Roving Anthropologist

Saturday, March 12, 2016

18 DAYS IN CUBA


From Inside Out
Alive in Cuba


Socialism or Death! This is what children are taught in Cuban schools.

Socialism or Death
I’ve traveled to over 140 countries and this was by far one of the strangest countries I had ever been to, with contradictions and inexplicable lapses in logic, which kept me in suspense and on my toes.

The best part of the trip was that I was able to meet a lot of locals. I was happy that I was not on one of those many tour groups shepherded about under the guidance of an approved/certified docent. My primary source of information was Alejandro (my landlord at one of the casa particulars I rented); and his family and his friends, who provided me with a wealth of rich anecdotes and incredible insights on how the impact of the U.S. embargo and the economy in Cuba actually work. The people on the street were also extremely friendly and interested in talking. All ‘n all it was one of the most intense educational experiences I have ever had traveling. 

A couple from Holland, after a week in Havana, told me they couldn’t take it any more. “Cuba is too complicated. We’re catching an early flight home.” 

But then I came upon a Frenchman who told me, “The difficulties I have encountered here have just made everything that much more meaningful. I’ve never felt so alive as I do in Cuba.” I had to agree.

Day 1: Staying Connected

WiFi Hotspot
The Internet is not allowed except in designated hotspots and certain high-end hotels. As a result, communications with the outside world can become an Orwellian feat that sometimes boggles the mind. 

First, I needed to find a place where I could buy an Internet card. The official places were few and far between and often had long lines. And then, didn’t always have cards available. Soon after my arrival, Alejandro and I went shopping for one and stopped at the only place we could find. It had only half-hour cards to sell. I bought one half-hour card for $1 CUC. A CUC is a Cuban Convertible Peso worth approximately one dollar. A one-hour card would have cost me $2 CUC. The clerk insisted on seeing my passport. I assume that this was so they could track where and when I was accessing the internet. Pretty spooky! It was the first and last time I bought a card from one of these places. I found later that it was easier to buy cards on the street through the black market, where I might get charged 2x-3x more, but maybe less likely to have my messages monitored.

Once I secured a card, my next challenge was to find a WiFi hotspot. These also are not always easy to find — somewhere on a street corner or in a remote part of a hotel. These hotspots aren’t posted and people on the street often don’t know where to find one. Fortunately, I got lucky and found one in the back of a hotel two blocks from my apartment. To my dismay, however, the hotspot didn’t always work or it required me to enter the 12-digit user id and 12-digit password several times before somehow magically giving me access. As might be expected, the connection was usually slow and didn’t always let me access a website. I found another hotspot in another hotel a couple blocks farther away. So, when the first one didn’t work, I would go to that one. But, of course, there was no guarantee that that one would work any better. Throughout my stay, I ended up spending a lot of time just trying to send a simple message back home. 

Day 2: Fingernail Clipper Anyone?

Fingernail Clipping
Blame it on the embargo, if you like, but I couldn’t find a place to buy a fingernail clipper. I wasn’t able to find mine and badly needed to cut my fingernails. A nail place was out of the question, since Alejandro had told me that there were none. I thought I would try the barber around the corner from my apartment. He couldn't help me, but a young lady sitting there said she could cut my nails. I didn't bother asking the price. How much could a few minutes of nail trimming cost anyway? Well, $10 CUC to be exact. To put that into perspective, that’s almost half the monthly salary of most Cubans. Oh, well, the price was almost worth the experience. The barber and the young woman were friendly enough and had a rudimentary understanding of English, so we started chatting. I told them I wanted to drive to Trinidad but needed a local person who spoke some English to help me navigate my way. The young woman quickly replied, “I’ll go!” 

"Huh, how much is that going to cost?" 

"Nothing," she smiled seductively. 

Tempting, I thought, but I decided to pass. 

Day 3:  Baseball, the National Sport

Just Talking Baseball
A group of men were screaming at each other, although I couldn’t make a word out of what they were saying. Here in Havana, in Park Central, I guessed this group of mostly young men were having a heated public political debate. What else could it be? I asked a man standing next to me, who didn't really speak English. He shook his head and said, "baseball." 

“Baseball,” I said, laughing.

“Baseball,” he shrugged, and walked away

He had to be kidding, I thought. So later that night, I asked Alejandro  and he told me, "It's called Esquina Caliente, the Hot Corner. It's where people talk baseball. It's something the government allows as long as they don't talk about anything else."

The one place I learned that there were no lines was at baseball games and surprisingly, the games were free to the public. At Alejandro s relatives' place, the national team was playing on television and there was nobody in the stands. I asked Alejandro, “What gives?”

“Too many fights.”

Alejandro’s cousin was listening and said, “No, it’s because all the good players have gone to play in the U.S.” He rattled off the names of 20 players who had left the country for the U.S. 

I said "Let's go to a game." Alejandro replied, "We can't. The stadium is under construction." 

“But I heard yesterday, when President Obama arrives, Tampa Bay Rays will be here to play your national team.” A waiter had told me the the day before that the programming on one of the four TV stations had been interrupted to announce President Obama’s visit. 

“I guess,” Alejandro replied. “That’s why they’re fixing it up.” As it turned out, Alejandro wasn’t all that interested in baseball.

Day 4:  The Libreta

The Libreta is a little book that the citizens use to record their daily and monthly allotment of food - a basic commitment of the revolution. Here's what Alejandro told me each individual is entitled to.

Just One Bun Today

     5 pounds of rice per month.
     1/4 pound of beans per month.
     6 eggs per month.
     1 small bun per day.
     1/4 liter cooking oil per month.
    100 grams of coffee (40% actual coffee) per month.    
     
“Children get dried milk until they're seven years old,” he added. “If you don't have a job, this is what you have to live on.” It seemed to ring true as everyone I met had either sometime in the past or was now subsisting on their Libreta. This, of course, was not enough for anyone to realistic live on so most found other means to better their lives or simply survive. 

Day 5:  Two Currencies

Cuban Convertible Peso
As I learned, there are two currencies in Cuba: the CUP (the Cuban Peso) and the CUC (the Cuban Convertible Peso). The CUC is pegged to the dollar and is valued at 25 times the value of the CUP. The two currencies look alike except that the CUC has Pesos Convertible printed on it. They're very easy to confuse and tourists are often victims when buying something in CUCs and receiving pesos for change. The government charges a whopping 13 percent to exchange dollars for CUCs. The street market rate is 7 percent, although I found that most people would rather stand in line at a bank an hour or more than to take their chances of getting scammed by trading on the street. Fortunately, Alejandro was able to find me good CUCs at the seven percent rate.

Alejandro explained, “People are paid in either CUCs, CUPs, or both. My government accounting job pays me $10 CUC and the rest in CUPs. I receive this in cash each month. Lupe, my girlfriend, receives the same, but it's deposited in her bankcard account. She knows of only three stores where she can actually use her bankcard, so she has to use a cash machine to get money. The logic of this convoluted system is a mystery to us. The Peso has tradition behind it and the convertible is necessary to accommodate the imperialistic system.” Alejandro laughed. “Che Guevara, the founder of our National Bank, is probably rolling over in his grave at the thought of our little dance with the market forces of the evil empire.”

Day 6:  The Price of Cars

Korean Parts
There are only two car dealerships in Havana, with a population of 1 million. Both of these dealerships are government run. Alejandro  his parents, and I visited one of them. It had a variety of used cars and one new Chinese economy-size car. The price tag on the new car was $248,000 CUC. The dealership also had a number of used motor scooters and motorcycles. One of the used Chinese scooters was priced at $14,000 CUC. "How in the world can you possibly afford one of these?" I asked Alejandro  whose accounting job paid $26 CUC a month. 

"We can't," he answered. "I'm 38 and have never had a driver’s license. My father has a driver’s license, but has only driven twice in his life. The cars you see on the street, almost all used, are either passed down in the family or traded on the open market. Some are acquired at a reduced price when, for example, an individual’s serves in some official capacity abroad. Very few have their original motors or transmissions. They have been rebuilt over and over again with mostly Korean parts. The government says that they have to set a high price on the vehicles to cover the cost of fixing the roads. But since no one can afford a car, the roads, as you can see, aren't getting fixed either.”

Day 7:  Don’t Believe What You Read

Selling Sweets
"Here we sell everything," Alejandro had told me, as he pointed to a young woman selling some sweets inside the hallway of one of the ramshackle three-story buildings we passed driving in from the airport. The way people manage to survive in Cuba under such extreme economic conditions is fascinating. Alejandro insisted that he show me just exactly how they live. 

We were meandering through La Habana Vieja, the historic Old Town, when he grabbed my arm and said, “Here, let’s check this one out.” It was a crumbling four-story colonial-style building, which like other buildings in Havana, was in such bad shape that it had trees growing out of it. These colonial-era buildings were prone to collapse killing the inhabitants. "No one knows how many people have been killed in this way," Alejandro told me. “Nevertheless, the residents seem to make it work.” Some lived for free, as the structures had no possible resale value. Since many of these buildings had 20+ foot ceilings, inhabitants would create second floors. In part of the building we entered the occupants had actually created three floors in the space of a 400 square-foot apartment. Although there were only a few people living in this one, Alejandro old me that such places often cram up to 20-30 people. 

I suspect that President Obama won't have a chance to see one of these places. The woman who showed us their cramped three-story apartment told us, "Don't believe what you read; this is how we live in Cuba." I offered the woman $1 CUC and she rejected it. "Never! Never!" she said, smiling. 

Day 8:  Casa Particulars, A Lifeline to Prosperity

Casa Particular
"Casa Particulars" is how Cubans refer to the private rental market. Tourism is the best chance for Cuba to bring desperately needed cash into their economy. In January, over 400,000 people came to Cuba. Agriculture could have been a source, but their over-educated workforce has no interest in working the fields. They also do not have access to immigrant farm workers who might work their sugar cane and tobacco fields. “Who would want to come here and live anyway?” Alejandro told me. And so the government has entered into a dance with the evil imperialistic market forces. With foreign investments, they are building hotels as fast as they can, but can in no way keep up with the demand. Decent hotels, running $300 CUC to $1,000 CUC a night, are booked months in advance. Faced with this dilemma, the government has had no other choice but to allow the private sector to pick up the slack.

Cubans are allowed to purchase one place to live. Seizing on the potential of turning such a place into a source of rental income, they will move into another family member's place so they can rent out their own. The only question left is how to connect with interested renters since they are not allowed access to the Internet or e-mail in their own homes. How this works for each property owner depends on the individual circumstance. Here's how Alejandro and his family managed it.

His mother moved into her husband's flat, thereby freeing up her flat for Alejandro and Lupe to live in. Alejandro  in turn, bought an apartment that is now free. He also has a sister who bought an apartment in the same building. His sister, an accomplished ballet dancer, who married a Portuguese industrialist, immigrated to Portugal. In this way they had two units to rent. Their first challenge was to connect with potential guests. They did this by renting an e-mail account from a doctor friend of theirs. It seems that certain doctors are allowed to have e-mail accounts. Their next challenge was to get the word out.

Fortunately, living in Portugal, Alejandro's sister was able to set up an Airbnb account and that is how I was able to find them. The two apartments each rent for $65 CUC a night. I wanted to extend my stay in Cuba so I had to find another place. A street singer gave me the name and address of a casa particular to check out. The owner of the new place didn't have the wherewithal to find renters in the same way Alejandro did. Her two-bedroom apartment, though, was much nicer, much larger, in an excellent location, and rented for just $45 CUC a night. I was quite happy there. 

Now it will be interesting to see how the government will treat the casa particulars once they have built enough hotels to accommodate all of the tourist. In the past, the government has found ways to change the market dynamics when they find that a situation is at odds with their revolutionary goals.

Day 9: Entrepreneurs Everywhere

Alejandro’s accounting job pays $26 CUC a month. His mom and dad's combined pension is $40 CUC a month. His grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s and lives with his parents, gets $10 CUC a month. “So how do you get by?” I asked Alejandro at his parents’ house. “After all, some things like meat, bottled water, and gas aren’t that much cheaper here.”

"Everything is for sale," Alejandro reminded me. 

Magnetic Roller
His father, a retired communications officer who served in Angola, said, “I invented a magnetic roller device that can cure arthritis and other ailments. I make one a day and sell them to a nearby hospital for $15 CUC. 

His mother, a retired foreign service worker, added, “I make handbags — maybe one every few days. I sell them to neighbors for $15 CUC each.” Their biggest source of income, however, comes from renting out their son and daughter's apartments to people like me. 

Alejandro shook his head and laughed, “But we don’t know how long it will last. As soon as someone comes up with a decent way of making a living, the government steps in and takes it away. That’s what happened with restaurants. A man opened a restaurant and it became very successful. Fidel Castro didn’t like it and wrote a scathing article in the Granma (the official paper of the government) saying the man was making too much money — almost a thousand dollars a day. A month later, the government implemented a new law limiting the size of private restaurants to just twelve 12 chairs. Now they’ve changed it to 50. You see, it’s crazy! We never know what’s coming next. Two years ago, the craze throughout the city was to create mini-cinemas and game rooms in some of the abandoned buildings. They were very popular. But the government didn’t like them and quickly outlawed them. You see, anyone with an idea has no chance. The government will close you down or force you out if you’re too successful.”

Day 10:  Education, Everyone’s Right

Going to School
The government is proud of its educational system. Prior to the revolution of 1959 most of the island's population was illiterate. To rectify the situation, the newly minted revolutionary government sent out 300,000 of its literate people to teach 700,000 people how to read and write, an undertaking that took just one year to complete. Now everyone attends high school and most finish college — and it's all free. Their educational system has been so successful that they have turned their educated workforce into one of their most important exports. 

Each year they send around 60,000 professionals, mostly doctors, to over 100 mostly developing countries. This is more than all of the G8 countries combined send to other countries. Depending on the country, the Cuban government may charge the recipient country up to $4,000 CUC a month for each professional. In turn, the government pays the professional $400 CUC a month, half of which is deposited into the professional's account in Cuba. This ensures that the professionals will return to Cuba once their assignments are over. By their own account, this program has not only been a source of needed income ($8.2 Billion in 2014 according to one report), but also a means of creating good will, useful in exporting their revolutionary ideas.

Day 11:  Healthcare, Everyone’s Right

Medical Clinic in Havana
Along with its free educational system, the government is proud of its universal health care. Everyone is entitled to free health care throughout their lives. Alejandro s father had bypass surgery at no cost. Alejandro's 80-year-old uncle had a stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. His hospitalization and treatment was completely covered. 

So far, so good. I learned that it was only because Alejandro's parents were friends of one of the hospital administrators that their father was admitted in a timely manner. It is more common for patients to have to bribe the doctors to get seen sooner. Remember, doctors, like everyone else, are paid by the government, in their case, $30-$60 CUC a month depending on their specialties. It isn’t enough to live on, so doctors often accept bribes to survive. 

And, the patient's concerns are not over just because he has obtained a doctor. The patient must bring his own bedding, towels, and soap. Nurses, who get paid $25 CUC a month, are also prone to taking bribes to survive. Without the bribe, you may not be able to get a nurse at all. Alejandro's father told me, “What was most disappointing about my hospital stay was the fact that the nurses would steal the meat from my food tray. I got no meat, no protein, while in the hospital.” There's a premium on meat throughout Cuba anyway, since most meat is imported and except for hotels and restaurants frequent shortages are the norm. Alejandro's relatives told of similar experiences.

Day 12:  Che Guevara & the Revolution

Longest Genocidal Blockade in History
Pictures of Che Guevara are everywhere. They are on souvenirs, billboards, posters, and T-shirts, although I didn’t see anyone actually wear one of those shirts, probably because it was something only a tourist would buy. 

We visited Che's monument and mausoleum in Santa Clara. Not many visitors and those there were tourists. Alejandro said, “This is the first time Lupe and I have here. Like most Cubans, we have no interest in visiting this place.”

The same was true of one of the revolution’s most famous battle scenes, also in Santa Clara, where the rebels attacked and defeated Batista’s army. There again, most of the visitors were tourists. “Not much interest on the part of the locals in place like this,” Alejandro said. 

But the government tries hard to keep its revolutionary ideas alive. There were billboards, wall paintings, and posters everywhere extolling the virtues of the revolution. I learned a lot just by reading these billboards. Here are a few examples.

       "Patriotism or death."
       "We will never renounce our principles."
       "The revolution of the people is invincible."
       "Virtues of communism are internationalism and patriotism."
       "Revolution is the meaning of this historical moment."
       "Humanity demands justice for all."
       "In every neighborhood, revolution."
       “To victory always.”
       "The communist party is the soul of the revolution."
       "The longest genocidal blockade in the history of the world."

The last one is how they refer to the U.S. embargo. I have Alejandro to thank for these translations — made as we were driving around Cuba.

Day 13:  Voting is Obligatory

Neighborhood CDR
“I was a communications officer in Angola. We did a lot of good there. We won Namibia’s independence and forced South Africa to abolish apartheid,” Alejandro’s father explained. 

“It was a better system back then.” Alejandro told me later and that his father was also a member of the Communist Party and the president of the CDR, but that he no longer believed in any of that stuff. “The CDR, I see the signs. What’s that all about?” 

“It stands for the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution,” Alejandro said. “Every neighborhood has one. Fidel Castro set them up in 1960 as a way of resisting and containing the counter-insurgency. They actually did some good things back then, such as sponsoring blood drives and vaccination campaigns. But that was then. Thugs and the mentally ill run them now. They watch and report on people. Yoani S├ínchez is a well-known dissident here. She has a blog and lives in an apartment complex just two blocks from my parents’. The government, or whoever, has set up a CDR on her floor just to watch her. You can’t go there without being reported on. If you do, someone for sure will come knocking on your door and ask all sorts of questions. Before you know it, you’ve lost your job.” 

“I want to talk to her.”

“No, no,” Alejandro replied. “I’m not taking you there. You can go on your own, but I wouldn’t, if I were you.” He paused to let that sink in and then continued, “You need to understand the pervasive nature of the CDRs. Here, for example, you have to vote. If you don’t, you’ll get a knock on the door by members of the CDR and a lot of questions If you continue to resist, something bad can happen to you, like losing your job.” 

“So you vote?”

“Of course. I have to, but the candidates are nobodies. They do nothing but vote for another person who does nothing. In the end, the Castros decide who does what. It’s a crazy system that makes no sense whatsoever.” 

“I’ve read that 90 per cent of the people vote.” 

“No,” Alejandro replied, “It’s probably more like 99 per cent. Don’t you get it? Not voting isn’t really an option.”

Day 14:  Trinidad & Its Casa Particulars

Flat Tire
It was early in the morning and someone was hollering something outside of our casa particular. I went to look and saw that an old man was pointing to the front tire of our rattletrap of a car. It was flat. Alejandro and Lupe were there along with the owner of the casa, who was gesticulating and talking loudly. 

“What happened?” 

“The owner thinks that it was one of the members of the CDR who punctured the tire. The owner says that the CDR here is very active. The CDR thinks that tourism and the casa particulars have gotten out of hand in Trinidad. They want to make life tough for owners like him. The government, he says, is behind all of this.”

Alejandro seemed to be taking it all in stride, as though it was just a joke. But the owner was clearly upset. “You remember that checkpoint we went through a few miles outside of town?” Alejandro ontinued. “The owner says they were checking for agricultural products and goods that the casa particulars might be bringing into the city. In this way, they force them to buy from the government stores here. An orange outside Trinidad, he says, costs $1 CUC, but here it costs $3 CUCs. The owner thinks it’s just the start and what the government really wants is to put them all out of business.” 

800 Kilometers for Just One TV
Later the owner showed us a television set he had bought and brought back from Havana, 800-kilometer round trip. He needed three sets for the three guest rooms that he had, but he only dared bring back one, claiming to the check-point guards that it was for his personal use. The last thing he needed was for the guards to confiscate three TVs. 

“You know,” Alejandro said, “The government accuses the U.S. of genocide with its blockade, but then sets up blockades of its own.”

Day 15:  Eating Lobster in Caibarian

The town where Alejandro's aunt and uncle live is called Caibarian. It sits on the northern coast of Cuba about 90 miles from Florida. In any other part of the developed world, it would be swimming in wealth from its lobster industry and its attractive beaches. From here, the Cuban government has built a 40-mile highway out to Cayo Santa Maria, one of the beautiful keys that line the coast of Cuba. Here's where the Cuban elite, Europeans, and Canadians vacation in luxurious five-star beach hotels. We went on a tour of one of these hotels and found it fairly comparable to 5-star beach hotels elsewhere. If you book a room at the front desk, the price of a single room is $450 CUC, but if you walk across the lobby and book through one of the agencies there, you can get the same room for $120 CUC.

Khrushchyovka Apartments
In Caibarian, like everywhere else in Cuba, the people are forced to live on their pithy government salaries and what they are allotted through their Libretas. Many of them live in dilapidated Khrushchyovka apartments built by the Soviet Union in the early 60s.  It's not easy for them and so, like elsewhere, they develop survival strategies. In their case, most of Alejandro's relatives work out on the key and are able to garner tips, which they share with other members of their family who don't have the same opportunity. 

The lobster industry is a different story. Fisherman too are government employees.  They may get a monthly salary of $25 CUC. As you can imagine, this has created a black market for lobsters. The Cuban government says that lobsters are for the tourists and if you are caught selling lobsters, you’ll get 30 years in jail. In spite of the potentially severe penalty, Alejandro,  Lupe, his uncle, and I easily secured a half dozen lobsters for dinner that night. But the real irony was that his uncle is the President of the local CDR and a member of the Communist Party.

Day 16:  Don’t forget the toilet paper

No Toilet Seat
Alejandro's mother called Alejandro on his cell phone and said "See if you can find toilet paper. There's none in Havana." Shortages abound, some real and others artificial. I've already mentioned that you can't buy a fingernail clipper in Cuba. You also can't get dental floss or a toothpick, and for some odd reason, dishwashing detergent was very hard to come by. We had to go to three gas stations before we found one that had gas. But what really got me was the shortage of toilet seats. They were missing from all public facilities and many private homes. We stayed at Alejandro s aunt and uncle's and they didn't have a toilet seat. "Hey, this is Cuba," Alejandro said. "Just squat over the bowl. It works fine." 

Alejandro’s relatives also didn't have hot water. "Never had," they said. Actually, I doubt if any of the 30,000 residents of Caibarean had hot water. This was probably not because of a shortage of water heaters, but simply because they couldn't afford one. The people were living under extremely austere economic conditions. All the homes and apartment buildings were badly in need of repair. There was no bus service or even a single WiFi hotspot in the entire city. There were also very few cars. People got around on bikes, horse and carriage, and just by walking — something I saw a lot of outside of Havana. 

Alejandro's aunt sent us out to buy cheese and eggs for breakfast the next morning. We didn't go to a store, but instead went from one private home to the next, only to come up empty on the cheese. We did score on the eggs. It just so happened to be the one time in the year when you could buy more than the allotted six eggs per person per month. On the four-hour drive back to Havana we stopped at a half dozen stores, but still found no toilet paper.

Day 17: Saving Money

Alejandro, Lupe, and I sat down to eat at what we were told was the best restaurant in all of Cienfuegos. The waiter brought the menu and I noted that dinner for the three of us with a nice bottle of wine would run me about $60 CUC. Alejandro took one look at the menu, got up, and disappeared. Moments later he returned. "Here's the real menu," he said. "The other one is for the tourists." The prices in the new menu were half of what they were on the old menu. This practice of restaurants having two menus was common, but how a tourist could insist on the cheaper menu without the assistance of someone like Alejandro was unclear.

Box of 25 for Just $40 CUC
Alejandro saved me money at every turn. I've already mentioned the favorable currency exchange rate he got for me. I wanted to get a box of cigars for my son and he found me a box of 25 Cohiba cigars for $40 CUC. The same box in a cigar shop in Havana would cost $340 CUC. As I mentioned, finding a place to buy an Internet card was a real hassle and then you usually had to pay two to three times the official rate. But after the first few days, Alejandro always seemed to come up with cards at the official rate of $2 CUC for an hour of access. Renting a car through quasi-normal rental outlets is virtually impossible as they seldom, if ever, had cars available and if they did, it would cost over $200 CUC per day. Twice Alejandro was able to secure a private car (granted, they had close to 300,000 kilometers on them) for $50 CUC a day. Finally, staying in casa particulars was really the only economical way of getting around in Cuba. Alejandro had no trouble finding us places to stay on our four-day trip. The nicest place was just $40 CUC for two rooms, soap not included.

Day 18:  The Cockroach as a Metaphor

The Cockroach
A large sculptured cockroach climbs an inside wall of the Museo Artes de Cuba. “I really like this one,” the docent was saying. “It was done in 1990 in response to the Soviet Union leaving us in the lurch to live like cockroaches. Look inside and you’ll see a human being. Just like in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, don’t you think?” I overheard this as I eavesdropped on one of the tours being shepherded through the museum. I occasionally did this to get the official view of things. But I usually took what they said with a grain of salt. “Tour guides are secret service agents. You can’t trust them to tell the truth.” Alejandro, had told me. 

He may have exaggerated a bit, but his point was well taken when we visited one of the caves in Vinales. A tour guide with his group in tow bumped into us as we waited in line and as Alejandro and I were talking about all the rumors swirling around President Obama’s upcoming visit. “We have only three newspapers here,” Alejandro was saying, “and they all say the same thing. It’s hard to find out what’s really happening.” 

The guide behind us, speaking excellent English, suddenly felt obliged to butt in. “We have plenty of news here,” he said. 

I turned to him, and perhaps with a sarcastic edge in my voice, asked, “Do you read the New York Times or the Washington Post?” 

“No, no,” he replied, “We’re only interested in news sources that tell the truth.” 

“He’s referring to the packet,” Alejandro said, laughing. The packets are compilations of news articles, videos, movies, etc., that the government has approved for distribution. You can buy them at designated outlets. 

I pressed the guide further, “You mean you really don’t read any of the U.S. papers? You can view them online, you know.” Clearly agitated, he turned to Alejandro and burst into what sounded like a serious discussion in Spanish. 

“What was that all about?” I asked Alejandro later when we were no longer in hearing range of the guide. 

“He wanted to know who you were and why you were here. I told him you were a writer. He said that he had already determined that from my psychological profile.”

“Psychological profile?”

 “Yes. That’s the way these secret service agents talk.” The whole scene spooked me enough that I vowed from then on to watch what I said in public. 

In hindsight, the docent’s comments about the cockroach seemed to play off a common theme that I had been encountering. The government has the truth and if anything isn’t working, others are to blame. Yes, Russia left Cuba in the lurch. Imperialism and the genocidal blockade, as they refer to it, has reeked havoc on the economy. But contrary to the docent’s interpretation, in my opinion, it’s undeniably the life-sustaining hopes and dreams of socialism that have morphed into a cockroach. The Cuban government has had opportunities to improve the well-being of its people, but out of fear of possibly diluting the purity of socialism, has rigidly applied its doctrinaire socialist idealism, turning its people into cockroaches. 


The Reality of Idealism

The Reality of Idealism
Fidel Castro, at the age of 89, still writes articles for the Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper, named for the yacht that carried Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, Che Guevara, and 79 other rebels to Cuba in 1956 to launch the revolution. I just finished reading Castro’s book on President Obama and have started reading a book entitled “Fidel Castro Reader,” which is primarily a sampling of his speeches and articles from the beginning of the revolution. Castro is a prolific and excellent writer, knowledgeable and astute, especially when it comes to the perils of the capitalist system. But he goes too far, never striking a balance. Capitalism and the imperialist system are all bad. The revolution and its socialist goals are all good. Not once in all that I’ve read does he address the reality of the way people actually live under his system. If there are any problems, he blames them on the United States and its genocidal blockade that the Cuban people gallantly accept as a condition of their sovereign right to defend the revolution. Here’s a typical quote by Fidel Castro.

“[We are] a country where no elderly people are abandoned, no children living in the streets or without schools, no people left to their own devices…. We will demonstrate with actual facts, with reality, who has a humane approach to life, who has true humanitarian sentiments and who is capable of doing something for humankind that is not lies, slogans, misinformation, hypocrisy, deception and everything they have been doing in our region throughout this century.” Fidel Castro Reader, p. 458

There’s obviously a huge disconnect between the idealism of the revolution and what is actually taking place in Cuba; although foreigners seem to be convinced that the government has to change. “It cannot be otherwise,” one American told me. “They need our tourist dollars to survive.” I begged to differ. It has been 26 years since the Soviet Union forsook Cuba, and it has been 20 years since the U.S. imposed the harsher embargo restrictions of the Helms-Burton Act. Yet the Cuban government has continued to believe that the merits of the revolution far outweigh any gains to be had from striking up a relationship with the evil imperialist powers. To be sure, they turn a blind eye to the influences of the market forces already infiltrating the social fabric of their beloved revolution. But as I’ve noted, they are quick to squelch any blatant departure from the spirit of the revolution. They tolerate the creation of black markets and the violation of their many laws. But let one person step into the limelight with a successful enterprise and it will be squelched.

On March 21, President Obama will be in Cuba. What can he do that will make a difference? Before I went to Cuba, I was convinced that lifting of the embargo could only help the Cuban people. I am no longer so convinced. From everything I observed, I see no motivation on the part of this government to change. If the government can go 26 years under the most extreme austere conditions, continuing to deny people basic rights of assembly and self-determination, I see no reason why they should change with an influx of capital. I fear instead that they will use these new funds to further suppress their people. For example, I can see them developing new technologies to monitor the attitudes and behaviors of their citizens, in other words, the CDRs on steroids. Furthermore, I fear they will more aggressively export their revolutionary ideas to developing countries as they did through the support of the Soviet Union. No one should be fooled; Cuba still holds Che Guevera as the model of its international revolutionary intentions. 

So what can President Obama do? If I were him, I would publicly announce, hopefully on all four Cuban channels, that the United States will provide Internet access to the entire country of Cuba free of charge. Last summer Google made the very same offer. This, I believe, would represent a direct challenge to the governing elite. They claim they are not afraid of the truth. They claim they have the support of the Cuban people. But then why not allow Internet or e-mail in the homes of their citizens? Force this issue and if it is accepted, take every other condition off the table. I believe that nothing will change the dynamics of this oppressive regime more than giving a voice to its people. The people I’ve met on this trip want nothing more than to be heard.








1

Monday, April 28, 2014

Fantasyland for the Faithful

Jesus Birthplace
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL: This is my final stop on this my fourth trip around the world and what a better place to be than Jerusalem, the fantasyland for the faithful of the three major western religions and their various offshoots. At the Jaffa Gate Tour Information office, I am told I can choose between a Christian or Jewish tour of the Old City. I ask, “What about a secular tour?” The response is a puzzled look. I decide to go it alone, at least for the Old City. From the Tower of David I have a 360 degree view of the Old City, from where I see where Jesus’ last supper was held, where he was crucified, where he was buried, where he preached the sermon on the mount, and where he ascended into heaven. I see also where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac and, to my surprise, where Adam was buried (hint: the same place Jesus was crucified). Less than an hour’s drive into Bethlehem I see the caves where the shepherds lived, where Jesus was born, and where the Virgin Mary shed some milk while breastfeeding the Christ Child on their return from Egypt. On my way to Jericho, I see where the Good Samaritan helped the injured traveler and in Jericho the tree that Zacchaeus climbed to catch a view of Jesus. When and wherever I have the opportunity, I ask, “Who decided that this is where such and such happened and when was this decision made?” The responses I get are all over the board: “Why are you asking that? It’s in the Bible.” “Are you an agnostic?” “It’s tradition.” Sometimes the answers are more thoughtful; “Empress Helena, mother of King Constantine, in 325 CE determined where Jesus was crucified.” “The Crusaders decided where Mary’s milk was spilt.” But sometimes the responses can also be surprisingly candid: “The tree is only 1,000 years old, so Zacchaeus could never have sat in it,” or “The archeological record shows that Jericho wasn’t occupied during Biblical times, so maybe the story of Jericho in the Bible isn’t even true.”