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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Epilogue

One of many gratuitous shots of old cars in Cuba scattered throughout this post.

“What did we ever do to deserve the embargo?”

Our tour guide asked us this question in a small group on the bus one day.  Since I was the resident capitalist, everyone was waiting to hear what I had to say.  Sitting and squirming, my response was less than stellar.  It was some sad-sack tome on the value of individual achievement and the market system and how the embargo is the most un-capitalist of measures that hurt everyone.  Everyone nodded in acknowledgement of my answer.

This was not what I wanted to say.

 I think he deserves a better answer.  That answer can also say a lot about post-Castro Cuba—and what can, or will, happen when there is no Castro in power (Fidel, Raul or otherwise).

First of all, the question he asked is the wrong question.  No one in their right mind would ever say that anyone, let alone the Cuban people, DESERVE to have their market freedom, their economy, their resources strangled by an embargo.  It’s a straw-man argument that forces cheap sympathy yet does little to resolve the conflict.

This should be the better question to ask: “To whose benefit is it to keep the embargo going?”

In both Cuba and here in the States, this is a far more troublesome question, as it often brings the conflicting needs and ideologies of disparate groups into greater focus.  A whole list of culprits comes to mind: US business, US military, the Cuban exiles, the Cuban government, the Cuban Communist Party, the Castros, the European corporations in cahoots with the Cuban government. 

None of them are completely blameless.

The US and the Exiles

Let’s start with our homegrown suspects—and none have beaten a dead horse for as long as the US military. 

For half a century, the US has enforced an economic embargo on the island in a futile attempt to “starve” Cuba into regime change.  Even after an ever-flexible authoritarian apparatus and a flood of European companies filling the void, the powers-that-be still insist that this is the best way. 

Contrary to what the left thinks, the great American capitalists are NOT pleased with this arrangement.  Cuba is the largest market in the Caribbean, and the great US companies are shut out of that action.  Granted, their Cuban infrastructure was confiscated during the Revolution, which leaves a bad taste.  Yet 50 years later, after European companies managed a foothold in Cuba, shouldn’t some Yankee firms go in and play ball with the Commies if that gives them the future “advanced market entry”?

We’ve been in the embargo business since 1807, and almost all have been unmitigated disasters.  Our CIA’s attempts to assassinate Castro—all 638 of them—prove that a Skulls and Bones secret handshake and a Brooks Brothers bow tie make shitty hired  killers.  So why has the US government not taken the hint?  Why have not changed course and forged a new direction in foreign policy?

According to many, especially on the left, much of the reason lies with the powerful, and often troublesome, bloc of Cuban exiles that have come to the United States since the 1960s. 

Now, I’m not going to knock the exiles.  I have friends who are either exiles themselves or the children of exiles.  Most of these people came here for legitimate reasons: escaping political repression, economic opportunity (largely based on the lack of economic opportunity in post-revolutionary Cuba), etc.  It would be hypocritical of me to smack down another group of immigrants when I (like most Americans) come from foreign stock as well.

Yet as I look at the organizations and politicians that represent the Cuban community, something troubles me.  One is the lack of realistic expectations—and often for nefarious reasons.  Though not true of most groups, it’s safe to say that an “embargo industry” has arisen among the myriad groups that represent Cuban exiles.  From the benign to the militant, they see the embargo not only as necessary for regime change in their homeland, but also a raison d’etre for their own existence. 

Complicating this is the expectations of a post-Castro Cuba: a Cuba where the clock is turned back.  This has taken form in two ways: calls for repatriation of confiscated property and nostalgia for the Batista years before 1959. 

Here, I’ll be blunt.   Cuba will never, and I mean never, return to the days before 1959.  Too much has happened, and besides, that era had enough ill will and official malfeasance to negate any misty-eyed feelings in Miami.  Whatever happens after the Castros will have to deal with the institutional remains of the Cuban Revolution, not sweep them clean.

That said, reclaiming property and businesses lost in the confiscations of 1959-1962 is a pipe dream.  The return of state-run enterprises to private entities will be a slow and painful process in it of itself.  50 years later, I have serious doubts that the absentee former landlords of these properties will be welcomed back to Cuba with open arms.

Below is a Dutch documentary about how Cuban groups are preparing for a post-Castro Cuba. 

There are extensive plans over what the government and society of Cuba will look like in the next phase.  Yet many exiles see themselves as coming back to “govern” Cuba when the change occurs.  While some Cubans may welcome them (Cubans in the US provide millions in aid to their compatriots on the island, after all), there will undoubtedly be resentment among native Cubans towards exiles who invariably had resources to leave the island, instead of suffering the consequences of the revolution as they did. 

After half a century, these exiles could be seen as merely another foreign interloper.  It isn’t certain, but the exiles may be more of a hindrance than a help to post-Castro Cuba.

The Cuban community, before it sets foot on its homeland again, needs to really consider what it can, and what it cannot bring to the table.  This involves the inevitable conclusion that not every exile may want to go back.

The biggest assumption about the exile community, and one that has changed over time, is its homogeneity.  We are now at least two generations removed from the first generation of exiles in the 1960s, and at least one generation removed from the Marielitos of the 1980s.  Younger Cuban-Americans, with little, if any, firsthand knowledge of the island, must have developed attitudes and opinions that have altered the proscribed course of the “exile” mentality. 

The embargo, US-Cuban relations, and other issues have divided, rather than united, Cubans of all ages to the point that they will probably no longer be the solid Republican voting bloc that politicians hoped—turning Cubans into (‘gasp!’) just another Hispanic group pandered to by Democrats ad nauseum.  In fact, Cuban-Americans, over time, may possibly cease to even call themselves “exiles,” reflecting the reality of living in another country for half a century.

If less and less people want to go back, what incentive is there to open an embargo that gives your group identity, legitimacy and government funding?

The Castros, the PCC and the Euros that Love Them

So as much as there are people that want the embargo to go away (capitalists, leftists, some politicians and some Cuban exiles), there are others that benefit from the blockage (other conservatives, military establishment, most of the Cuban-American contingent in Congress and other Cuban exiles). 

Yet before the Venceremos brigade and the editorial board of Mother Jones starts cheering that I’ve joined the barricades, there’s plenty of blame to spread on the other side.  In fact, a lions’ share of the blame goes to the dynamic duo that started this whole mess—the Castro brothers.

It is now common knowledge that the US embargo is a huge reason—perhaps the only reason—that the Castros have remained in power for half a century.  With an economic embargo, Fidel and company can blame any and all shortcomings of the regime on American aggression.  Regardless of the ineptitude of the government, the embargo stands as the great Yankee bogeyman that keeps Cubans, on the surface, loyal to the Communists in general and Fidel in particular.

Don’t just take my word for it.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated that the Castros “do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalization with the United States, because they would then lose all their excuses for what hasn’t happened in Cuba in the last 50 years.”  Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, wrote in his 2005 book Portraits and Profiles that Castro would be out of power within three months if the embargo was lifted.  Aznar’s words carry an interesting weight, considering that Spanish companies have worked extensively with the Cuban government, particularly in tourism.

Along with the Castros, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) and its apparatus of terror also benefit from economic closure.  With an economic embargo comes an embargo of information, the perfect mix for paramilitary thugs to exact fear into the populace.  The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and the Rapid Response Brigades function because the Cuban people have no independent access to information about any alternative to the status quo.

End the embargo, and the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.  Woe to the government spies, snitches and CDR block captains that day.  Old scores will be settled, neighbors may turn on each other, and the bloodshed may be too much to comprehend.

However, another wrinkle was added to this tale recently.  In order to collect hard currency to maintain their power, Fidel and Raul threw the Communist Manifesto out the window and opened limited investment in Cuba to foreign, non-US companies agreeing to joint ventures with the Cuban government.  Companies such as Spanish resort conglomerate Melia and Italian telecommunications giant Telecom Italia snaked into the Cuban economy, creating businesses and infrastructure to pump tourist cash into government coffers.  How happy would they be to have an embargo lifted, and Hilton Hotels, Coca-Cola and Verizon nipping at their heels? 

The Post-Castro Cuba, more questions than answers

Needless to say, lifting the embargo will be but one element in a process leading to what is widely considered a post-revolutionary Cuba.  

The next step involves supplanting the Castro regime.  All outside efforts to do so have failed, and the internal opposition is relatively rudderless, divided into factions that seldom work together.  An interesting article in the Journal of Democracy highlights the difficulties in creating regime change, even with the lifting of an embargo.

Even with a regime change, however, the massive volume of questions that need to be answered—in a relatively short time—would confound even our founding fathers.  Here is but a sampling:

  • Would the government maintain its current structure or change to something more in line with new ideologies? 
  • How would elections and political campaigns work? 
  • How would political parties organize? 
  • What would happen to the old PCC?  Would it be outlawed, like the Nazi party in Germany, or will it be reorganized as one political party among many? 
  • Would the PCC have to dismantle its apparatus of intimidation, the CDRs, Rapid Response Brigades, etc., in order to participate in democratic politics?
  • What is to become of former officers of the old regime, particularly ones considered “criminals”?
  • Would institutions of civil order and public maintenance be maintained?
  • What would be the military’s role in this new system?
  • How would Cuba re-define its relationship to the United States?
  • How would Cuba re-define its relationship to allies of the former government, such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil?
  • How can the Cuban economy be changed to a capitalist model?  Should it be changed at all, or should there be a hybrid of capitalist and socialist elements?
  • If government businesses are to revert to private ownership, how will that process work?  Will former party leaders suddenly become billionaires as in Russia?  Will workers get first crack at shares in new corporations, with full voting rights to boards of directors as well as executive management?
  • What is to become of the business relationships made before the regime change?
  • How will services like education and health care—cornerstones of the propaganda of the previous regime—continue in the new system?
  • How will taxation work?
  • Will “full employment” continue to be the goal, or will the process of job creation and unemployment change?
  • How open is “open”?  Will information be open and accessible, or will some form of censorship exist?
  • What protections for basic rights will exist?
  • How will crime, law enforcement and incarceration be affected?
  • What is to be done about the “legacy” of the Cuban Revolution?  Should it be written out like a Stalinist purge, denounced loudly and openly, or integrated into the narrative of Cuban history, focusing both on accomplishments and failures?

This is but a fraction of the problems that will exist in the post-Castro island.  Few of them will be resolved right away, and with all regime changes comes some measure of bloodshed—some more than others.  My hope is that the process of transition will be as painless as possible. 

However, do not expect a Singapore or a Taiwan overnight: the socialist system will probably be  weaned slowly from Cuban society, rather than risking a massive revolution with potentially catastrophic side effects.

Finally, I wanted to get back to the original question about the embargo.  The tensions between Cuba and the United States, apart from strict ideology, also amount to a crisis of irrationality.  Embargos have a tendency to entrench longstanding hatreds and prejudices, and Cuba is no exception. 

The voices of reason and pragmatism, however, have been drowned out in the din of obstructionist rhetoric and ideological saber-rattling. 

The need for regime change is evident, at least in my eyes.  But I’m not naïve enough to say that a quick insurrection will make things great again.  The first step is normalization between the two countries.  Let reason and rationality prevail, utilizing points of political and economic convergence, and we the openings can happen sooner rather than later.

For the sake of Cuba and the United States, let’s hope and pray that reason can prevail.

And for all the Cubans in Miami and Union City, time to end with a little nostalgia.  Here’s a 1932 travel film about Havana.  Note the “newly” constructed Capitol building, as well as the snappy straw hats on the Prado.  Enjoy.

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

Santa Maria del Mar.

I’m fully convinced that there is no social, political or moral problem that can’t be solved with palm trees, endless beaches, and copious amounts of hooch.

My malaise of the two days previous—a malaise that drove me to violent, often psychopathic thoughts—would finally break on this last day in Cuba.  No, I didn’t join the Orlando Bosch fan club, nor did I go on some right-wing killing spree.   No members of the CCP were under my knife; not a single CDR apparatchik was swinging from a rope in a rage.

 In fact, exactly the opposite: Saturday was the day I reminded myself, for good or bad, why I was falling in love with Cuba.

 It began with our group taking an unscheduled break from the routine, at a little place called Santa Maria del Mar.  Santa Maria del Mar is part of a string of beach towns that stretch from Havana’s eastern edge.  Go far enough, and you reach Varadero, the massive resort mecca of white-sand beach, posh resorts and crowds of tourists that fuels the Cuban tourism machine. 

Santa Maria was, thankfully, not Varadero (although I did see Canadians there, too).  It was, in fact, a local beach where local Cubans tend to go.  Local beach usually conjures up Coney Island, or the Jersey Shore—littered coastlines, mobs of tanned, sweaty bodies in brackish water, teeming boardwalks of hawkers and tacky shops. 

Nothing prepared me for this.  Though I heard other beaches are more spectacular, it was hard to imagine.  Santa Maria was just too beautiful.

The turquoise water, sand clean and white, cushioning breezes, palm trees swaying, little huts to buy drinks…I can see why so many tourists flock here.   Sometimes, the last thing you want to think about is politics.  A dip in the water, a tan and a drink is what’s necessary.

That wonderful beach couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Lying on the deck chair, my hat covering my already-red pate, with the world’s best pina colada in my hand, a voice shouted in my brain:

“Hey asshole!  What the fuck’s the matter with you!  That’s some sick shit going through your brain, buddy, and I KNOW you’re not like that!  Get your fucking act together!”

The Marine drill sergeant that is my conscience couldn’t be clearer.  I was so foolish to fritter my last two days in pointless, and violent, daydreams.  It wasn’t me, all that killing and gunplay, the horrific thoughts about people with which I felt a genuine connection.

It also dawned on me that it was the Saturday before Easter.  Even for a Catholic as lapsed as I, my attitude was entirely un-Christian.  There had to be a more positive way to channel my anger, my rage, my indignation. 

Inside the Artisan Market

After the sojourn at the beach, we went to the artisan market for some souvenir shopping.   It was a very organized affair near a pretty smelly stretch of Havana harbor.  Paintings lined two sides of the market, with the usual smattering of shirts, caps, knickknacks and whatnot in the middle.  This was definitely a tourist paradise, and it offered me nothing as I quickly strolled through the booths.

Instead, I took a walk outside.

Walking through the streets of the neighborhood outside the market, much of what I hated about Cuba was there in front of me: the dilapidated houses, the lack of amenities, the stores with empty shelves, etc.  But that didn’t matter to me today. 

On one corner, some guys were fixing an old car.  On another, a small gym was packed with people watching what I guessed was amateur boxing.  There were women doing laundry, neighbors deep in conversation, and children playing in the street.

Anywhere you go in the world, children have the best radar for foreigners.   A group of them immediately took me in, noticing my camera.  We played their brand of stickball for a while, using a bottle cap for a ball and a PVC pipe for a bat.  It was a great time, at least for the kids:  watching a fat, out-of-shape Yankee imperialist shank bottlecaps in all directions had them rolling in laughter.

some of my new friends

A couple of kids, who seemed a little ashamed to be doing it, then came up to me and asked for money.  They put together a story about their mother needing an operation and not having enough money.  I wasn’t fooled, but I didn’t care: soon enough, the kids on my impromptu kickball team lined up and got about 10 CUC a piece for ice cream, candy and whatever crap they normally could never get.  I was able to take some photos of them in return.

When I left to get back to the hotel, the kids were there to wish me bon voyage.  I almost cried.

Two new friends mugging for the camera.

That short time with the local kids was the most cleansing experience of my whole trip.  I must’ve spent over 100 CUCs on those kids, but it was the best money I’ve spent all week.  In my mind, it was better there than in the flea market, where I’m sure a good chunk of that dough goes to the government.

Even more important, it finally broke, once and for all, that terrible dark cloud over me.  The good Catholic in me came shining through, and any negative feeling I felt, especially towards anyone on my tour, melted away. 

Even though my own political opinions, and my opinions about the Cuban government, didn’t change, my attitude toward Cuba certainly did.  Stop shouting so much, stop talking, I said to myself. 

Just look and listen.  Your senses will never steer you wrong.

When I got back, I made one last visit to Juan’s bookstore.  One of the ways I was going to channel my emotion was through charity.  Upon greeting Juan, I asked if there was anything he needed, or if I could send back any messages to anyone in the States.  He politely refused, but I insisted on giving him some cash to help him out.  Ever the rebel, Juan insisted I take some more books with me since he felt bad taking my money for nothing.  My bags were already bursting (why is it that the contraband books are all huge, and hardcover?), and I was in no mood to pay more for overweight fees at the airport.  Yet I really admired Juan’s spirit, and on giving him a last hug, really hoped to see him again.

I had a great meal in a (wait for it) Middle-Eastern restaurant in Old Havana with great new friends and soda.  In a bit of counter-revolution, we’ve made it a practice to sneak in a bottle of rum to avoid giving any marked-up cocktail costs to the regime.  It worked until the wait staff didn’t give a shit, which meant we were brazenly hawking the bottle on the table.  To the barricades…and bring some ice!

Since we were leaving early in the morning, I made it my business to stay up until we left the next morning.  To that end, most of our tour group (the younger folk, mostly) got together as much beer, rum, soda and cups as we could muster and had a Cuban good time on the Malecon.  With booze, some little cigars that came from God-knows-where, the music on the street and the people along the seawall, the setting couldn’t be better for a perfect last night.

Mr. D on his last night in Havana.

In my glee, in my zeal, I forgot all of the negativity of the past, at least for a moment.  It was important, on this last day, to see everyone for what they were, not what my demented brain was creating them to be. 

To be fair, I found something to like in all my groupmates.  I may not agree with many of them politically, or socially, or in any other way.  Yet it’s safe to say that it was a group of people that were, for the most part, great to be around. 

Mariana brought her friends from the last night, and we were all pretty much the last few people hanging out as the hours dripped away…12…1…2…3…

As I talked to her friends, one mantra kept coming out which I hope resonates through the island:

There was a Cuba before the revolution. 

There will be a Cuba after the revolution. 

Cuba will always be here.

In a place where change can come sooner rather than later, the importance of identity can never be underestimated.  Change is going to happen, whether those on the left or right like it or not.  If it does, Cuba cannot forget what makes it a special and unique place.

It has nothing to do with a group of bearded guys with guns, a repressive government and a stagnant economy.

Without Cuba, we wouldn’t have beautiful beaches, rich colonial heritage, a polyglot society of African, Native American and European influences, great rum, fantastic cigars, strong cups of coffee, music such as son, mambo, salsa, cha cha, Jose Marti’s stirring words, Gutierrez Alea’s thought-provoking films,  black beans and rice, a lechon on the barbecue, the daiquiri, the Cuba Libre, the mojito, great baseball players (the ones that defect, anyway.), reruns of I Love Lucy, straw hats, old cars, and an even older spirit of camaraderie and bonhomie that can only exist on an island like this one. 

Say what you will about the politics, because Cuba doesn’t need it to be a special place.  It already was one, and as I took off on the plane home, I saw the island one last time.

It was so beautiful.

It was a beauty that made me angry sometimes, even psychotic.

Yet it was beautiful, nonetheless.

I really grew to love this country.  More importantly, I cannot wait for the opportunity to go back.

Next Time, an Epilogue will tie up my loose ends on Cuba, including an analysis of what is in store for the future of the island. 

As an added bonus, I’m putting a music video to a popular song from Cuba, Gozando en la Habana (Having Fun in Havana) by Charanga Habanera.  It’s cheesy, I know, but it was a real feel-good song, and it always put a smile on my face.  Enjoy.

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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 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 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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Back from Cuba!

 

That pretty much explains itself

Wow.

It’s had to even put into words the week that I had.

Cuba is so amazing, so complex…and often so heartbreaking…that it’s difficult to even put together a decent travelogue and give it justice. 

So far, I’ve been perusing my notes and my photos, and writing these posts is going to be a real uphill battle.  I need to sift through pages of quotes, notations, sights, and other gibberish as well as over 700 photographs.

The first Cuba post will be coming this week, but you’ll need to wait a little bit.  Please be patient–Lord knows I had to be to deal with this country.

NOTE: my pic files are extremely large and probably won’t fit embedded on my page.  I’ll create a separate link for those pictures.

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