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.
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."
, 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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