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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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’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.
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.
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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