Cuban Holiday

There is more to Cuba than cute Cuban girls, tasty rum, good cigars and infectious music. Biking between Havana and Santiago de Cuba, I learned about the Cuban socialist revolution, discovered the charms of people and enjoyed being a token socialist (with dollars and an exit strategy).

The following story is based on parts of a rough journal I took while on a bike trip in Cuba. Since I realize that this text will potentially be viewed by others who visit my site, let me just say that I wrote this story for my own enjoyment and to help me recall in the future some of the observations I made during my odyssey.

 CIA
 Cast of characters
 Late for the revolution
 The Parade (July 26, 2000)
 Brief history of Cuba
 Capitalism vs. Socialism vs. Communism
 Music and Dance
 Brutal Honesty
 Havana
 Jews in Cuba
 A typical day
 CDR
 East vs West (stereotypes)
 What’s good, what’s bad
 What does the future hold?
 Enuf for now


 
 
 

*CIA

Because wanderlust has lead me to some interesting places, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion, “So you’re really a CIA agent aren’t you?” while getting the hint, hint, ha, ha wink.

While I can neither confirm, nor deny my association with a certain group that has been known to eradicate human beings and governments perceived to be unfriendly to US interests, I am willing to concede that I’m a *Californian Into Adventure (by that I mean I am fascinated by places that have so far resisted the trappings of western style commercial imperialism).

The sad fact is too many places around the world now look too much alike: for example the golden arches outside of every entrance of the Budapest underground, a Home Depot or a Wal Mart on the out skirts of Mexico City and a Star Bucks at the entrance of Machu Picchu (just kidding, but I’m sure it is in the works). If I wanted a mind numbing holiday, filled with American style cultural homogeneity (to watch overweight tourists swill cocktails and shop with a religious fervor second only to that of a devout Taleban), then I would go to Disney World, Lost Wages (a.k.a. Los Vegas) or Cancun.

So on this little holiday (my first ever organized tour) I found my self in Cuba, a place that was a confirmed active target of the CIA in the 1960’s (and probably still is) and a place stuck in a time warp because the US government has in place travel and business restrictions.

I had come out of curiosity to see old Havana and the rest of Cuba, a place geographically close to the United States, yet not strongly influenced by corporate imperialism (but this might change in the not too distant future).

Cast of characters

I flew to Havana (which is just 90 miles away from Key West) from Cancun with a group of seven other Americans, to participate in an educational program to learn about Cuba and cross the island on a bike.

Under the 1963 Trading with the Enemy Act, U.S. travel to Cuba (the forbidden island) is sharply restricted, although certain categories of individuals (like individuals on educational programs), may travel to the island with a Treasury Department license. On the flight over to Cuba, I briefly talked to other Americans on the plane some of whom had been going to Cuba on pleasure trips for years. One American guy on the plane said “It’s easy to get to Cuba, all you have to do is just show up in Cancun and buy a ticket,” (guess he not know about the legal requirement for a Treasury Department license). During my trip I would learn the irony about the embargo and travel ban is that the biggest supporters of the policy are also its biggest violators namily Cuban-Americans who setteled in Florida (that is because they travel back to Cuba to visit loved ones, and send millions of dollars a year to their families).

Anyway, the cast of interesting characters I would hang out with on this Cuban road trip consisted of:

Dr. Dr. Dan, (a Jewish PhD molecular biologist by training and a full fledged MD), who can be described as slightly stocky forty something devoted family man with two daughters and an extremely humorous wit.

Martin, (whose father is Jewish) is the atypical 16 year old world traveler and party animal from the Washington DC area. He was returning to Cuba after a trip four years earlier, to show his best friend Zach (another 16 year old) the wonders of Cuba.

Maria, a forty something aspiring lawyer of Puerto Rican ancestry from the bay area, was the groups devout socialist and groups most spirited dancer (more on dancing later).

Rounding out the list of visitors was Janet (an avid biker and Norman Rockwell girl next door type), Mary (a.k.a. mom, a hard driving ex-hippie and extremely intense biker) and Robin (an upstate New York Spanish teacher of Jewish ancestry, who travels during the summers).

Yeah I know, your thinking what’s up with the Jewish ancestry stuff, but if you hold on a bit, I’ll describe some of the stuff I discovered about Jews in Cuba.

We would be in the care of Ignacio, a physical education instructor at the University of Havana and president of the bike club. A tall man with the lean physique of a hardcore biker, my first impression was this dude is going to kill us if we have to keep up with him (oh how wrong I was).

Since we were a small group of visitors, we would only have one other bike guide, Margarita (the Cuban bike babe), a member of the bike club and a former student of Ignacio.

Late for the revolution

“Damn its 8:25,” I muttered to my roommate Dan as I struggled to wake up, find all my gear and get ready for the parade. This first morning we were suppose to be ready to leave at 8:30 to march, (or ride as the case may be) in the Cuban independence day parade. Instead I had soundly slept till 8:20 dreaming of what lay ahead the next few weeks.

Quickly hopping in the shower for a quick rinse, I started to chow on a Cliff bar, thinking I would not have time to eat before taking off. Running down to the parking lot, Cliff bar half finished I thought I was late. But to my relief, I was told by Ignacio, no problem, go back inside and grab a bite to eat.

In the dining room, I sat down to eat and watched the TV broadcasting the parade (which was taking place on the other side of town).

The Parade (July 26, 2000)

By coincidence I happened to be in Havana just a few weeks after Elian Gonzalez was returned back to Cuba and just in time to check out a parade marking a Celebration of the National Rebellion.

The prior evening some America students (taking Spanish classes at the University of Havana) made a banner to use in the Celebration of the National Rebellion parade, and I had hoped to see them march with it.

Yeah, yeah, I know what your thinking, I’m asking for trouble being an extra (or at least hanging out with communist bastards), in a Cuban independence day celebration which was broadcast for propaganda purposes (denouncing the US embargo among other things) on world media outlets such as CNN. But if Clinton, can dodge the draft, state that he did not inhale and get blown in the oral office, I figured what harm could there be in hanging out with a bunch of people having a good time at a parade.

My presence at this parade (and the company I was keeping) was just an interesting coincidence, sort of like the time earlier in the year, when I was hanging out with a friend who works for Credit Swiss, at an anti-capitalist parade. Or the time I hung out with a bunch of hard core republicans (Rush Limbaugh types, who said the answer to undocumented immigration was to build an East German style DMV along the border) a few years back when their convention was held in San Diego.

Over the years I have learned that each point of view (political, economic, spiritual, etc.) has its own good and bad merits. Since I was in Cuba, it was my intent to learn the truth about this island nation and its people.

Brief history

To understand why Cuba is politically isolated from the US in the year 2000, one needs to paint a picture with history. The history of Cuba in terms a bourgeois capitalist yahoo pig (who is cell phone and palmpilot addicted) would understand goes something like this......

Cuba, was a colony of Spain until the Spanish-American War (1898). As such it was inhabited by many colonist who sought wealth and fame in the new world. At the turn of the past century, the American government was instrumental in helping Cubans gain their independence from Spain.

In order to mold Cuba in the likeness of the US, Cuban colonist favorable to US policies found their way into political office. Some of the Cuban officials of the era (“Yes” men of the US government), gave concessions to US interests and became extremely wealthy in the process. These corrupt officials used brutal measures (i.e. jail and torture) to control the masses.

Sick of being shafted, the masses became increasingly intolerant over the years of the brutal and corrupt Cuban government.

On July 26, 1953 Fidel Castro and more than a hundred fighters assembled in a farmhouse out side the city of Santiago de Cuba, prior to attacking the Moncada barracks. The attack was not all that successful: eight attackers died, sixty one were hunted down, the rest surrendered or were captured.

After Castro’s failed attack in July 1953, he was placed on trial. Defending his actions he stated that it seemed unjust that in a country of 5.5 million people (at the time), 600,000 were unemployed, and another half million peasants worked just four months each year. In addition he stated that the pension funds of 400,000 industrial workers had been stolen, 100,000 small farmers worked as indentured slaves on land that was not theirs and teachers were badly paid (well some things never change). Summing up his defense, Castro said “Condemn me, it does not matter; history will absolve me.”

After nineteen months in prison, Castro was released then he went to Mexico to prepare another offensive. After about a year of fund-raising, training and recruiting of like minded revolutionaries (like the Argentine doctor, Ernesto “Che” Guevara the revolutionary icon), Castro returned to Eastern Cuba and this time succeeded in leading the masses (from the eastern part of Cuba) to overthrow corrupt government officials in Havana.

Much more could be written about Castro and Che, but let’s just say that they were two commanding individuals (with a some what privileged upbringing) who saw the injustice in having a system where prosperous and unscrupulous individuals were able to subjugate and oppress the proletariat (how is that description, do I sound like I have bought into socialist propaganda yet?).

At the time the revolution took place, some educated individuals such as Dr. Felipe Pazos (a Cuban economist and member of the I.M.F. from 1946 to 1949) initially supported Castro in his fight against Batista. This is because Castro paid lip service to a free press, free elections in all unions and had a plan to redistribute uncultivated land among land-less peasants. But because democratic freedoms were not granted and Castro aligned himself with the Soviets during the cold war, Pazos was forced to flee the country (to Venezuela) along with other prominent Cubans. By the time the exodus of rich and educated Cubans (like Dr. Pazos) was stopped, a quarter-million had left.

Not too long after Castro took power, he made a trip to the United States to meet “Tricky Dick” AKA Richard Nixon who was vice president at the time, to try and get financial support for various reforms. That meeting didn’t go over so well, and Nixon thought Castro was a threat to the United States.

Castro returned to Cuba, continued to institute land reforms, and took further steps to educate and give medical care to the common people. Because Castro could not get assistance from the US government (because of his policies to take away land and money from individuals who may have been prior Cuban government officials and/or employees of US companies with large holdings in Cuba) for his social programs, he sought help from other countries.

Castro in nationalizing the sugar plantations, oil refineries, power plants, hotels, etc. pissed off some US corporate interests. These rich and powerful interests lobbied US lawmakers to place an economic and political embargo on Cuba. So what had been a play ground of many Americans in the 1930’s to late 1950’s, was now off limits.

Castro took over a country whose cash cows were tourism, agriculture and mining. Tourism fizzled when Castro banned gambling and prostitution. Since natural resources don’t make countries rich with the exception of oil, Castro turned to the Soviet Union (with the blessing of the CIA) for the billions needed to run the country after he basically fucked over US business interests. FYI the reason the CIA wanted Castro to turn to the Soviet Union was because the CIA analysts felt that if Cuba aligned itself with the Soviets, then the American public opinion would demand Castro be overthrown.

After it was apparent that Castro was not going to cave into US political pressure the CIA became involved in a program to train individuals to overthrow Castro (let’s just say the dudes at McLean underestimated Castro and that the Bay of Pigs was not a shining moment in CIA planning).

Because of the Bay of Pigs, the alliance between the Soviet Union and Castro lead to ever greater economic and military aid. In 1962 the Soviets placed medium range nuclear missiles on Cuba (to counter the US missiles based in Turkey).

President Kennedy fearful of a surprise missile attack ordered a naval embargo of Cuba. A U2 recon plane was then shot down over Cuba, and nuclear war seemed inevitable. A high level game of chicken ended when the Soviet leadership, pretty much blinked first and agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba.

Although the Soviets agreed to remove the nukes from Cuba, in return for a promise that the US not invade Cuba and the removal of the US missiles in Turkey, Castro was pissed because he felt he was out of the loop. At the time Castro was pushing for a war with the US (damn now that is a scary thought).

For the next 30 years, Cuba was on the US shit list. In 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up, Cuba was forced to make it on its own without the economic and military assistance of the Soviet Union. In the years that followed the break up of the Soviet Union, Cuba became less militant and become more pragmatic to capitalist ideas (that is because European, Canadian and other tourists bring in much needed hard currency).

In Cuba a tourist is treated like a demi god, because they have dollars. Places like Varadero (a beach resort following the Cancun model of tourism) are set up specifically to separate dollars from tourists and geographically isolate tourists from ordinary Cubans.

It is ironic that during the Spanish Civil war, Cubans fought to get rid of Spanish rule only to be replaced by proxy American rule. Now it seems Spanish tourists, under the guise of Cuban economic reforms, are a major part of the first wave of a foreign invasion, heading to Cuba to undo many parts of the Castro revolution.

Capitalism vs. Socialism vs. Communism

Although many very right wing republicans and military leaders would like the general US population to believe that ordinary Cuban citizens live under brutal Communist oppression (so that they can justify increased funding for US national defense), my observation is Cuba would have a difficult time mounting a military force capable of directly attacking the US (if there was a conflict it would be asymmetric). IMHO Cubans have it better than most people who lived in the former Soviet Union (which the US government considers to be an emerging democracy).

In the year 2000, Cubans live in somewhat socialist society under the watchful eye of a somewhat benevolent dictator. Having been whacked enough to bum in interesting places, I can attest to the fact that a traveler, hanging with the locals, can feel the difference between traveling around the former Soviet satellite states and republics like Romania and Uzbekistan (which can be pretty hard core) and Cuba (which is more laid back).

The reason Cuban people have a more relaxed attitude (aside from the general laid back Latin attitude), is they do not share a border with Russia - a country with a long history of being invaded (which makes the leadership over there pretty darn paranoid). Secondly, the leadership of Cuba sought out assistance from the Soviet Union, in other words the Soviets, went to Cuba as invited guests, (most of the former Soviet Republics, were occupied lands to provided a buffer zone for Russia).

If you’re wondering what the difference is between Capitalism, Socialism and Communism, here is how I see it.

In a capitalist system, basically it is survival of the fittest: if you are young, bright and hard working, you can grow up to dominate the world (think of Bill Gates), if you are old, dumb and lazy, chances are you would end up as a bag-person wandering the streets rummaging through trash cans looking for clothing and food. In a capitalist system, there are many political parties and it is possible to use wealth to buy influence in government (via high priced lawyers and lobbyist who work for special interests such as big business so they can benefit a shareholder as opposed to the society as a whole). In a capitalist system many innovative products and services are created because creativity is unhindered and rewarded financially.

In a socialist society there is a recognition that there is a responsibility to care for individuals who may not be all that bright or hardworking. In a socialist society if you are young, bright and hard working, you can grow up and move to a country such as the United States (where taxes are relatively low) so you can start a company, have an IPO and try and dethrone Bill Gates. If you are old, dumb and lazy, you work the system and live a somewhat comfortable life. In a socialist system, there are many political parties and it is harder to buy influence, because the government takes away most of the money you earn (in the form of taxes) so old, dumb and lazy individuals can live a somewhat comfortable life.

In a communist system, there is lip service paid to a recognition that there is a responsibility to care for individuals who may not be all that bright or hardworking. In a communist system, there is only one political party and if you want to get anywhere in life you better belong to that party. In a communist system, if you are young, bright and hard working, chances are you would be thrown in jail for sedition if you just mentioned that you would like to move to country where you could fully utilize your natural born talents. In a communist system one does not see innovative products and services because creativity is stifled.

Music and Dance

The laid back attitude in Cuba is reflected in the music and dance. As a visitor to Cuba one can not help but notice, that music and dance are a great part of everyday life. I was told music and dance flow like blood in body and soul of every Cuban.

On various beaches and in various towns, music literally blares out and pounds the body, overwhelming the senses of the uninitiated. The ever present rhythmic strains have an infectious and seducing effect on young and old alike.

In various venues where music was present, Cuban children, some as young as three, begin to mimic their suave elders. In the very young, awkwardly undulating body movements sync somewhat to the infectious tunes. Older children having been infected longer, sync almost perfectly to the music. Cuban adults having been exposed the longest, develop a natural involuntary reaction to music (they take every opportunity to revel in what seems effortless dance). For a self professed rhythmically challenged individual, I found it surprising how fast, I too was quickly being Cubanized or afflicted by the music.

The first evening in Havana, Dan, Robin, Janet and myself were on the Malicon (the boardwalk in Havana) observing Cubans celebrating their independence day. Many individuals we met that evening (and throughout the trip) asked what Americans were doing in Cuba, we told them we were on an educational tour (that seemed to make them happy that some Americans were learning about Cuban culture). Anyway, since it was time of revelry, Dan (a man of many talents) picked up a guitar from one of the locals and began to play “The girl from Ipenima.” Not too long after that Robin and Janet began dancing with the locals. It was that night, that I first realized that music and dance play a big part in Cuban culture.

On this trip, many sultry nights were spent pretty much just hanging out in the lovely company of the Cubans being seduced by music and sipping rum.

Brutal Honesty

That night on the Malicon, we also experience another aspect of Cuban life, brutal honesty.

In Cuba it was not uncommon for locals to approach us (American) and ask where were from. That is something I have encountered while traveling in other parts of the world. What was unusual was after a few brief introductions, many Cubans told us (the American tourists) of their various personal problems which ran the gambit from problems with officials to personal relationship problems.

Since many Cubans know that America is a land of wealth and opportunity, many seem to assume that Americans have endless financial resources (i.e. that Americans are all rich like Bill Gates) and power. To a certain extent Americans tourists can appear to have unimagined wealth, because American tourists have the means to travel to another country. Secondly Americans have the ability travel freely which is beyond the power of ordinary Cuban citizens.

In many parts of the world people cannot travel freely (i.e. there are governmental barriers to free travel) and many economic systems are closed (i.e. government control does not allow for self determination). In Cuba, a person cannot just decide to leave the country (they must get permission from officials) and then charge it on the American Express (that is because there is no efficient banking system or for that matter an American Express office in Cuba).

I know that there are many hard luck stories out there but what I found weird, being an American token socialist (with dollars), is the brutal honesty and willingness of many Cubans to ask for money to take care of multa, (sp? a fine) a word that seems to strike fear in the hearts of Cubans.

That evening on the Malicon, some elderly women who we just met started to talk to Robin about the harsh reality of living in Cuba (they were asking if they could get come money to pay a fine). About that same time, Dan who was dancing up a storm, unknowingly dropped a twenty dollar bill out of his pocket, and it would have been easy enough for someone to just walk off with Dan’s twenty dollars (which is like a months wages to the average Cuban), but it seems many Cubans are brutally honest individuals, and Dan’ money was returned.

In Cuba there seems to be an unwritten code, if the locals see you have an interest in their culture and show them basic respect, then they treat you like a local. But if you appear to be a tourist in Cuba just to go to their beaches, then you are just another resource to be mined for as many dollars as possible. To understand why Cubans are brutally honest, one need to keep in mind that since they are more or less depend upon one another for survival, they share a societal camaraderie and willingness to help one another out. In the States where rugged individualism is perceived to be a good trait, Americans (such as myself) find the idea of sharing problems with total strangers an alien idea (except of course on the Jerry Springer Show).

Havana

Because Havana was the seat of power of the former Spanish colony and the corrupt government that followed, it is a lavishly appointed city. The old capital building, now a museum, is an amazing edifice that would not be out of place in any major European city. Likewise, the rest of the buildings in Havana built before the Cuban revolution, reflect the monumental wealth enjoyed by the privileged class living in a tropical cosmopolitan capital. Buildings built after the revolution, reflect the austere drabness of Soviet system.

Throughout Havana and the rest of Cuba, grand old buildings are decaying due in part to the tropical climate, but mostly the decay is due to the fact that no monies are available for up keep.

The day prior to the big July 26th parade I meandered around Havana for just a bit and began to wonder where Fidel had his official residence. I asked a few locals, and it seemed nobody knew (or they were not telling me where Castro lived). But I was told, when he is present there would be an increased police presence, so I continued to bike around Havana looking for a high density of cops in the hopes I would run into Fidel that afternoon (no such luck). If you take a taxi through down town Havana that night, it is like stepping into a world created by the science fiction movie directors of Blade Runner and Mad Max.

The cool thing about wandering around Havana and the rest of Cuba is, one never is fearful (or at least that is my own perception) of being accosted by bandits or other unsavory elements.

Wandering around Havana, it is also possible to witness history from another point of view. Take for example, a couple infamous in US history, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were executed in the United States for giving nuclear secrets to the Soviets. In Havana, there is a memorial to the Rosenbergs, hailing them as martyrs.

Jews in Cuba

Guess this is as good a time to mention what I found out about Jews in Cuba. Since there were a few individuals with a Jewish background (Dan, Robin and Martin) on this little road trip across Cuba, there was a running joke that this trip was really a “Jewish invasion of Cuba by bike,” (ya had to be there to really appreciate how funny that remark was).

Anyway, since we were on bikes, we were able to stop by a Jewish cemetery just outside of Havana, where the care taker mentioned that there were still about 2,000 Jews in Cuba and in the older part of Havana there is even a synagogue that is being restored. Although the cemetery looked liked it was for the most part neglected, it appears that it is still in use (I seem to recall a tomb stone that indicated someone was planter there in 1999).

A typical day

The typical day on this bike road trip was interesting to say the least. Because there was such a wide range of physical abilities of individuals on this trip (Mary and Janet were the hard core bikers who were up for anything, like biking up hills in 100 degree weather and 100 percent humidity, while Maria being the least physically fit, more often than not opted to ride in the comfort of the air conditioned bus), we pretty much split up for the day.

Ignacio, the dude that I thought would be the hard core biker that would kill us by setting a rapid pace, instead turned out to be quite the social butterfly making many stops along the way to just drop in on random people along the daily route. Margarita on the other hand, took the lead more often than not wanting to get to the daily destination ASAP. The two different paces of the guides suited me just fine because it was possible to either explore along the route or quickly get to the destination so that I could relax for the rest of the day.

It gets pretty hot and sticky in Cuba during the months of July and August so going balls out is not always a wise choice. Besides I liked hanging out with the social butterfly Ignacio, because it afforded me the opportunity to just drop in and see how Cubans really work and live.

In Latin culture, there is a tradition of a regalo (or gift). Since our group was in Cuba to learn about the culture, we brought small gifts things that are in short supply in Cuba (crayons for the kids, small packages of aspirin, boxes of band aids, and even bars of soap). The small gifts we brought were perfect ice breakers and allowed intrude into the lives of ordinary individuals.

The basic MO of Ignacio was to lead us into various random homes, medical clinics, etc. pretty much unannounced, where upon Ignacio would charm the pants of pants off the unsuspecting locals (he had quite a way with the women). It was then we would give them the small gifts which we brought. Afterward we would ask any questions that came to mind about their daily lives, medical care, educational system, religion, sex, etc. It was like these people whose lives we just dropped in on, were exhibits for us Americans to check out (but it was also a two way street since the locals were as curious about us, as we were about them).

CDR

The Comite por la Defensa de la Revolucion or CDR is the basic mechanism that makes sure ordinary Cuban people have the basics in life (housing, food and medical care). The CDR is also like a neighborhood watch that reports anything out of the ordinary (excessive wealth, bad-mouthing the government, individuals in ill health, etc.) and was set up by Castro to help the revolution he lead to survive. In the past the CDR was the ever watchful good cop, bad cop. Now it seems the CDR is turning a blind eye to frills such Nikes bought in dollar stores and satellite TV showing CNN.

The people of Cuba unlike individuals from other former communist countries I have been to, do not really fear the government or the state police, they just seem bored. That is because Cubans have a guaranteed safety net that provides them with the basic needs of shelter, food, education and health care which is more than can be said for the United States which has more than its share of sick and hungry homeless individuals.

East vs. West (stereotypes)

In Cuba as with the rest of the world there seems to be a subtle pigment-based judgment system, (i.e. the more pigmentally challenged you are, the better). For example in Havana a big city with lots of foreigners and a number of fair skinned Cubans, it seems there is a distrust of many darker skinned Cubans from smaller towns in the east.

Observations, what’s good, what’s bad

If I was to summarize what I found good about the Cuban government and leadership, I would have to say that I was amazed at how well off from a physical standpoint the general population is. This is because every Cuban citizen is guaranteed a basic food ration of food every month, basic housing, basic preventive medical care, and access to basic education.

You may notice, that I used the word “basic” several times, because if you compare individuals in some inner city areas of the United States, and some native Americans to the average Cuban citizen, the United States is put to shame. By that I mean I have walked down many a street in the United States and seen many home less individuals strung out on drugs begging for food right next to fancy restaurants that cater to individuals with gluttonous appetites, and been to a few Indian reservations where indoor plumbing and electricity is an unimagined luxury. In Cuba there historically has not been a drug problem because the powers that be (the great bearded one) frowns on such social ills. As for as people begging for food and needing electricity (well there have been shortages) and that is to be expected given than the Cuban government can no longer get assistance from the old Soviet Union.

The major down side of living in Cuba is, if you’re an ambitious, outspoken and intelligent, I’d have to say your pretty much hosed! That is because, there are limits on how much you can criticize the leadership, there are infrastructure problems so starting your own business and marketing junk in the hopes of taking over the world are not possible (hey Bill ya listening, only in America could you start a company like Micro$oft). In the States we have the freedom to eat junk food (marketed by corporations), be shafted by hmo’s (who look to maximize shareholder value), and publicly state that the leadership is damn horny (hey I’m talking about the Clinton administration).

When the Soviets were supporting the Cuban economy, everyone was provided with the basics, the police were intolerant so there was no crime. In other words Cuba was a country of politically oppressed equals, where an engineer or a medical doctor was paid the same as a farm laborer. Now that reforms let Cubans start tiny businesses (such as restaurants and guest houses) there is a widening disparity, so some people turn to stealing and prostitution (two social ills which were dealt with harshly when Castro had the backing of the old Soviet Union) for money so they can go to dollar stores which have televisions, radios and other frills.

While in country I noticed more than a few old military memorials. When I asked about them, I was told that was stuff from the past when Cuba had the backing of the old Soviet Union and its military men were exported to places like Africa. I was also told Cuba no longer sends it military overseas because it can no longer afford to do so. I later found out that Cuba now exports its doctors to where ever they are needed (guess the great bearded dude is trying to improve his countries world image from one that use to export revolution to one that exports care).

In Cuba I talked to a worker who said something to the effect, “We pretend to work, and the government pretends to pay us.” Despite the cutbacks since the withdrawal of Soviet support, many Cubans it seems choose not to try and leave for the most part because they know theirs is a country where a person could do absolutely nothing and not starve to death.

Compared to the older generation who lived during the revolution, the younger Cubans I met do not seem to appreciate the effort Castro has put fourth to bring education, medical care and other basic services to the general public. Rather many of the younger Cubans lustfully crave the material goods, riches and excitement possible in places such as the United States.

Although some Cuban quietly expressed the opinion that providing basic needs should include the right to freedom of expression and wish the leadership went away just the like the old Soviet Union, I think they did not realize how well off they seem as compared to some people living in the former Soviet Republics. In parts of the old Soviet Union people told me, at least under the old communist system they were able to get food (now they have a greater variety of goods and services, but many cannot afford even basic food stuffs).

What does the future hold?

Castro has survived many US presidents, and for a long time he has been the stern father figure of the Cuban people, protecting and nurturing them from the excesses which flow freely in the west. Castro to a great extent has taken the place of the church as the provider of the people.

During my trip, we saw an example of how sudden freedom can be deadly to ordinary Cubans. In Santiago de Cuba we stayed at a hotel that over looked the city (I was told the hotel was built to reward loyal Cubans). Well while we were there one of the Cuban guests died when he drank too much and drown in the pool. The reason I bring up this sad story is because this illustrates how an individual who has been under the watchful eye of authority, is suddenly allowed to have some freedom, yet does not have the maturity to handle freedom.

Cuba is currently going through an interesting period, since they can no longer get cheap basic goods from the Soviet Union. What is happening in Cuba is a gradual letting down of some barriers to private ownership (such as restaurants, some private lodgings, etc.) and this has created a growing separate class of Cuban (those who have access to dollars and those who do not). It is inevitable that Castro will have to loosen his tight control on the Cuban economy because he does not have the resources to fund all the social and military programs for an ever growing population. As time goes on the basic guarantee of the government a goal set early on by Castro to provide basic goods and services such as medical care and education will be further tested and strained because of the ever growing population.

Since Castro cannot live forever, there will be a time when the Cuban people will have to think for themselves. When that time comes I forsee more than a few potential problems, because Castro’s younger brother who I was told is suppose to take charge, is also getting along in years and there does not seem to be mature political institutions or the rule of law in place to handle the day to day operations of government. If there is political turmoil after Castro dies, Cuba might become a major producer of drugs, a trans shipment point for drugs from Columbia, a mecca of prostitution much like south east Asia, or a nation where war lords of sorts fight for their piece of the action (possibilities that exist IMHO if a power vacuum occurs) and the gains and social programs Castro put into place during his revolution will be nothing but fond memories for many Cubans.

Enuf for now

I guess I could continue writing about other things in Cuba, like the “Primas” I had in country (the big joke was in order to avoid questions, it was an easy matter to say that the girl who spent the night in my room was a cousin), the “Jineteras” that offered to teach up the boys (Martin and Zach) about the many ways birds and the bees do it (for a nominal price of course), and the taste I acquired for good Cuban rum and big cigars. But those memories would take quite a while to set properly to pen and paper or in this case binary code and magnetic media. So for now I’ll just close by saying I am glad I had the opportunity to visit Cuba (the so called workers paradise island) before it becomes just another ordinary tourist trap or god forbid something worst.


 
 
 

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