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Fabiola Santiago: Buying freedom on plastic

The vision of Americans running around Havana wielding their credit cards has been with me since President Barack Obama announced his historic change in U.S.-Cuba policy two weeks ago.

Let me tell you about the time I bought freedom with my Visa card.

New Year’s Eve. Buenos Aires. 2004.

I was visiting my exiled Cuban cousin and we planned to ring in the new year at Tocororo, one of the city’s trendy restaurants in the waterfront Puerto Madero district. A Cuban band was the draw and my Visa card had bought reservations for dinner, live music, free-flowing champagne and party favors.

We would make up for all the fin de año celebrations we had missed growing up apart. This night would be the closest thing to experiencing the legendary pre-Castro end-of-year parties in Cuba that I knew only from photographs.

If we couldn’t live it up at the famed Tropicana of our parents’ generation, we could at least claim Tocororo, a place of Casablanca-style allure named after Cuba’s national bird. It was managed by local Cubans, although one never could pin down ownership (Argentines? Cuban exiles? Capitalist commies connected to the Cuban embassy? All of the above? So went the gossip).

On Dec. 30, however, tragedy struck a Buenos Aires neighborhood: 194 young people were killed in a fire.

The blaze broke out at the Cromañón Republic nightclub during a rock concert after a flare was set off, igniting foam and plastic nets in the ceiling and flammable decorations. Concert-goers couldn’t find exits or fire extinguishers. Some doors had been chained to keep people from getting in without paying. None of the code violations and cheap construction, it was soon discovered, had kept the owner from getting government permits to operate.

President Néstor Kirchner’s response to the deaths was to declare three days of official national mourning. I had no idea that this meant obligatory grieving behavior for everyone, including tourists.

We knew of the tragedy and the edict, but not — as the outrage grew over the government corruption’s role in the tragedy — that Kirchner had ordered all nightclubs and concert venues closed and banned restaurants like Tocororo from hosting performers.

We were seated at our table when the musicians went on the stage and announced that they weren’t being allowed to perform. A collective gasp and rounds of protests were heard — but nothing, we were told, could change the decision. No music was allowed in a public place — New Year’s Eve be damned.

I went to speak to the restaurant manager. I appealed first on emotional grounds, offering my condolences but adding that our ruined New Year’s Eve wasn’t going to bring anyone back or solve any problems, and I explained how much the night meant to us, reunited after 34 years.

When that didn’t work, I appealed on political grounds. Demagoguery is the trademark of ineffective leaders, I argued. “The president is trying to cover up his government’s failure to protect its citizens by pandering to the aggrieved population. Isn’t this a free country? What legal right does a president have to forbid our celebration?”

When that didn’t work, either, I told him that we would go home, where we could play music, and he would have to refund us the deposit. He said he couldn’t do that.

I whipped out my cellphone and told him I would call my Visa card and report that he wasn’t delivering the promised services — and put a hold on his payment.

“And I’m calling my American Express card, too!” chimed in another customer behind me, who turned out to be another Cuban-American from Miami hosting a table packed with family.

The manager then asked for a few minutes to see what he could do. He went outside and huddled with police officers who had been stationed outside to enforce the no-music edict.

After the manager returned, the police strolled away and we never saw them again.

In no time, the band took the stage, and the singer proclaimed, “Señoras y señores, there is music.”

A bolero broke the ice, and for the rest of the night, there was music. We danced with our partners, with strangers, and on stage with the band. It was an unforgettable New Year’s Eve made all the more special by the heady victory of sweet freedom — even if it was purchased.

Ten years later, President Obama has announced his intention to make it lawful for American credit and debit cards to make their debut in Cuba.

The demagogues should be shaking in their boots. We’re a freedom-loving army — and we wield our credit cards better than weapons.

Happy New Year.