Tag Archives: Cuban history

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 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 V

The Old Fortress of Havana, in Habana Vieja

Sometimes it’s missed in all the political nonsense, but there was a Cuba before the revolution.  That Cuba was the focus of today’s tour of Old Havana, or Habana Vieja.

San Cristobal de la Habana, Havana’s full name, was founded in 1515 and started out as a launching pad for future Conquistadors such as Hernan Cortes, Hernando De Soto and Francisco de Coronado.  King Phillip II of Spain designated Havana an official city in 1592, and it soon became one of the biggest cities in the Americas, third behind Lima and Mexico City.  The great Spanish treasure fleet, the armada of ships laden with gold and silver from across the continent, gathered in Havana’s harbor for the annual journey to Spain.  It also became the center for sugar, coffee, tobacco and especially the African slave trade.

Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features many of the important buildings that harken to Cuba’s glorious (and not so glorious) colonial past.  The narrow lanes, colonial and neo-classical architecture, and cobblestone squares have undergone extensive renovations, making it the most tourist-friendly area in the whole city. 

That’s the problem.  Old Havana, being landmarked, has few, if any, actual Cubans in it.  They just didn’t fit with the tourist model, I guess.  Most tourists, after all, look to get away from reality, and the everyday Cuban’s existence is way too fucking real.

So Old Havana is your slightly Disneyfied version of itself.  It has the look and feel of a Latin Colonial Williamsburg sans the goofy actors that would make it a ghastly idea: “And on your left, folks, is Padre Eduardo baptizing a heretic before he is burned alive.  On your right you’ll see our friendly slave auctioneer, Pablo, with a new crop of young bucks from the Gambia.  Say Hola to the nice people, Pablo!”

It got even goofier when we reached the Hostel Ambos Mundos, a favorite haunt of Ernest Hemingway.  Now, there’s a lot to like about Hemingway: his terse writing style, his depressing dramatic arc, his propensity to find gin bottles in all sorts of places. 

Yet the Ambos Mundos was a little too Hemingway—too terse (it was smaller than I thought), too depressing (did you see the tourists?  And their black socks?) and the gin bottles were neatly stacked next to the Havana Club Rum.  I could see why he moved to Idaho in 1960, to eventually enjoy a date with the business end of a 12-gauge.

With one look at the pathetic “Papa” look-alike out front taking pictures with tourists, I could’ve used a 12-gauge as well.

 One sight that was somewhat of a relief was a working church.  Since John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Cuba has enjoyed a good deal of religious freedom.  Churches, synagogues, even mosques were advertising their services openly.  The Cathedral of Havana, dating from the 1700s, is the center of Catholic life on the island—a life that was officially put on hold for quite a few years.   

They were advertising Good Friday services, which tells me there’s more than one bearded revolutionary that Cubans listen to.

Once the Presidential Palace. Now the Museum of the Revolution.

For some interesting armaments—and a good laugh—try the Museum of the Revolution, only a minute or two by bus from Old Havana.  The Museum of the Revolution was once the Presidential Palace, from 1926 until 1959, and looks pretty much as it did when the July 26th guys came in 1959, signaling a change in management.  The first floors have the old presidential office and cabinet room, to show just what kind of a bastard was Cuba’s last pre-revolutionary president, Fulgencio Batista.

Left or right, there is no argument that Fulgencio Batista was a colossal prick and a real asshole.  Batista was president during two stretches of time, from 1933-1944 and 1952-1959.  He basically ran the show behind the scenes between these two stretches.  He became a typical Latin-American strongman: silencing all opposition, curbing civil rights, engorging himself on government funds meant for public programs, and worst of all, enriching himself off of corrupt deals with American companies and American organized crime figures such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.

Batista's Office. Prick never saw it coming.

Even the US—which will tolerate ANYONE so long as they don’t utter the “C” word (hint—it’s not cancer)—couldn’t stomach Batista much longer.  So it was a relief, somewhat, when he fled into exile on New Years Day of 1959. 

The story of that movement is told throughout the rest of the museum, often in interesting and amusing ways.  One thing I appreciated was the dioramas of the 1953 Moncada barracks attack, and the 1958 Santa Clara offensive.  Nobody makes good dioramas anymore, with the neat cardboard roofs and trees topped with green sponge—although a couple of the roofs need to be replaced.

The Wall of Cretins is definitely a must-see, especially if you’re a fan of bad caricatures from the early 1990s.  On the wall are overwrought cartoons of Batista in his officer’s uniform, Ronald Reagan as a cowboy and George H. W. Bush looking sickly and prissy in Roman armor, which makes me wonder whether there are Cuban agents in Skull and Bones.  

Take a look outside, towards the back, and there sits a fair amount of military vehicles surrounding the crown jewel of Cuba: the Granma, the boat that took the boys home in 1956 to begin the revolution.  It’s surrounded by glass and guards, although the T-34 tank and the fighter wings had no such protection.   I dared not ask if the Granma was available for charters during the daytime.  I didn’t see any fighting chairs on the back, either.

The Granma. Unfortunately it isn't open for charters or "booze cruises."

Yet the revolutionary lovefest can get downright silly.  The Che wing (like you didn’t expect one) is off the main route and is lit in an eerie low light.  His effects are displayed in a box as if in a funeral parlor.  Yet the commanding feature of the room is its goofiest.  Dominating the room is a giant diorama scene of two life-sized figures—Che Guevara and his buddy Camilo Cienfuegos—plodding through the jungle.   The whole image smacked of the natural history museum: two Cro-Magnon men with fatigues and automatic weapons.

 I haven’t yet mentioned much about Camilo Cienfuegos, but he definitely forms a Cuban “trinity”, if you will, with Che and Fidel.  Cienfuegos is something of a good-ole-boy character in the revolutionary story: not as ideologically tight-assed as Che, nor as militarily tight-assed as Fidel.  Cienfuegos was famous for his good humor, rapport with regular Cubans, and his reckless courage (he preferred to fight standing up, rather than ducking for cover). 

When early man refuses to work for a living... (it's too easy)

In a sense, he embodies all Cubans: good-hearted, sociable with a high degree of solidarity that makes one lose all sense of reason or logic.

Logic does pop up, however, in a more sinister way.  All through the museum, I kept wondering why we needed to drive two minutes to a museum that was clearly within walking distance.  A jaunt down the blocks from the palace revealed why.  Remember that tourism in Cuba is designed to keep reality as far away as possible from the tourist, and that neighborhood was all too real. 

Dilapidated old buildings.  Apartments with, little, if any, furnishings.  Locals milling around or walking to and fro, in what looked like hand-me-down clothes from a decade earlier.  A sign saying that “Water was coming Sunday,” which may or may not have been wishful thinking.

The local store, however, topped it all.  It just didn’t seem like a store.  There were a few meal sacks, a scale, and an old lady behind empty shelves and a giant chalkboard.  On this chalkboard had beans, coffee, sugar, corn, cooking oil – all commodities rationed to all Cubans.  Yet there were what I thought were dates, and I pray to God that they weren’t.  If so, then this shop hasn’t seen coffee since January.  Same with sugar, probably the same with corn.

The place that promised water for Sunday.

This was not a place to spend CUCs, unless you plan to subsidize a family for a month (which can be done with 20-25 CUC).

The cat was out of the bag a long time ago, so all this wasn’t that surprising.  What amazed me was the effort it took to actually AVOID this place.  If you’re ashamed of something so much, I guess you’ll go to any lengths to not confront the situation.

Yet there’s no time for too much contemplation—our chariot waited for another visit with functionaries.  After lunch, we went to the Friendship House, a house with a tragic love story too convoluted to remember, but was now home of the tour company and also the institute that is its parent company, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, or ICAP.  ICAP’s purpose is to promote “in all possible ways the relationships of friendship towards Cuba.” 

This seemed sincere enough.  The Friendship House staff were very nice, and the two speakers who spoke about ICAP were very friendly and open to our questions—even mine, which at that point needed to be asked. 

In America, if you call for the end of the Cuban embargo, certain words are thrown in your direction: commie, leftist, pinko, granola, hippie, drape-smoker, dopehead, Castro-lover, Che-lover, socialist pig, etc. etc.  Frankly, the ending of the embargo labels you an outsider, an outcast, and a freak.

 I am none of the things above.  In fact, I was probably the cop that put you in jail for being these things. 

Yet it is becoming clear to me (and to others in power as well) that the embargo does nothing but cement Fidel in power as he uses it as his bogeyman to scare Cuba into submission.  Although I see a different conclusion, I do have a similar objective.

Frankly, groups like mine, in large part, are already affirming what they believe.  It was mostly preaching to the choir—and a loud choir, at that.  To them, I’m the greaser out back revving my Harley during the Ave Maria while smoking a joint and fingering Mary O’Shaughnessy from St. Agnes down the street. 

Now I’m going to sound really arrogant, but I’m being as fair as I can.  If this embargo is to be lifted, its guys like me that have to be convinced.

 Even though the “direct action,” is noble and can often get the attention of people in power, the guys like me have a more direct “in.” We know the people in power, went to school with the children of the people in power, and have more direct access to actual powerbrokers.  Jose Serrano and Bernie Sanders may listen to the Venceremos brigade, but real power in Washington see them as a nuisance, not as a viable policy option.

So I asked the nice ladies if ICAP were spearheading any efforts to get conservatives like me to come research Cuba, and (this wasn’t said, obviously) conservatives who resent the fact that they must listen to official rhetoric at 3 in the afternoon without the requisite rum sloshing.

The translator issued my demands, the ladies smiled and gave a confusing answer that I forgot (even though I understand Spanish).  Asking the others, my question wasn’t answered—not like I was actually expecting a straight answer.

A little counter-revolution: capitalist merchandising at the Plaza of the Revolution.

The last stop was at the Plaza of the Revolution, the center of Cuba’s revolutionary government.  It’s a plaza in the academic sense of the term, in that it’s a common space between a lot of important landmarks.   Basically, it’s a paved lot in front of the grotesquely huge Marti Monument, and facing one of the most fearsome buildings in Cuba—the Ministry of the Interior, or MININT. 

The front of the building has a huge wrought-iron rendering of the famous Korda photograph of Che Guevara.  This made perfect sense: in the early days, Che was responsible, along with Raul Castro, of rounding up and “administering justice” to dozens of Batista apparatchiks—justice largely administered through a 7.62 mm slug straight to the temple. 

The Interior Ministry. Where snitches give stitches (Thanks, Britton for the quip)

The guards in front were nervous about me taking pictures of the place.  Maybe they wanted to drown out the torture sessions inside, where counterrevolutionaries are subject to full-length Bertolt Brecht plays in the original German followed by generous choruses of Guantanamera.  That would make any man talk.  I’d start after Act I of Mother Courage (note the forced irony).

The night brought more important concerns.  If the revolutionary rhetoric didn’t brainwash me, the sports hysteria certainly did—I was concerned about my Industriales.  Industriales of Havana was playing game 7 of the national baseball championship with Villa Clara, and any nighttime excursion will involve this game somewhere. 

Mr. D affirming his Cuban baseball affiliation.

Industriales basically equates to the New York Yankees of Cuba.  Since its inception after the revolution, Industriales had been Cuban champion 11 times and were looking for ring # 12.  According to the bartender at the Riviera, our first stop, the team has suffered from a piss-poor bullpen, thus forcing this final game. 

By the time we got to a music club in Miramar, the game was well into extra innings, and the dance floor was not as packed as Cubans crammed into the side bars to watch the game.  The gaggle of whores approached once, but then kept their distance.  We were of a different mind that night—can the Lions of the Prado win against the bumpkins from Santa Clara?  And why was I giving a shit about a 7-hour ballgame by amateurs that can’t turn a decent double play?

On the last out of the game, the place exploded.  People were hugging, kissing, high-fiving all over the place.  The DJs and the band suddenly sprouted blue Industriales gear and chanted their praises well into the night.  Even the hookers seemed happy, though it could be because the tourists would be shelling out more in this celebratory mood.

We continued dancing for an hour or two more.  It was an awesome time.

For one night, being in Cuba seemed downright normal, even in spite of the lunacy of daylight.

For Part VI, we’ll see a “literacy museum”, a visit with a Castro, my first encounter with dissidents as well as my most counter-revolutionary act to date.

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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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