, told reporters. "We are the first to do so. There have been many people who've tried and given up, so complicated it is. We must take into account the regulations of the U.S. and Cuba, and the character of the citizenship in both countries. The idea originated two years ago when we decided it was worth working on sending humanitarian aid to the island."

The nature of the cargo reflects the passage of time, and the deteriorating conditions on the island-nation long governed by a white-minority government.

Of Cuba's 11.2 million people, fewer than 720,000 are members of the Communist Party. The entire Politburo consists of European-descendant whites, who rule over a nation comprised of people of color. With Fidel Castro ceding power to his brother Raúl, there has not been a passing of leadership to a younger generation. Cuba remains stuck in the twilight of the Cold War reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s.

In contrast, there has been a demographic shift of Cubans -- in the United States. The generation that toasted each New Year's Eve in Miami with the melancholic, "Next Year, in Havana!" diminishes with each passing day. The new generation of Cuban-Americans, born in the U.S. and who only know Cuba from stories told by elderly relatives, has different dreams.

Their ambition is to succeed in the U.S. Whether it is U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., or Hollywood columnist Perez Hilton, Cuban Americans have only a passing interest in the dreams of their parents and grandparents.

Hilton (whose real name is Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr.), the fabulous gossip-monger in Los Angeles, is firmly entrenched in celebrity culture outside the Washington Beltway.

Rubio, the GOP’s fabulist U.S. Senator from Florida, is the flavor of the season inside the Beltway. Other Cuban Americans, such as actress Cameron Díaz and CNN broadcaster Soledad O’Brien, are more preoccupied with their lives and careers in their chosen fields than in fantasies about restoring Havana's crumbling seaside boulevard, the Malecón.

Cuba's Tired Generation

Compare that with the tired generation of Cuban Americans, fast becoming irrelevant, such as Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Now age 60, she has been represented Florida's 18th congressional district with promises of a "free" Cuba since she was first elected in 1989. In that time, though, she has not been able to deliver much more than free pastelito de guayaba (Cuban guava pastry) to occasional constituents who visit her office at the U.S. Capitol.

It is true that, driving around Miami and Hialeah one sees bumper stickers that read "No Castro, No Problem" and "Cuba: We Will Rebuild You." But these are on old cars, driven by seniors.

For her part, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, a member in good standing of the congressional Foreign Affairs Committee, dashed off an angry letter to the Office of Foreign Assets Control seeking assurance that IPC is not in "violation of any provision of the law, specifically the Helms-Burton Act [of 1996, a statute that extends the U.S. embargo on Cuba], which determines that no ship coming into Cuba, and taking part in trade in goods, may enter a U.S. port in order to load or unload cargo for a period of 180 days after the ship departed from Cuba."

The contrast between the past and the present could not be starker than if the reestablished commercial ferry service were of a humanitarian aid in nature.

But wait! It is!

The Ana Cecelia had the slogan "Peace Boat" painted on its side, a ridiculous reminder of the nature of trade between the U.S. and Cuba. If Karl Marx once envisioned the withering away of the state, this is the harsh reality of the withering away of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. The ship that will ferry bedding and foodstuffs to Cuba, the island of starving of socialists and comatose communists, is Orwellian in double-speak!

Carl Hiaasen, the satirical novelist from South Florida, could not have made up such an absurd situation.

Thus, while the young and ambitious Marco Rubio looks toward a future that may very well lead him to the White House, Ileanan Ros-Lehtinen looks to the past, to a modest vessel departing the port of Miami bound for Havana, loaded with donated mattresses. So the Revolution-weary Cubans can rest their tired heads and dream of the day when they will wake up in the 21st century.

(Photo by Louis Nevaer via New America Media.)