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.
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.)
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.
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.