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A Chat with Miguel Barnet

The renowned novelist, poet and statesman has been called Cuba's Truman Capote
From the Print Edition:
Fred Thompson, March/April 2009

(continued from page 1)

Q: You mean America?
A: Yes. I am talking about America. Not the rest of the world. It is very necessary. We have to establish a dialogue with America and it has to be very fair. It was like that under the Carter administration. If not, you are pushing Cuban revolutionaries to the extreme.

Q: There has been no dialogue with the Bush administration, but maybe that will change after the election?
A: I don't want to talk about the election, but I hope so. I am just hoping for changes. We Cubans love the American people. We study the literature, the poetry, movies . . . everything.

Q: Wouldn't the best thing the United States could do is to allow Americans to travel there?
A: That would only be the first step. The embargo, or as we call it, the blockade, has been terrible for the Cuban people and the Cuban economy. According to Cuban statistics, we have lost $9.9 billion as a result of the so-called embargo. But we are talking politics and I told you that I am not a politician. I am only a revolutionary.

Q: Do you think that the embargo has done anything to promote democracy in Cuba?
A: The only thing that it has provoked is anger and suffering because it is absurd. It is totally crazy that we have this wall, or whatever you want to call it, an ideological wall, between the United States and Cuba. It's stupid. We always had good American people living here. I was part of it. I went to an American school and in a way was part of the American colony because I was a soloist in the Anglo-American church choir. So I find it really stupid. The first step is to lift this ban of not letting Americans come to Cuba. The embargo is different. It can be softened gradually, but they are not going to change it overnight. That is impossible. It has to be step by step.

Q: A lot of Americans come anyway.
A: I don't know. I don't want to feel guilty. If Americans come here and then they go back and are discovered, they are fined. I am blind to that. They are welcome to come as far as I am concerned.

Q: What about internal changes in Cuba?
A: We are gradually making changes. They will come. It will better our socialist system. We don't want gross capitalism here, savage capitalism. It would be a very poor capitalism because we do not have industries. We only have tourism and some sugar and nickel. We want a new socialism of the twenty-first century. I won't be able to describe it, but it will be better. You know, we have many things free to the public, like health, education and others.

Q: People talk about China as a good example of how Cuba could change.
A: We just have to be creative, and we Cubans are very creative. You just have to give something to a Cuban, even a piece of wood or a fragment of iron, and they will create many wonderful things. We have this tradition that did not exist before. Cubans are very creative in many terms, economic as well. I trust the Cuban people.

Q: Let's forget politics and talk about cigars. You didn't start smoking cigars until late in life?
A: I used to smoke cigarettes. But they were very harmful for my health. I always had a sour throat and colds. So one day a few years ago, a friend of mine gave me a gift. A wonderful box of Trinidad Reyes, and I began to smoke Trinidad Reyes. And I discovered the gay part of life. Now every time I come back to my house from work or from dinner or from the theater, I read and smoke a cigar. It is normally a novel or poetry. Now I am reading the [autobiography] of Bill Clinton.

Q: What do cigars represent for Cuba?
A: Cigars are the symbol of Cuba. They are a great symbol. We are the ones who developed the cigar industry. Our Indians, the indigenous inhabitants of the island, developed it. Almost all the tobacco that we produce is sold abroad, so we don't lose anything with cigars. Not even health. It is a mistake to think that a cigar is not healthy. It is healthy because it helps you to meditate and to create fantasies. As I said, when I come back home to my house after a long day of work, I smoke a long cigar. It is like thinking about the next novel I am going to write. That doesn't happen with cigarettes. Cigarettes are short, bad poetry trash. Cigars make you feel comfortable, relaxed, better. And it is also a very, very collective experience. When you gather together with friends and smoke, you can think of many things. Very seldom when three or four people get together to smoke cigars, men and women, very seldom do they quarrel. There is always harmony. It creates harmony.

Q: It is like a peace pipe.
A: That is right. That is why I appreciate cigars so much. I thank my friend who introduced me to this wonderful habit.

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