Monthly Archives: April 2010

You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part VII

An obligatory picture of an old 50's car in Havana. More will come later.

If it seems that I’m a little preoccupied during my penultimate day in Cuba, it’s because I was.

There were activities to be done, places to go, etc. Yet my mind was focused squarely on the events of the previous afternoon.  

Even as I sat in the meeting room of La Castellana Psycho-pedagogical Center, a center for students with mental disabilities, thoughts of dissent, repression, and counter-revolution flowed through my brain.  I was unable to focus on another earnest talk about the well-meaning work of doctors and teachers in treating students with severe mental and emotional problems. 

Instead, that morning was devoted to daydreaming.

The same scenario kept revealing itself: someone on the street announced that Castro died, as gangs of men with guns would drive around asking for volunteers.  I would jump on, grab an AK-47 and join the rebellion as my stunned colleagues looked on.  As the rest of my tour group hurriedly grabbed their belongings and made for the airport, I show up in a jeep with armed men and rocket launchers, asking anyone from my group to come and “make history.”

It was a silly, juvenile dream, to be sure.  I’m impulsive, sure, but probably not to that extreme.  Furthermore, I’d probably knock my shoulder off-kilter, as an AK-47 has a sizeable kick and is notoriously unwieldy.  For me, armed rebellion works best from the business end of a gin bottle with half-drunk mates who couldn’t care less what came out of my mouth.

Do a good job. Remember Che is watching.

Yet it was difficult to pay attention to the proceedings, especially when we went from classroom to classroom.  To be sure, these students had severe mental disabilities and it’s great that there’s a center for them where they can receive a fulfilling educational experience.  Some of my colleagues that work with such children wept at what they saw.

I was too hard-hearted a bastard to notice.

At a place that should celebrate the joys of life, the revolution wouldn’t take a rest.  Pictures of Che and Camilo Cienfuegos grace the walls.  Fidel’s slogans line the workshops.  Even among Cuba’s most vulnerable, the message of the regime continues its unrelenting pace. 

"We are fighting for a society that is 100% fair, with a true equality of possibilities for all children and citizens of the nation." ~ Fidel

It’s beyond unfair.   In the world of ideological indoctrination, it’s the Yankees taking on your local church softball team.  It’s over within two innings.

If anything positive came out of this, it was Elpidio Valdes, my new friend (No, I didn’t adopt anyone).  As a souvenir of our visit, we were allowed to choose on piece of craftwork created by the students.  I guess it was either his little neckerchief, or maybe his little cardboard machete (which made him look like a tropical Hitler Youth).  Yet it was probably his floppy hat—so similar to my Boca Raton-tastic planter hat—that drew me to Cuba’s greatest cartoon.

Elpidio Valdes is a cartoon character popular with children across the island.  A sort of Cuban Robin Hood, Valdes is constantly getting into adventures against the hated Spaniards during the Cuban War of Independence.   Ever the revolutionary, Valdes protects the poor and working class against the hated rich, who are often helped by conniving Americans. 

Of course, the regime uses Valdes to spread revolutionary propaganda amongst the young.  But that didn’t bother me at that point…it was a cute doll.

After lunch, I needed to get my head straight.  All this daydreaming—violent, gun-toting daydreaming—was messing with me (if it didn’t already).  I had to step off the tour a while, to catch my breath.  More than anything, I needed to take in more of Havana for myself. 

Some people from our group left to find some movie posters, and I decided to tag along, if for the only reason being to get more sun.   Posters in Cuba tend to be a difficult business: the political ones, especially ones with cool slogans, are owned by the Interior Ministry.  Movie posters, the next popular category, can be found in other places, but the best place to find them is the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industries, or ICAIC.

ICAIC was at the center of Cuba’s golden age of cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, when directors such as Julio Garcia Espinosa, Humberto Solas and Tomas Gutierrez Alea were making remarkable films that even I enjoy.  Like its literary counterpart, UNEAC, the directors under ICAIC used western techniques to tell uniquely Cuban stories, and the movie poster became high art.  Furthermore, ICAIC at its height enjoyed an incredible degree of artistic freedom.  Directors like Gutierrez walked a fine line between playing nice with the regime and highlighting social, political and economic problems in their country.  It was one of the ways official organs were used to criticize the government, and it was a dangerous game.

The afternoon was spent trying to find the fucking place.

First we couldn’t remember the name.  Then we couldn’t remember the spelling of the acronym.  When we asked around the neighborhood, no one seemed to know.  Someone finally pointed us to a building that seemed official enough, only to be the radio and television institute, not the film institute.

How about a nice box with Che's face on it...

Along the wild goose chase, we ran into a souvenir market where hordes of tourists rained their hard currency on a sea of knickknacks.  If this is a socialist utopia, Cuba has a pretty good sense of how capitalism works: fleece dumbass tourists with whatever crap catches their eye.  Foremost among the hawkers were the men at each corner peddling their “authentic” Cohiba or Montecristo cigars.

...or maybe a wall-hanging key holder with Che's vigorous visage...

A good marketing ploy involves (who else?) Che in numerous media: buttons, napkin holders, magnets, wallets, salt/pepper shakers.  Also include any piece of crap dealing with cigars, black women in traditional garb and old 50’s cars.

...or perhaps lovely figurines of both Che and Fidel, each with a detachable Cohiba!

Even though we never found ICAIC, the walk through the souvenir stands loosened me from the malaise of the past 24 hours.  For a brief few hours, I could get the political nonsense out of my head.  There was something liberating about watching bloated Canadians in relentless negotiations over cheap keepsakes while at the same time being hosed on fake cigars that taste like wet poodle.

Remember the baseball championship?  Since a ticker tape parade isn’t really feasible in Havana, the city fathers decided the next best thing was to have a gigantic free concert at the Anti-Imperialist Plaza—and we were all going.

Anti-Imperialist Plaza. Note the forest of flagpoles in the back.

The Anti-Imperialist Plaza is a funny place; insofar that it symbolizes Cuban-American relations at its most juvenile.  The first building around that site was the Swiss embassy, which houses the US Interests Section.  We don’t have a formal embassy, so we use space from the Swiss to make our presence felt in Havana.  The front of the building would have electronic tickers and huge, garish posters spouting anti-Communist rhetoric in the subtlety one would expect from non-diplomatic lackeys who usually run this station.  The Castros thought this wasn’t playing fair, so they planted a forest of flagpoles in the plaza in front of the US interests section—a forest so thick it obstructs any view of the propaganda from the building.   As if this wasn’t enough, the plaza in front was renamed Anti-Imperialist Plaza and a giant bandstand/stage/platform was built in front of the flagpole forest, nicknamed the “Protestadrome” by the locals.  It is here that rallies, anti-US protests and concerts are held, always thick with revolutionary rhetoric and vitriol. 

The whole thing plays like a schoolyard brawl, as the smarmy little snitches play and laugh at the big dumb jock sitting in detention—a jock capable of pulverizing every one of those little pricks into oblivion if given the opportunity.

Crowds at the concert.

Thousands—and I mean thousands—of Cubans converged on the plaza around 5 in the afternoon for a huge free concert.  Politics was far from their mind as the musicians pounded out their tunes to a teeming, throbbing, sweaty mass cooled by the relentless gusts from the Straits of Florida.  It was estimated that close to half a million Cubans packed the plaza and the sea wall, and it was probably accurate.  After all, in a place where the only recreation available is out of reach to average Cubans, free concerts seem a welcome respite.

I kept staring at the Elian Gonzalez statue at one end of the plaza.  Remember

Elian Gonzalez Statue

 him?  The kid whose mom died in the raft heading to Florida, but was forcibly returned to his dad in Cuba?  In a further swipe in the Cuba-US pissing contest, the government put up a statue commemorating the traumatized tyke.  He is depicted in Jose Marti’s arms as he points an accusatory finger at the US Interests section.  Locals call it a signpost to show everyone where to line up for visas.

We watched the festivities, drinking beer and munching on popcorn along the sea wall, blissfully taking in the only real crowds we ever saw in Cuba.  One thing about totalitarian states—there were no brawls or spats in the crowd to speak of.  If this was half a million people in New York, you know some drunken asshole was coming out swinging.  It was almost eerie seeing a small city being polite all at once; the police presence on rooftops, in the stands and among the crowds also helped.

This being Cuba, the festivities ended promptly at 8: no one wanted to deal with a crowd like this at night.

That night was weird, and enlightening.  At first, we weren’t exactly sure what to do.  Then, we heard Mariana was visiting some folks in town and had wanted to go dancing, my friend Britton and I decide to tag along.  Visiting Cubans in their homes was something I wanted to do, especially after the showcase homes in Las Terrazas.

The first was at a house in Vedado that was being rented by Mariana’s friend who is getting married to a Cuban.  Since it was an engagement party, we brought rum (lots of it) and local Tu Kola (lots of that, too).  After going up a hallway reeking of urine, we arrive at what seems to be a clean, well-kept apartment.  It was like some of the better-kept apartments in the South Bronx, but with less electronic doo-dads.  We chit-chatted with our hosts, getting acquainted, having a nice civil conversation.

Even in this house, the revolution, or at least its regulations, came creeping in.  The mistress of the house, in a nice motherly tone, apologized for the interruption and asked for our identification.   Our new friends seemed incredulous—even Mariana, whose been here before, seemed miffed at the request.

 I didn’t mind, as I understood the consequences for not documenting us.  Cubans cannot have foreigners in their homes with permission or authorization.  Violating this law leads to stiff fines and confiscation of one’s home.  So I readily handed in my passport, knowing full well it was better for our host to cover her ass.

We then went to another of Mariana’s friends, in Habana Centro.  Habana Centro is a dense residential neighborhood with old, dilapidated buildings packed onto colonial streets barely wide enough to accommodate two-lane traffic.  The house we visited was a small, tight space that had a jerry-rigged second floor.  Water was brought in from a cistern in buckets, usually done at night.  The state television network was flickering on the screen.  The news anchors wore suits so worn they looked homeless.

Yet there was not a breath of complaint about it.  Maybe this was one of the better homes in the neighborhood.  Or, possibly, it was imprudent to make such complaints in a dense neighborhood.

The night ended with an extended walk down the Malecon.  Along the way, probably since we were getting tired and weren’t in the mood for dancing, we headed back to the hotel, stopping by the Bim Bom, a local ice cream joint.

The Bim Bom, where the crowds are lively and the ice cream runs free...until it's closed.

I wouldn’t mention this but for the fact that Bim Bom is THE place to be for a homosexual in Havana out on the make.

Homosexuals and conservatives share one distinction on this island, that being our lack of a love affair with the Castros.  Gays have had a rough time in Cuba, and considering my first-hand reporting, still encounter stiff official harassment.  The reasoning is simple: take a society that already looks upon homosexuals with suspicion, and add a veneer of socialist rhetoric that attacks homosexuality, or any sexual orientation for that matter, as a “western deviance” and “counterrevolutionary.”  What you get is official repression, one that many Cubans actually might even agree with.

At least here at the Bim Bom, there is little problem with that, which accounts for how much things have changed since the darker times of the past.  I saw at least half a dozen drag queens, with gear that could put our USA-bred trannies to shame.  Everyone seemed relaxed, hanging out, having a good time.

Standing around wondering when I should return to my hotel,  I came to realize that my time here in Cuba was about to end.  It was difficult to comprehend the previous week.  Even in my writings, the rambling nature of it lends itself to my confusion.  And Thursday was a train wreck in it of itself. 

If today seemed a little different, a little disjointed, it’s because Friday was like that.  By the end of the week, everything would come together.

Part VIII covers my last day: some “research” with blue water and pina coladas, visiting local kids, revisiting an acquaintance and the longest, strangest final night ever.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part VI

"Fidel; tell us what else we should do!" Literacy Brigade on parade, 1962.

All political revolutions focus on the young, and Cuba was no exception.

A group of young students are plucked from their normal middle-class lives and sent to teach illiterate masses in the most remote, poorest areas of the country, often with few resources and little support.

Obviously it’s Teach for America (kidding). 

It is, in fact, the Literacy Campaign of 1961.   Cuba’s young people embarked on a yearlong literacy campaign to correct a longstanding issue amongst their country’s rural poor, the results of which are still acclaimed throughout the world.

Cuba has the only museum that I know of that’s devoted to literacy.  The Literacy Museum celebrates the 1961 campaign as well as Cuba’s efforts to spread its brand of “literacy” to other areas—although the content of the texts make me ever so skeptical about the true intentions of these campaigns.

"Cuba will be the first country in America that after some months can say they do not have a single illiterate person." - Fidel Castro

Say what you will about the propaganda parade of days past, this had to be the most honest official experience I’ve had in Cuba (emphasis on “official.”)  The director of the museum minced no words in describing the mission of the campaign: to educate the poor and indoctrinate them in the ideals of the revolution.  She was sincere, devoted and thoroughly convinced of the righteousness of the cause, hence her matter-of-fact delivery and earnest display of the artifacts.

Nothing says literacy education like drawings of semi-automatic rifles.

The 1962 campaign was probably done, at least by its participants, with the best of intentions.  Thousands of young people, aged 8-19, left their houses (with the parents’ permission—though permission could’ve come from the business end of a rifle) received a hurry-up training in teaching, textbooks and revolutionary theory, and were sent to the farthest reaches of Cuba to teach the peasants how to read and write.

"C is for Che; F is for Fidel; R is for Raul...now repeat after me..."

The young volunteers lived with their students, working the cane fields by day (“So this is what a machete’s for.”) and teaching literacy by night (“Finish that essay!  Don’t make me get the machete!”).    As the director pointed out, many lessons focused on revolutionary theory, and the first lessons involved spelling such useful words as “Fidel”, “Che”, and “Revolucion.”  The final project was to write a letter to Fidel, thanking him for allowing them to learn to read and write.  The letters were sincere enough, given that they were of a 1st grade reading level.  It says a lot about who’s considered “literate” around here. 

Hey Russia, wasn't it a wonderful idea to entrust medium-range nuclear weapons to a people that consider 1st grade writing to be "literate"? I didn't think so.

Since there were still anti-revolutionary “gangs” about, the volunteers were often in great danger.  Still, the greatest danger may have been the peasants themselves.  Rural folk tend to be the most conservative…believe me, it’s still true today.  Many of them refused to be taught by a kid—thus, the kid would bring his “big brother” with some “encouragement” of the smokeless powder and full metal jacket variety.  Still others were confused about those things that still confuse students today: mechanics, phonics, sentence structure, why it’s not okay to end sentences with prepositions.  All of these were recounted gleefully by the museum director. 

What I didn’t hear about, obviously, was of the one wise-ass cane-cutter (and there must’ve been a few out there) who had the nerve to say, “Hey kid, what’s the point in teaching us how to read and write if we can’t read what we want and write what we want?”

I wonder what happened to that guy?  Was he “educated”?  “Re-educated”?  “Corrected”?

Something to think about, but not necessarily the place to ask.  The area where the museum stands used to be Camp Columbia, the US base of operations from 1898-1902 when Cuba was a US “protectorate”.  Furthermore, one of Batista’s villas is on the grounds.  I’d be getting an earful if I opened my mouth around here.

Yet I had no trouble opening my mouth at the next stop, which was Jose Fuster’s house in Jaimanitas, on the outskirts of Havana.  A warm, open artist, his whimsical work, and rum cocktails that could kill a horse certainly helped.

Fuster's Cuban 5 monument. See my point about the gynecologist?

Fuster is an artist whose work is a cross between Picasso and Gaudi.  I’m thinking it’s an amusement park designed by Timothy Leary.  In fact, a whole town designed by him.  Fuster has taken numerous areas of his town and created works of art out of them, thus creating a metropolis of psychedelic fun.  Most of it is inspired by his own experiences, as well as Cuban culture and politics.  A huge monument in his yard commemorates the “Cuban 5” a group of Cubans arrested for infiltrating Cuban-American networks with supposed terrorist aims. 

I didn’t find it that incendiary.  It looks like the up stretched hand of an overzealous gynecologist.

The man himself is more fascinating than his work.  A veteran of the Literacy Campaign, Fuster is a steadfast supporter of the revolution.  His glasses tell the story: the frames are red and black after the July 26th Movement.   Given his swell digs and his ability to inflict his art on his neighbors, the revolution has been very, very good to Fuster.

I guess he gravitated toward me as we both had a lot in common: an abundance of flesh, a lack of hair, bad eyes, crushing intellects, and above all big mouths.  We first spoke about Ecuadorian president Correa, since I told him my heritage.  I was candid and frank in my reservations about the man, which he understood and gave his arguments.  I then asked about the use of Che’s image: is it a “cartoon”, as I thought, or are these slogans really his?  He explained that Che’s ideas were the foundation of the revolution to begin with, and his slogans are what adorn the walls and billboards.

(A Cuban revolution based on the ideas of a second-rate Argentine doctor?)

Our conversation evolved into whether or not Che today would’ve approved of the CUC system.  Would Che have given his assent to a system that, while giving tourists access to Cuba and hard cash to the government, keeps the regular Cuban as a subordinate?  Fuster explained, as best he could, that he probably would’ve seen it as Fidel sees it: a necessary measure in response to an economic crisis.

I didn’t exactly see it that way.  Part of the reason that Che left in 1965 was probably that government was much messier than an ideological handbook.  He got himself into many difficult situations, but the political swamp was too much for him. 

Group portrait with Fuster. He's the bald gray dude sitting center. I'm at the left with my ubiquitous planter hat.

My host was impressed, and greeted me as a “true intellectual.”  Not sure about that, but my bullshit artistry is top-notch, as is Fusters’.  I guess that’s why I liked him so much.

Yet the true rhetoric was left for later.  We returned to the ICAP Friendship House for a meeting with Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban Center for Sex Education (CENESEX).  If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s Raul Castro’s daughter, making her Fidel Castro’s niece.  It’s about as close as I was going to get to a dictator, and after this encounter, I’m not sure if I want to get any closer.

Mariela Castro

Mariela seemed like a nice enough lady; her face resembles uncle Fidel’s in an entirely too-creepy way.  There was a brief video about her work with Cuba’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.  It juxtaposed the more conservative attitudes of older Cubans with shots of rather flamboyant drag queens on stage—something that probably doesn’t bode well for gays and lesbians who want to present themselves as ordinary citizens. 

She then gave a talk about the development of feminist organizations in Cuba, and their dovetailing into LGBT rights in Cuba.  Again, nothing too inflammatory—I wish I were a fly on a wall when Mariela’s mom asked Fidel to approve of a womens’ organization during the revolution: “Dios mio, Vilma, what next?!  Have our women wear fatigues, grow beards, and suck on Cohibas…oh, fine.  You ladies have fun.”

Maybe it was cracks like that last one that caused Mariela Castro to go apeshit.

Channeling her loquacious uncle, Mariela goes on a two-three minute long rant about the embargo, the United States, the Cuban 5, terrorism theories, health care and Michael Moore.  It’s right out of Fidel’s playbook, but with less bluster and more “why me?” shrugs as if Cuba were run by Ellen DeGeneres.  It also had nothing to do with the stated topics of sex education and homosexual rights. 

We were all taken aback, leftist and rightist alike.  Everyone seemed nervous about asking questions. 

I wasn’t.

I’ve had four straight days of propaganda, official meandering and obligatory bowing and scraping.  My mother told me to be nice and not make trouble on this trip.  By Thursday, I just had it.  I raised my hand, and in English (I wish I said it in Spanish,) asked the following:

“Ms. Castro, I understand and agree that revolution is dissent (something she mentioned before), even as a conservative.  I also understand that certain security measures were necessary to control dissent in order for the state to survive (alluding to measures against human rights—I’m still being nice.).  If the embargo were lifted tomorrow, and Cuba had normal diplomatic relations with the United States, would the security measures against dissent be lifted.”

The crowd gasped.  Then it murmered.  One colleague quietly congratulated me on the question.

The translator, our tour guide, was taking his sweet time translating to Mariela Castro.  When he did, it was in a low, barely audible voice that’s usually used when fixing horse races or boxing matches.

Sure enough, the question was mangled, and the answer was even more circular.  But the cat was out of the bag.

Another colleague chimed in about the continued arrests and torture of homosexuals in Havana, based on firsthand accounts.  Mariela countered by saying that the process was slow and ongoing, that there was no torture (surprise, surprise) and that any rights for homosexuals had to coincide with respect for traditional Cuban family values (which negates any of the work she’s doing).

Oh, and she stated that certain Cubans, including homosexuals, were being sent to labor camps to “appreciate the agrarian nature of the Cuban economy.”  Just like Jews lined up to go to Auschwitz for the clean woodsy air and luxurious accommodations.

If you didn’t see the iron fist before, you saw it at that moment.  And she said it with a smile, the kind of “oh well” smile you saw in such fabulous folks like Reinhard Heydrich, Lavrentii Beria or Augusto Pinochet.

It was the naked smile of totalitarianism…and it scared the living shit out of me.

My friend had a solution.  One day, he was wondering the Vedado, the neighborhood near our hotel, when he came across a bookstore that had boxes of contraband books.  I asked him that evening to take me there.

When we got to the store, it was a storefront like all the others, books by Fidel, Marx, Lenin, Marti, Che, the usual suspects.  Yet when we peered in, a thin, gangly man with worn clothes and a baseball cap greeted us.  

 This man, who I’ll call Juan, was a homosexual, and started to show me books of banned art, much of it homoerotica, in the assumption that my orientation was likewise.  This was a natural assumption as Vedado was known as a gay neighborhood and my friend who found the place was also gay.

I thanked him for showing the art, but I explained that I was more interested in banned writers, press censorship, official repression and whatnot.  Juan was happy to oblige.  It seems he was waiting, hoping, praying that someone, ANYONE would listen to his experiences.  His shabby house, with only one bad TV and a rotten mattress, had thousands, literally, of books cataloged in boxes that filled the space.

 Juan took me to box after box, book after book of writers on the official writers’ guild, UNEAC, who still manage to arouse government suspicion, if not outright repression.   Official publications, such as the journals of the Young Communist League, are also used in a quiet rebellion against the regime.   He was very careful in watching the front: the showpiece of the Marxist books had to be manned at all times, and there were occasional police cars that often stopped.

I shared with Juan and his friends our encounter with Mariela Castro.  They were beside themselves in glee, even pointing out that I was wearing the same color green as Fidel’s uniform (a double insult, apparently).  Word on the gay street is that Mariela uses the gay movement as her personal steppingstone to power.  If she was serious about giving gays equal rights, Juan noted, why doesn’t she push for an LGBT league within the Cuban Communist Party, the way the women and young people have it?  No such organization is in the works.

I asked about the police, and Juan smirked:  “We don’t worry about the cops in uniform.  They just want to bust balls, since half of them are gay anyway.”  The ones in plainclothes, from MININT’s State Security Division or from the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), are the most dangerous because they are the real strong arm of the regime. 

CDRs are local civilian committees that were created to protect the regime against enemies.  Neighborhood committees have mandatory meetings, and are expected to report on any counterrevolutionary activity.  Many of these snitches use the opportunity to settle old scores with neighbors, bringing up trumped-up or bogus charges to have their problems dealt with.  It is the CDR that holds the population in fear, says Juan.

 In a country of 12 million people, 5 million are police.  The rest are waiting to inform on their neighbors to the police.

I asked if he was ever harassed by security forces.  Juan was kind enough to share two examples.  The first was when he was picked up and harassed by the police about his whereabouts.  The police alleged he was in Santiago at a certain date, and Juan denied it.  He explained that now, because of this accusation, he can never go to Santiago because the police would then change their story to utilize the inconvenient facts.

The second was almost too much to bear.  Either a Security Division agent or a CDR captain, I can’t remember which, picked up Juan and harassed him about his acquaintances and his whereabouts.  He answered each question rather smugly, which wouldn’t be bright in most circumstances, but Juan’s friends in UNEAC have kept him out of serious time.  The agent then scolded Juan in saying his attitude, “was not very revolutionary.”

At this Juan exploded, “Look, I don’t have a penny to my name.  I live in a shitty abandoned house with one TV and a rotten mattress.  All I own are old books and the clothes on my back.  I can barely survive since I subsist almost solely on rations.  How in God’s name can I NOT be revolutionary!  I AM THE REVOLUTION!”

It was a lot to take in today.  I gladly bought a stack of Juan’s contraband suggestions and returned to the hotel to freshen up for the night.  As I entered my shower and turned on the faucet, something in me broke.  It all hit me at once.

I began crying and sobbing uncontrollably.

Did no one fucking see what I saw?  It’s like if don’t realize how wrong this regime is, than you’re either too stupid or you’re in on the repression in some way.  By now, in my mind, everyone was suspect: the bus driver, the tour guides, the presenters and curators, Fuster, half the delegation itself. 

For a brief moment, I even suspected Mariana.  Her glowing admiration for Mariela Castro had me so worked up that I daydreamed of putting everyone on a wall—her included—and having a firing squad unload on them.

This was too much.  I needed some sanity. 

Havana Club. This bottle was surgically attached to my hand most of the trip.

In short, I needed a drink. 

In hindsight, this was not the wisest decision on my trip.  Not only does booze make me honest; it also makes me generous.

We went over to the Casa de Musica in Havana Centro for salsa dancing and carousing.  I was not only half drunk already, but in a generous mood to any ordinary Cuban.  20 CUC bills were flying out of me like an ATM, with grateful Cuban waiters as the recipients.  Bottles of rum, colas, ice and even French fries rounded out our table.  That waiter took care of us as if I was Batista himself—I doubt Fidel appreciates a decent bottle service. 

By the time I got into the cab to go home, I was ready to kill.  So with my friend Britton taping on his camera—as he was want to do—I unloaded the mother of all drunken rants, in Spanish.  I cursed out Fidel, Che, Camilo Cienfuegos (I apologize for Camilo, since I kinda like the guy), Mariela Castro, the police, the CDRs, the whole damn revolution (though I think I didn’t use the word “damn.”).  The driver quietly drove on.  Britton was beside himself, either with laughter or fear.

By the time I got to my room, still piss drunk, I was ready. 

I was ready for Fidel to die so I could grab a rifle and start the counter-revolution.

Part VII explains the hangover from Part VI, including Che and Fidel merchandise, a huge outdoor concert, and visits to local houses.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part V

The Old Fortress of Havana, in Habana Vieja

Sometimes it’s missed in all the political nonsense, but there was a Cuba before the revolution.  That Cuba was the focus of today’s tour of Old Havana, or Habana Vieja.

San Cristobal de la Habana, Havana’s full name, was founded in 1515 and started out as a launching pad for future Conquistadors such as Hernan Cortes, Hernando De Soto and Francisco de Coronado.  King Phillip II of Spain designated Havana an official city in 1592, and it soon became one of the biggest cities in the Americas, third behind Lima and Mexico City.  The great Spanish treasure fleet, the armada of ships laden with gold and silver from across the continent, gathered in Havana’s harbor for the annual journey to Spain.  It also became the center for sugar, coffee, tobacco and especially the African slave trade.

Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features many of the important buildings that harken to Cuba’s glorious (and not so glorious) colonial past.  The narrow lanes, colonial and neo-classical architecture, and cobblestone squares have undergone extensive renovations, making it the most tourist-friendly area in the whole city. 

That’s the problem.  Old Havana, being landmarked, has few, if any, actual Cubans in it.  They just didn’t fit with the tourist model, I guess.  Most tourists, after all, look to get away from reality, and the everyday Cuban’s existence is way too fucking real.

So Old Havana is your slightly Disneyfied version of itself.  It has the look and feel of a Latin Colonial Williamsburg sans the goofy actors that would make it a ghastly idea: “And on your left, folks, is Padre Eduardo baptizing a heretic before he is burned alive.  On your right you’ll see our friendly slave auctioneer, Pablo, with a new crop of young bucks from the Gambia.  Say Hola to the nice people, Pablo!”

It got even goofier when we reached the Hostel Ambos Mundos, a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway.  Now, there’s a lot to like about Hemingway: his terse writing style, his depressing dramatic arc, his propensity to find gin bottles in all sorts of places. 

Yet the Ambos Mundos was a little too Hemingway—too terse (it was smaller than I thought), too depressing (did you see the tourists?  And their black socks?) and the gin bottles were neatly stacked next to the Havana Club Rum.  I could see why he moved to Idaho in 1960, to eventually enjoy a date with the business end of a 12-gauge.

With one look at the pathetic “Papa” look-alike out front taking pictures with tourists, I could’ve used a 12-gauge as well.

 One sight that was somewhat of a relief was a working church.  Since John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Cuba has enjoyed a good deal of religious freedom.  Churches, synagogues, even mosques were advertising their services openly.  The Cathedral of Havana, dating from the 1700s, is the center of Catholic life on the island—a life that was officially put on hold for quite a few years.   

They were advertising Good Friday services, which tells me there’s more than one bearded revolutionary that Cubans listen to.

Once the Presidential Palace. Now the Museum of the Revolution.

For some interesting armaments—and a good laugh—try the Museum of the Revolution, only a minute or two by bus from Old Havana.  The Museum of the Revolution was once the Presidential Palace, from 1926 until 1959, and looks pretty much as it did when the July 26th guys came in 1959, signaling a change in management.  The first floors have the old presidential office and cabinet room, to show just what kind of a bastard was Cuba’s last pre-revolutionary president, Fulgencio Batista.

Left or right, there is no argument that Fulgencio Batista was a colossal prick and a real asshole.  Batista was president during two stretches of time, from 1933-1944 and 1952-1959.  He basically ran the show behind the scenes between these two stretches.  He became a typical Latin-American strongman: silencing all opposition, curbing civil rights, engorging himself on government funds meant for public programs, and worst of all, enriching himself off of corrupt deals with American companies and American organized crime figures such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.

Batista's Office. Prick never saw it coming.

Even the US—which will tolerate ANYONE so long as they don’t utter the “C” word (hint—it’s not cancer)—couldn’t stomach Batista much longer.  So it was a relief, somewhat, when he fled into exile on New Years Day of 1959. 

The story of that movement is told throughout the rest of the museum, often in interesting and amusing ways.  One thing I appreciated was the dioramas of the 1953 Moncada barracks attack, and the 1958 Santa Clara offensive.  Nobody makes good dioramas anymore, with the neat cardboard roofs and trees topped with green sponge—although a couple of the roofs need to be replaced.

The Wall of Cretins is definitely a must-see, especially if you’re a fan of bad caricatures from the early 1990s.  On the wall are overwrought cartoons of Batista in his officer’s uniform, Ronald Reagan as a cowboy and George H. W. Bush looking sickly and prissy in Roman armor, which makes me wonder whether there are Cuban agents in Skull and Bones.  

Take a look outside, towards the back, and there sits a fair amount of military vehicles surrounding the crown jewel of Cuba: the Granma, the boat that took the boys home in 1956 to begin the revolution.  It’s surrounded by glass and guards, although the T-34 tank and the fighter wings had no such protection.   I dared not ask if the Granma was available for charters during the daytime.  I didn’t see any fighting chairs on the back, either.

The Granma. Unfortunately it isn't open for charters or "booze cruises."

Yet the revolutionary lovefest can get downright silly.  The Che wing (like you didn’t expect one) is off the main route and is lit in an eerie low light.  His effects are displayed in a box as if in a funeral parlor.  Yet the commanding feature of the room is its goofiest.  Dominating the room is a giant diorama scene of two life-sized figures—Che Guevara and his buddy Camilo Cienfuegos—plodding through the jungle.   The whole image smacked of the natural history museum: two Cro-Magnon men with fatigues and automatic weapons.

 I haven’t yet mentioned much about Camilo Cienfuegos, but he definitely forms a Cuban “trinity”, if you will, with Che and Fidel.  Cienfuegos is something of a good-ole-boy character in the revolutionary story: not as ideologically tight-assed as Che, nor as militarily tight-assed as Fidel.  Cienfuegos was famous for his good humor, rapport with regular Cubans, and his reckless courage (he preferred to fight standing up, rather than ducking for cover). 

When early man refuses to work for a living... (it's too easy)

In a sense, he embodies all Cubans: good-hearted, sociable with a high degree of solidarity that makes one lose all sense of reason or logic.

Logic does pop up, however, in a more sinister way.  All through the museum, I kept wondering why we needed to drive two minutes to a museum that was clearly within walking distance.  A jaunt down the blocks from the palace revealed why.  Remember that tourism in Cuba is designed to keep reality as far away as possible from the tourist, and that neighborhood was all too real. 

Dilapidated old buildings.  Apartments with, little, if any, furnishings.  Locals milling around or walking to and fro, in what looked like hand-me-down clothes from a decade earlier.  A sign saying that “Water was coming Sunday,” which may or may not have been wishful thinking.

The local store, however, topped it all.  It just didn’t seem like a store.  There were a few meal sacks, a scale, and an old lady behind empty shelves and a giant chalkboard.  On this chalkboard had beans, coffee, sugar, corn, cooking oil – all commodities rationed to all Cubans.  Yet there were what I thought were dates, and I pray to God that they weren’t.  If so, then this shop hasn’t seen coffee since January.  Same with sugar, probably the same with corn.

The place that promised water for Sunday.

This was not a place to spend CUCs, unless you plan to subsidize a family for a month (which can be done with 20-25 CUC).

The cat was out of the bag a long time ago, so all this wasn’t that surprising.  What amazed me was the effort it took to actually AVOID this place.  If you’re ashamed of something so much, I guess you’ll go to any lengths to not confront the situation.

Yet there’s no time for too much contemplation—our chariot waited for another visit with functionaries.  After lunch, we went to the Friendship House, a house with a tragic love story too convoluted to remember, but was now home of the tour company and also the institute that is its parent company, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, or ICAP.  ICAP’s purpose is to promote “in all possible ways the relationships of friendship towards Cuba.” 

This seemed sincere enough.  The Friendship House staff were very nice, and the two speakers who spoke about ICAP were very friendly and open to our questions—even mine, which at that point needed to be asked. 

In America, if you call for the end of the Cuban embargo, certain words are thrown in your direction: commie, leftist, pinko, granola, hippie, drape-smoker, dopehead, Castro-lover, Che-lover, socialist pig, etc. etc.  Frankly, the ending of the embargo labels you an outsider, an outcast, and a freak.

 I am none of the things above.  In fact, I was probably the cop that put you in jail for being these things. 

Yet it is becoming clear to me (and to others in power as well) that the embargo does nothing but cement Fidel in power as he uses it as his bogeyman to scare Cuba into submission.  Although I see a different conclusion, I do have a similar objective.

Frankly, groups like mine, in large part, are already affirming what they believe.  It was mostly preaching to the choir—and a loud choir, at that.  To them, I’m the greaser out back revving my Harley during the Ave Maria while smoking a joint and fingering Mary O’Shaughnessy from St. Agnes down the street. 

Now I’m going to sound really arrogant, but I’m being as fair as I can.  If this embargo is to be lifted, its guys like me that have to be convinced.

 Even though the “direct action,” is noble and can often get the attention of people in power, the guys like me have a more direct “in.” We know the people in power, went to school with the children of the people in power, and have more direct access to actual powerbrokers.  Jose Serrano and Bernie Sanders may listen to the Venceremos brigade, but real power in Washington see them as a nuisance, not as a viable policy option.

So I asked the nice ladies if ICAP were spearheading any efforts to get conservatives like me to come research Cuba, and (this wasn’t said, obviously) conservatives who resent the fact that they must listen to official rhetoric at 3 in the afternoon without the requisite rum sloshing.

The translator issued my demands, the ladies smiled and gave a confusing answer that I forgot (even though I understand Spanish).  Asking the others, my question wasn’t answered—not like I was actually expecting a straight answer.

A little counter-revolution: capitalist merchandising at the Plaza of the Revolution.

The last stop was at the Plaza of the Revolution, the center of Cuba’s revolutionary government.  It’s a plaza in the academic sense of the term, in that it’s a common space between a lot of important landmarks.   Basically, it’s a paved lot in front of the grotesquely huge Marti Monument, and facing one of the most fearsome buildings in Cuba—the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT. 

The front of the building has a huge wrought-iron rendering of the famous Korda photograph of Che Guevara.  This made perfect sense: in the early days, Che was responsible, along with Raul Castro, of rounding up and “administering justice” to dozens of Batista apparatchiks—justice largely administered through a 7.62 mm slug straight to the temple. 

The Interior Ministry. Where snitches give stitches (Thanks, Britton for the quip)

The guards in front were nervous about me taking pictures of the place.  Maybe they wanted to drown out the torture sessions inside, where counterrevolutionaries are subject to full-length Bertolt Brecht plays in the original German followed by generous choruses of Guantanamera.  That would make any man talk.  I’d start after Act I of Mother Courage (note the forced irony).

The night brought more important concerns.  If the revolutionary rhetoric didn’t brainwash me, the sports hysteria certainly did—I was concerned about my Industriales.  Industriales of Havana was playing game 7 of the national baseball championship with Villa Clara, and any nighttime excursion will involve this game somewhere. 

Mr. D affirming his Cuban baseball affiliation.

Industriales basically equates to the New York Yankees of Cuba.  Since its inception after the revolution, Industriales had been Cuban champion 11 times and were looking for ring # 12.  According to the bartender at the Riviera, our first stop, the team has suffered from a piss-poor bullpen, thus forcing this final game. 

By the time we got to a music club in Miramar, the game was well into extra innings, and the dance floor was not as packed as Cubans crammed into the side bars to watch the game.  The gaggle of whores approached once, but then kept their distance.  We were of a different mind that night—can the Lions of the Prado win against the bumpkins from Santa Clara?  And why was I giving a shit about a 7-hour ballgame by amateurs that can’t turn a decent double play?

On the last out of the game, the place exploded.  People were hugging, kissing, high-fiving all over the place.  The DJs and the band suddenly sprouted blue Industriales gear and chanted their praises well into the night.  Even the hookers seemed happy, though it could be because the tourists would be shelling out more in this celebratory mood.

We continued dancing for an hour or two more.  It was an awesome time.

For one night, being in Cuba seemed downright normal, even in spite of the lunacy of daylight.

For Part VI, we’ll see a “literacy museum”, a visit with a Castro, my first encounter with dissidents as well as my most counter-revolutionary act to date.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part IV

Che Guevara. He's like Jesus, only with a higher tobacco tolerance and better armament.

It was hard departing Viñales the next morning.  That vista alone could keep me here another week.  Unfortunately, we had business to attend to.

Tuesday would, like so many days here in Cuba, have emotional highs and lows.  Before I get to the inspirational part of the day, though, a little diatribe on Cuban propaganda is in order.

Whenever you’re in a dictatorship, you’re bound to see propaganda slogans everywhere, and Cuba’s no exception.  Hardly a wall is left bare without some slogan, phrase or mural glorifying some aspect of the revolution.

Yet contrary to what many Americans think, there are few, if any pictures of Fidel Castro.  His voice is everywhere, yet his image is conspicuously absent.  That void is filled by a more romantic figure: that counterculture icon himself, Dr. Ernesto Guevara de la Serna.  You know him as “Ché” Guevara.

Guevara, even for his enemies, remains a fascinating figure.  Son of a left-leaning middle-class Argentine family of Spanish and Irish extraction (his grandfather’s surname was Lynch), Guevara toured South America on his motorcycle with his buddy Alberto Granado in 1952, convinced that the cure for the ails of Latin America’s poor was violent revolution.  After fiddling in Jacobo Arbenz’ Guatemala, he found himself in Mexico where he encountered a young lawyer named Fidel Castro, himself a revolutionary as well (sans beard).  The two led a band of rebels to Cuba in 1956 and began the Cuban Revolution.  Guevara was responsible for dealing with “criminals” in the Batista regime, for industrial reform and the pact with the Soviet Union.

Yet he disappeared suddenly in 1965, only to be found in the Congo and then, subsequently, in Bolivia, where Guevara was gunned down in 1967.  We’re still not sure why he left, but we can suspect a continued wanderlust, dissatisfaction with suckling the Soviet teat, or that there could really be only one rooster in the Cuban henhouse, and Ché was, to be honest, a foreigner poking his nose in other people’s affairs.  He also had a notoriously bad personal hygiene—even by Third World standards.

So we have today the modern Ché, an icon, a symbol, a vessel through which the government delivers its slogans.  Frankly, Che enjoys more popularity than Fidel, and thus becomes a useful tool for Fidel’s propaganda, often to the extreme:

“The Revolution requires everyone to eat their vegetables—Che.”

“Only imperialists leave the toilet seat down—Che.”

“It is the goal of Marti and Marx to have your pets spayed or neutered—Che.”

He was so ubiquitous, it became a running joke: “You didn’t finish that drink?  Che would’ve finished it.”

“It’s so counterrevolutionary that you tipped the waiter less than 15%.”

“Che says it’s your turn to buy the next round.”

"Youth must be happy but profound." - Che. The "happy but profound" kids are usually beaten up in the States.

The pictures are even more ridiculous: dashing Che, pensive Che, laughing Che, Che with pipe, Che with cigar, Che with beret, Che without beret, Che with small children, Che with older folks, Che cuddling a puppy, Che rescuing a cat from a palm tree using an empty AK-47 cartridge and trip wire.

If he were alive today, he’d have stayed in private practice in Buenos Aires like his mom wanted.

Luckily, Che faded into the background as we reached a small house in Pinar del Rio.  This was the headquarters of Amor y Esperanza (Love and Hope), a program that teaches artistic skills and techniques to children with Down syndrome.  These students, bless their heart, were the nicest, friendliest people one could ever meet.  Down syndrome children have a heightened emotional awareness, and little or no filter for nuance or cynicism.  With these kids, what you saw was the pure genuine article, and they just gave and gave and gave—giving their time, their art and their hearts to us.

Because of their lack of filter, I wanted to ask what their true feelings were of the regime.  It wasn’t the place for that, and it wasn’t appropriate to ask, anyway.  Maybe today’s issue of Granma will give me a clue.

 

Mr. D reading Granma, the Cuban Communist newspaper. Let's look at the personals "Young Revolutionary, 20s, seeks devil-may-care imperialist pig bent on capitalist exploitation. No drugs, please."

Granma

, named for the boat that whisked Fidel, Che and company back to Cuba in 1956, is the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba.  The boat was named for the original owner’s grandmother, thus is born the running joke that an anti-American rag is named after an affectionate American family name.  Its eight pages read partly like a bad college newspaper, the rest as a tedious art/literary magazine from high school.  They are desperate need of a decent editor—although editing Raul’s or Fidel’s columns could be hazardous to your health.

If you’re looking for an alternative, good luck.  In all my travels, I didn’t see a single newsstand in Cuba.  Not even a stand to pick up a daily Granma, for a good laugh.

Apparently, many Cubans agree with me.  A look at the bedroom in the Amor y Esperanza house revealed a stack of Granmas that looked hardly read.  My guess is a subscription must be mandatory in many official avenues, and their readership takes it about as seriously as I do.

After a celebratory performance by the students (a performance that would’ve been very PG-13 in our country, but hey, it is Cuba), we went to a tobacco plantation in the valley.  This was more to my element, as the tobacco that fills the famous Cuban cigar comes from Pinar del Rio.  The plants, however, looked a little scrawny, but to be expected this early in the growing season.

After a tour of the drying house, my friends and I were offered a selection of cigars for purchase.  In Havana, you have to be careful buying cigars on the street, as everyone claims to have cousins who work in the Cohiba or Montecristo plants.  Out here in the sticks, however, I wasn’t so sure.

A lady pulled out a bundle of churchills she claimed were Cohibas.  The wrappers looked right, and the price worked: about $2.50 a piece.  Yet being out of the box, they seemed fishy.  Considering it was split amongst three of us, it wasn’t much of a risk. The worst that could happen was a pack of $2.50 Te-Amos that tasted like Bermuda grass rolled in dogshit.

(By the way, they were real.  And they were great.)

The local elementary school

There wasn’t much time to savor our victory.  It’s back to propaganda—and Che—as we head over to a local elementary school.   The school was a two-room stucco structure with a makeshift computer lab and a playground made of used tires and scrap wood.  The principal was earnest and sincere in her work, as she rattled on about the educational system, subjects covered, rationale for promotion, etc.

I tuned out as I snuck a peek into the classrooms.  By now, I figured out that the real story took place around and outside the official spiel.

One thing you cannot criticize; kids are kids wherever they are in the world.  These elementary school kids were as cute as can be, especially in their little uniforms.  They were working diligently, very cautious (but curious) about the newcomers in their midst.

"Who are you? And how do you get that fat without exploiting the proletariat?"

Yet the kid in them still snuck out.  A girl with light-brown locks shot me a quick smile and wave in between dictation about the revolution.  Another black boy was mugging for our cameras, as class cut-ups tend to do worldwide.  It was a Spartan classroom, to be sure, but it didn’t look like they were destitute.   The Dell computers in the lab looked in good order, albeit circa 2003.

Yet a glance at the wall reminded you that these classrooms serve a double purpose.  In each room, framed high on the wall like George Washington or Christ on the cross, was a portrait of Che Guevara.  It probably had small print about eating vegetables, doing your homework, and spying on your neighbors.

The blackboard read the date and below it, “52nd year of the Revolution.”  If I wrote “234th year of the Revolution” on my board, half the kids would still be figuring out the math that got that number.

"Sit up straight! No talking!" - Che

Our classrooms do their fair share of indoctrination, too.  Heck, I still follow the old customs that dictate the classroom as a factory that “made Americans” by inculcating the values of democracy, civil rights, rule by law, individual initiative, etc.  It’s just that George Washington is not staring down on us 24-7 from every nook and cranny of the 50 states.

I didn’t hear a peep from the kid that had a problem with all this Che hooha.  Maybe he was sick that day.  Or maybe he was beat up by the other kids so much that he recanted and ratted out the chubby deviant that lent him a copy of the Wall Street Journal or National Review.

The ride back to Havana, a good three hours, gave me a lot to think about.  Well, besides dreaming of a hot large-breasted, bubble-reared Habanera doing something naughty with my Cohibas, I thought very little.  There was sleep that needed to be done; otherwise I’d be an immovable object in a square in Old Havana.

Thankfully, we were not returning to the Riviera.  The Hotel Victoria is a small, quaint business hotel that is very clean, with exceptional staff.  It was in their cozy bar that I sat down with my friend John to smoke cigars and watch baseball (sorry, shouldn’t use the Yankee term, it’s called pelota down there.)

Cuban baseball, or pelota, is the perfect pace for smoking a large premium cigar like a churchill or double corona.  This is because Cuban baseball is agonizingly long.  Pitchers take an exceedingly long time between pitches, and since we’re in a workers’ utopia, there’s no pesky capitalist consumer companies pushing for TV ad time between innings.

Thus, like socialism itself, Cuban baseball has no impetus to hurry up and be more efficient.  Without commercials, a 9 inning game can last five hours—longer if you consider the fact that it’s on state television and the graininess adds at least a half a second per at-bat.

Needless to say, I was exhausted after the cigar.  The game was still going on, and yet there was a feeling of uneasiness.  I needed to walk, to compose my thoughts.  Now I was finally doing the thinking I should’ve been doing instead of dreaming tobacco products in private parts.

Along the way, not half a block, Mariana, our group leader, beckoned me over.  We walked for a while, and it was at this point that I needed to come clean.  I’m sure there were hints about my political beliefs: the fact that I seemed to be one of the few young people with hard currency when necessary, the squirming at official prattle, and the photo of me reading Granma.  But I felt that it was important that I was honest with her about my beliefs, my standpoint—and my utter confusion about this place.

Cuba mattered to me on a visceral level.  I had friends who were exiles.  I wasn’t sure how fellow conservatives would treat me as a traveler to Cuba—supposedly as an “embargo runner.”  Two countries I care about deeply, Ecuador (my mother’s birthplace) and Venezuela (the landing spot for many D’Orazios in the New World), have leaders that look to Cuba as an example.  I was in Cuba for two days and my head was spinning.

But mostly it was the apprehension which tied me up in knots.  I was waiting, hoping, expecting, to see the iron fist of repression come crashing into me.  Even among the din of propaganda, I had yet to feel it.  The Cubans themselves see the slogans as rather empty: was I reading too much into it?  Had I been wrong all this time?

Mariana, ever the comforting soul, assured me that the days ahead will help me figure it out.  Havana, she explained, is a different animal from the countryside.  It was best that I look and make up my own mind.

Most importantly, she reassured me that my coming here was the right idea; even going so far as to say I was “brave” for coming here when many of my brethren, if given the opportunity, would refuse.  Mariana and I didn’t see eye-to-eye politically.  In fact, we couldn’t be farther apart in that sense.  But at least we had a common ground in looking at this place on its own terms.

I walked back to the hotel, walking along the Malecon as the surf pounded over the sea wall, occasionally spilling into the sidewalk.  Havana was eerily quiet that night—then again, the ballgame was still on.

It was a gorgeous night, and I couldn’t wait for tomorrow’s adventure.

Part V features Old Havana, counterrevolutionary activity with a shopping bag, and celebrating a sports championship.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part III

Las Terrazas, where today's story begins.

When is a nature reserve not a nature reserve?

This was the question as we spent the day a few hours to the west of Cuba, in the province of Pinar del Rio.  We were heading to Las Terrazas, a famed ecological preserve located close to the Sierra del Rosario mountains.  I was prepared for beautiful vistas, exotic plants, animals that were too pretty to be tasty.

What I found was a tropical showpiece, a Theresienstadt in the Antilles.

Located in today’s Czech Republic, Theresienstadt was a Jewish ghetto created by the Nazis to house prominent Jews from Germany, Austria and then-Czechoslovakia.  It developed a rich educational and cultural life among those deported there, yet many saw it as a façade for the horrors that occurred, similar to the atrocities in other ghettoes across Europe.

Theresienstadt’s most infamous period was when it was used as a propaganda tool by the Germans to prove that Jews were treated humanely in the Third Reich.  Red Cross officials saw clean, orderly streets, well-fed, happy children and adults developing music, the arts and theatre.  It was all a ruse.   All the shops and cafes were fiction.  The overcrowded Jews were conveniently shipped to Auschwitz.  There was even a film made of the hoax in 1944; all those responsible for filmmaking were also deported to death camps in Poland.

On the surface, this seems like an incredibly harsh comparison.  After all, Theresienstadt was the scene of brutal slaughter in a system of mass genocide.  No such naked aggression was going on here.   I had yet to really feel the iron fist of Cuban repression (the midget cop from the night before notwithstanding), and the whole area of Las Terrazas was just gorgeous, even under the torrential rain. 

Yet this place just didn’t look like the other Cuban settlements we’d see on the countryside.  It certainly didn’t look like Havana.

Its story is straight out of the Theresienstadt playbook.  The area had been the province of an old coffee plantation and a patchwork of local growers until the government decided to come in and build “ecologically friendly” housing for the farmers.  The locals were given a choice: move into these houses or “stay on their land.”  I sure saw a lot of the folks who chose the new housing, yet those who refused seemed noticeably absent.

The place was colorful, clean (at least, compared to most rural areas in Latin America), rather neatly organized.  Even the barnyard animals seemed placed in just the right areas: chickens roaming where they should, guinea fowl prowling ever so carefully on the rails, dogs and cats keeping a respectful distance from the tourists.

This had to be an obligatory stop on any foreign tour of Cuba.  There were at least three, maybe four tour buses in the area, all of which were stopping in almost the exact same places.  Few locals were walking about, but there were plenty of Europeans gawking and poking their pudgy faces in every direction. 

After an introductory drink (or two, in my case) we proceeded towards the clinic for this area, where we’d get our first taste of Cuba’s vaunted health care system.  This, along with education, was one of the pillars of the revolution.  Most of the Cuban government’s reputation worldwide is based on its health care.  So it’s best we look at it in more detail.

 “Everyone has the right to health protection and care. The state guarantees this right;
– by providing free medical and hospital care by means of the installations of the rural medical service network, polyclinics, hospitals, preventative and specialized treatment centers;
– by providing free dental care;
– by promoting the health publicity campaigns, health education, regular medical examinations, general vaccinations and other measures to prevent the outbreak of disease. All the population cooperates in these activities and plans through the social and mass organizations.” – Article 50, Cuban Constitution, 1976

No one can really argue with the spirit of the goal of universal health care as described in Cuba’s constitution.  Nor can there be argument in the dedication of Cuban doctors to their work in treating their compatriots, often with pitiful pay, poor resources and less-than-perfect conditions. 

Inside the doctor's office at Las Terrazas

Yet when I met one of the doctors at Las Terrazas, I got the distinct feeling that he was hiding something—or that he was forced to hide something. 

He rattled on the standard answers about vaccinations, neonatal care, procedures for diagnosis, etc.  There were some questions, though, which made him squirm somewhat before he could formulate the “correct” answer.  Medicines, HIV/AIDS, operations, nutrition—in each instance, I could see the doctor want to say what’s on his mind, but instead give a stock answer. 

Who was pulling the strings?   The tour guides?  The nurse?  Someone nearby we didn’t see?  Again, the veil is, albeit slowly, lifting on Las Terrazas (cue Theresienstadt again).

I am not an expert on Cuban health care, so I won’t go into a huge critique of the system.  I will state this, however: there is calculable evidence that former Communist regimes such as the Soviet Union, as well as current ones like China, have had a dubious history of corrupting, fabricating or distorting their own statistics in order to look better than their Western rivals.  Cuba could very well be in the same boat.

Furthermore, the statistics reported to the UN and the World Health Organization was not compiled independently.  They report what the Cuban government gives them as statistics, to be accepted in good faith.  Any tours of facilities are done with the guidance of government officials or functionaries, thereby opening the possibility for distortion.  Heck, I rarely believe what my own government tells me, let alone a government that guards its information as tightly as Cuba’s.

The showpiece that was Las Terrazas revealed itself again in two locations.  The first was the home of a local artist named Lester Campa.  His studio abutted his one-story house, the typical Las Terrazas construction of off-white stucco and brightly colored shutters.  Campa, of course, was a must-see stop on the tour, as bus after bus of foreigners tramped through his studio to ogle and occasionally purchase his work; which revolved around juxtapositions and natural/manmade congruencies (my term—I guess I can bullshit enough to be an art critic, too.)

Campa explained to us the difficulties in producing art students in Cuba.   There are few art schools for training, as well as the usual complaint of lack of facilities.  Looking at his well-fortified stash of oils and acrylics from Europe, however, proved otherwise.  So, too, did a sneak peek at his house: flat-screen TV, new kitchen appliances, nice furniture. 

The revolution’s been very, very good to Lester Campa.  I guess he was following the Cuban Constitution, which states:

“ there is freedom of artistic creation as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution…”  — Section D, Article 39, Cuban Constitution, 1976

The last stop was Maria’s house.  Maria was an old woman with a face worn from a hard life, yet quick with a smile and welcoming of us foreigners and our hard cash.  She had a small coffee shop overlooking the valley, and we all partook of some local brew (which made everyone much more vigorous, believe me.) 

Inside Maria's house.

Her house, like Lester Campa’s, seemed very atypical.  She had a nice TV set (not a flat-screen, but a better-quality tube set), decent furniture, and a china cabinet full of tchotchkes that would put a Jewish grandmother to shame. 

Plus, just nearby, was both a gift shop and a green-clad officer of the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT.  Was this sad-looking man in fatigues the real man in charge in Las Terrazas?  Maybe I was paranoid, but in hindsight, it seems more and more plausible.

I left the “biosphere reserve” in a daze: what exactly did I just see?  This could not be a typical countryside town.  Especially since the roadside between Las Terrazas and Vinales, where we’d be staying, was dotted with half-built, dilapidated shacks and one-room stucco blocks that no tour guide would want to point out.

Fortunately, there was enough later to make me forget my cynicism, at least for one night.

View of the valley from Los Jazmines

The Los Jazmines hotel overlooked a gorgeous valley, with giant monoliths rising like tropical bon-bons on the horizon, sheltering a patchwork of fields, houses and overgrown brush.  It was out my balcony, taking pictures of this place that I started to really love Cuba, to really enjoy this place, regardless of my own skepticism about certain “contrived” aspects of the day.   Nevermind all the bullshit about tours, the “canned” answers from political functionaries or the cattle-call of tourist traps; this was a great country.

The booze, as usual, certainly helped.  Dinner was punctuated by rum, a gift from our group leader to all of us.  My mates and I quickly dispatched our bottle in short order (although I think I took in the lions’ share—if anyone at my table can verify that.).  Apparently there was a party going on in the town down in the valley, so a fair amount of us proceeded down to enjoy the evening.

Through the night, we danced, drank, shot the shit and really started to bond.  I met an Englishman who looked at us in awe; again, we Yanks have quite a difficult road to get to this island.  My salsa moves were still intact—thanks to Latin breeding on my mothers’ part—and I danced like I hadn’t in years.

The most interesting, and unnerving, part of the night was when I met an apparent “local.” We chatted and drank and got to know each other.  Then the following exchange was made:

“Anything you want, man.  Anything you want, let me know.  You know, girls?  You like girls?”

“No, no sorry, man.  Thanks, but I have a girlfriend, so…no thanks…”

“Oh…you like boys?  You like little boys?”

There must be someone out there who can figure out this quantum leap in logic.

The night concluded with a walk up the valley back to the hotel, in moonlight.  I hadn’t been in real rural areas in a while, so the quiet took some getting used to.  The walking was also difficult, as a bottle of rum, numerous beers and an oncoming blister had slowed my gait somewhat. 

Yet the night was indescribably beautiful—just us, walking up the hill, talking about all sorts of subjects.  I mainly stayed quiet, trying to digest all that had happened that day, and the day previous. 

It brought me back to my previous question.  Las Terrazas, I figured, was a showpiece, a Theresienstadt-type of community meant to show the world what Cubans can do when presented with a problem.  Yet I wasn’t convinced that this was really Cuba.

From that night, I would need to look beyond the group, and break the first cardinal rule of the tour.  It would be the only way to keep an open mind.

Part IV will feature some inspiring artists, thoughts on tobacco, an elementary school, and soul-searching in a Havana night.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part II

The Hotel Riviera, where our story begins.

The first day in Cuba had paranoia, confusion, restlessness, anxiety, repulsion, excitement, inebriation and absolute bliss. 

This is de rigueur for any jaunt in Latin America—that plus a raging case of the shits, which I did not get. 

It’s simply rare that it all happened on the same night.

Jose Marti International Airport is designed to assuage paranoia.  The stern looks, the military uniforms, the photographing of every entrant—all there to make sure the state is secure.   Yet there were glimmers of Latinate inefficiency here and there.  As always, some people slid ahead of us in line, making me wonder which member of the Politburo I had to fellate to get anywhere in this country.  I’ll pass on Fidel, thank you.

To an extent, the government has a point: it has been estimated that roughly 80-90% of the general population has little, if any, confidence in the regime or the revolution.  That’s like Walter Mondale running things all through the rest of the 1980s; bands of middle-American white folks speaking in hushed voices about runaway taxes, pulling out of foreign adventures in Nicaragua, and…never mind.

The most bizarre feature of the process were the nurses (yes, nurses, gown and all).  Along with a customs declaration, each entrant into Cuba needed a health form that stipulated any diseases or medical conditions we were bringing to the island.  It even included space for “nasal secretions”, creating a hysterical scene of cold-ridden travelers hastily sucking up their snot in order to not get thrown out.  The nurses made me want to bend over and cough, but I handed my form, smiled politely and went on my way.

Again, this paranoia has some basis in fact.  Nobody checked Columbus and his crew for smallpox and typhoid when they landed in 1492; ask the Taino, the Ciboney and the Arawak how well that went.  Remember that Cuba is an island—whatever is brought to Cuba inevitably stays here, like smallpox, typhus, malaria and ravenous European tourists.

And tourists we were, in essence.  Never mind our “research delegation” status or our “general license” for academic research.  Our motley coterie, great as they were, were at that point little better than the black-socked, chain-smoking, loudmouthed Teutonic throngs that seemed to infest the island like Visigoths of yore.  I’m talking about Canadians, of course (just kidding, but they’re just as bad).

Even with the airport, my sixth sense of bullshit did not really ping itself until our tour guides began their spiel on the bus.  To be honest, they were really incredible guides throughout the trip, knowledgeable, giving in their expertise and even funny.  Their English language included a mixture of teenage vernacular (“Check this.”) with the effects of numerous American crime dramas (“Approach the bench.”) Both of these expressions became the running joke of the trip, proving that even leftists can have a sense of humor sometimes.

NOTE: The Big Apple and Hemingways’ death?  Both wrong.  I checked.  Don’t mess with a Jeopardy! Champion without expecting to lose.

Anyway, what really struck me were two words of warning from the tour guide: “Keep with the group at all times,” and “Keep an open mind.”  The former already had me thinking of other groups kept together: the Cherokees in the 1830s, perhaps.  Being miserable together is rarely fun.  Besides, most of the real thrill is going to the places you’re not supposed to go.  Well, it’s still the first day…

That second thing, though, the whole open mind business was what really got me.  Whenever someone tells you to “keep an open mind,” it’s usually a signal that whatever comes next is not to your liking.  My mother said it while she shoved lentil soup down my throat, my father with boiled tripe, and my girlfriend with sushi (I have since surrendered to sushi.  It’s a nasty vice.)  In our country, whenever someone insists on impartiality, on being of an “open mind,” or, dare I say, “fair and balanced”, it rarely ends up that way. 

And being the odd duck, I was probably the one to have to eat the tripe this week. 

Yet little revolutionary rhetoric was bandied about that night.  Our first dinner was at El Ajibe, a nice faux-cabana looking joint with big tables, a stocked bar and friendly staff.  Oh yeah, not a single Cuban was in attendance at this place.  We were clearly at a tourist stop, as packs of teenage South American snobs pissed away their copper reserves and Miami slush funds on bad mojitos and rice-and-beans.  This was our toe into Cuba…I guess the pool’s still too cold. 

Good thing this meal was included, since one thought was still nagging me—where the fuck do I change my money.  I had a pile of Canadian dollars sitting on me, since you can’t use US credit cards here, and some US greenbacks.  It did me no good, as we were now in the land of the CUC (pronounced, fittingly, “kook”)

A 3-CUC bill. The objective of our quest.

In 1994, during the Special Period when Cuba was suffering from withdrawal after the Soviet spigot ran dry, the Cuban government introduced the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC.  The CUC replaced the US dollar as the only hard currency on the island in 2004, and the only currency in use by tourists.  Most areas of Havana and other tourist locations operate in CUCs, often solely in CUCs.  This doesn’t bode well for the average Cuban, who gets paid a combination of CUCs and national pesos (Moneda Nacional, or MNs), worth about 1/25 of a CUC.  We’ll leave the problems of the CUC system for a later date.

My "charming" abode at the Riviera.

Right now, the problem was finding these multi-colored buggers in the middle of the night.  We arrived at our first hotel, the once-grand, now woefully faded Habana Riviera.  It was the dreamchild of American gangster Meyer Lansky, and opened just in time to see Castro take it away in 1959.  Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the Riviera, which looks like an abandoned Acapulco resort.  After placing my bags in the mildewy suite with collapsing curtains (shown here), we proceeded to our adventure of CUC acquisition.

Who knew it would be such a torture.

At first, we heard that the hotel’s money exchange office was open.  Then, it was closed.  But the Melia Cohiba would have money for sure…that is until we learned that the Cohiba ran out of money.  Yes, it actually ran out.  The only place to conceivably get CUCs was at the Hotel Nacional, an old 19th Century warhorse of a hotel that held the likes of Winston Churchill and Naomi Campbell.  It was way on the other side of the Vedado neighborhood, and we needed a cab.

Cabs needed CUCs.

No one had CUCs.

Except me.  For the first of multiple times, the capitalist will (seemingly) save the day.

Luckily, I made a long distance phone call, calming my parents and telling them I have not, in point of fact, stolen into the jungle with an AK-47 and a box of Cohibas.  The call was a whopping 13 CUCs or so, but since I only had American, they would take it (real arm twisting, there).  I got 5 CUCs in return, just enough for one cab ride. 

Contrary to popular myth, not all cabs in Cuba are of the 1950s’ Chevy Bel Air quality.  We packed four Americans into a 1970s era Soviet-made Lada cab with cramped interiors and doors that required sheer will just to keep them closed.  Never mind that the cabbie was careening at top speed down the Malecon, a multi-lane road abutting the sea wall.  One false move and we’d all be pieces of fatty chum floating into Key West.

The Nacional beckoned, with its 19th century lobby and uniformed doormen.  The 24-hour money exchange bureau was closed.  Later in the week, I returned to the Nacional, only to be told that the booth was indeed open for 24 hours yet it wouldn’t open until 7:30 PM.  In a place as regulated as Cuba, you’d think they’d enforce truth in advertising a little more.

So now we’re stranded far off from the Riviera with no CUCs.  It took some doing, but we found a cab willing to take American dollars.  Another Lada whizzing us back to the Riviera, and it looked like a very short night.

Upon our return, we happened upon a gas station across from the hotel, and it was here that I got my first encounter with Cuban friendliness.  For a skeptical, on-their-toes American, this can take some getting used to.  A group of amateur musicians was outside the gas station, greeting us and chatting us up in conversation for no reason other than we’re strangers in Havana.  I immediately thought they wanted a handout, and that’s the problem.  They didn’t.  Between the paltry state-run media and the overpriced tourist bars and clubs, Cubans have few outlets when it comes to cutting loose.  Personal communication—any communication, for that matter—becomes a social activity in Cuba. 

Furthermore, we managed to score some boxes of Planchao, which is Cuban rum in a juice box.  Instead of Hi-C, out came cold white lightning that stung the mouth like gasoline, scarred like turpentine and had the distinct taste of third-rate tequila.  Thus the second rule of Cuban communication: rum makes everything better. 

We passed the rum with our new musical buddies, played some local tunes and danced a little party outside the gas station.  It was a real gasser, especially when an unusually friendly young woman came and insisted on dancing with me. 

As a gentleman, I obliged, only knowing too well what the next step would be. 

Since the Special Period, prostitution has become a rising problem in Cuba.  Though technically illegal, the practice has become one of the few tried-and-true methods to obtain hard cash on the island.  Working girls prowl the nightspots, the Malecon, the clubs where sweaty foreigners ogle and grope, and a certain gas station where a certain sweaty foreigner was about to be groped.  I declined politely, repeatedly, until offered a sexual act somewhere behind the station.  That was it—enough.  Thank God my compatriots intervened.  It would be the first of many advances I’d get that week.

So hookers notwithstanding, we continued drinking, graduating from Planchao to beer, and thus interchanging about a phenomenon we know well—snow.  Our new Cuban friends were fascinated by the stuff, which made us appreciate how different we are.  Only in Cuba can such connections happen at two in the morning at a gas station.  We’d be arrested in the states for such loitering.

Cuban police seemed to be just as uptight.

A marked police car turned and parked in front of the station.  Out came a short officer with a beret, uniform and sidearm.  “Now we’re talking”, I thought.  “Here comes the beady-eyed secret police agent, rubber truncheons, electrodes up the kazoo.  Come on, you pinko bastard, do your worst!  I’ll go Rambo on your punk-ass…”

The little bastard asked for IDs all around.  We gave him our hotel cards, he asked for nationalities.  He gave us back our cards, questioned the other members of the band, and then proceeded to chat up the group next to us.  It seems that cops the world over love to bust balls for its own sake, even in Cuba.  Well, so much for the torture chamber.

The night was winding down, and I headed to my casa de mildew.  I was only in Cuba for a few hours, and there were cops, hookers, musical locals, strong hooch, fast, dangerous cars, and late-night carousing.

I was loving this fucking country already.

Next stop, the hinterlands in Part III.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part I

The "Golden Ticket" of US Travel: the Cuba Tourist Visa

Like any good socialist utopia, entry into Cuba involves lines—several of them.

To board a 3:30 charter flight from JFK to Havana required us to be there at 11:00, a full four and a half hours before departure.  Once you arrive, there are several lines to negotiate.  One for your ticket.  Another for your bags.  Another to pay for any overweight costs of your bags.  Another through the security checkpoint. 

And yet another to get on a bus to get to the plane itself, since our flight doesn’t get a terminal.  No flight to any other country requires such rigmarole.  Then again, Cuba is not like any other country.

For Americans, Cuba is a forbidden fruit in international travel.  Since January 3, 1961, the United States has had no formal diplomatic relations with Cuba.  An economic embargo has been in place for almost 50 years.   Most Americans cannot travel nor spend money in Cuba.  The very few who are eligible for travel—Cuban nationals, humanitarian groups, educators, etc.—need to hop several hurdles. 

To obtain a license from the US Treasury department, a person must submit paperwork attesting to their occupation, purpose and itinerary while in Cuba.  My trip was through the Center for Cuban Studies, a cultural advocacy group committed to normalizing relations between the two countries.  As a “research delegation”, I needed to submit my resume (my political affiliation was noticeably absent) and the paperwork was thus filed to get the necessary licenses and visas for my visit.   One condition of that license is that I disseminate my information to others in the United States. 

These posts provide evidence of that obligation.

Yet this was the farthest from my mind as I stood on my multiple lines at JFK.  Needless to say, I knew in the back of my mind that I was not your typical visitor to Cuba.  Many, but not all, of the visitors who come to Cuba have at least some sympathy for the Castro regime.  Some groups, like the Venceremos Brigade, march openly over the Canadian border flaunting their defiance of the embargo.

This was not me.  I don’t think they were expecting a right-wing, conservative Republican to be in their company.  For the first time, I felt like an outcast, a deviant, a rebel…and it was fun.

In a sense, the upcoming chronicles about Cuba center mostly about this dichotomy: a conservative in a world created, engineered and celebrated by the left.   How would I react?  What can I say?  What can’t I say?  Is there a polite way to disagree in this country?  How will this group react to my political views?  How will Cuba react to my political views?

I hadn’t even stepped on the plane yet and I was already confused.

Yet that didn’t dampen my excitement.  Like Dad’s Playboys stashed under the mattress, there is a naughty feeling when visiting a country closed to most Americans.  My white-collar friends can go to Tahiti, Bangkok or Phuket.  They can’t come to Cuba, and it’s a thrilling feeling to be envied by folks that make much more money than me.

So as I flew into Havana, the anxiety was replaced by excitement, romance, a bit of danger…

…and women in lab coats?

More on the first days in Cuba in Part II.

NOTE: Any pictures about my Cuba trip can be seen on my Facebook page.  The files are WAY too big for the blog.

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