Okay—I said I would limit my comments in this newsletter to items about travel to Cuba, but I want to inform my readers about current events so that they can make educated decisions about traveling there. The recent death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il provides an opportunity to discus the current situation in Cuba on many different levels. A headline in today’s Reuters report caught my attention: “Cuba mourns death of North Korea leader.” The article begins: “Flags flew at half-staff on Tuesday as Cuba began three days of official mourning for late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in a show of solidarity with its fellow communist state. The Council of State decreed the mourning period without comment and said flags would be lowered at all government buildings and military installations. A book of condolences was opened at the North Korean embassy in Havana, with a big photo of the dead leader and flowers in the entrance.”
I am amazed that such a reputable news agency as Reuters would print such an article without further in-depth reporting. No doubt every word in the article is true. It’s just that any casual, observant tourist in Cuba would understand how misleading this article is. Indeed, there is a North Korean Embassy in Havana–it is located on Paseo (Avenue), one of the main thoroughfares through Havana. It is right across the street from the Casa de la Amistad, a “friendship house” visited by many Americans on organized tours. I’ve been there several times, and I’ve always been surprised that our Cuban hosts never pointed out such a dramatic and significant structure. It is a huge mansion with multiple communication towers and satellite dishes jutting above the top floor. Outside the first security gate, and accessible from the street, is a display of North Korean “culture” that is best described as goofy and silly. Similar scenes are currently being shown on video clips on the nightly news, as the smiling and happy residents of DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) show their dedication to their strong and fearless leader. It’s a joke, a sad and tragic joke. The Cubans know this, and the embassy is an embarrassment. That’s why their travel guides never point out this unique and fascinating building.
Havana has no embassy of South Korea, the avowed enemy of DPRK. Yet every year, South Korea ships hundreds of millions of dollars worth of merchandise over 13,000 miles to Cuba. Everywhere you go in Cuba you’ll see washers, dryers, refrigerators and air conditioners made by LG, a South Korean company. Many of the wide-screen TV’s and other electronic equipment are made by Samsung. You’ll see Kias and Hyundais on the roads. If you rent a car, it will likely be one made in South Korea. Some of you might be wondering why American companies can’t ship their vehicles and appliances from the large port at Tampa just 330 miles to Havana. The answer is the embargo, and this is just one of hundreds of examples of America’s Cuban policy penalizing America’s own companies. At least South Korea (along with the rest of our allies) is benefiting from trade with Cuba. Keep in mind that South Korea would not even exist if not for the United States military. It seems that if the Cuban embargo was actually important to the national security interests of the United States, pressure could have been applied to the South Koreans to stop “trading with the enemy.”
I sometimes hear Cuba and North Korea mentioned as somehow being comparable. They are not. Wayne Smith, the former chief of the U.S. Interests Section (“Embassy”) in Havana, said that on a dictator scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst possible dictator, Fidel Castro was a 2 or 3.” North Korea’s Kim Jong-il was a 10.
One last point–North Korea, Libya under Khadafi, and Cuba were all placed on the United States list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea (with its nuclear weapons) and Libya (which blew up an American Airliner) were removed from that list in the last few years. Cuba remains on that list, even though senior U.S. military officials almost unanimously agree that Cuba’s “terrorist” activities ended decades ago. Go figure.