Tag Archives: Cuba

The Castro Retirement: Passing of the Guard, or a Prelude to Counter-Revolution?

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Fidel and Raul Castro (Photo courtesy of AP)

Rare is the tyrant that manages a graceful exit.

In Cuba, the second tyrant in a row is attempting just that.

At the announcement of his re-election as Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, who took over from his brother, former president Fidel Castro, announced that he will step down as leader when his new term ends in 2018.  It is part of the slow process of handing over power over Cuba’s socialist system to a generation of leaders with no connection to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Yet even more surprising is the follow-up.  Castro planned some serious changes for Cuba’s political system: term limits, age caps (even for president), even constitutional amendments subject to popular consent via referendum.

Have the Castro brothers thrown in the towel?  Hardly.

Over the past decade, as the 26th of July generation have died off one by one, young apparatchiks within Cuba’s Communist Party have been jockeying for position in the new order.  Those disloyal or harboring counterrevolutionary sympathies were cast aside, as young loyalists gradually filled in top jobs in the Politburo, the armed forces and the cabinet.

Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, the new top vice president selected by Raul, is a perfect example of the tumult among the cadres.  An electrical engineer, Diaz-Canel’s 52 years make him a fetus to the gang that fought in the Sierra Maestra toppling Batista.  He rose quickly, as a local party boss in tourist-heavy Villa Clara and Holguin provinces where important connections were made.  Diaz-Canel was formerly minister of higher education, and has already been influential in talks with key ally Venezuela.

So the new blood is simply that…new.  It doesn’t necessarily mean a change in mentality, unfortunately.

This transition reminds me of another blood-soaked tyrant that attempted a gradual fade: Augusto Pinochet.  His conditions to step down were ludicrous in hindsight: commander-in-chief of the armed forces for another ten years, and a senator for life, free from prosecution.  In the face of growing popular opposition, the general wanted to make sure the future governments would be under his ideas, if not his more velvet-gloved iron hand.

It didn’t help him, though.  We saw him for the tyrant he was.

Castro’s announcement, honestly, left me with more questions than answers.  In the end, I’m left with two conclusions:

First, the Castros have an even worse situation than Pinochet.  To be sure, the move to gradual withdrawal seems shrewd.  However, unlike Pinochet’s Chile, which was severely polarized, Cuba’s rank and file has been fed up with the Castros for at least two decades.  The loyalists can hold the socialist line to a point—that point being the end of Fidel and Raul’s funeral procession.  I just don’t see how Diaz-Canel can command the loyalty of a people who were clearly betrayed by two predecessors more powerful—and more charismatic (at least in Fidel’s case)—than he.

Yet even more important, as the list of potential reforms rings in my head, I cannot help but glimpse at Raul’s little sneer.  The whole reform process, even the constitutional changes, seem less a transformation of Cuba and more a stalling tactic to keep the Castros and the Communist Party in power.

The reason?  If these reforms—age caps, term limits, referenda—were so important to Cuba’s body politic, what took the Castros so long to introduce them?  Are the Castros special?  Do they not merit the same guarantees AND limitations placed on all Cubans through their constitution?

Part of the success of the American system is the realization by our founders that dictatorships don’t work—even for those who blaze the trail.  George Washington relinquished command of the Continental Army after the American Revolution.  He only served two terms as President when he could’ve been in office for life.

To make a republican system work, its founders needed to lead by example: an example of restraint.

The Castros are hardly a model in this case.  For most of its history, their regime lacked any hint of restraint institutionally, legally and practically.  Restraint meant a loss of power, at least in Fidel and Raul’s mind.  It ultimately cheapened the Revolution into a personality cult where the Castros were above any law even they conceived.

Therefore, to saddle the future generations of loyal Companeros with institutional burdens the founders lacked makes the whole exercise seem ingenuous.

These so-called reforms will turn the house of cards into a bigger house of cards—one that can fall much more easily.

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Review of Part 2 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Cuba

Cuban boys playing in Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba. Image via Wikipedia

The first episode offered some promise.  The second left me completely unsatisfied.

I just sat through an hour of the second part of PBSBlack in Latin America documentary series, hosted by Henry Louis Gates.   It was supposed to document how the Cuban Revolution of 1959 affected race relations on an island that has had a tumultuous history with its own identity.

Instead, I got a whole lot of pap about cultural phenomena I already knew about, and very little information on what I wanted to know.

I will grant Dr. Gates one handicap: since he was filming directly in Cuba, there is little doubt the authorities were controlling his footage.  There was little chance he was going to capture–nor did he seem to want to capture–the real essence of Cuban society today.  If you wanted to get a snapshot of the Afro-Cuban experience before 1959, this was a good start.  Then again, most of it wasn’t new to me.

Cuba had been a port of entry for African slaves since the 17th century, although the brunt of Cuban slavery would come in the late 18th and early 19th century, as the island surpassed Haiti as the main supplier of sugar in the Caribbean.  Slavery was abolished late, in 1886, and independence would come after two long wars and a stifling US intervention (1870s-1902).  During that time, the plantation economy translated into society as well, as a caste system kept African culture in the background.

In the 1920s, Cuba began to accept its African heritage, first among intellectuals and then among the populace through music such as son–the forerunner of mambo and other Latin musical forms.  Yet society, the economy and the government had grown largely segregated, in the typical pattern: whites had a lot, blacks not so much.

Then came a bunch of white guys–two of them really white (one had a Spaniard father and one was a quarter Irish)–who decided to start a revolution.

It took 40 minutes of a one-hour program to finally get to the good stuff–you can guess how well it was covered.

Since 1959, the Cuban government under the Castros, Fidel and Raul, had declared racism to be non-existent in revolutionary Cuba.  On paper, at least, there was no distinction between white and black for housing, jobs, education, health care, etc.  Gates interviewed two Afro-Cuban participants in the Revolution who lauded its egalitarian spirit with regards to education and health care.  To be sure, these are advances (though possibly superficial, as I implied in my earlier study of Cuba) would make any Cuban proud, especially those of color who were on the outside looking in.

Today’s Cuba, where tourism and the “double currency” of the CUC and the Peso Nacional rule the roost, has caused a re-emergence of latent racist tendencies that are supposedly “illegal”, since even acknowledgement of racism in Cuba is seen as counterrevolutionary.  Gates interviews young artists and musicians who are trying to bring these concerns to the Cuban public.  The tourism industry, they acknowledge, has pushed darked Cubans back into the background.  Furthermore, the double currency creates a rift between state workers and those in tourism,who often make up to 20 times more.

I could have told you this in my travelogues on Cuba.

So why was I unsatisfied?  Apart from social programs to lift up the Cuban masses, Gates did not address the one issue I had with the Revolution:  how “white” is the ruling elite of Cuba now?

Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos: the main actors of Cuban revolutionary history were as white as Robert E. Lee.  Have any blacks come anywhere close to such positions of power and influence?  In the 53 years since the triumphal march into Havana, how many blacks have sat on the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party?  How many have sat in the Congress of People’s Power, the rubber-stamp legislature?  How many sit on the Council of Ministers?  Are there any black Cubans in real positions of power in government, in state industries, in diplomacy, or in the armed forces?

In short, how far down the totem pole do we have to go from Fidel and Raul to find a powerful, influential Cuban of color?

As much as the rhetoric says so, there clearly still are haves and have-nots in Cuba.  Gates seemed so caught up in the rah-rah of the social agenda that he neglected to investigate whether a black person in Cuba had any chance of real political or economic power.

Maybe it was too sensitive a topic to fly in the face of Cuban censors.  To have Cubans acknowledge a lack of blacks in power, especially on record, is tantamount to admission of racism, which leads to charges of treason and all the fun activities that come with it.  At the very least, he showcased a black commander in the armed forces and discussed the “whitewashing” of independence hero Antonio Maceo (Did they tell you about the reason his statue’s turned around, Skip?).

Nonetheless, in a place where power is paramount–especially political and military power–to not research African entry into the machinations of the revolutionary state is a grave omission on Gates’ part.

Next week, Gates will be covering the African experience in Brazil.  Although he gets only an hour, I sincerely hope it’s a more prudent use of time.

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This Day in History 8/9: Nixon Resigns the Presidency

It was a day my parents, and probably many of you in the Neighborhood, remember all too well.

On August 9, 1974, after two years of investigation, scandal, cover-up and tumult, President Richard Nixon became the first chief executive in the United States to resign from office.  He did so after the failed cover-up of the Watergate affair, in which members of the Nixon campaign broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate hotel in Washington, DC in 1972.

To many people, most I gather, the resignation of President Nixon was a cause of relief, exasperation and even joy. 

I however, take no joy in this event.

I report it and teach it because it was necessary for Nixon to resign to save what was left of the integrity of the office of President.  He was a man of many personal demons, most of which manifested itself in the Oval Office through a culture of surveillance, deception and paranoia.  It is very clear to me, as it was to even his fellow Republicans in Congress, that Nixon brought this on himself and had to go.

Yet what pains me most is what could have been. 

To many moderate conservatives like myself, we saw in Nixon a pragmatic internationalist that we could model ourselves.  His belief in a limited government, yet one that protected basic rights and ensured an opportunity for all, is one we can all get behind–he even supported a health care bill that was even more far-reaching than Obama’s!

On the international stage–where he shined–Nixon saw the clear need for rational, open discussion with leaders on the opposite side of the Cold War, such as Leonid Brezhnev and Mao tse-tung.  Even though he did stumble–as the escalation of the war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia suggests–he did keep a blueprint for our withdrawal that culminated in finally leaving Vietnam in 1973.  The Republicanism of his generation was a far cry from the free-spending cowboy antics of Dubya, and a more nuanced version of Reaganism.

I’m a Republican because of Richard Nixon, not because of Ronald Reagan.  I still believe in those ideals–even though the man behind them was so flawed as to self-destruct and almost take the executive branch with him.

This is why I take no joy, no cheer in his downfall.

Attached is the excerpt from his August 8, 1974 speech, thanks to the Miller Centerof Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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This Day in History 6/10: US Marines land in Cuba, 1898

US Marines hoisting the colors at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1898

It’s an often-overlooked period in history, but the Spanish-American War had long-reaching consequences for the United States.

On June 10, 1898, the first US ground forces would land in Cuba, at Guantanamo Bay on the eastern side of the island.  Their landing site would give rise to an American military station that still exists today, albeit under clouds of controversy due both to our usage of it as a terrorist dumping ground and our not-so-wonderful relations with Cuba. 

The war itself would drag on until the Treaty of Paris on August 12, 1898.  The Spanish got rid of the costly remains of a burdensome empire (to the tune of about $20 million), and the United States, the country that staked its reputation as a beacon of freedom against colonialism, suddenly adopts colonies of its own.  It led to troublesome relations with Cuba (occupied by us until 1902, and you know plenty about the rest), Puerto Rico (where the parade comes from, and which we still have) and the Philippines (which after a bloody insurrection and surrender to the Japanese, we finally gave independence to in 1946). 

I included two clips from the 1997 TV movie Rough Riders, about the exploits of Theodore Roosevelt and his volunteer cavalry in Cuba.  The clips depict the battles for Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill, respectively.  Something to note about the movie: it’s sickeningly hokey and sappy.  Yet it does show two anachronisms that deviate from the popular version of these historic battles:

(1) The real hero of San Juan was not Theodore Roosevelt, but rather Lieutenant “Black Jack” Pershing and his Buffalo Soldiers.  Fresh from the Indian wars, these black soldiers were among the ONLY US military personnel in Cuba with any combat experience.  If they weren’t covering Roosevelt’s right flank, the battle would ended very differently.

(2) Our naval forces were modern in 1898, but our land forces were a different story.  While outnumbered, the Spanish had Model 1893 Mauser rifles and Maxim machine guns that would be used less than 20 years later in the trenches of World War I.  Our boys were equipped with the Krag-Jørgensen Rifle, a complex, one-at-a-time loader that was difficult to clean and put together.  It served the shortest period in the US Army, until 1903.  As for automatic weapons, we still slung around 1862-model Gatling crank guns, but we also had M1895 Colt-Browning guns that spit out casings through a weird lever action.  It wasn’t until after this war that the US Army did a drastic overhaul of weapons, tactics and uniforms, finally putting the blue jackets to rest.

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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 VII

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

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

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

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

Instead, that morning was devoted to daydreaming.

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

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

Do a good job. Remember Che is watching.

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

I was too hard-hearted a bastard to notice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The afternoon was spent trying to find the fucking place.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crowds at the concert.

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

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

Elian Gonzalez Statue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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