Media Self-Policing As Slain Officer’s Legacy

We’ve all had it happen in our communities, especially urban ones. A heretofore anonymous cop, otherwise taken for granted, is gunned down and a whole community is traumatized. In the media aftermath, we’re graphically reminded that a police officer’s life is a precarious one. Ask their wives. And their widows.

The other day we lost another one here in Tampa when a cornered bank robber shot Officer Lois Marrero three times in the neck and face. She never had a chance. The gunman then took a hostage in a nearby apartment, which was quickly surrounded by a SWAT team and a swarm of media. The killer eventually offed himself after hearing on TV that his victim had died. Fortunately the hostage escaped unscathed physically.

Tampa, unfortunately, has had more than its share of such murders. Three years ago the nation recoiled in horror when a piece of human flotsam named Hank Earl Carr, aided by a hidden handcuff key, shot two Tampa detectives at point blank range in a squad car. He later gunned down a Florida Highway Patrol officer before taking a hostage and then his own life.

During the hostage standoff, a Tampa Bay radio station managed to phone through to Carr. Outraged police had to, in effect, wait their turn before getting their negotiator’s call through. The result was a non-binding agreement between police and local media to “voluntarily restrict live coverage” in such circumstances.

This week’s death of Officer Marrero left a family shattered, a police force in mourning and a community aggrieved. She was, as we’ve come to realize, much more than badge number 327. She was one of us, only more giving, less fortunate — and much braver. Her tragic murder appropriately prompted memorials and eulogies to a heroic, fallen officer who had faithfully and courageously served her community — on and off the job — for two decades.

Her legacy is that selfless service for those 20 years. Gratitude, honor and tragedy will be synonymous with her memory.

And yet her legacy can also transcend her own considerable community contributions and the heavy-hearted precedent of being the first TPD female killed in the line of duty. This can happen if we reflect on more than Officer Marrero’s tragic slaying.

We can ask why a compact, semi-automatic submachine gun — the murder weapon — doesn’t even require a permit, but that’s part of another battle.

But we can also ask the electronic media — whose charge is to inform, especially where there’s a public safety issue — to do an even better job of policing itself on live coverage of scenarios such as hostage-taking homicides. Not all TV stations acquitted themselves well. The local ABC affiliate, for example, aired much of the action live and unconscionably released Officer Marrero’s identity before her family was notified. Her killer found out before her parents.

The nature of television, of course, is immediacy. And live video from a crime scene, one where human drama continues to unfold, is as compelling as TV ever gets. But “officer down” should always be more than a media all call, especially when other lives hang in the balance.

Yes, there is a non-binding agreement between the local media and law enforcement to restrict live coverage of volatile and fluid situations such as those involving hostages and would-be suicide cases. It asks the media not to show — or even describe — locations or actions during tactical operations. But that still permits wiggle room and allows for less-than-prudent decisions made in the heat of coverage. That, of course, cannot be avoided — absent the legislating of responsibility or the morphing into a police state.

But here’s a suggestion: Affix somewhere a copy of the public’s “Marrero Rights” on every news set, satellite van and helicopter. It would read:

*”Never confuse ‘just doing my job’ with doing the right thing.

*Never leave home, let alone the station, without your empathy.

*If I were a hostage, what would I most not want my captors to hear and see on TV?

*Sometimes less is more appropriate.

*In a breaking-news crisis, first priority is everyone’s safety — not the competition.

*Take the news seriously, but not yourself. However important our role in a free society, the public could care less who’s actually informing them.”

No, we haven’t seen the last officer, male or female, tragically fall in the line of duty. That danger is ever present and a variable we ultimately cannot control.

However, there is a variable we should be able to control. Media must never provide counterproductive, possibly life-threatening information — including the status of any wounded officers — to (cop-killing,) hostage-taking criminals with access to a TV set. But if a ratings-challenged station feels compelled to choose otherwise, please don’t do it under the self-serving guise of informing a public that would surely want to wait on the details given the circumstances — and trade-offs.

McBride makes case for gubernatorial run

Meet Bill McBride, a man who would be governor. The personable, high-achieving, 56-year-old attorney who has never held public office is one of a half dozen Democrats vying to be the party’s choice to take on Jeb Bush in 2002.

The serious winnowing process is yet ahead.

In some parts of Florida, he may be the least known of the seven. Even here in the Tampa Bay area, his home base, he’s forced to share the early media spotlight — and fund-raising and endorsements — with another aspirant, Congressman Jim Davis.

In front of a hard-core political crowd, he can still seem charisma challenged. Moreover, conventional wisdom accords former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno the overall favorite’s role in a winner-take-all primary with no run-off.

Having said that — as well as acknowledging that conventional wisdom is always more conventional than wise — no one in the know is dismissing his chances.

“Bill McBride is smart, likeable, a good listener and just bulldog tenacious in what he wants to accomplish. I think he’ll be very competitive,” assessed former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who has endorsed McBride’s candidacy. “He’ll be able to raise money; he’s got a fantastic network. And he’s a fresh face, which is good for the party. Everything he’s done in life has prepared him well for this, and he has a marvelous story to tell.”

McBride’s is an intriguing, hybrid candidacy.

A populist, a patriot, a profit-and-loss guy who believes in an activist role for government. And still a Little League coach.He grew up in Leesburg, Fla., the son of a TV repairman. As a kid, he picked oranges and sold watermelons door-to-door. Went to Leesburg High, where he was student body president and runner-up Florida Scholar-Athlete of the Year as an honor student/fullback-linebacker. Was recruited to the University of Florida in the same class as Steve Spurrier. Blew out a knee and became the “Best player who never played for me,” according to head coach Ray Graves.

After college, he rejected additional student deferments, joined the Marines, served in Vietnam and earned a Bronze Star. His reasoning was simple, but its impact profound.

“It was only by accident of birth that I was born in this country,” reasoned McBride, “and not in, say, Bangladesh. That makes me pretty lucky. I felt it was my obligation to serve. I’m glad I did.”

And as the only college graduate in his Marine company, McBride eventually saw the war through the prism of a socio-economically-skewed America. “Lower middle class to poor kids were being asked to die for their country, but had the least stake in what was going on,” figured McBride. “An experience like that shows the awesome power of government. Making decisions that change people’s lives.”

Captain McBride then looked to become Counselor McBride. He returned to Gainesville, entered UF School of Law and graduated with honors and as a member of the Law Review.

Over time, he would become a name familiar to many in legal, political and civic circles, from Tampa to Tallahassee and beyond. His chairmanships range from the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation to the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the United Way of Hillsborough County. He’s a member of the Tampa Bay Business Hall of Fame. He has several dens’ worth of testimonial plaques, including awards from the National Council of Christians and Jews and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Committee.

In an election that could likely turn on education, the environment, ever mounting black alienation and Bush Brothers’ payback, McBride could be well positioned.

It’s also a given that his legal and business connections should enable him to raise money nationwide. In fact, Alex Sink, his wife and former state head of NationsBank, is a fund-raising force in her own right.

With bona fides in business, the military and football, McBride’s quite comfortable in a corporate suite, a military base or the University of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. But when it comes to core ideology, no one in the field outflanks him on the left. That, of course, could be a ruinous niche nationally, but not statewide.

He’s unabashedly supportive of public schools and teachers and activist on behalf of the environment and minority inclusion. He sees the value in unions and the good in affirmative action. He believes gays and lesbians should enjoy the same legal rights and benefits as married couples. He is, as he has said, a “proud and unapologetic Democrat.”

“Almost all of my positions are from the premise that people need a helping hand,” explained McBride. “I’m not muddling about in the middle on that.”

No more than he muddled around at the top of Holland & Knight, where he served as managing partner from 1992 until last month, when he went on a non-paid leave of absence. He expects to resign from the firm “shortly” and opened a campaign account last week.

Under his hard-charging leadership, the law firm expanded into one of the largest in the country and among the top 20 in the world. Two years ago he was a keynote speaker at the White House on diversity and pro bono legal work.

“Bill McBride’s very bright, a quick study and a forceful personality,” said John Belohlavek, political consultant and chairman of the history department at the University of South Florida. “You’d have to be to lead that crowd.

“In terms of his persona, I think he’s electable,” added Belohlavek. “He’s large and imposing. Has a military and business background. He’s a Florida guy who understands economic issues and growth development. I think he can make the case for government being a positive force in improving the quality of people’s lives.”

And nothing ranks higher than education on McBride’s Florida agenda.

He calls Gov. Bush’s approach “mean spirited.””The A+ plan is just testing,” noted McBride. “He gives bad programs a good name and then tries selling it. ‘Opportunity Scholarships’ take money out of public schools. To suggest that any private school is better than a public school is disgraceful

Reno rally: run, Janet, run

Could it be any more obvious? Harbor no more doubts about the gubernatorial intentions of Janet Reno. Two Saturdays ago, the erstwhile attorney general attended the bat mitzvah of a girl who had written her a letter of support for her handling of the Elian Gonzalez case. Even had to go to Albuquerque, NM, for the occasion.

The pandering season is upon us.

Meanwhile, it’s still anybody’s guess as to who would be most pleased by a Reno run:

–The Democrats, who see widespread name recognition and fund-raising clout

–The Republicans, who see Waco, Elian, special prosecutorial favors and health questions or

–Will Ferrell, who foresees a reprise of “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” on Saturday Night Live.

Overkill on McVeigh execution
Most days during the drought the sign above Garland’s Garden on Bay-to-Bay Boulevard in Tampa touts the merits of mulch and soaker hoses. Last Monday, however, it wasn’t your garden-variety signage. It said: “System 1, McVeigh O, VE Day.” It was the day of Timothy McVeigh’s execution.

I was taken aback. Media overkill is part of the culture, but not when I’m retreating to a plant nursery to window shop orchids and buy more liriope and hibiscus.

There’s no escaping it. I felt like I was being implored to join the celebration of a mass murderer’s execution. If anyone deserved execution — and probably less benignly than lethal injection — it was McVeigh. But I don’t celebrate executions, even McVeigh’s.

Anyhow, I asked Dan Bagley, an advertising professor at the University of South Florida, about the merits of using your advertising forum for a political message. The net result, said Bagley, is probably a wash.

“On politically laden issues, such as gun control, right to life and capital punishment, you probably have an equal chance of alienating those who disagree and appealing to those who agree,” said Bagley. “These commonly are just statements to the world; they’re not done for advertising purposes.”

So what says Garland’s Garden co-owner, Earl Garland?

“This is the first I heard of it,” said Garland. “I was off that day. But we’ve never put up political signs, and we’ve been doing business at this location since 1939. I better ask my sister, Sharon. She was here that day.”


Communication skills key to Iorio’s options

The curly hair, the tiny glasses, the disarming smile, the unflappable manner are readily apparent. Less so, the unwavering ideals, the sense of history. And that ubiquitous presence — from CNN to Kathy Fountain to Local Access TV to high school assemblies to Rotary Club luncheons. Sound like any supervisor of elections you’ve seen lately?

Since last November, no local public official has had more statewide and national exposure than Pam Iorio, Hillsborough County’s supervisor of elections.

You may have seen her holding court in Tallahassee, testifying before a House Committee in Washington or waxing informed and articulate on “Larry King Live.” Out-of-town reporters had her on their notable- and-quotable short lists.

For the record, she doesn’t miss it — not that those days are totally behind her.

“I thought the national media were very much like the local media, trying to get at the facts and telling the story,” recalled Iorio. “I thought they did a good job; the print media in particular. But, no, I don’t have satellite-dish withdrawal.”

What she has are superb communication skills equally applicable across a range of constituencies and media, pointed out John Belohlavek, author, political consultant and chairman of the history department at the University of South Florida. Skills, say some, that would well equip her for a run at the Mayor’s office in 2003. More on that later.

“Pam can speak to people anywhere,” noted Belohlavek. “She can translate the language of bureaucracy to the people in the community and beyond about decisions that will impact them. But she doesn’t come across as glib or slick. She’s a wonderful interpreter of what can be confusing rules and regs.”

Indeed. During and after Chadfest 2000 and amid all the FloriDUH references and Katherine Harris parodies, Iorio seemed like a central casting godsend to the Vote-a-Matic state. She came across as pro-solution and non-partisan, a rare political parlay.

Now the three-term supervisor of elections is in the vanguard of voting reform: in Hillsborough, in Florida, in the U.S. Within the next 60 days she’ll be popping up all over the county — from Sun City Center to College Hill — to get voter input on post-punch card technology, both optical scanners and touch screen.

“I’ll take the technology to the public and let them test it out,” said Iorio.

This is possible, of course, in the aftermath of Florida’s recently revamped election system.

“I was pleasantly surprised with the final product of the Legislature,” assessed Iorio. “They listened to the input of the supervisors.” Especially, it appeared, to the president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections: Iorio.

And what they heard, loudest of all, was the need for modern, precinct-based technology. The resultant law includes $24 million to help counties buy optical scanners. Hillsborough’s cut is $1.2 million toward the cost of $3 million for the county’s 319 precincts. Should the county opt for a touch-screen system, the cost would be at least four times more than the scanners, unless Hillsborough joins other counties for a joint purchase. The situation, emphasized Iorio, is “still fluid.”

Vendors “coming out of the woodwork” underscore the need for purchasing prudence, she stressed. Ultimately, however, Iorio will make proposals on both systems to the Board of County Commissioners, who will foot the equipment bill.

What is not up for debate, according to Iorio, is Florida’s national reputation, however battered by the election debacle where 537 votes — out of 6 million cast — decided the presidency.

“The election of ’02 will get rid of that image,” predicted Iorio. “But keep in mind that what we had here was an extraordinary margin of victory. Some states probably had better written election laws than Florida — for example the automatic restoration of voting rights to ex-felons.

“But most states have a hodgepodge of technologies,” she noted. “If this had happened in California or New York, they would be unearthing all kinds of irregularities. As for Florida’s reputation, it only takes one election cycle. I think we will be a national model.”

She also thinks Florida, now a bona fide, two-party state with 27 electoral votes, will be a permanent, quadrennial battleground.

“Brace yourself in 2004 for an even bigger barrage of political commercials,” warned Iorio. “Florida is a microcosm of the country. As Florida goes, so goes the election.”

But what of that other election? Is a run for City Hall in the offing, as the media has routinely speculated? After all, a cursory glance at her public-service resume reminds you she’s more than the sum of her communications parts. It includes two terms on the County Board of Commissioners and chairmanships ranging from the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Hartline and Tampa Bay Commuter Rail Authority to the Hillsborough River Board and Tourist Development Council. She sits on boards the way the rest of us sit down for dinner.

The 41 year old is even scheduled to receive her Master’s Degree in American History from USF in December. She also hopes to turn her thesis, a look at election 2000 from the point of view of election supervisors, into a book.

You betcha she’s “seriously looking at it.”

The time to make that announcement, said Iorio, is January. Too early, too presumptuous and too busy right now.

“This is a wonderful and dynamic city,” she gushed in vintage candidate-speak. “It’s of a scale that’s livable. The economic base is sound. It would be a great honor and challenge to be part of charting its future. There is so much potential in the community. There is no other place I’d want to live.

“I have, however, a full agenda for now.”

Potholier-than-thou competition over arts district

Perhaps you’ve heard about the cultural brouhaha they’re having over in Tampa. For all its major-market accoutrements and Super Bowls, the city could learn a lot from downtown St. Petersburg about the value and role of the arts in helping to energize a city. And how to utilize a waterfront, but that’s another issue.

Anyway, courtesy of the 1996 Community Investment Tax — otherwise known as “Do Something to Save the Bucs with Taxpayers’ Money” gambit — Tampa has $11 million a year to spend on infrastructure improvements and public facilities. And Raymond James Stadium.

The city, led by its lame duck mayor, Dick Greco, wants to earmark about $4 million of the CIT annually — in bond financing over the remaining 25 years of the tax — for a cultural arts district and expansion of Tampa’s zoo.

Instead of a reasoned, even if impassioned, debate on the subject, however, discussion has degenerated into a class warfare exercise not seen since the Al Gore campaign. On one side is the arts crowd, easily labeled “elitist.” On the other are homeowners saying more should be done for the — no, make that THEIR — neighborhoods. It’s created this potholier-than-thou competition among neighborhoods, who are, in turn, pitted against downtown and its ostensibly self-absorbed, aesthetic set.

Hey, Tampa, if you want to be big league, instead of just hosting a Roman numeraled football game every decade, you’re going to have to act like it. This sort of “us” vs. “them” debate is now passe in progressive cities. When it comes to the arts, it’s not the “silk stocking” crowd vs. the neighborhood Philistines. The arts benefit all of us, as few other municipal investments do, across the range of neighborhoods and socioeconomic levels. It would be condescending to imply that only certain souls can be nourished or have their spirits sent soaring by the arts.

Otherwise, annual attendance for Tampa Bay arts organizations wouldn’t exceed 5 million. That’s about 2 million more than turn out for professional sports around here. Nearly half those arts-related admissions were free, 40% of whom were children. And this doesn’t include the 700,000 annual attendees at the Lowry Park Zoo, as egalitarian an experience as there is, and the 130,000 kids — from every Tampa Bay zip code — who attend zoo classes. And more, despite a downtown, public arts infrastructure limited to an outreach-driven but embarrassingly undersized museum of art; a convention center-annexed history center; and a first-class but stand-alone performing arts center. That the Poe Garage has the highest profile on downtown’s Ashley Drive should be exhibit A about Tampa’s past priorities, ones it should surely aspire to no longer.

Tampa’s CIT is a fortuitous opportunity to help it move to the next level — culturally and economically. The arts, as we were reminded in the cover story of last week’s Newsweek, are increasingly seen as “urban jump-starters, capable of attracting hordes of visitors, good press and even new business.” More than most major urban markets, Tampa — not yet a household name nationally — needs such investment infusions. The arts are real-world, multi-faceted catalysts.

The arts, first and foremost, are investments in a community — in its own quality of life and especially that of its children. This isn’t just Grecospeak or “monument building,” as one city councilman — and mayor wannabe — called the arts plan, which would include new facilities for the Tampa Museum of Art and Tampa Bay History Center.

The realization of Tampa’s potential will take vision. There’s a city council vote upcoming that will determine if the CIT funding will include the cultural arts district. Be interesting to see which way Tampa goes.

Here’s my advice to the city council members: Vote as if you were the mayor, not a maintenance supervisor.

To ‘Stir with love: surviving the class of 70

Be forewarned, this is one of those “in-my-day-things-were-different” columns. And, of course, “different” means better. And “my day,” undoubtedly, will seem like code for light years ago to some. It comes with having lived at another time and not having thrown away the minutes of previous meetings.

Anyway, such musing was prompted by a movement earlier this year in support of an amendment to Florida’s constitution that would require smaller classes for students in public schools. For example, the limit for grades 4 through 8 would be 20 students per teacher. The current average is roughly between 23 and 27.

As a former secondary teacher in Philadelphia and Tampa, I know the import and impact of student-to-teacher ratios. The lower, the better, whether physics or phys ed. But as a former student, I’m still tempted to shake my head incredulously over having survived elementary classes where the ratio sometimes hit 70-1. That’s not a typo.

I take you back to yesteryear, in this case the late ’50s, to St. Timothy’s, a blocky, stone-gray Catholic school in a working-class, row-house section of Philadelphia called Mayfair. We were the sons and daughters of WWII-vet families who couldn’t afford Levittown, but were upwardly mobile enough to escape the temporary, post-war project housing that dotted the city.

The intra-city migration was sometimes referred to as “Welfare to Mayfair,” which was much more a function of self-conscious, self-deprecating humor than accuracy. That’s because all fathers worked — mine was a city bus driver — and all moms stayed home raising ever-burgeoning families.

In my case, three brothers and a sister. And, yes, all parents came in pairs.

For demographic diversity there were variations on a Caucasian Catholic theme: Irish, Italians and Poles. Tolerance was shown in acceptance of the odd Protestant family — incongruously nice folks for infidels, we thought.

We all walked to school and came home for a lunch of baloney sandwiches while watching “Tic Tac Dough.” Whenever we left the building — lunch or dismissal — it was always in well-disciplined lines till we crossed the big streets that abutted the school.

The crossing guards were like extended family. The nuns, with stentorian voices, meat-hook hands and martinet manners, were the enforcers. (Even for fire drills. Never know when you would need to walk in straight lines — at a prudent pace — from a burning building.)

Our eighth-grade class was 35 school-tied boys and 35 uniformed girls. Boys on the left, eight or nine to a runnered row of desks; girls on the right. Some, undoubtedly, with all kinds of undiagnosed learning disabilities.

The Ten Commandments were posted prominently to remind us that there was yet another layer of authority beyond our parents and teachers.

Sister Charles Mary of the Order of St. Joseph arranged us according to academic average — if you can believe such pedagogic heresy. I was a fixture in the first row, periodically switching places with James Krawczyk for the highly sought first desk, which meant that you also doubled as the doorman who personally granted entrance to the Monsignor at report-card time.

Sister or “‘Stir” — as in “No, ‘Stir, I didn’t do it; in fact, ‘Stir, I didn’t even know it was a sin.” — presided as only a stocky, tough-love nun could. Doubt if she had a college degree, let alone a teaching certificate emblematic of a dozen courses in educational psychology. She taught everything — religion to math. All day long. No time off for our good behavior. She gave a lot of homework and never failed to collect it and promptly return it with some sort of comment.

She was the first, last and loudest word on all subjects — from what made a sin mortal to what made a rhombus relevant. You memorized; you recited; you applied; you learned. That was your job.

Amazingly, even David Massucci learned. David had been left back one year and struggled more than most. He anchored the class from the last desk on the boys’ side.

Years later we met up and he was married, the father of two, owned a house and made a good living as a General Motors salesman in Cherry Hill, NJ.

As you might infer, corporal punishment was more than permitted. More than condoned. It was mandated. No parental permission necessary. No Polaroids of black-and-blue butts. Your parents were on the same side as the teacher. And they hit you at home, because they knew what you were like. So parents couldn’t be used for intercession, let alone leverage, against ‘Stir.

Another form of punishment was staying after school. It meant, however, more than heel cooling. You had to do windows, clap erasers and clean the room, including inside and under every desk while ‘Stir checked homework and your buddies played audibly in the adjacent schoolyard. For those deserving hard time, there was heavy lifting at the convent next door.

‘Stir had a ruddy face and fleshy hands. Otherwise, she was all black robes, white habit and rosary beads that made an ominous swishing sound when she bustled down an aisle with hands-on discipline topping her agenda. She was probably about 40 years old, give or take 30 years. Just couldn’t tell with nuns. Most days we were convinced her assignment on earth was to make us learn — whether we hated it or just disliked it. Or her.

Of course, much has changed since that class of 70. The meltdown of the nuclear family, erosion of discipline, drugs, guns, an Eminemed culture and curricula that treat self-esteem as a goal rather than a by-product of learning.That eighth grade year at St. Timothy’s, frankly, was no fun. Thanks, ‘Stir.

Cuba’s “Savior” neither tourism nor Marxism

HAVANA — For Americans, there’s no place like Cuba.

And it has nothing to do, of course, with pineapple farms, banana groves, banyon trees or thickets of majestic royal palms and sugar cane fields forever. Neither does it have anything to do with remnants of magnificent, neo-colonial architecture, world class baseball without commercial interruption and obscene salaries; spandex-clad young (and not so young) women; infectious music; and the absence of cell phoniness.

It has, however, everything to do with Fidel Castro.

As in nationalization, expropriation, Bay of Pigs, missiles of October and exiles of South Florida. As in embargo, revenge, assassination plots, the mob, and ego. As in Alpha 66, Brothers to the Rescue, Elian and political pandering.

We rebuilt the Axis powers of World War II and normalized relations with the Soviet Union of Stalin and the China of Mao. We’ve kissed up to Vietnam and cut deals with North Korea.

But Cuba is different; it’s the Cold War relic that won’t go away.

It’s also safe, must-see history still in the making.This much we think we know regarding Cuba: at some point America’s unilateral, counterproductive embargo against it will end. And the impetus likely will come courtesy of the “biological solution.” That’s mordant, euphemistic, Cuban shorthand for the mortality of the 74-year-old Castro.

This much, however, we do know. Cubans will retain their characteristic, coping-device sense of humor — and remain among the world’s most resourceful people. In addition, the compromises made to keep the Cuban economy afloat via tourism will continue to mock and erode a failed socialist experiment — like so many “Patria o Muerte” (“Country or Death”) signs incongruously proximate to dilapidated buildings and trash-strewn lots.

This was ever more apparent in a recent visit, this one legal — and the second in two years. This was under the auspices of the Friendship Force, an Atlanta-based organization that promotes private citizen exchanges worldwide. The reciprocal organization was the Cuban Council of Churches, which arranged home stays in Havana and Santa Cruz del Norte, about 100 miles east of Havana.

Revolution in defeat — not transition

Whether the venue was a public housing-ambienced apartment in Havana or a small, plumbing-challenged, adobe-like row house in a small town, this much was clear: Cuba appears increasingly as a revolution in defeat, not transition. Its people deserve better than grim lives offset by hustling for the table scraps from tourism.

There is no more fitting metaphor for Cuban ingenuity, of course, than its stock of well-maintained, vintage American cars. It’s the first thing you notice in Havana after faded facades and laundry-bedecked balconies.

The ’50s fins are still there, but the Cubans have typically removed the gas-guzzling engines and replaced them with Romanian or Russian diesels. These are not museum pieces; they are transportation, many of them private cabs relegated to local peso-paying fares. With gas at more than $3.50 a gallon, siphoning hoses are as necessary as jumper cables.

In all, there are an estimated 150,000 cars, including barely-within-memory Ramblers, Studebakers and Edsels, that are older than the Revolution itself.

There are also the much-maligned Russian cars, notably boxy Ladas and the more recent, less reliable Moskviches. The latter has become the familiar butt of a Cuban joke that has been making the self-deprecating rounds: “Who’s the most deluded person in Cuba? Answer: The owner of a Moskvich; he thinks he owns a car.”

But most urban Cubans still get around on over-loaded, exhaust-spewing buses, bicycles, motor bikes and side-car-affixed motorcycles. In the provinces, animal-drawn transportation remains much in evidence.

Those without transportation can always hitchhike.

Government vehicles, from jeeps to flatbed trucks, routinely stop for those in need who queue up along main roads. It’s not at all unusual to see well-dressed women and girls in school uniforms, called botelleras, flagging down rides with impunity. It’s part of the make-do mentality brought on by the economic hardships of the “Special Period” — as the post-Soviet and Eastern Bloc-subsidy epoch is known.

Make-do mentality

For a number of Cubans and their children it also means living with the occasional rolling blackout and without hot water and reliable toilets. Wood scraps with ill-matched wheels become ad hoc scooters. There is always somebody who knows somebody who can tap into a TV satellite– and see what foreigners see, including CNN and HBO, at the tourist-only hotels. Ditto for those needing an E-mail address to communicate with the outside world. Currently, there are an estimated 60,000 Cubans with E-mail accounts, mostly through universities, workplaces or computer clubs.

Official Cuban television (two stations) is used effectively in the service of the state — furthering such government priorities as public health campaigns and English language instruction.

That resolviendo (making do somehow) mentality is notably evident in moonlighting, Cuban style. With the tourism-inspired influx of visitors — and the legal tender status of the dollar since 1993 — many physicians, attorneys, engineers and teachers can be found working for tips as waiters, bartenders, tour guides and cab drivers. To paraphrase Willie Sutton: That’s where the dollars are. Especially if you’re not fortunate enough to have cash-wiring family in Miami.

Without access to dollars, the professionally educated can’t expect to make much more than about 400 pesos ($20) per month. Plus, anyone who owes his education to the government — which is virtually everyone — is forbidden from seeing patients or clients privately. Those with lesser state jobs average half what professionals make. Pensioners receive $3-4 monthly.

The “internal” embargo

Even those in business for themselves, such as it is, find themselves governmentally hamstrung by what is cynically called, by Cubans, the “internal embargo.” That is the incentive-stifling system of surprise inspections and relatively stiff fees and taxes for small, private restaurant (paladar) owners or venders.

For example, Ofelia, a middle-aged artisan, pays $15 a day for enough room to set up a small rack for her inexpensive, hand-made sweaters near the resort beaches of Varadero in North Cuba. That’s whether she sells anything or not. By decree, she works half the month: a pattern of two consecutive days on, then two days off. She also had to pass a rigorous exam after two years of studying Cuban folk art and prove to the government that she was, indeed, the artisan — not some capitalistic hireling.

Ration-card subsidies, which range from modest rice, beans and bread allotments to cigars, cigarettes and matches, will typically need supplementing from the parallel markets, Cubans tell you, at four times the price.

Increasingly, churches are playing a supplementary role to the erstwhile atheist — now “secular” — government by helping get food and clothing to the most needy. It’s hardly a windfall, but the modest aid is the quid pro quo Castro exacts for having eased off religious oppression.

In Old Havana there are scores of mostly benign hustlers making the rounds. The crackdown on prostitutes has been effective.

Some hustlers, called jineteros (“jockeys”) impassively inquire about your taste in cigars or whether they can direct you to a paladar, which are literally part of a family residence, seat no more than 12, and employ no one outside the family.

Others ask, on average, for a dollar “to practice” their English. The rate is the same for those crooning “Guantanamera” or posing for photos in Colonial garb.

Dollar dichotomy

Thanks to tourism (nearly 2 million visitors — predominantly from Europe and Canada — that now generates (at $1
.3 billion) more than half of the country’s revenue, and joint-ventures, Cuba’s gross domestic product is expanding in the 5% range. It was contracting severely in the early ’90s.

Castro, for example, has sold half of Cuba’s cigar export monopoly to the Spanish. Canada is buying into the nickel sector and Europeans into oil. Israel has a citrus export agreement. Sol Melia, an international Spanish hotel chain, is building its 14th Cuban resort. UNESCO underwrites some historic restorations.

But the down side of an economy that is barely off life-support is a societal issue no less threatening — if you think about what causes revolutions in the first place.

Cuba, Marxist ideology notwithstanding, now sports three blatantly distinct classes. High-profile foreigners, both tourists and joint-venturing investors, who have dollars; Cubans who have access to dollars; and Cubans who don’t. It’s an incongruously complicating position for a country grounded in command-economy principles and egalitarian tenets.

The juxtaposition of average habaneros — typically crammed into aging, tiny apartments within large, crumbling neoclassical structures — with affluent Canadians and Europeans coursing around town in Mercedes cabs could, one would think, foment frustration, disillusionment and bitterness.

Ruben, a 40-something Havana friend with four children, two jobs, a wife and a 15-year-old Moskvich, wouldn’t argue the point. He’s already been turned down for a visa to the U.S., and he knows he has no future in Cuba.

“Do you know what it’s like to live your life under socialism?” he asked. “To see those ‘Socialism or death’ banners every day. Ughhh

Election 2000: Not Networks’ Finest Hour

One final note about the bizarre, Byzantine business that was the election of the 43rd president of the United States. The networks need to clean up their act.

The misuse of exit polls and skewed early returns to project a Florida win for Vice President Gore — before folks in the Central Time Zone Panhandle had even finished voting — was unconscionable. “If you can’t be right, at least be first,” seemed the media mantra. Instead, it should be “First, do no harm.” Then the herd instinct kicked in, and everyone ran with the same irresponsibly incorrect information.

Here’s some advice: Leave the exit polling to political scientists, who don’t have to play beat the clock and conquer the competition. But, more importantly, remember who you are and what your function is in a democracy. To wit: Report the news and even analyze it. But don’t make the news. It’s not good for credibility; it shouldn’t be good for business; and it’s definitely not good for America.

It’s A Mad, Mad, Madeleine World

There was an overseas ceremony recently that should give all Americans cause for pause and reflection, if not an irony fix for the ages.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright formally dedicated a new U.S. consulate building in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The new American consulate reestablishes a diplomatic foothold in the erstwhile Saigon for the first time since 1975. That’s when U.S. diplomats fled the advancing North Vietnamese forces that overran the American-backed South Vietnamese army in the last stage of that tragic American misadventure.

In her prepared remarks, America’s Iron Lady said, “The United States and Vietnam will forever be linked by history. But by continuing to work together to transcend that tragic legacy, we can add to our shared history bright new chapters of hope and mutual prosperity.”

That shared history, of course, includes more than 50,000 dead GIs and another 2,000 service personnel still listed as missing in action a generation later. It even brought down a president.

Meanwhile in Washington, House and Senate negotiators are still trying to wrangle a compromise that would at least permit an easing of the embargo on sales of food and medical supplies to Cuba. Through four decades and nine presidents, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960, Americans have been banned from selling much of anything to Cuba. To those who have questioned presidential guts in dealing with the South Florida Cuban-American lobby, the Administrations’ responses have been, in effect: “That’s the way it embargoes. We don’t want to be known as the Administration that ‘gave in’ to Castro.”

Because Fidel Castro has refused to die off, the embargo lives on. Its impact, especially in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s implosion, hurts nobody but American business interests and the Cuban people who, like people everywhere, are hardly responsible for the government they’re saddled with.

We’ve never been to war with Cuba, and the island was never a killing field for American soldiers. The embargo is a counterproductive, foreign-policy incongruity that induces global alienation and ridicule — and that’s from our allies.

Yet, inexplicably, a new chapter of “hope and mutual prosperity” applies only to Vietnam, not Cuba. Explained Albright: “It will help us better serve the American business community, which is concentrated here in the south (of Vietnam).” That eclectic business community, it should be noted, even includes the J. Walter Thompson ad agency. Perhaps JWT should pitch the Cuba account.

But back in the states, farm groups and agribusinesses continue to clamor for their piece of “mutual prosperity” and permission to move a glut of grain that has been depressing commodity prices. Such beseeching is belittling when the rationales of humanitarian aid, enlightened self-interest and common sense should be carrying the day.

So, while American officials in Vietnam say they now expect to receive up to 25,000 requests each year for permission to live permanently in the United States, Cuban smugglers continue to traffick in those fleeing from the deprivations ensured by the U.S. embargo.

Isn’t it, after forty years of failed policy, time to “transcend that tragic legacy”?