As I watch Obama land in Havana, the first US President to do so since 1928, I remember my first trip to Cuba in 2000. What a trip!
Here is what I wrote then. Bu$h was President then so it was called
HOLIDAYS IN THE AXIS OF EVIL – CUBA
NOW THE LAW DOES SAY, THE ONLY WAY TO CUBA IS WITH THE CIA.
BUT SOMEHOW IT IS STRANGE TO HEAR THE STATE DEPARTMENT SAY,
YOU ARE LIVING IN THE FREE WORLD, IN THE FREE WORLD YOU MUST STAY. Phil Ochs, 1963
As Americans, we tend to think of Cuba as a black hole, full of men in army uniforms, a hot bed of revolutionary activity, 90 miles offshore, threatening our peace and way of life. We know we can’t go there, a fact unquestioned by citizens who proudly declare themselves living in the most democratic country in the world. Interestingly, I got enough questions on this to realize that many think it’s Cuba that won’t allow us in, not the US. Few people realize it’s the largest island in the Caribbean with 4,500 miles of unspoiled beaches. Columbus upon landing there, called it “the most beautiful land ever seen”. Music pulsates along its streets and the warmth of the people has only been strengthened by adversity. For in Communist Cuba there are shortages of everything except ironies. The Bay of Pigs is now a resort and in the bookstore you can buy such great beach reading as “The CIA and Cuba” and “The Collected Speeches of Fidel Castro Ruz”.
Communism, like Catholicism, takes on a form specific to the people and the culture it represents. Living in Slavic communism, visiting Asian communism in Vietnam, I was intrigued by Latin American communism. I couldn’t imagine anything more removed from stoicism, cabbage and winter than salsa, black beans and the tropics. Communism under the palm trees. I couldn’t wait to see how and where the revolution was going. I’ve always admired Fidel, Che and the rest because they ran the revolution with personal integrity and without monetary gain for themselves. They were the only leaders in Latin America who said their objectives were to make a better life for the people and then they actually tried to do just that. It was the only country in Latin America where repeated attempts by the CIA to overthrow the government have failed because like it or not, the revolution is supported by the majority of the people. There are endless discussions about Cuba and the political situation, but out of all the countries, only Cuba is expected to have a perfect record in human and economic rights. You really need to understand the politics in perspective. And the first perspective you must have is that this is LATIN AMERICA, not the US nor Europe. You cannot compare Cuba to these countries. You must compare it to other countries in Latin America. This is a country, along with the rest of Latin America, that has been colonized and brutally exploited for 500 years, first by Europeans and then, in Cuba’s case, the United States. Before I left and while I was there, I read lots of different articles about Cuba, from non-fiction to fiction to travel essays, written in the past 150 years by authors ranging from Anthony Trollop in 1859, Anais Nin in 1922, Langston Hughes in 1930, Graham Greene in 1957, to Tommy Lasorta, who played baseball with Fidel in 1950. Most of these articles, especially those set in the 50’s were about how totally corrupt the regimes were and setting the stage for the revolution of outrage. Batista was COMPLETELY controlled by American interests, especially the Mafia. In Havana, anything and everything was possible: drugs, prostitution, sex with children, animals, live sex on stage or in your room, alone or in groups of your choice. Only a small percent of Cubans had a decent life, the rest of the country was consumed by rampant poverty. We’ve all seen the pictures of Third World countries, the hovels, the hunger, the children’s swollen bellies and the deaths. That was the situation in Cuba too, supported by the US, creating ripe conditions for a revolution. Revolutions do not happen in a vacuum and are usually successful when people have absolutely nothing left to lose. You can walk down the streets of Havana and see the buildings desperately needing renovations and paint, but they are a place to live and have running water and electricity. You see the children with their school uniforms and Pioneer kerchiefs and focus on only those kerchiefs. I see the kids are in school, healthy and clean and happy. They’re not working, barefoot and dirty like I saw when I was living in Ecuador, a capitalist country AND not encumbered by 40 years of an economic embargo. Cuba also has universal access to medical care, 1 doctor or every 200 people, an astonishing number, and is only 1 notch behind the US in infant mortality rates. These figures are unmatched by ANY Latin American country, or by many more developed countries in the world for that matter. Its literacy rates are higher than in the US. You can drink the tap water in Havana for God’s sake! One hears a lot of criticism but you rarely hear about the successes. Fidel is not perfect, no leader is, but he alone is expected to be. Of all the criticism about him, the one thing you never hear of is his lavish lifestyle or his bank accounts, unlike his predecessor, Batista who fled the country in 1959 with 40 million dollars. The US is on friendly terms with dictatorships all over the world with human rights issues equal to or much worse than Cuba’s, but only Cuba suffers a trade embargo. Such is the hypocrisy of US foreign policy. Perhaps it’s the KIND of economic policy that Cuba follows that drives the US into such a frenzy of illegal activities and embarrassment. That was the perspective I had as I toured the country. Living in Poland has taught me that if you want to know the truth, go see it for yourself.
HISTORY IS WRITTEN BY THE WINNERS
As we landed in Havana and I saw the lights over the city my first thought was “Goddammit. They lied again!” Recent media articles give the impression that the city is enveloped in darkness due to power shortages. While waiting in line for customs in a new airport that looks just like the one in Warsaw and Prague, we were entertained by a video of Cuban music. After a flight of ten hours on Air France yet, we were all too tired to even tap our feet, but it was an enjoyable first impression nonetheless. Unlike the dour faces of the custom guys I was used to in Eastern Europe, a smiling young man wanted to know my story: an American citizen, born in Germany and living in Poland. Unfortunately the lack of vocabulary on both our parts did not enlighten him much. When I asked him not to stamp my passport, he smiled as he handed it back saying, “I understand.” That over with, we picked up our bags, got a taxi, a 1950s something, and stepped into the warm Cuban night. Our adventure was about to begin. It was so exciting! There they were, those revolutionary slogans instead of advertising. How refreshing. Sort of the old Poland. The 50’s cars. When we passed that famous huge poster of Che in Plaza de la Revolucion, I knew this was my dream trip come true.
We stayed at the Ambos Mundos, a hotel where Ernest Hemingway used to live. My friend John wanted to go to bed, but I insisted he can’t. It’s only 11:30 and we’re in Havana! Let’s go out and see what’s what. We can sleep anytime.
We chose the Ambos for its history and its quiet location but I bet it was a lot quieter when Hemingway was there! Although the salsa music coming from the bars and cafes around the area set the tone and the atmosphere, I was hoping for a little piece and quiet at night. Not to be, as Cuba is not a quiet country. You can get what seems to be a quiet room in the back of the hotel or in the country and chances are there will be a party going on next door or someone having a conversation outside your window at 3am. With incredible foresight, I bought myself an alarm clock/sound machine, which blocked out all this clutter and I actually slept quite well amid the hustle and bustle of Cuba.
We woke to rain and it would continue to rain for the next 5 days. If it were anywhere else, I would be disappointed, but I was in Havana! Walking the streets even in the rain was interesting. I couldn’t take my eyes off the place. We popped in for a coffee at a nearby cafe and an old man offered us a copy of Granma, the party paper. Since he didn’t have one in English he tried his luck selling Che Guevera coins for $1.00 apiece. We declined, thinking let’s wait, it’s our first day and we’ve only been up for 2 hours. The price immediately went down to 2/$1.00. What a deal! We took it and that was the first of many things we spent a dollar on. A week later he was selling the coins for 3/$1.00. What a buck will get you in Cuba: taking a photo, getting directions, washing your car, watching your car, watching someone else watch your car, and thinking about watching your car. A service was always offered, there wasn’t any outright begging.
We spent a lot of those first days going to museums. And what museums! They are the museums of the winners as in Vietnam. The largest was the Revolutionary Museum, which is the story of the revolution and located in the old Presidential palace. It’s the old story but with lots of interesting details which you never hear about. My favorites were the Che room and “The Corner of Cretins” dedicated to Batista, Reagan and Bush for their part in helping make the Revolution a success. More relevant than ever in the light of the recent US (s)election.
After 2 days in Havana we rented what seemed to be the last car in the city, a white Hyundai, and went off to Santa Clara, 3 hours away, to see the remains of Che and his museum. As there are no signs (I’m sure it’s because Fidel is so paranoid about all those invasions), it was quite frustrating to get out of town, but once on the highway, there are 3 lanes on each side and no traffic. They were selling things along the road just like in Poland, but instead of mushrooms we got oranges, sugar and cake. They also stand in the first and third lanes, so you have to be sharp. We passed fields of sugar cane ready to be harvested, posters honoring Che and other dead revolutionary heroes, and vintage cars. The Che museum was closed for Christmas so we spent 2 nights in a resort with thatched roofs and making a side trip to Remedios, one of the oldest towns in Cuba. They were having some kind of festival, eating and drinking beer out of tankers, bring your own mug or buy one on the street. I had my picture taken with a group of school boys who practiced their English on me, this always happens to me, how do they know, and my friend John is still alive after sharing a bowl of beer with some local. On our way back, we stopped at a stop sign and an old man opened the door, got in and said to turn right. Luckily, we were going that way anyway and after a few kilometers he said to let him off. As he got out, 2 women got in and took his place. I knew that that there was a gas shortage and there were hitchhikers everywhere, but I thought you had to offer first. Not that we minded in the least. That was one of the reasons we rented a car, as we knew it would be our only contact with the locals and we could talk to them. Well, John could talk to them. My contribution to the conversation always began with, “Ask him/her……….”
On the day after Christmas, we got up, ate breakfast and finally went to the Che museum (this is why we were there after all) only to find out it’s closed for renovations, not just for Christmas. No one bothered to tell us this the 3 times we asked but were used to this trick from our Iron Curtain days. Oh well, time to move on. Our next stop was Trinidad, one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere, established in the 15th century and a designated UNESCO city. There were no rooms there, so we made it a day trip. As there were no signs, as usual, we ended up not on the main road but a back road, so full of potholes and mud I thought a jeep wouldn’t make it, let alone a crummy Hyundai. At one point, high in the mountains, facing yet another mudslide I was ready to give up. I could not bear the thought of getting stranded in the middle of nowhere and having to go down the mountain by mule. However John talked me out of it by pointing out we must be almost there. After all, we’ve been driving for 4 hours for what was supposed to be a 90 minute trip. And then he appeals to my sense of adventure by saying, “YOU KNOW, I BET WE’RE THE ONLY FOREIGNERS WHO HAVE EVER BEEN HERE”. We finally made it with yet another hitchhiker in tow, unbelievably with no flat tires or broken axles, and I take back everything I’ve ever said about Korean cars.In Trinidad, 2 teenagers, offering to guard our car and shilling for a paladare, a private restaurant, immediately greeted us. We agreed to eat there later and off we went to see the city. It was really quaint, with cobbled streets, pastel, albeit fading colors, and salsa music. We went to a café, listened to a salsa band, drank mojitos, (it’s always cocktail time in Cuba) and walked around the city which is quite small. Then we went off to see the Crimes of the CIA Museum. That was more stories of the revolution and cheap Che t-shirts. We ended with dinner at that paladare where we had lobster and talked to the teenagers about life in Cuba. As with all young people, they want a life where something is happening. Don’t we all, honey, don’t we all?
On the way back from Trinidad, we found the “real” road; at least it was paved. We picked up some more hitchhikers and then hit dense fog way up in the mountains. No trip in Cuba is without incident. It was quite surreal up there, watching the coffee workers tend to the plantations, appearing and disappearing into the mist. Two of the hitchhikers were students who have been waiting all day for a ride and it was now 4pm. We asked our usual questions about Cuba. She was a dental student and spoke a little English; a first, English teachers take note. I commented on how healthy everyone’s teeth were (most Cubans had dazzling white smiles) and she confirmed that everyone has access to dentists and is encouraged to eat well. I suppose the lack of junk food and MacDonald’s also helps the situation. However, Coke is available everywhere which just reinforces the hypocrisy of the Trading with the Enemy Act.
Since Che was no longer an option, we packed up and went off to the Bay of Pigs. John’s parting comment was, “No tourist has ever stayed as long as we did in Santa Clara”
The Bay of Pigs is known in Cuba as Playa de Giron, and the invasion is called “The Victory at Giron”. You are greeted at the town limits with a huge sign displaying an enormous gun that says “the first imperialist defeat in Latin America.” We knew we were going to like this place. In addition to being incredibly interesting politically, it was a beach resort and this would be my first trip to the Caribbean. How appropriate! We ended up at a place that was all inclusive, meaning all food and drink were paid for. We stayed at 2 different houses as John’s bed was invaded by ants that night and Buick the cockroach had invaded the bathroom. You know, that old Woody Allen line, “There’s a cockroach as big as a Buick in your bathtub”. The second house was much better. No bugs, but when I turned on the shower, the knob fell off. This was definitely not Club Med. We spent 2 days, lazing on the fabulous beach, reading, drinking mojitos (it’s always cocktail time in Cuba), gazing at the aqua and emerald water and trying to imagine an invasion at this idyllic place.
Then there was the museum, small but succinct with all kinds of information you never knew. Did you know that an American flyer was kept in a Cuban morgue for 28 years because the Americans denied all involvement with the invasion and therefore would not claim the body? Also, the US paid a ransom of 53 million dollars for the 1200 POWs, the FIRST and LAST time it has ever done that for any country. Fidel demanded it in food, medicine and tractors, not cash (which could have easily gone into a personal bank account, a form of payment and method not unknown to some leaders). Since this was just one of numerous invasions, Fidel armed the populace to protect the country. Think of how many leaders around the world would dare to do that. Unfortunately, there were no t-shirts for sale that said, “My country invaded the Bay of Pigs and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” I guess there’s just not enough American market.
This museum and our visit to a school were the highlights of this town. We just popped in to the local school with bags of supplies we had brought with us. The school is named after one of the Cubans killed during the invasion. The director greeted us warmly and showed us around. It was just like any other school except they had pictures of Fidel and Jose Marti (a poet who fought for the liberation of Cuba in the 19th century. He is Cuba’s George Washington) hanging on the walls. A broken chalkboard outside had this written on it: “22 December 1961 is the day illiteracy was eradicated in Cuba.” It also happens to be Teachers Day.
I was quite moved by what I saw at this school and how much they have done with so little. Cuba has the highest literacy and education level in ALL of Latin America and for that alone I have the highest respect for the revolution. There is no comparison to what I saw in Ecuador, a “democratic” country where children are denied an education because it is not free. Even the school uniforms that the kids wear cost 40 cents, affordable by everyone.
WHAT IS SOCIALISM?
IT’S THE TRANSITIONAL PERIOD BETWEEN CAPITALISM AND CAPITALISM.
Cuba’s unofficial official currency is the US dollar. They now join other Latin American countries whose OFFICIAL currency is the dollar like Ecuador and El Salvador. Cuba even has coins that are equivalent to 5,10, and 25 cents. This is just like the old Polish bony, which could be used in the dollar stores. Except in Cuba, dollars are used everywhere. All foreigners must change their money into US dollars. As I waited in line at our local Socialism or Death bakery, everyone was using dollars, even the Cubans. There are stores where Cubans can use pesos. These are the stores with basics like milk and you must have a ration book.
Cuba is now several years into what is called the “Special Period”. The economy has tightened up due to the continuing US embargo, collapse of the Soviet Union, low sugar prices and other economic forces. Basic necessities have been rationed even though most everything is available for dollars. That’s not to say that people are starving or even hungry. On the contrary, a WHO report has confirmed that had Cuba not had an efficient food distribution system and universal accessibility to health care firmly in place before the Special Period, there would have been widespread hunger and illness now.
But changes are inevitable and they are coming. When we returned from our road trip, we were walking around Old Havana, turned a corner and saw a totally renovated square, with shops, intimate cafes and restaurants, all very expensive. This scene was completed with a Benetton shop and we know from Eastern Europe that when Benetton comes to town, it’s the beginning of the end. Suddenly, I knew we have seen the future of Cuba.
Cuba is putting its hopes into tourism to replace sugar as the main source of income. It has unspoiled beaches, great weather (usually), and all the beach hotels are full of Europeans. So either the embargo will be lifted or better yet, we’ll invade so we can make the rules again. Remember, you heard it here first.
It is considered the world leader in biotechnology research and is beginning to sign contracts with leading foreign companies. How ironic for a country where the US embargo has mainly affected medicine.
Cuba also has new old friends. Putin came to town and one of Fidel’s closest allies is his best friend from the old revolutionary days, Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela who has promised him oil. This aid to Cuba, plus his support to groups fighting for change in Venezuela has earned him a warning from the US State Department to stop it or else (read: coup). Remember, you heard it here first. We can only hope that any changes in Cuba will follow a more sensible path that than the one in Eastern Europe but dream on, girl. Isn’t the Monroe Doctrine still in force?
ELVIS SPOTTED IN HAVANA!
New Year’s Eve and the beginning of the real Millennium was spent in an old Spanish courtyard eating, drinking mojitos and listening to a salsa band. No different from any other evening we spent in Cuba, but because it was New Year’s Eve, it cost us $20 but we could have spent $100 somewhere else. Cuba seems to be in a place where Eastern Europe was 10 years ago where they just make up a figure and see if any one will “buy” it. We then hit the streets of Old Havana to see how the locals celebrate. They stay at home since it’s a family holiday, but the streets were full of foreigners dancing in the streets. We were the attraction for the locals. There were people from everywhere, from Rastas from Jamaica with their dreds and pierced bodies to Elvis, a California guy dressed in full Elvis regalia, white jump suit and cape. He actually packed it! He was hanging around outside the Paris Bar enjoying being “somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be”. I joined him in a rendition of my favorite Elvis song, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” while the Cubans looked on in wry amusement.
The next morning we went to Revolution Square to the Jose Marti Museum, but alas, it too was closed. We were hoping Fidel would make a speech there for the Millennium on the 42nd anniversary of the Revolution, but as someone put it, “Fidel wouldn’t do that to us on New Year’s Day.” Instead Pablo Milanes, their Bob Dylan, under the watchful gazes of Che Guevera and Jose Marti, treated us to a recording over loudspeakers.
The rest of the trip was spent exploring Havana: riding down the Malecon in a white 1950 Studebaker in mint condition complete with flying bird hood ornament, listening to music (I finally learned the words to “Guantanamera”. They are a Jose Marti poem), visiting the Crimes of the CIA museum, part II (hey, there were a lot of crimes!) where they had an exhibit on Elian. We asked the guard how he was doing and she said he was fine, back in school living with his father in Cardenas. I guess that’s what those Miami Cuban-Americans meant when they said he was in a “reeducation camp”. We stood on the corner, where in 1961, Fidel declared the revolution a socialist one (what it was before then, it didn’t say) and read the accompanying plaque that said the main problem with US-Cuban relations was that the US won’t tolerate socialism a few miles from its border. Got that right. They won’t even tolerate it thousands of miles away. We also visited the Rosenberg monument, the couple who were murdered on unproven spy charges.
So there you have it. The whispered, “Cigars? Cheap.” the “Let me get you a drink” from a total stranger and you knew you were paying for it, the doors and windows open and personal lives spilling onto the street, the live music in every bar and restaurant, the smiles and friendliness, the history lessons everywhere. You can love it, or hate it; Cuba does tend to evoke strong emotions. What you will never feel is indifference.
And my second trip, 5 years later, which used part of the previous piece.
HOLIDAYS IN THE AXIS OF EVIL – CUBA
NOW THE LAW DOES SAY, THE ONLY WAY TO CUBA IS WITH THE CIA.
BUT SOMEHOW IT IS STRANGE TO HEAR THE STATE DEPARTMENT SAY, YOU ARE LIVING IN THE FREE WORLD, IN THE FREE WORLD YOU MUST STAY. Phil Ochs, 1963
As Americans, we tend to think of Cuba as a black hole, full of men in army uniforms, a hot bed of revolutionary activity, 90 miles offshore, threatening our peace and way of life. We know we can’t go there, a fact unquestioned by citizens who proudly declare themselves living in the most democratic country in the world. Many think it’s Cuba that won’t allow us in, not the US. Through the Trading with the Enemy Act, the United States is the only country in the world that forbids its citizens to visit Cuba freely. Because of this lack of information about Cuba, few people realize it’s the largest island in the Caribbean with 4,500 miles of unspoiled beaches. Columbus upon landing there called it “the most beautiful land ever seen”. Music pulsates along its streets and the warmth of the people has only been strengthened by adversity. Cubans wring pleasure from poverty, draw you into their lives, crank up the music, filling the air with salsa and sensuality. For in Communist Cuba there are shortages of everything except ironies. The Bay of Pigs is now a resort and in Old Havana, restored, ritzy hotels are offering rooms for $200 per night.
WHAT IS SOCIALISM?
IT’S THE TRANSITIONAL PERIOD BETWEEN CAPITALISM AND CAPITALISM.
Those waiting for the collapse of Cuba’s economy are too late. Cuba’s economy capsized in 1993. The unofficial currency used to be the dollar but now the official currency is the convertible peso. The rate is almost 1:1 to the dollar. Its official symbol is CUC, its unofficial symbol is the $. But the main currency is envy. Economically Cuba has already entered the post Castro period. Diners at El Ajibe, a CUC only restaurant, had tourists, foreign businessmen, high-level Cuban functionaries and Cubans with money quietly eating their $20 lunch. The high profile accumulation of dollars by some makes the poverty of the rest all the more intolerable. For a society accustomed to reasonable quality, having some people with and most others without creates a strain that is just beginning to be felt.
TRADING AND HANGING WITH THE ENEMY
This would be my second trip to Cuba. The first one only left me only hungering for more. On the first trip, we rented a car and drove around the western part of the country. We picked up hitchhikers and talked to them about life. All this was interesting, but shallow. I really wanted to meet people for more than a few minutes. When I read about Global Exchange’s New Year’s Educators’ Tour, I knew this is what I was looking for. A close friend from the States, Mary Anne also signed up and we agreed that we would meet in Havana.
Arrival “I have been transported to Fairyland. I now live in an Enchanted Palace! All my sadness and apprehension fled the moment I caught sight of Havana.” Anais Nin, 1922
The first thing I noticed after going through a very easy Customs ritual (“No stamp, por favor.” “OK.”) was that there was no line at the lost luggage window. That was a good sign, although I had 2 days worth of clothes and cosmetics with me, prepared for that possibility. You have to pack a special way for a country where there are shortages of soap, shampoo and toothpaste and who knows what else, so you can’t forget anything. I had my memories of 5 years earlier, but with the tightening of the embargo, who knows? I caught a minibus with a couple of Bulgarians who had all their luggage saran-wrapped (thieves in Sophia, I was told) to the Hotel Plaza and was checked into my room by 10 pm. I went for a short walk, as the rest of the group was not expected until 1 am. I immediately noticed that the department store across the street from the hotel had something unusual in the windows, STUFF! Shiny bikes, sneakers, and clothes. 5 years ago the display was decidedly pathetic. A sorry looking mannequin with an ill-fitting wig and dress and a hand made sign celebrating the 42nd anniversary of the Revolution was all there was then. It looked like Poland in 1975 and now it looked like Poland in 1990, with the first arrival of consumer goods in the shops. Hmmmm, this is going to be interesting. Change was already evident 5 years ago with the opening of a Benetton store in Old Havana and it has continued to gain momentum.
Day 1 Dear Fidel: “I never went through the experience of being Cuban until I learned how to read and write.” Campesino, writing a letter to Fidel during the literacy campaign. Seen at the Literacy Museum.
Mary Anne and I were continuing our conversation from the night before at breakfast, only to be interrupted by a group member, saying everyone is waiting for us as we were meeting at 9. “How can that be?” I asked. It’s only 8”. “No, it’s nine. Cuba is on daylight saving time.” The pilot on the plane gave the wrong time! We had to rush down immediately not finishing our omelets, our coffee or our conversation.
First stop was our local hosts, ICAP, or the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the People). They were all extremely friendly as they love to get groups like us to show off the Revolution – or as they like to call it el Triumf de la Revolucion or just el Triumf for short.
A question was asked what would happen when the embargo ends. The answer was very cheery and that when consumer goods become more available, the ideal of the revolution will still continue. My mind went back to that department store and I wondered aloud whether they are in denial or is it really possible to avoid what has happened in Eastern Europe? How will they avoid the growing gap between the rich and poor that this situation inevitably breeds? And just think, we are already discussing these questions barely an hour into our visit and hardly any breakfast! I knew this was the right trip for me.
Next stop was a meeting with the Ministry of Education officials. They explained the Cuban education system to us, emphasizing that education is a right, not a privilege, therefore free. The secret to its successes is an integration of home, school, and community. All schools are community based, private schools are not allowed. The teachers live in the community and know the family, meet with the parents monthly, making referrals as needed. Remember, that’s what schools were like in the States in the 50s? Simple but ever so sweet.
Our next stop was lunch. In Cuba, every place we went charged dollars, oops, I mean CUCs. My delicious lunch of fish, rice and beans cost $7.00. Other prices around Cuba: a bottle of water: $1.00, an ice cream cone: $1, a loaf of bread at the local Socialism or Death bakery: $2.00. And those soaps and shampoos I so carefully packed? All available for $. These stores had customers too. So even though the average salary is $20 a month in ordinary pesos, there are Cubans who have access to dollars. Every place of business on the main streets in Old Havana charged $. As our guide pointed out, everything is now available for $. Shoes, designer glasses, hats, books, clothes, etc. are all there. Yet, if you take a walk down a side street where tourists don’t go, you’ll see the empty, dark stores where Cubans use their pesos and ration books. The comparison is not a pretty sight and does not bode well for the future.
Our last stop for that day was the National Literacy Museum. What other country takes literacy so seriously that it actually dedicates an entire museum to the subject? Located across the former headquarters, and just a few meters from the mansion that Batista occupied when he was a general, the small institution treasures, among other objects, uniforms worn by literacy campaign participants, books, manuals, pictures and personal belongings of the teachers murdered by counterrevolutionary gangs during the literacy drive and the Chinese made lamps used at night in the most remote places of the Cuban countryside. We were allowed to examine the materials the campaign used. Teachers, high school students and children, some as young as 11, fanned out throughout the countryside to work beside the farmers during the day and teach them at night by the glow of the lantern. The textbooks, printed on cheap newsprint, focused on agrarian subjects, something the farmers understood. The idea was brilliant in its simplicity. No fancy consultants or expensive literacy kits needed. All this was passionately explained by the museum guide. She said Cuba continues to help all nations that are teaching the world’s 800 million illiterates how to read and write. Cuba is cooperating with several countries, including Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Guinea Bissau.
Before the start of the drive, the first thing the revolutionary government leaders did was to tour the country from one tip to the other. Everywhere, people essentially asked for two things: teachers and doctors. The first measure was to look for resources to be able to carry out the campaign. In Cuba at that time, 50 percent of school-aged children didn’t have schools and 9 million teachers were facing a similar situation. 5000 classrooms could be created with the resources that the Education Ministry had at that time. Fidel came up with the idea of paying teachers half their salaries and creating twice as many classrooms. In order to carry out the literacy campaign, the government first needed to address the main source of illiteracy: the lack of schools. The second measure was health care. How can you learn to read if you can’t see the words? Doctors fanned out throughout the country, checking eyes and handing out reading glasses.
In a speech at the UN in 1960, Fidel announced that Cuba would eliminate illiteracy in 1961. A popular education council was set up, including all of the country’s grass roots organizations. Teachers worked to guide the 100,000 volunteer teachers.
The campaign kicked off on January 1st, 1961, and ended on December 22nd, the same year. Cuba declared it was free of illiteracy in only nine months, a remarkable achievement. As an educator, this museum was a highlight of the trip. I wonder why the two guidebooks I had did not mention it. Jonathan Kozol wrote a book about the literacy campaign several years ago called “Children of the Revolution”. It’s out of print now but worth looking for and reading.
Our day ended with an evening meeting with local teachers, where we learned about their lives and educational practices. Once again, the secret was the integration of all community resources.
Day 2 In the footsteps of Che
We spent a couple of hours at an open-air fruit, vegetable and meat market. This was a private bazaar; consequently there was lots of food at high prices. I bought a pineapple, peeled and sliced for $1.00. I got Cuban pesos back but was never able to use them the rest of the trip.
Later that morning, we met with a volunteer pre-school class held in a park. The park was filled with bronze busts of African leaders who had contributed to revolutionary causes in their country like Nasser, Lubumba, etc. This class is run by volunteer mothers and grandmothers for those children who choose not to attend pre-school or day care. This is so the children will not be behind when they finally do go to school. Mary Anne and I gave part of our school supplies we had brought to this class.
We were supposed to visit an Art school but they never got our paperwork. While the guide sorted this out, we went to a local market where we bought yummy fried sweet potato chips, and took in the local culture and color.
Off to Santa Clara in the afternoon, home of the Che Guevara memorial and museum. I had been in Santa Clara before but the museum was closed then so I was looking forward to finally seeing it. It was a hot day and a 3-hour bus ride. We amused ourselves by talking about Cuba with Yanlis, our guide and looking out the window. We passed fields of sugar cane, billboards honoring Che and other dead revolutionary heroes, vintage cars and a man trying to catch an escaped pig.
We arrived around 5 pm to the very same hotel we stayed in 5 years earlier. It’s a series of faux thatched huts set around a swimming pool in lush, tropical grounds. The only correlation this hotel could possibly have with the Che experience was the trickle of water that the hotel called a shower. Instead of heading for the pool like most of the group, Mary Anne, Tim and I headed for town in what I will call:
Mary’s, MaryAnne’s and Tim’s Bueno Adventure: Santa Clara
Since the hotel is about 5 km out of town, we had to take a taxi. We delegated Tim to do this since he speaks Spanish. A guy hanging around the entrance of the hotel grounds asks “Taxi?” Tim says yes, thinking his is the red one out front. But that would be too uneventful. He leads us to a battered, hand painted blue Russian Moskovitch, which must have been at least 25 years old. There was not one piece of padding in the car and you could see inside the doors and dashboard because there were holes where the radio, clock should have been. And it smelled of gasoline. Hey, this reminded me of Moscow in 1974 and I’m still here to talk about it. We gave strict orders to Mary Anne she was NOT allowed to light up her cigar until he dropped us off. So for $5.00 he brings us to the center. When Mary Anne tried to light up on the street, he told her women didn’t smoke cigars in Cuba. “Oh yeah?” she says as she again asks him for a match. “Let’s not get into this,” I said. This is not the time for a dialogue on feminist revolutionary theory. It’s time for a mojito.” It’s always cocktail time in Cuba. So off we go looking for a bar. We stop at the city square, which has tourist tchatchkes for sale. As we look at the bead jewelry, Che ashtrays and cigar boxes, we strike up conversations with the characters hanging around. Tim goes off with a beggar somewhere while we talk to Vladimir (named after Lenin). That is, until we run out out of vocabulary. So Vlad calls over his friend, sitting on the nearby bench. He turns out to be a Cuban-American, who’s there illegally visiting his wife. We get introduced to his kids and Vlad’s son, Ernesto (named after Che) and listen to his view on what’s what in Cuba. As we take pictures, he says, “Just don’t take one of me.” Sitting next to them is this 100 (it seems) year old woman with a face that has the history of Cuba written all over it. She knows an easy mark when she sees one and promptly bums a cigar off Mary Anne. MA hands over a $6.00 cigar – true generosity, but I think it’s because she wanted another woman to smoke with. The price for this was permission to take her picture. So there they sat, Mary Anne and this woman puffing away on top end cigars, like they’re compadres who have known each other all their lives and went through the Revolution together. Vlad tells MA he knows someone who could sell her even better cigars and I since want to bring crayons for the kids, we make a date for the next afternoon when we know we will have having lunch. In the meantime, Tim comes back, we say goodbye to our new friends and make a new one: a really badly dressed and made up transvestite who is following us around and muttering under his breath. We find a bar and order mojitos but don’t drink them because we’re not sure about the ice cubes. In Havana you can drink the water, but this is iffy. We don’t want to get sick and ruin our trip. By this time it’s dark, and it’s time for supper at the hotel. We see a taxi parked right outside but there’s no driver. I tell Tim to ask the bartender to get us a taxi. He does and a young man comes over. I thought he was the driver of the taxi, but he tells us to wait until he gets his car. In Cuba any car is a potential taxi. So what does he pull up in? A tiny Polish Fiat!!!! Oh my, they’re death traps in Poland, but there’s no traffic, so our chances of getting out alive are pretty good. Tim and I sque-e-e-eze into the “back seat” and I joke that I haven’t been inside a Polish Fiat since 1974. So for $5.00 I got myself a piece of nostalgia. Who knew? Here I thought my memories would come from in an American car from the 50s. Instead, I got Poland in the 70s, which is essentially the same thing, now that I think about it.
Our day ended with a reception by members of the local Defense of the Revolution committee, basically a neighborhood watch group. They presented us with my most treasured souvenirs, a Che cap and coin.
DAY 3 Che, Cigars, Commies and Crayons
Our first stop that morning was a local school where we were warmly greeted by the staff and volunteers. It seems even retired grandmothers take part in the education of the children. Tim gave a baseball to a little boy and he and his friends happily started a game. Then, off to see Che. I was reading the biography of Che by Jon Anderson, so many of the photos in the book were in the museum. It recounted his life in Argentina to his murder by the CIA in Bolivia. His bones and those of 17 of his associates were finally brought back to Cuba in 1997 in an incredibly moving ceremony with Fidel eulogizing one of his closest friends. There is a special room for these remains with an eternal flame burning silently in the darkened room.
Lunch was next where we hooked up with our cigar connection and little Ernesto comes running up in the park and plants a kiss on my cheek to thank me for the crayons. My first kiss in Cuba! His friend Daniel is with him and luckily I just happen to have another box of crayons in my bag. It’s amazing how all these strangers were able to find one another.
This was followed by a meeting with the young Communist League, very passionate, ideological but just a wee bit Soviet in their presentation. I asked a lot of questions, which were all answered intelligently. I remember sitting there wondering if I could ever be so fervent about something.
Day 4 New Year’s Eve in Havana
We return to Havana by bus where we watch an excellent documentary on Fidel from the Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union. We arrive in the afternoon and get something we haven’t had much of: free time! Time for:
Wake Up Little Susie: Mary’s, Mary Anne’s and Tim’s Bueno Adventure: Havana
The last time I was in Havana, we caught a 1955 Studebaker taxi, complete with bullet grille and flying eagle ornament on the hood to take us to the Hotel Nacional. So I thought, since this is really the only free afternoon we will have, why not get another classic taxi for 2 hours to drive us around Havana and see the sights? I asked Yanlis, our guide to write out our itinerary to give to the driver. Tim joined us again to negotiate. We walked toward the Capitol where the sock-hop cars all hang out. Suddenly a 1957 Ford Fairland convertible taxi in mint condition drives by and I knew we had found our car. We agree to a price of $30 – high but priceless for the experience we are about to have.
First stop, the US Interests Section. Like most of our embassies, it is as architecturally unseemly as the foreign policy it represents. While most embassies in Havana are located in the leafy quiet section of Miramar, the US has chosen a prime hunk of real estate on the Malecon, beside the Atlantic Ocean. To be closer to Miami perhaps? At any rate, it offers the Cubans a great position for their anti-American political billboards. The Interests building is surrounded on two sides by billboards proclaiming the triumph of the Revolution: Venceramos, Patria o Muerte), comments and pictures of prisoners tortured at Abu Graib (Fascistas, Made in America) and a culminating expression of the past 47 years – Senor Imperialistas, We are absolutely not afraid of you. All in living color and a goldmine for political slogan collectors.
Next we went to the park where the Cubans have erected a bronze statue of John Lennon sitting on a bench. 2 young men from Costa Rica are taking pictures; otherwise there is no one else there. Suddenly an old man comes out and puts wire-rimmed glasses on John. We thought we were lucky to be there just when it happened but after talking to him and his wife, they say it’s their job. They are both retired (she a journalist) and they have taken on the duty of taking care of John Lennon. The glasses always get stolen so they only put them on when there are visitors.
Our next stop was the famous Coppelia ice cream parlor. Unfortunately it was closed because it was almost New Year’s Eve. Our last stop was Plaza de Revolucion with the famous Che picture on the side of the Ministry of the Interior. The driver must have been amused by our antics. He was cool at first but eventually warmed up to these crazy Americans. He even stopped in the middle of a busy intersection so Tim and I could sit on the back of the car to take a picture of Fidel saying “Vamos”. Then, as the evening was winding down and we were driving back to the hotel, the most incredible thing happened. The radio which had been playing Cuban music suddenly put on “Wake Up Little Susie”! So there we are, driving down the Malecon, with a rainbow over the Atlantic, singing along with the Everly Brothers to a song that came out in the very same year as that Ford Fairlane we were riding in. Coincidence? I don’t think so. It’s magic because Cuba is a magical place.
New Year’s Eve in Havana
I had been talking up the night because 5 years ago there were hundreds of foreigners dancing to the music in the street. But first we were having dinner at a fancy restaurant, which was part of the tour. All foreigners, linen tablecloths, lots of glasses and silverware, a fake Cuban revue with underage girls – where was the funky band and chicken and black beans? I couldn’t help feeling that Batista supporters spent the night this way right before Havana fell to Fidel on January 1, 1959. Well, we got out of there as soon as we ate and started walking around the city. But it was quiet there was hardly anyone out. Where was the music and the dancing? We were very disappointed and heard that there’s no money now for celebrations. That may well be, but where were the tourists? We eventually found the music we were looking for, right outside our hotel window from 1-4 am.
Day 5 Fidel and espresso
We leave town to go to Las Terraza a beautiful mountain community that grows coffee and other crops. As we leave Havana we pass through the area where new office buildings and housing for foreign companies is being built. Looks just like buildings in any European city, a huge contrast to the dilapidated structures of the rest of Havana. Change is coming….
Las Terraza is so peaceful after the hustle of Havana. We go to Maria’s house for a cup of excellent espresso and to watch Fidel give a New Year’s Day speech. Later that evening we return to Havana where we get an economic and social overview of Cuba by a journalist. With a view of the gorgeous Art Deco Bacardi Building, nationalized by Fidel in 1959 in the background, he explains how the Bacardi family is behind the Helms-Burton Act, which is responsible for the sanctions against Cuba.
Day 6 Pearl of the Antilles
We visit a scale model of Havana and get a walking tour of Old Havana from an extremely knowledgeable architect. Havana is like an abandoned stage set waiting for a second act which is about to start. It is a walker’s city, non-threatening and beckoning you to touch the past with the soles of your feet. Founded in 1519 and rich in historical allure, Havana is a jewel of a city. In 1982 Old Havana was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. With its grid of intimate streets, and plazas lined with cathedrals, palaces and mansions, it evokes the once mighty power of Spain.
We then visit our last site, a community cultural project. It must have been an unsafe area as were are told to leave everything on the bus and keep an eye on our cameras. But I didn’t feel threatened, in fact, some of my best pictures were taken there.
And then the final activity: our farewell dinner at another fancy restaurant. In my evaluation, I told them to ditch these venues and set up something more casual and lively.
Day 7 Dolls, Dogs and Departure
The group has left at 5 am but I still have the whole day ahead of me before I left on my evening flight. The holidays are over so everything is finally open. I want to see what’s really in those stores that have been closed for 3 days. What’s in those stores is what’s in the windows and more. And consumers. Cubans with shopping bags filled with Barbie dolls and shoes and who knows what else. The most disturbing picture: right on Calle Obisbo, the main street, is a dog-grooming business and it’s busy. In a country where there are shortages of food for people, there are enough customers with dogs who have plenty of money to pay for a comb out and a pedicure for their poodle. Think about that for a minute and what it means for the future of Cuba.
I passed an open window, which turned out to be school. Finally, a visit to a school in session, which had eluded us the whole time because of school holidays. I was able to take pictures from the street until the director came out, invited me in and allowed me to take more photos inside.
Later that evening, I went back to my hotel to pack for the trip home. We all complained that the tour was too short but in the end it felt like I had been there a month. There were so many people that I had met and so much I had learned. Watching Ellen Generes on HBO in my room, I emptied my bag of all cosmetics and left them behind. I closed the door and began the long journey home.
Cuba is changing radically; economically first and inescapably, politically to follow. It has been a remarkable experiment whose achievements and successes had overwhelmed and astounded. Visit Cuba now because it will never be the same. You will never regret a first hand view of Cuba while Fidel Castro remains its leader.
“You girls are so hard to have fun with.” Tim, riding around with us in the ’57 Ford.
“A sunny place for shady people.” Somerset Maugham about Cuba
“I can’t explain why Americans dropped the last cha in cha-cha-cha. It was either laziness or lack of rhythm.” Omar Torres on Cuban composer and musician Enrique Jorrin, inventor of the cha-cha-cha.
“Can I take off this suit? I look like Tito.” Fidel on wearing a suit for the first time for a trip to New York.
“I wear a moral vest.” Fidel on being asked if he wears a bulletproof vest.
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