Mr. Obama, tear down that embassy in Havana!

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politifact-photos-gty_american_interest_section_havana_jc_141218_16x9_992Cuba - 2012 128a - US Embassy
Here’s a carrot we should offer to the Castro regime during negotiations to reestablish diplomatic relations: as a gesture of goodwill we’ll tear down the eyesore we used to call the U.S. Embassy.

Technically the 6-story, blocky building on the Malecon, — built by Harrison Abramovitz in 1953 and renovated in 1997 — isn’t an embassy. It’s a “U.S. Interests Section” administered by the Swiss government in a deal brokered by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.


There might be fans of 1950s modernist American corporate office architecture somewhere in the world, but not in Cuba.

The original building was constructed in 1953 – the same year Fidel Castro launched the attack that precipitated the Cuban Revolution. Talk about a visual metaphor: the all-powerful U.S. erecting a bureaucratic, bombastic looking building while peasants risk life and limb to change the status quo.

Cubans lining up for visas in 1961
Cubans lining up for visas in 1961

Ever since then it’s been a symbol of division, literally a photo backdrop for dashed hopes and desperate times. It became a flashpoint for conflict when Cuba later built the adjacent “Anti-Imperialist Plaza,” to host nationalist rallies where Castro railed against Washington. For decades Cuban police have made pedestrians cross the street to use another sidewalk and prohibited parking.


The U.S. one-upped the ugly by constructing an electronic propaganda billboard in front of the building in 2006, so Castro obscured the sign with a forest of poles flying black flags of protest. It’s time to say “basta!” with the machismo posturing and really connect with Cubans.

Instead of re-occupying a symbol of everything that has ever gone wrong between our two countries, I recommend decentralizing the functions of the embassy. There are hundreds of dilapidated, unsafe but architecturally stunning buildings in Havana. Why not work with the Cuban government to renovate culturally significant landmarks and turn them into offices for Consular Services, a Political and Economic Section, a Public Diplomacy Program, and Refugee Processing.

We would be sending a signal that times really have changed, that the old can become modern and that Americans truly appreciate more about Cuba than old cars and cigars. We could find a brilliant Cuban landscape architect and construct a friendship garden on the empty grounds and actually conduct our business throughout the city where customers feel comfortable. We’d be neighbors instead of imperialists, taking one more tool out of Castro’s propaganda kit. With one big wrecking ball we could celebrate a new chapter in a shared history.

Zombie Kids To Invade Cuba!

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Visit Cuba today and you’ll find boys riding on homemade sleds, girls braiding each other’s hair in the plazas, teams playing handball in the cobblestone streets and teenagers thumbing through stall after stall of used books in the Plaza de Armas.

Imagine, instead, a Cuba filled with kids like ours — staring vacantly into devices, faces lit up in garish blue, thumbs flying, vicariously connecting with actual friends snap chatting back from the other side of a dance floor.

It reminds me of a line from one of my favorite Cuban movies, “Juan de los Muertos,” when Juan faces an oncoming horde storming the Malecón.“Those aren’t Americans. They’re zombies!” Which is probably why one headline in the mainstream media’s coverage of this week’s détente negotiations in Havana gave me pause.

“U.S. Goal in Cuba: Open Up Internet.” – Wall Street Journal 1/21/2015

Despite my nostalgia for face-to-face interaction, I understand the power and place of the Internet in the modern world. From the U.S. government standpoint, access will hasten the demise of the secretive Castro regime and young people connected to each other and the larger world via social media might well lead the charge.

But it isn’t that simple. Access isn’t the same thing as affordability. Take the case of the young man I blogged about a few weeks ago. We met Alex in 2012, back when it seemed like U.S. policy involving Cuba would never change. Alex has a degree in English but the only job he can find involves convincing tourists that his uncle owns the Buena Vista Social Club and he can get them a good ticket. He wants to be a tour guide, thinks Raul Castro is awesome for allowing cell phones in Cuba and asks me how to build a website. But it all seems futile. Alex can’t begin to afford the $6 an hour it would take in an Internet café to build the website he hopes will provide a better future for his wife and baby girl.

U.S. Senators dropping in on Cuba
U.S. Senators dropping in on Cuba

I couldn’t help thinking of Alex when I spotted that Wall Street Journal Headline. He needs Internet access but who will pay for his screen time, let alone a laptop or smart phone of his own? Even if access is truly free, will it guarantee a decent job for him? Cuba’s free education system hasn’t, not for Alex or any of the dozens of Cubans just like him that we met. Hotel clerks who speak five languages. Janitors with engineering diplomas. Street corner hustlers who can quote Shakespeare. Everyone has access to education in Cuba but not to opportunity.Yet somehow, even in the face of generations of isolation-driven poverty, education still has pull here. I credit Cuban parents for instilling discipline and hope in their kids when the economy can’t even support those with advanced degrees.

Meeting Alex made me wonder, even before President Obama’s executive actions, how much longer Cuban kids will buy into the dream that education will set them free. If we handle the rapprochement with capitalist greed instead of genuine goodwill, the Internet will be just another dangled disappointment.

Travelers and Sanctions: Should We Wink And Go Anyway Or Wait Them Out? Clues in Cuba and Myanmar

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Havana -- photo by Gary Geboy
Havana — photo by Gary Geboy
Yangon -- photo by Gary Geboy
Yangon — photo by Gary Geboy

This is a true story of travel, sanctions and two optimistic Millennials: Amuh is from Mandalay, Myanmar and Alex from Havana, Cuba. One has come of age after Americans began traveling to his country, the other has never known a world without sanctions.

Amuh drives a taxi owned by his mother and chatters freely about politics. Right now he’s pissed that elections in Myanmar have been delayed until late 2015 but thinks Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s party will win a majority and change the constitutional amendments that prevent her taking her rightful role as president. He worked legally in Malaysia and realizes that his philosophy diploma from a Burmese degree mill university system is useless. He plans on starting a business before starting a family.

Alex is also a college graduate. His degree is in English and he spends all day trying to convince tourists that his uncle owns the Buena Vista Social Club and he can get them a good ticket. He feels sorry for Americans because we don’t get free healthcare and education, thinks Raul Castro is awesome for allowing cell phones in Cuba but can’t afford the $6 an hour it would take in an internet café to build the tour guide website he hopes will provide a better future for his wife and baby girl.

Amush and Alex’s stories explain why travel is so important to a free society and why even the most principled tourists have doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions.

As someone who grew up in South Africa during the era of Apartheid, I have complicated feelings and experiences with international sanctions. I applaud the humanitarian ideals behind them. But I’ve seen, first-hand, the economic misery they create when immoral, corrupt governments use sanctions to dig their own hole deeper.


photo by Gary Geboy
photo by Gary Geboy

I’ve also seen how inflated Americans perceive our importance to be. And how hypocritical we can be. Myself included. We Americans somehow think that visiting Cuba under the special exemptions of guided photo clubs or university tour groups is okay, but that skirting the rules and arriving on our own via Mexico or Canada is somehow immoral. We’re okay with pilfering baseball players from their $100-a-month island teams but buying Cuban cigars is evil. On a good day we can see across the Florida straights but people are forced to risk their lives to reunite with their families. The original intent of the sanctions might have made sense 54 years ago but the way we dance around modern-day Cuba is nothing short of ethical contortionism.

I’d like to think that the heavy, well-intentioned hand of American sanctions will help, like they eventually did in South Africa. But Alex is still hanging out in Plaza Vieja, gratefully counting his egg and sugar rations and waiting for Raul’s next handout. I don’t know whether to be comforted by his naïve optimism or heartbroken.

But what about Amuh’s more cautious hopes for a better future? Again, I’d like to give credit to sanctions. But for the last twenty years, European and Chinese tourists largely ignored them and visited in well-heeled droves. The surface changes evident in Myanmar today may have had as much to do with Internet access, Chinese and Indian economic investment and the diplomacy and well wishes of ordinary tourists.


photo by Gary Geboy
photo by Gary Geboy

I’ve dreamed of visiting Myanmar ever since working/traveling in three of its bordering countries: Thailand, Laos and China. I stood on the banks of the Mekong, my tattered, beloved copy of “The Piano Tuner” in hand, wondering if I could look myself in the mirror if I crossed that river to the land once known as Burma. The beloved daughter of its national hero was under house arrest, the military junta was killing monks and jailing journalists.

I couldn’t do it. I waited until the sanctions were lifted and “The Lady” was free. I waited until my old agency, Ogilvy PR Worldwide opened an office in Yangon. I waited for my conscience to be clear. And guess what? I still have mixed feelings. I’ll be writing about my travels in posts to come but I have no answers. I could buy an Aung Sang Suu Kyi T-shirt, made in China of course, and not have to look over my shoulder or worry that the shopkeeper would be arrested. But I was still not allowed to venture out West, where Rohingya Muslims are still kept in what are essentially concentration camps.

If anything, I feel like I waited too long. Not because Myanmar is already so tourist-savvy and overpriced. But because by staying at home I could not be a witness – to its triumphs or its tragedies.

Byrne on eating, praying, loving

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           If Byrne Miller played Julia Roberts’ role, the movie would be called “Eat, Dance and Love Duncan.”  Not that I could have convinced her to see the movie after reviews summing up the plot as “me, me, me and more me.” Byrne’s entire being was a partnership with the one man she loved so much she married twice. She was always part of “us” and “we,” never apart until her beloved Duncan died. He’s the one who took this photograph of her bathing, when they lived on a mountainside in Connecticut without electricity or running water. 

          Not that Byrne took any issue with self-indulgence, whenever possible. She once told me that the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre was just an excuse for her to get to see the best modern dancers in the world. She happened to live in a small town in the Deep South, but that was no reason not to expect the world to come to her. And come they did. Beaufort, South Carolina was the smallest venue on the First Freedom Tour of the International Glasnost Ballet – not to mention modern greats from Mummenshanz to Martha Graham and Paul Taylor. 

          “I’m selfish,” she bragged, “And I have a whim of iron.” 

          Her kind of selfishness, though, benefitted everyone who crossed her path. She, like the Julia Roberts character, knew romantic heartbreak. Duncan was not the first man who wanted to marry her, nor was he the last. When their oldest daughter spiraled into schizophrenia, they distracted themselves with other lovers to keep the stress from overwhelming their love. I’ve blogged about how she had to use reverse psychology to keep beautiful models away from Duncan when he was at the center of Advertising’s Mad Men days.  She comforted dozens of adopted “daughters” dissolving in the drama of marriages gone bad. She understood and cheered for all of us, even encouraged us to have affairs to build back our confidence. 

           Byrne and Duncan traveled the world together, living everywhere from Manhattan to Santa Fe to St. Thomas. She danced in Ireland and Mexico, from Vaudeville burlesque troops to the very first companies of modern dance. She didn’t spend her life trying to be someone more worldly, centered or spiritual – she trusted that she was all that already or Duncan would never have fallen in love with her. 

          “You can never be everything to a man,” she always told me, “Nurse, lover, cheerleader, confidant, mother, conspirator, mentor – there are a thousand roles you can kill yourself trying to fill.” Somewhere there will always be a woman more beautiful, or more intelligent, perhaps more poised or even more independant than you feel you are. Her solution was something she shared with all her adopted daughters. Don’t try to compete. Don’t bother with jealousy. “Trust that you are the unique combination that the man you love cannot live without.” 

          I’m sure she would cheer the movie’s permission for spiritual growth, or how it encourages women to find themselves. But she would take it one step further. Share what you learn and what you love. She did in a thousand ways. When she arrived in 1960s South Carolina, she found public schools where children were classified as “handicapped” and incapable of dance. By the 1980s, she was teaching 700 of them a week – in their wheelchairs, with their hearing aids, from their dancing souls. She taught dance to military wives at Parris Island, Gullah-speakers at Penn Center and nurses at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Every woman can move. Every woman can feel beauty. 

         Long before I even met her, she gave an interview to a Savannah newspaper. “Let’s face it, I’m a very ancient biddy. I never expected to live to 86, and here I am working until one o’clock night after night. No one told me you weren’t supposed to work that hard when you got that old! But you know, when it’s your own thing, you do it because it needs to be done.” 

          Eat, Dance, Love – not necessarily in that order.