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.”
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.
, 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.)
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.
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.
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.