BY JOE ANN ZUÑIGA
The following article on the tour of Norberto Codina appeared in the October 19 Houston Chronicle.
BY JO ANN ZUÑIGA
The editor of Cuba's leading literary magazine predicted that strong criticism by a summit of Latin American leaders to the U.S. trade embargo against his country would fall on deaf ears in Congress.
Norberto Codina, the editor of La Gaceta, who is visiting Houston this week to lecture at the University of Houston and Rice University as part of a cultural exchange program, said that Latin American leaders do not speak with one mind.
"But no matter how strongly the countries would have demanded a stop to the blockade, it would not have affected U.S. policy," he said.
"The United States does not listen to its own people, to its academics who oppose the embargo, to the majority of U.S. citizens who follow Latin American policy. "Is that democracy?"
In a communiqué issued at the end of a two-day summit Tuesday in Bariloche, Argentina, leaders of 21 Latin American countries as well as Spain and Portugal expressed their sharp opposition to a bill in Congress that would tighten the trade embargo.
Congress is debating a proposal by Sen. Jesse Helms, R- N.C., and Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., that would tighten the 34-year-old embargo against Cuba by penalizing foreign firms that trade with Havana.
Codina, an award-winning poet, came here as part of a cultural exchange program between University of Houston student organizations and groups at the University of Havana.
Despite the embargo, which bans most travel from Cuba to the United States, Codina received a visa from the U.S. State Department on an educational waiver that allows academics and journalists to travel between the two countries.
Most U.S. citizens are banned from traveling to Cuba, 90 miles from the Florida coast, yet they can visit other countries such as China that are ruled by communist governments, said Codina, a Venezuelan native who has lived in Cuba since 1959, the year Fidel Castro took control of the government. Codina was 8 years old then.
The recent growth of private enterprises and open markets has helped the Cuban economy, Codina said. But the blockade continues to strangle the country, denying it the opportunity to purchase even basic supplies such as food.
"The situation continues to be difficult, but it's an improvement from a year ago. It's less tense, but it remains harder for the average Cuban," Codina said.
Food rationing will continue to protect the poor, who are unable to afford high prices for such staples as rice and beans, he said.
But he said that Cuba continues to record the lowest infant mortality rate of any Latin American country and has an average life expectancy of 76 years.
Witnessing media coverage of the Million-Man March on Washington, Codina said blacks in communist Cuba receive more educational opportunities and face less racial polarization than in the United States.
"The mere fact that there was such a march and the different reactions to the O.J. Simpson trial show a level of racial polarization that we do not have in Cuba," he said.
Although blacks were originally taken to the island as slaves on sugar plantations, they have reached an equal social standing in the years since the Cuban revolution brought Castro to power, Codina said.
"The best access to civil rights is the ability to read and write," he said. "Cuba is the most literate of all Latin American countries and has one of the highest sales of books."
Yet human rights remain a sore point, with Cuba having been accused of jailing political prisoners, and kidnapping and killing opponents of the government.
But writers and artists are given the freedom of expression, he said. While having many fine literary talents, Cuba has never kept away cultural influence from the United States and Europe.
"We have a much greater freedom and more plural society than what is thought of from the outside," he said.
As historic proof, he told of how Cuba's revolutionary hero, José Martí, translated Walt Whitman into Spanish for all of Latin America.
Ernest Hemingway, who maintained residences in Cuba and used the islands as a backdrop for some of his works, is still considered one of Cuba's most important writers, Codina said.
La Gaceta magazine also "breaks the borders" with some of its articles actually published from Cuban writers in Miami, he said, adding:
"We do not concentrate on revolutionary themes, but focus more on existential themes.
"Love and death," he said, "are always with us."
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