Cubans, Seeing Two Americas, React to Terrorist Attacks with Grief, Admonition

Isabel Socías, a wiry, 48-year-old high school teacher with piercing dark eyes, has a firm commitment to Cuba's revolutionary ideals. But regardless of any animosity she may feel toward the United States as a result of her political beliefs, she is visibly troubled by what she has witnessed on television in the last few weeks. As she reflects on the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York that have left nearly 7,000 dead, tears well up in her eyes and her voice quavers with emotion.

"All the disagreements between the U.S. and Cuban governments have absolutely nothing to do with the sadness that Cubans feel for the American people," she says, pursing her lips. "It's been terrible for me, for all of us... to see those images, those great skyscrapers that are a symbol of New York, of progress itself... it was just awful. At some point I just couldn't stand to watch any longer."

Cuban government-owned television channels interrupted their broadcasts the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 to run continuous coverage of the terrorist attacks in the United States. The entire country scrambled for the nearest TV set to watch with horror as CNN footage showed two airplanes exploding as they ripped through the World Trade Center, followed by terrifying scenes of victims leaping to their deaths from the upper stories of the burning towers and the towers' subsequent collapse. Like the majority of Americans, many Cubans were instantly engulfed in the swirl of searing images of destruction and the suspense of breaking information broadcast over the television.

"Horrendous," says Mauricio Valdez, 32, an employee in an auto-body shop. "I of the worst crimes in the history of the world. And with the military power that the United States has now, there will be so much destruction." When asked if he knows that Cuba is one of seven countries on a U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism, the tall, brawny Valdez literally shudders. Few people in Havana have heard of such a list, or have any idea why Cuba would be on it.

Within a few hours of the attacks, the Cuban government had issued an official declaration emphatically condemning the terrorist acts, adding that "in this bitter hour, Cuba stands in solidarity with the American people and expresses its full disposition to cooperate, by means of its modest resources, in the form of medical assistance or whatever medical or humanitarian aid is needed in the care and rehabilitation of the victims of this morning's attacks." Cuba also pledged use of its airspace and airfields to any planes that may have been stranded by airport closures in the United States.

That night, President Fidel Castro elaborated on the Cuban government's earlier statement. In addition to denouncing the attacks and urging U.S. officials to act "with reason and equanimity," Castro told the audience that "Cuba has never felt hatred toward the American people," reminding them that "the American people brought an end to the war in Vietnam and overwhelmingly supported Elián [Gonzalez]'s return to Cuba." He also called for the formation of international coalition against terrorism, underscoring Cuba's familiarity with terrorism "after withstanding more than forty years of terrorist attacks," a pointed reference to, among other things, the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger flight and a series of attacks on tourist hotels in 1997. Cuba claims these and other attacks were plotted on American soil while U.S. law-enforcement officials chose to look the other way. But the critical notes Castro sounded did not obscure what was essentially a sympathetic response to a human tragedy. His speech had originally been scheduled to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the death of Chilean President Salvadore Allende in a U.S.-sponsored coup.

Meanwhile, Cuba's government-owned news media have continued to denounce the terrorist attacks, while resuming their familiar criticisms of the U.S. government and the Bush administration, particularly as Washington's public statements become more bellicose. Each night the regular commentators on Cuban television's daily "informative round-table discussions" have chided Washington's response to the catastrophe and sought to implicate the United States in its own victimization—citing, for example, CIA training operations in Afghanistan for Islamic militant groups during the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan War.

The opinions of the TV pundits are reflected on the street. When asked their opinion about the possibility of U.S. military action in retaliation for the terrorist attacks, most Cubans strongly disapprove. "Reprisals against a Third-World country with no military or economic development will just bring more death, more disgrace, and give terrorists another excuse to continue what they're doing," said Mario Oliva, a 22 year-old physical education student.

For many Cubans, the 42-year-old political conflict between Cuba and the United States has led to a somewhat dualistic understanding of their mighty northern neighbor. On the one hand, there is the U.S. government, vilified in the Cuban media as a lackey to special-interest groups, miserly to its own people, and the author of punitive legislative acts intent upon choking the post-Soviet Cuban economy. On the other hand, there are "the American people:" good-natured and principled, though helplessly manipulated by their own mass media. Of course, this perspective has been nourished for decades by Cuba's present political leadership, which has always welcomed sympathetic American visitors with one hand while stiff-arming Washington with the other.

Cubans' reaction to the catastrophic terrorist attacks in New York and Washington can be understood primarily along these lines. Just as the attacks have elicited a national outpouring of solidarity and compassion for the "American people," they have also led to a deluge of criticism of the U.S. government and the Bush administration.

Isabel Socías lowers her eyes as she considers what the next few weeks may bring. "The United States needs peace," she says, "they need peace to overcome their own problems, just as much as we need it and Arab countries need it. I've seen images of Afghanistan—the poverty, the misery, the desolation—they too need peace, so desperately. I have faith that, in time, the American people will overcome their anger and choose the right path—to act with even greater courage by choosing patience and reason over violence and revenge."