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

Santa Maria del Mar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Artisan Market

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

Instead, I took a walk outside.

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

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

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

some of my new friends

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

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

Two new friends mugging for the camera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. D on his last night in Havana.

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

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

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

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

There was a Cuba before the revolution. 

There will be a Cuba after the revolution. 

Cuba will always be here.

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

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

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

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

It was so beautiful.

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

Yet it was beautiful, nonetheless.

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

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

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

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

The Hotel Riviera, where our story begins.

The first day in Cuba had paranoia, confusion, restlessness, anxiety, repulsion, excitement, inebriation and absolute bliss. 

This is de rigueur for any jaunt in Latin America—that plus a raging case of the shits, which I did not get. 

It’s simply rare that it all happened on the same night.

Jose Marti International Airport is designed to assuage paranoia.  The stern looks, the military uniforms, the photographing of every entrant—all there to make sure the state is secure.   Yet there were glimmers of Latinate inefficiency here and there.  As always, some people slid ahead of us in line, making me wonder which member of the Politburo I had to fellate to get anywhere in this country.  I’ll pass on Fidel, thank you.

To an extent, the government has a point: it has been estimated that roughly 80-90% of the general population has little, if any, confidence in the regime or the revolution.  That’s like Walter Mondale running things all through the rest of the 1980s; bands of middle-American white folks speaking in hushed voices about runaway taxes, pulling out of foreign adventures in Nicaragua, and…never mind.

The most bizarre feature of the process were the nurses (yes, nurses, gown and all).  Along with a customs declaration, each entrant into Cuba needed a health form that stipulated any diseases or medical conditions we were bringing to the island.  It even included space for “nasal secretions”, creating a hysterical scene of cold-ridden travelers hastily sucking up their snot in order to not get thrown out.  The nurses made me want to bend over and cough, but I handed my form, smiled politely and went on my way.

Again, this paranoia has some basis in fact.  Nobody checked Columbus and his crew for smallpox and typhoid when they landed in 1492; ask the Taino, the Ciboney and the Arawak how well that went.  Remember that Cuba is an island—whatever is brought to Cuba inevitably stays here, like smallpox, typhus, malaria and ravenous European tourists.

And tourists we were, in essence.  Never mind our “research delegation” status or our “general license” for academic research.  Our motley coterie, great as they were, were at that point little better than the black-socked, chain-smoking, loudmouthed Teutonic throngs that seemed to infest the island like Visigoths of yore.  I’m talking about Canadians, of course (just kidding, but they’re just as bad).

Even with the airport, my sixth sense of bullshit did not really ping itself until our tour guides began their spiel on the bus.  To be honest, they were really incredible guides throughout the trip, knowledgeable, giving in their expertise and even funny.  Their English language included a mixture of teenage vernacular (“Check this.”) with the effects of numerous American crime dramas (“Approach the bench.”) Both of these expressions became the running joke of the trip, proving that even leftists can have a sense of humor sometimes.

NOTE: The Big Apple and Hemingways’ death?  Both wrong.  I checked.  Don’t mess with a Jeopardy! Champion without expecting to lose.

Anyway, what really struck me were two words of warning from the tour guide: “Keep with the group at all times,” and “Keep an open mind.”  The former already had me thinking of other groups kept together: the Cherokees in the 1830s, perhaps.  Being miserable together is rarely fun.  Besides, most of the real thrill is going to the places you’re not supposed to go.  Well, it’s still the first day…

That second thing, though, the whole open mind business was what really got me.  Whenever someone tells you to “keep an open mind,” it’s usually a signal that whatever comes next is not to your liking.  My mother said it while she shoved lentil soup down my throat, my father with boiled tripe, and my girlfriend with sushi (I have since surrendered to sushi.  It’s a nasty vice.)  In our country, whenever someone insists on impartiality, on being of an “open mind,” or, dare I say, “fair and balanced”, it rarely ends up that way. 

And being the odd duck, I was probably the one to have to eat the tripe this week. 

Yet little revolutionary rhetoric was bandied about that night.  Our first dinner was at El Ajibe, a nice faux-cabana looking joint with big tables, a stocked bar and friendly staff.  Oh yeah, not a single Cuban was in attendance at this place.  We were clearly at a tourist stop, as packs of teenage South American snobs pissed away their copper reserves and Miami slush funds on bad mojitos and rice-and-beans.  This was our toe into Cuba…I guess the pool’s still too cold. 

Good thing this meal was included, since one thought was still nagging me—where the fuck do I change my money.  I had a pile of Canadian dollars sitting on me, since you can’t use US credit cards here, and some US greenbacks.  It did me no good, as we were now in the land of the CUC (pronounced, fittingly, “kook”)

A 3-CUC bill. The objective of our quest.

In 1994, during the Special Period when Cuba was suffering from withdrawal after the Soviet spigot ran dry, the Cuban government introduced the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC.  The CUC replaced the US dollar as the only hard currency on the island in 2004, and the only currency in use by tourists.  Most areas of Havana and other tourist locations operate in CUCs, often solely in CUCs.  This doesn’t bode well for the average Cuban, who gets paid a combination of CUCs and national pesos (Moneda Nacional, or MNs), worth about 1/25 of a CUC.  We’ll leave the problems of the CUC system for a later date.

My "charming" abode at the Riviera.

Right now, the problem was finding these multi-colored buggers in the middle of the night.  We arrived at our first hotel, the once-grand, now woefully faded Habana Riviera.  It was the dreamchild of American gangster Meyer Lansky, and opened just in time to see Castro take it away in 1959.  Unfortunately, time has not been kind to the Riviera, which looks like an abandoned Acapulco resort.  After placing my bags in the mildewy suite with collapsing curtains (shown here), we proceeded to our adventure of CUC acquisition.

Who knew it would be such a torture.

At first, we heard that the hotel’s money exchange office was open.  Then, it was closed.  But the Melia Cohiba would have money for sure…that is until we learned that the Cohiba ran out of money.  Yes, it actually ran out.  The only place to conceivably get CUCs was at the Hotel Nacional, an old 19th Century warhorse of a hotel that held the likes of Winston Churchill and Naomi Campbell.  It was way on the other side of the Vedado neighborhood, and we needed a cab.

Cabs needed CUCs.

No one had CUCs.

Except me.  For the first of multiple times, the capitalist will (seemingly) save the day.

Luckily, I made a long distance phone call, calming my parents and telling them I have not, in point of fact, stolen into the jungle with an AK-47 and a box of Cohibas.  The call was a whopping 13 CUCs or so, but since I only had American, they would take it (real arm twisting, there).  I got 5 CUCs in return, just enough for one cab ride. 

Contrary to popular myth, not all cabs in Cuba are of the 1950s’ Chevy Bel Air quality.  We packed four Americans into a 1970s era Soviet-made Lada cab with cramped interiors and doors that required sheer will just to keep them closed.  Never mind that the cabbie was careening at top speed down the Malecon, a multi-lane road abutting the sea wall.  One false move and we’d all be pieces of fatty chum floating into Key West.

The Nacional beckoned, with its 19th century lobby and uniformed doormen.  The 24-hour money exchange bureau was closed.  Later in the week, I returned to the Nacional, only to be told that the booth was indeed open for 24 hours yet it wouldn’t open until 7:30 PM.  In a place as regulated as Cuba, you’d think they’d enforce truth in advertising a little more.

So now we’re stranded far off from the Riviera with no CUCs.  It took some doing, but we found a cab willing to take American dollars.  Another Lada whizzing us back to the Riviera, and it looked like a very short night.

Upon our return, we happened upon a gas station across from the hotel, and it was here that I got my first encounter with Cuban friendliness.  For a skeptical, on-their-toes American, this can take some getting used to.  A group of amateur musicians was outside the gas station, greeting us and chatting us up in conversation for no reason other than we’re strangers in Havana.  I immediately thought they wanted a handout, and that’s the problem.  They didn’t.  Between the paltry state-run media and the overpriced tourist bars and clubs, Cubans have few outlets when it comes to cutting loose.  Personal communication—any communication, for that matter—becomes a social activity in Cuba. 

Furthermore, we managed to score some boxes of Planchao, which is Cuban rum in a juice box.  Instead of Hi-C, out came cold white lightning that stung the mouth like gasoline, scarred like turpentine and had the distinct taste of third-rate tequila.  Thus the second rule of Cuban communication: rum makes everything better. 

We passed the rum with our new musical buddies, played some local tunes and danced a little party outside the gas station.  It was a real gasser, especially when an unusually friendly young woman came and insisted on dancing with me. 

As a gentleman, I obliged, only knowing too well what the next step would be. 

Since the Special Period, prostitution has become a rising problem in Cuba.  Though technically illegal, the practice has become one of the few tried-and-true methods to obtain hard cash on the island.  Working girls prowl the nightspots, the Malecon, the clubs where sweaty foreigners ogle and grope, and a certain gas station where a certain sweaty foreigner was about to be groped.  I declined politely, repeatedly, until offered a sexual act somewhere behind the station.  That was it—enough.  Thank God my compatriots intervened.  It would be the first of many advances I’d get that week.

So hookers notwithstanding, we continued drinking, graduating from Planchao to beer, and thus interchanging about a phenomenon we know well—snow.  Our new Cuban friends were fascinated by the stuff, which made us appreciate how different we are.  Only in Cuba can such connections happen at two in the morning at a gas station.  We’d be arrested in the states for such loitering.

Cuban police seemed to be just as uptight.

A marked police car turned and parked in front of the station.  Out came a short officer with a beret, uniform and sidearm.  “Now we’re talking”, I thought.  “Here comes the beady-eyed secret police agent, rubber truncheons, electrodes up the kazoo.  Come on, you pinko bastard, do your worst!  I’ll go Rambo on your punk-ass…”

The little bastard asked for IDs all around.  We gave him our hotel cards, he asked for nationalities.  He gave us back our cards, questioned the other members of the band, and then proceeded to chat up the group next to us.  It seems that cops the world over love to bust balls for its own sake, even in Cuba.  Well, so much for the torture chamber.

The night was winding down, and I headed to my casa de mildew.  I was only in Cuba for a few hours, and there were cops, hookers, musical locals, strong hooch, fast, dangerous cars, and late-night carousing.

I was loving this fucking country already.

Next stop, the hinterlands in Part III.

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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!

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