HAVANA, Cuba–A first impression of this city is so indelible, a first reaction is colored with such wonder and surprise that you’re liable to describe it–ingenuously–as if yours were among the first Northern eyes to behold Havana. Mile after mile, century upon century of monumental architecture, much of it in picturesque decay, recalls nothing so much as the pre-industrial Rome described by Keats and Shelley. This is a city, of a size and an antique dignity to which nothing in North America can quite compare. A great many Americans have seen Havana for themselves, though not so many lately, and relatively few of my generation or the ones that came after. Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution swept out the CIA, the Mafia and the American sugar barons along with the puppet dictator Batista and his accomplices and beneficiaries; it’s been half a century since Cuba was America’s whorehouse, our no-limits Las Vegas, our slave-labor corporate mealticket, our beautiful, defenseless lemon to squeeze and squeeze.

America lost its grip on Cuba in 1959–but never its compulsion to squeeze. The economic embargo in place since the Cold War is still enforced fanatically by Republicans indebted and subservient to the Cuban exiles in Miami, exiles whose original desire for repatriation and restitution has been replaced after several generations by a spiteful resolve to destroy Castro at any cost to the people of Cuba. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, which propped up the Cuban economy for three decades, the cost is brutally clear to any visitor. The first thing you notice in Old Havana is its majesty, what urbanologists call its “built environment,” the cobbled streets of 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century buildings where anyone with a weakness for history and crumbling balustrades could wander for days in open-mouthed awe. The second thing you notice is that dogs and horses are so thin they’re half transparent, and that many of the children look a little gaunt. Then you look into a grocery and see that the shelves, by American standards, are empty.

Since the post-Soviet “Special Period” began in 1991, Cubans have endured a Spartan code of food rationing the norteamericano finds incomprehensible. They make a bitter joke of these privations; they enjoy shocking overfed tourists with the details. An American expatriate, wife of a man who was once Cuban ambassador to Moscow, narrated a slide show on the life of the professional class in Havana. There was one slide, one image I couldn’t shake off. Stuck in the iron grillwork in front of her elegant but fading villa–delivered by a man from the state bakery who found the family not at home–was the day’s bread ration for a family of three: three small hard rolls.

In the land of plenty we’ve not only forgotten hunger, we’ve forgotten equality. In Havana, professors, lawyers and civil servants seem to get by on a roll a day. Cubans, obsessive about their hygiene and personal appearance, wash themselves with greasy government soap so demoralizing that they beg for bars of foreign soap from our hotel rooms, gifts more precious than cash. But those three forlorn rolls in the grillwork stayed with me. They triggered a painful cultural collision when we landed back in Miami and I picked up The New York Times. Headlining the section called “Escapes” was a feature on “The New Megayachts.” American yacht builders were celebrating, with a minimum of irony, a growing class of new clients who will spend $200 million on boats up to 400 feet long–and whine because so few marinas can accommodate them. But port cities and boatyards everywhere are scrambling to make room for these monsters, because the average megayacht spends $140,000 in every port of call.

“Human beings seem to be hardwired to want more,” a business columnist wrote in the same Times. “No matter what people earn, they tend to estimate that the amount they really need to live on is just a bit beyond their means.” The writer conceded that he was one of these human beings–“I’ve come to see my TV as too small and my stereo as outdated … my expectations for a basic lifestyle keep expanding”–and documented America’s metastasizing single-family home, grown on average from 1,500 to 2,400 square feet since the 1970s.

Single-family home? In Cuba, where nothing much new is built these days, where the government controls real estate and dictates every housing assignment, 12 or 15 family units–often but not always extended families–spill out of what were once single-family homes. Along with sporting singles and working prostitutes, young married couples make love along the waterfront seawall because it provides more privacy than they ever find at home. Just as we can scarcely imagine their hardships, Cubans can scarcely–even with the help of television–imagine our excesses.

Wretched excess is a constant theme in our media. I avoid Times sections like “Escapes” and “Styles,” where it’s chronicled without a smirk or a sneer, because I can’t afford the grinding wear on my teeth. But Cuba, where serious citizens take as much pride in what they lack as we take in what we acquire, is the ultimate guilt trip for an American of even marginal sensitivity. It’s not just that we spend as much for a mojito in the hotel bar as our bus driver earns in a week. It’s knowing that it was our government, our cynical and myopic politicians and our century-plus of poisonous foreign policy–Democratic and Republican–that created and perpetuated most of the Cubans’ misfortunes.

Cuba, up close, throws the most practiced denial back in your teeth. Right-wing rants against “America-bashing” lose all their traction where those skinny brown arms reach out for pesos. Everyone knows that Fidel Castro milks the impasse and relishes his role as a martyred underdog, an aging David still hurling stones at the rabid Goliath who refuses to fall. He might have compromised to help his people, even with dizzy old Red-haters like Jesse Helms dictating U.S. policy in Latin America. But after aborted invasions and multiple assassination attempts by the CIA and the Miami Cubans, after 50 years of ostracism, crippling sanctions and mindless hostility from the mainland, it’s hard to condemn a stubborn, disillusioned old warrior for digging in his heels.

His people regard him with a mixture of affection and exasperation, and most of them look forward to a post-Castro Cuba. But they remember what Americans have been educated to forget–that Fidel’s revolution was abundantly justified and that he started as the good guy, a radical idealist absurdly miscast as a tool of the Kremlin by the Cold Warriors in Washington. When Castro visited Washington in March 1959, fishing for friends and concessions, it was vice president Richard Nixon, a notorious Red-baiter, who interviewed him and saw nothing but hammers and sickles. Tricky Dick sent him packing, even as Fidel protested “We are not Communists.”

Since then our common history has been a tragedy of errors. Little wonder that travel to Havana is restricted, to most Americans forbidden. A haggard, hungry Cuba looming just beyond the bright lights of Miami is more than a constant reproach and chronic embarrassment to a superpower with humanitarian pretensions. It’s a grim reminder of all our political failures and criminal interventions in Latin America. At a time of plausible arguments that Texas-bred politicians are devastating the Middle East to accommodate the petroleum industry–their one certain allegiance–it’s not comforting to remember that the United States routinely ripped up Latin America, at a terrible human cost, in the service of sugar, rubber, tobacco, fruit and mining interests for whom foreign policy was custom-tailored. First came the suits and the greenbacks and then, when necessary, the gunboats and the Marines. Latin America was the testing ground for the corporate imperialism that has been this country’s most depressing moral failure. Any blood-drenched dictator or death-squad comandante who declared for “free enterprise” was a U.S. ally, any native leader who opposed the northern robber barons and the local grandees was a Soviet agent marked, like Fidel Castro, for persecution and destruction.

To keep Wall Street smiling, we supported dictators and funded paramilitary fascists as they slaughtered peasants and tortured patriots who had never heard of Lenin or Marx. When I was a sophomore in college I took a course called “Latin American Literature in Translation” because some football players told me it was an easy “B.” But it was the first course that ever pierced the heavy cloak of comfortable ignorance all sophomores wear. In every book we opened–some pedestrian, some wonderful–the villain, the bully, the devil incarnate was dear old Uncle Sam. Latin America is the monkey wrench in any sanguine interpretation of American history and foreign policy. It’s our great guilty secret, and Cuba is the bony accusing finger that Washington wants as few Americans as possible to see.

Yet Cubans still believe in the good will of the American people. They even buy into American mythology. Ernest Hemingway is one of Cuba’s most honored holy ghosts, a national icon with shrines and devotional sites to rival Che Guevara and the 19th-century poet-martyr José Martí. As tour guides, street hustlers and even jineteras (sex workers–the Spanish word means a female jockey, as in “She who rides the tourists”) tell it, they much prefer good-natured, free-tipping norteamericanos to stingy Russians and jaded Europeans.

“You tell them back home that we are their friends,” Cubans say. “Tell them we are good people.”

In Cuba they have only what is cheap or free–rum, music, sex, pride. And hope. They don’t pin their hopes on Fidel Castro; they expect him to die still clutching his slingshot and staring north. What they hope, even seem to firmly believe, is that the United States under some half-imagined future leader will see the light and embrace them. They will travel, they will drive Chevy trucks, they will eat and eat.

Cubans are a brave, funny and generous people, well aware of their ability to make us laugh and damn near make us cry. They’re an innocent people, as long as we strip the word “innocent” of its sexual implications. And back in Miami, after a week of discounting the news from the north as reported in the Communist Party paper Granma, a bitter taste of unfiltered news gave me the uneasy feeling that the Cubans overrate us. The Miami Herald reported that in 2004, 97 percent of the world’s executions took place in China, Iran, Vietnam and the United States–where the Bush brothers’ special axis of death, Texas and Florida, accounts for more executions per capita than any other place on earth. A footnote was California’s decision to execute Clarence Ray Allen, a 75-year-old convict who was deaf and blind; a plea to the U.S Supreme Court did not save him. A popular Web site named Dead Man Eating specializes in the last meals of the condemned and sells T-shirts and coffee mugs with its logo.

Along with the death penalty, the gun cult (one gun for every man, woman and infant in the USA) and the bewildering war in Iraq, the eternal chastisement of Cuba is a proof of the violent, irrational immaturity that still separates the United States of America from all other nations we regard as civilized. I’ve never heard an explanation that satisfies me. Compared with hungry Cuba, where purse-snatching is common but more violent crime almost unknown, ferocious America with its epidemic obesity makes you wonder: Is it possible to be overnourished? Are we somehow eating ourselves back into barbarity?

Cuba is a failed society because Castro has been unable to feed and house his people. Communism is a failed ideology because there seem to be no successful societies without economic incentives and democratic controls on the ruling elite. But when, to echo Clarence Ray Allen’s unsuccessful plea for mercy, does an affluent society become a “cruel and unusual” society? The lowest note in my re-entry blues was a Fort Lauderdale story about teenagers who bludgeoned a homeless man to death with golf clubs and baseball bats. Police and advocates for the homeless (in the midst of the megayacht explosion, there are 90,000 homeless people in L.A. alone) added that these attacks have “practically become a sport among young people around the country,” claiming 156 lives since 2001. Feral gangs, most of them white, assault the homeless “for kicks,” according to the story, “or out of contempt for the down-and-out.”

Welcome to the land of opportunity, where some kids drop out of high school and others drop out of the human race. For these hyenas there’s no redemption. They’re genetic garbage, biological debris best smothered mercifully in their sleep. It’s possible that underfed Cubans envy overfed Americans too much. A great humiliation for many Cuban parents is that their well-bred and educated daughters have joined the ranks of the jineteras to save the household from ruin. Clients even visit the homes of these semiprofessional prostitutes with gifts for their families. A Hobson’s Choice over which few of us would hesitate: Would you rather have your children riding tourists for a living or smashing the homeless with baseball bats for recreation? Yet every moonlit night the channel between Havana and Key West hosts the refugee regatta–small boats loaded with high hopes, showing no lights, headed north.