Tag Archives: Fidel Castro

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On Hiatus: Mr. D in Cuba until April 4.

It’s about time.

After all the applications, meetings, informational materials, and requests for credit card authorizations, it’s finally time for me to head to Cuba.

I’ll be in Havana and the nearby environs starting tomorrow evening until Easter, when I return.  Since the internet may be spotty, at best, I’ll probably be unable to provide reports from the field.  Not to worry, though–The Neighborhood will be treated to raucous essays about my time in the socialist paradise in the weeks to come.

Since you can’t come to the Neighborhood, Fidel, the Neighborhood’s coming to you.  Make sure the bar’s fully stocked!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Videos for the Classroom: Fidel Castro: A Life of Revolution

My upcoming trip to Cuba is only a week away. In my mind, I’m already there…and probably on line for some sort of shortage.

Many of my friends are still in a huff about this embargo, and wished they could come along. Well, here’s a video detailing one of the people impeding our stampede into Cuba.To get myself in the mood for a socialist paradise, I revisited a Hulu film entitiled Fidel Castro: A Life of Revolution. It slants ever so slightly in favor of the regime–yet does at least give lip service to the human rights abuses so many leftists choose to ignore.

Please enjoy the life of a tough old bastard. Not me, you idiots.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized