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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 VI

"Fidel; tell us what else we should do!" Literacy Brigade on parade, 1962.

All political revolutions focus on the young, and Cuba was no exception.

A group of young students are plucked from their normal middle-class lives and sent to teach illiterate masses in the most remote, poorest areas of the country, often with few resources and little support.

Obviously it’s Teach for America (kidding). 

It is, in fact, the Literacy Campaign of 1961.   Cuba’s young people embarked on a yearlong literacy campaign to correct a longstanding issue amongst their country’s rural poor, the results of which are still acclaimed throughout the world.

Cuba has the only museum that I know of that’s devoted to literacy.  The Literacy Museum celebrates the 1961 campaign as well as Cuba’s efforts to spread its brand of “literacy” to other areas—although the content of the texts make me ever so skeptical about the true intentions of these campaigns.

"Cuba will be the first country in America that after some months can say they do not have a single illiterate person." - Fidel Castro

Say what you will about the propaganda parade of days past, this had to be the most honest official experience I’ve had in Cuba (emphasis on “official.”)  The director of the museum minced no words in describing the mission of the campaign: to educate the poor and indoctrinate them in the ideals of the revolution.  She was sincere, devoted and thoroughly convinced of the righteousness of the cause, hence her matter-of-fact delivery and earnest display of the artifacts.

Nothing says literacy education like drawings of semi-automatic rifles.

The 1962 campaign was probably done, at least by its participants, with the best of intentions.  Thousands of young people, aged 8-19, left their houses (with the parents’ permission—though permission could’ve come from the business end of a rifle) received a hurry-up training in teaching, textbooks and revolutionary theory, and were sent to the farthest reaches of Cuba to teach the peasants how to read and write.

"C is for Che; F is for Fidel; R is for Raul...now repeat after me..."

The young volunteers lived with their students, working the cane fields by day (“So this is what a machete’s for.”) and teaching literacy by night (“Finish that essay!  Don’t make me get the machete!”).    As the director pointed out, many lessons focused on revolutionary theory, and the first lessons involved spelling such useful words as “Fidel”, “Che”, and “Revolucion.”  The final project was to write a letter to Fidel, thanking him for allowing them to learn to read and write.  The letters were sincere enough, given that they were of a 1st grade reading level.  It says a lot about who’s considered “literate” around here. 

Hey Russia, wasn't it a wonderful idea to entrust medium-range nuclear weapons to a people that consider 1st grade writing to be "literate"? I didn't think so.

Since there were still anti-revolutionary “gangs” about, the volunteers were often in great danger.  Still, the greatest danger may have been the peasants themselves.  Rural folk tend to be the most conservative…believe me, it’s still true today.  Many of them refused to be taught by a kid—thus, the kid would bring his “big brother” with some “encouragement” of the smokeless powder and full metal jacket variety.  Still others were confused about those things that still confuse students today: mechanics, phonics, sentence structure, why it’s not okay to end sentences with prepositions.  All of these were recounted gleefully by the museum director. 

What I didn’t hear about, obviously, was of the one wise-ass cane-cutter (and there must’ve been a few out there) who had the nerve to say, “Hey kid, what’s the point in teaching us how to read and write if we can’t read what we want and write what we want?”

I wonder what happened to that guy?  Was he “educated”?  “Re-educated”?  “Corrected”?

Something to think about, but not necessarily the place to ask.  The area where the museum stands used to be Camp Columbia, the US base of operations from 1898-1902 when Cuba was a US “protectorate”.  Furthermore, one of Batista’s villas is on the grounds.  I’d be getting an earful if I opened my mouth around here.

Yet I had no trouble opening my mouth at the next stop, which was Jose Fuster’s house in Jaimanitas, on the outskirts of Havana.  A warm, open artist, his whimsical work, and rum cocktails that could kill a horse certainly helped.

Fuster's Cuban 5 monument. See my point about the gynecologist?

Fuster is an artist whose work is a cross between Picasso and Gaudi.  I’m thinking it’s an amusement park designed by Timothy Leary.  In fact, a whole town designed by him.  Fuster has taken numerous areas of his town and created works of art out of them, thus creating a metropolis of psychedelic fun.  Most of it is inspired by his own experiences, as well as Cuban culture and politics.  A huge monument in his yard commemorates the “Cuban 5” a group of Cubans arrested for infiltrating Cuban-American networks with supposed terrorist aims. 

I didn’t find it that incendiary.  It looks like the up stretched hand of an overzealous gynecologist.

The man himself is more fascinating than his work.  A veteran of the Literacy Campaign, Fuster is a steadfast supporter of the revolution.  His glasses tell the story: the frames are red and black after the July 26th Movement.   Given his swell digs and his ability to inflict his art on his neighbors, the revolution has been very, very good to Fuster.

I guess he gravitated toward me as we both had a lot in common: an abundance of flesh, a lack of hair, bad eyes, crushing intellects, and above all big mouths.  We first spoke about Ecuadorian president Correa, since I told him my heritage.  I was candid and frank in my reservations about the man, which he understood and gave his arguments.  I then asked about the use of Che’s image: is it a “cartoon”, as I thought, or are these slogans really his?  He explained that Che’s ideas were the foundation of the revolution to begin with, and his slogans are what adorn the walls and billboards.

(A Cuban revolution based on the ideas of a second-rate Argentine doctor?)

Our conversation evolved into whether or not Che today would’ve approved of the CUC system.  Would Che have given his assent to a system that, while giving tourists access to Cuba and hard cash to the government, keeps the regular Cuban as a subordinate?  Fuster explained, as best he could, that he probably would’ve seen it as Fidel sees it: a necessary measure in response to an economic crisis.

I didn’t exactly see it that way.  Part of the reason that Che left in 1965 was probably that government was much messier than an ideological handbook.  He got himself into many difficult situations, but the political swamp was too much for him. 

Group portrait with Fuster. He's the bald gray dude sitting center. I'm at the left with my ubiquitous planter hat.

My host was impressed, and greeted me as a “true intellectual.”  Not sure about that, but my bullshit artistry is top-notch, as is Fusters’.  I guess that’s why I liked him so much.

Yet the true rhetoric was left for later.  We returned to the ICAP Friendship House for a meeting with Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban Center for Sex Education (CENESEX).  If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s Raul Castro’s daughter, making her Fidel Castro’s niece.  It’s about as close as I was going to get to a dictator, and after this encounter, I’m not sure if I want to get any closer.

Mariela Castro

Mariela seemed like a nice enough lady; her face resembles uncle Fidel’s in an entirely too-creepy way.  There was a brief video about her work with Cuba’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.  It juxtaposed the more conservative attitudes of older Cubans with shots of rather flamboyant drag queens on stage—something that probably doesn’t bode well for gays and lesbians who want to present themselves as ordinary citizens. 

She then gave a talk about the development of feminist organizations in Cuba, and their dovetailing into LGBT rights in Cuba.  Again, nothing too inflammatory—I wish I were a fly on a wall when Mariela’s mom asked Fidel to approve of a womens’ organization during the revolution: “Dios mio, Vilma, what next?!  Have our women wear fatigues, grow beards, and suck on Cohibas…oh, fine.  You ladies have fun.”

Maybe it was cracks like that last one that caused Mariela Castro to go apeshit.

Channeling her loquacious uncle, Mariela goes on a two-three minute long rant about the embargo, the United States, the Cuban 5, terrorism theories, health care and Michael Moore.  It’s right out of Fidel’s playbook, but with less bluster and more “why me?” shrugs as if Cuba were run by Ellen DeGeneres.  It also had nothing to do with the stated topics of sex education and homosexual rights. 

We were all taken aback, leftist and rightist alike.  Everyone seemed nervous about asking questions. 

I wasn’t.

I’ve had four straight days of propaganda, official meandering and obligatory bowing and scraping.  My mother told me to be nice and not make trouble on this trip.  By Thursday, I just had it.  I raised my hand, and in English (I wish I said it in Spanish,) asked the following:

“Ms. Castro, I understand and agree that revolution is dissent (something she mentioned before), even as a conservative.  I also understand that certain security measures were necessary to control dissent in order for the state to survive (alluding to measures against human rights—I’m still being nice.).  If the embargo were lifted tomorrow, and Cuba had normal diplomatic relations with the United States, would the security measures against dissent be lifted.”

The crowd gasped.  Then it murmered.  One colleague quietly congratulated me on the question.

The translator, our tour guide, was taking his sweet time translating to Mariela Castro.  When he did, it was in a low, barely audible voice that’s usually used when fixing horse races or boxing matches.

Sure enough, the question was mangled, and the answer was even more circular.  But the cat was out of the bag.

Another colleague chimed in about the continued arrests and torture of homosexuals in Havana, based on firsthand accounts.  Mariela countered by saying that the process was slow and ongoing, that there was no torture (surprise, surprise) and that any rights for homosexuals had to coincide with respect for traditional Cuban family values (which negates any of the work she’s doing).

Oh, and she stated that certain Cubans, including homosexuals, were being sent to labor camps to “appreciate the agrarian nature of the Cuban economy.”  Just like Jews lined up to go to Auschwitz for the clean woodsy air and luxurious accommodations.

If you didn’t see the iron fist before, you saw it at that moment.  And she said it with a smile, the kind of “oh well” smile you saw in such fabulous folks like Reinhard Heydrich, Lavrentii Beria or Augusto Pinochet.

It was the naked smile of totalitarianism…and it scared the living shit out of me.

My friend had a solution.  One day, he was wondering the Vedado, the neighborhood near our hotel, when he came across a bookstore that had boxes of contraband books.  I asked him that evening to take me there.

When we got to the store, it was a storefront like all the others, books by Fidel, Marx, Lenin, Marti, Che, the usual suspects.  Yet when we peered in, a thin, gangly man with worn clothes and a baseball cap greeted us.  

 This man, who I’ll call Juan, was a homosexual, and started to show me books of banned art, much of it homoerotica, in the assumption that my orientation was likewise.  This was a natural assumption as Vedado was known as a gay neighborhood and my friend who found the place was also gay.

I thanked him for showing the art, but I explained that I was more interested in banned writers, press censorship, official repression and whatnot.  Juan was happy to oblige.  It seems he was waiting, hoping, praying that someone, ANYONE would listen to his experiences.  His shabby house, with only one bad TV and a rotten mattress, had thousands, literally, of books cataloged in boxes that filled the space.

 Juan took me to box after box, book after book of writers on the official writers’ guild, UNEAC, who still manage to arouse government suspicion, if not outright repression.   Official publications, such as the journals of the Young Communist League, are also used in a quiet rebellion against the regime.   He was very careful in watching the front: the showpiece of the Marxist books had to be manned at all times, and there were occasional police cars that often stopped.

I shared with Juan and his friends our encounter with Mariela Castro.  They were beside themselves in glee, even pointing out that I was wearing the same color green as Fidel’s uniform (a double insult, apparently).  Word on the gay street is that Mariela uses the gay movement as her personal steppingstone to power.  If she was serious about giving gays equal rights, Juan noted, why doesn’t she push for an LGBT league within the Cuban Communist Party, the way the women and young people have it?  No such organization is in the works.

I asked about the police, and Juan smirked:  “We don’t worry about the cops in uniform.  They just want to bust balls, since half of them are gay anyway.”  The ones in plainclothes, from MININT’s State Security Division or from the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), are the most dangerous because they are the real strong arm of the regime. 

CDRs are local civilian committees that were created to protect the regime against enemies.  Neighborhood committees have mandatory meetings, and are expected to report on any counterrevolutionary activity.  Many of these snitches use the opportunity to settle old scores with neighbors, bringing up trumped-up or bogus charges to have their problems dealt with.  It is the CDR that holds the population in fear, says Juan.

 In a country of 12 million people, 5 million are police.  The rest are waiting to inform on their neighbors to the police.

I asked if he was ever harassed by security forces.  Juan was kind enough to share two examples.  The first was when he was picked up and harassed by the police about his whereabouts.  The police alleged he was in Santiago at a certain date, and Juan denied it.  He explained that now, because of this accusation, he can never go to Santiago because the police would then change their story to utilize the inconvenient facts.

The second was almost too much to bear.  Either a Security Division agent or a CDR captain, I can’t remember which, picked up Juan and harassed him about his acquaintances and his whereabouts.  He answered each question rather smugly, which wouldn’t be bright in most circumstances, but Juan’s friends in UNEAC have kept him out of serious time.  The agent then scolded Juan in saying his attitude, “was not very revolutionary.”

At this Juan exploded, “Look, I don’t have a penny to my name.  I live in a shitty abandoned house with one TV and a rotten mattress.  All I own are old books and the clothes on my back.  I can barely survive since I subsist almost solely on rations.  How in God’s name can I NOT be revolutionary!  I AM THE REVOLUTION!”

It was a lot to take in today.  I gladly bought a stack of Juan’s contraband suggestions and returned to the hotel to freshen up for the night.  As I entered my shower and turned on the faucet, something in me broke.  It all hit me at once.

I began crying and sobbing uncontrollably.

Did no one fucking see what I saw?  It’s like if don’t realize how wrong this regime is, than you’re either too stupid or you’re in on the repression in some way.  By now, in my mind, everyone was suspect: the bus driver, the tour guides, the presenters and curators, Fuster, half the delegation itself. 

For a brief moment, I even suspected Mariana.  Her glowing admiration for Mariela Castro had me so worked up that I daydreamed of putting everyone on a wall—her included—and having a firing squad unload on them.

This was too much.  I needed some sanity. 

Havana Club. This bottle was surgically attached to my hand most of the trip.

In short, I needed a drink. 

In hindsight, this was not the wisest decision on my trip.  Not only does booze make me honest; it also makes me generous.

We went over to the Casa de Musica in Havana Centro for salsa dancing and carousing.  I was not only half drunk already, but in a generous mood to any ordinary Cuban.  20 CUC bills were flying out of me like an ATM, with grateful Cuban waiters as the recipients.  Bottles of rum, colas, ice and even French fries rounded out our table.  That waiter took care of us as if I was Batista himself—I doubt Fidel appreciates a decent bottle service. 

By the time I got into the cab to go home, I was ready to kill.  So with my friend Britton taping on his camera—as he was want to do—I unloaded the mother of all drunken rants, in Spanish.  I cursed out Fidel, Che, Camilo Cienfuegos (I apologize for Camilo, since I kinda like the guy), Mariela Castro, the police, the CDRs, the whole damn revolution (though I think I didn’t use the word “damn.”).  The driver quietly drove on.  Britton was beside himself, either with laughter or fear.

By the time I got to my room, still piss drunk, I was ready. 

I was ready for Fidel to die so I could grab a rifle and start the counter-revolution.

Part VII explains the hangover from Part VI, including Che and Fidel merchandise, a huge outdoor concert, and visits to local houses.

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You say you want a revolution…the Cuba Chronicles, Part 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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The Devil and Jeff Spicoli: A Response to Sean Penn and Hugo Chavez

Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.    – from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Sean and Hugo: It's like the blind and dumb leading the blind and dumb, only with guns and petroleum.

Like his stoner counterpart, Sean Penn has been spending time learning about other countries, often with food involved. 

Not only is he learning about Cuba, but also Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bolivia…

The problem is that Sean’s been paying a little too much attention to his Marxist hosts, and thus spreading a deciding one-sided view of these socialist “paradises”.  He is actually making some more gullible folks think that these places are actually “better” than us.  Better than the United States that raised him, gave him a film career and allowed him to speak his mind in between his insufferably self-serving film roles. 

Nowhere is Sean more deluded than in the bailiwick of his friend Hugo Chavez, Venezuela.

Unlike most socialist shitholes, I have a visceral connection with Venezuela.  In the 1950s and 1960s, a slew of European immigrants, largely from Spain and Italy, came to Venezuela to work on their burgeoning public works projects.  Many Italians from all over the country left postwar Europe for rosier opportunities in Latin America.

Some of these Italians included my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins and my father, who spent six years in Caracas before emigrating to the US.

The best recurring themes from my kin are the days when Venezuela was—gasp—not a shithole.  To Italian immigrants, Venezuela was a promised land with perfect weather and endless job opportunities thanks to a government that welcomed outsiders.  It made sense: the name of the place means “little Venice”, after all—too bad the only things the two places have in common today are a fetid stench and a constant sinking feeling.

So my view of Venezuela’s situation is decidedly cloudy.  I still have family there, and the situation there worries me on a personal level that could obscure my judgment.

 That doesn’t mean, however, that Sean Penn isn’t full of shit.

This week, Sean appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO and discussed his efforts in Haiti (Very commendable).  Inevitably, the subject turned to Hugo Chavez and media coverage of his regime (not so commendable).  In essence, Sean wants the media to provide more favorable coverage to this balloon head, and to jail any reporter who says otherwise.

How un-democratic. 

It’s time for me to be the Mr. Hand that finally straightens out Jeff Spicoli.  Sean made three points that are particularly irritating considering his subject matter.  Let’s tear them apart one by one.

Lie # 1: Chavez should not be called a “dictator.”

The first, and arguably the most bogus, is the whining about the media continually calling Chavez a “dictator.”  The dictionary defines a dictator as “a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.” 

Chavez, a former coup plotter, was elected president in 1998.  He then ordered a massive revision of the constitution in 1999, granting him sweeping new powers and packing the legislature and courts with his supporters.  He suppresses free expression.  He rigs judicial procedures against political opponents.  His favorites control the armed forces.  His political apparatus resembles a totalitarian surveillance regime that is slowly creating a police state.

Sean, if that’s not a dictator, I don’t know what is.  If you don’t like the term, here are a few that you may like:

Chancellor, First Consul, Princeps, Chairman, Prime Minister, General Secretary, or Generalissimo

These titles were worn proudly by such democratic luminaries as Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Caesar Augustus, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin and Francisco Franco.  All of them dictators, almost all of them rotting in a dank corner of hell.  Pretty much all of them would re-assess their role as being truly a dictator, if given the opportunity.  Hitler may be reluctant, but Joe Stalin would straighten him out.

Don’t believe me?  Human Rights Watch, not exactly a bastion of conservatism, stated in their country report on Venezuela in January that

“President Hugo Chávez and his supporters have effectively neutralized the independence of Venezuela’s judiciary. In the absence of a judicial check on its actions, the Chávez government has systematically undermined journalists’ freedom of expression, workers’ freedom of association, and the ability of civil society groups to promote human rights.”

He even uses the guise of democracy to exercise his dictatorial control.  Many left-wing pundits laud a certain aspect of the regime as the epitome of participatory democracy—the “Bolivarian circles”, and later the “Bolivarian Missions.”  The regime would have you believe that these circles are community groups coordinated to solve common problems.  The missions, furthermore, are outreach organizations to other areas of Venezuelan life.

Don’t be fooled.  I’ve seen these “circles” and missions before.  They are very effective in identifying and reporting on political opponents, much like the block captains and revolutionary committees in Cuba. 

One mission, the Mission Miranda, is particularly disturbing.  It is a civilian militia trained to defend the country in an emergency.  More likely, he’s arming his poor, deluded supporters into being cannon fodder in case the “inevitable” US-backed right-wing military coup was to take place.

Lie # 2: elections in Venezuela are “free and fair.”

Sean stated on Monday that Chavez was elected in the freest election in the hemisphere.  On the surface, he seems to be right.  In the elections between 2002 and 2009, political opponents were able to field candidates and campaign.  A lively debate ensued.  Outside monitors were in place to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. 

Yet Sean, in his naïveté, refuses to acknowledge that old Hugo would subtly stack the deck in his favor—and often not so subtly.

The 2002 and 2006 presidential elections, the 2005 legislative contests, and the 2009 referenda on constitutional amendments were all deemed “free and fair” by various international groups, including the Carter Center.  Yet each had widespread allegations of vote tampering, harassment of opponents, oppressive and biased media coverage, constitutional arm-twisting, and outright fraud.

The best example of this is the 2005 legislative election, in which seats for Chavez’ rubber stamp national assembly were contested.

After the 2002 elections, an attempted coup briefly deposed Chavez.  He quickly regained power and exerted even harsher pressure on opposition candidates than before.  Due to this more repressive climate, as well as tactics by the national election board to tamper with voting machines and disqualify candidates on trumped-up charges, the majority of the opposition boycotted the 2005 elections in protest.

The result was a “free and fair” election with just 25% turnout.  With the consent of a fraction of the Venezuelan people, with political opponents boycotting the proceedings, Chavez’s cronies gained 116 of the 167 seats in the legislature—enough to change the constitution at will.

Would we allow this in any other setting?  Would Duke automatically win a national championship if Kentucky forfeited in protest because of biased ACC officials?  Would the Red Sox simply be given a World Series ring because other teams refuse to play in a hopelessly biased Fenway Park? 

The election itself may have been conducted correctly—orderly lines, few machine mishaps, a transparent tabulation system.  Yet the circumstances behind that election show that many Venezuelans had no illusions that this system was either free or fair. 

But what about 2007, you may ask?  The 2007 referendum defeat that would have given Chavez unlimited terms of office and even more powers?  Let’s just say Hugo wasn’t going to overreach twice.

What few people realize is that Chavez got those term limits lifted, albeit quietly, in February 2009, in a referendum that many Venezuelans claim violated the very constitution Chavez forced down their throats ten years earlier. 

Yeah, Chavez really loves to play by the rules.  You have to admire a guy that is so hungry for power, he’s willing to break the same rigged rules he put in place before.

Lie # 3: Opponents of Chavez are content with oppression of the poor

Finally, Sean seems to think that Chavez is something of a zero-sum argument.  If you don’t support him, then you don’t support the poor, and you’re some kind of capitalist monster.  I would prefer not to be lumped with Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff, thank you.

Let’s be fair.  Something had to be done about the poverty in Venezuela, and numerous administrations since the 1920s have done little, if anything, to provide even a modicum of hope in their desperate lives.  Chavez, at least on paper, is an advocate for Venezuela’s underclass and counts on them as a base of support—one that has turned out in droves for him at the polls.

Now let’s see what he delivered.  There have been, I’ll admit, modest improvements in the quality of life of some poor Venezuelans: NOT all, but some.  Yet the cost of this “revolution” is disastrous.

Venezuela’s crime rate is at its highest point in its history.  The gap between rich and poor, rather than shrinking, is now wider than ever.  Nationalization measures have wrecked havoc in all major industries—even PDVSA, the state oil monopoly, which dared to defy Chavez a few years back with a threat of a strike.  2010 will be the second year in a row in which the Venezuelan economy has contracted.  Its once-vaunted infrastructure is crumbling to ruins, with rolling blackouts and abandoned roadways.  What little revenue exists is placed in pet projects, corrupt politicians, and ill-advised “relief” programs that the country cannot afford.

He’s been in power since 1998.  That’s twelve years.  We don’t give our presidents 100 days to fix things, and he’s been given three of our presidential terms.  Don’t you think the poor should be fed up with this?

Yet why don’t the poor rise up to throw out Chavez?  It’s probably because the opposition has their thumb up their butts, too.  The official opposition is a loose conglomeration of about a dozen parties, mostly the groups that used to run the show before 1998.  Not only is their opposition fractured, their message is one not even conservatives in the US want to hear: a return to the “good old days” of pre-1998. 

The one thing that Chavez did that should be acknowledged is to bring the plight of Venezuela’s poor into sharp focus.  Whoever succeeds him, whether they are from the left or right, must take their situation as part of the agenda, not shunt it aside as in generations past.

So Sean, you have every right to say what you say.  That’s the beauty of America.  It’s also something you can’t do at your buddy’s country.  Yet I also have the right to respond you your inane nonsence.

Therefore, my response to you is this: you may be right that Chavez is an advocate of the poor, but that does not mean their “liberation” comes at all costs. 

If you were dictator of the good ole’ U S of A, Sean, would you be willing to sacrifice our Constitution, our basic civil rights, our infrastructure, our financial base, our military preparedness, our popular culture, YOUR lavish lifestyle, the lifestyle of your friends, artistic and intellectual freedom, and our standing in the world—simply to make it look like you care for the little guy?

Are you willing to give up your mansions, press junkets, interviews, signing fees, bloated contracts, agents, managers and publicists for the poor and destitute?

I didn’t think so.

Class dismissed, Mr. Spicoli.

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