Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Some Final Thoughts About Cuba

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One reason I wanted to go to Cuba was that I expected it to be “unspoiled.” Sadly, our tour did not include seeing or experiencing the coral reefs and beaches that are said to be the way they were in Florida in the mid-twentieth century.  The countryside we saw after leaving Havana was more a testimony to the days when Spain controlled the island, clearing the forests to make way for sugar plantations. Non-Cubans controlled the land, and by the 1950s, during the dictatorship of Batista, foreigners owned 70% of the arable land.
But Cuba is unspoiled in another sense: you won’t find a Starbuck’s or a McDonald’s anywhere. No billboards except those with government slogans. No ads on TV. Very little of the commercial activity that dominates life in the U.S. so pervasively that no space--think national parks, for example--is safe from commercial exploitation.
Lacking much disposable income, Cuban people live modestly. Sure, they want more of the small and big luxuries we take for granted, but for now they mostly have to do without. When that will change depends on when the U.S. decides to remove the embargo and when the Cuban government loosens its restrictions on private enterprise and tolerates dissent.
The people of Cuba speak with nearly breathless excitement about President Obama's visit to Cuba last year, with Michelle and his daughters. But the leadership was actually alarmed by his warm reception. They are fearful of what may happen if they open the door, and given the history, that's hardly surprising. Oppressed for so long by American big businesses, in league with the CIA and the Mafia, they want to be sure that doesn’t happen again. They don’t trust capitalism or capitalists, and as they watch President Trump put Big Business CEOs directly in charge of our government—no more just pulling the strings in secret or financing election campaigns—don’t they have even more reason to fear?
So, I admire the Cuban people for their resilience, their joy in life, their music and art. Deprivation has turned them into a country of MacGyvers. They treasure the care they give each other, their universal health care, free education for everyone through university, a roof of sorts over everyone’s head, enough food to keep from starving. And they seem to like the leveling of incomes enforced by their rules. They nurture their sense of community obligation by requiring all their children to devote time to public service.
We can learn a lot from them, not least to stop believing the myth that democracy must go hand-in-hand with full-blown capitalism. Our capitalism is out of control right now, leading to the inequality that is widening daily. Regulations strictly enforced can keep capitalism in check, but that is exactly what Trump is so intent on removing.
So take a trip to Cuba and see for yourself a country unspoiled by capitalism but also kept in check by too much government and too little democracy.

Monday, February 6, 2017

TRINIDAD, PUSH CARTS & STAYING WITH CECILIA


Havana’s faded glory looks modern compared with the city of Trinidad, located  in the south central part of Cuba, overlooking the Caribbean. If you want to see how some aspects of life looked before the advent of the automobile, Trinidad is the place to come.
Here, men push carts along the deeply cobbled, uneven streets selling fresh bread, onions, carrots and other fresh vegetables, their loud cries easily reaching inside the one- and two-story homes. Horses are a major means of transportation, pulling carts filled with goods and people. If there are any stores even faintly resembling a grocery market, I didn’t see them. Instead, perhaps 10-foot wide shops sell cuts of meat hanging from hooks above counters open to the streets. Construction machinery doesn’t exist. Men swinging heavy hoes, for example, clean the dirt out of street gutters, leaving piles of dirt for later pick-up.
The neighborhoods of small homes desperately need repair, their corners and facades of plaster over stone crumbling after decades of neglect.
But for all of this, there is a sense of new energy in Trinidad.
The waves of tourists now rushing to see Cuba have created a huge demand for hotel rooms, but there are not nearly enough hotels to fill the demand. So the government under Raul Castro has allowed homeowners (yes, they own their homes) to become Bed & Breakfasts, and that has caused a flurry of rebuilding and remodeling. These owners are rushing to serve the tourists, or, as in our case, Americans on the kind of people-to-people visits that are the only ones still condoned by the U.S. State Department. Rule #1: You are not there for recreation, so don’t expect any visits to the beach!
These tightly programmed visits, such as ours organized by Road Scholar, do include close contact with art, music and community projects, and visits to markets where you can buy Cuban crafts and, of course, cigars. But even when you’re dancing, oh no, be sure it’s not recreation! Such absurdity.
At Home with Cecilia
Part of Road Scholar’s program was to spend a few nights at one of these new B&Bs.
Our bus dropped us off on a street corner where we were immediately met by Cecilia, the pretty 30-something owner of the B&B that was to be our home. Road Scholar requires that the B&Bs it uses have en suite bathrooms, an air conditioner and at least cold running water. The façade of our B&B was in good repair and painted bright yellow. Flanking it on one side was a construction project which proceeded very quietly as it is done by hand, again without benefit of machinery that would be common in America.
As was typical of all the homes in the neighborhoods, Cecilia’s home had no glass or screens in the windows, only louvered metal shutters that could be angled open for air. To our surprise, there were few insects, only small, non-biting flies. This might be due to the constant campaign against mosquitos and the Zika virus.
Cecilia lives in the house with her mother, also Cecilia, and her 13-year old daughter, Leda, who was not attending regular school but instead spending a month doing community service. That is the requirement for all children of roughly middle-school age.
We were ushered into a small living room with caned wood chairs and rockers, and a three-seat sofa also of wood and cane. Left of this was our room. At first I wasn’t sure we’d fit with our 2 suitcases and backpacks. A metal-framed double bed stood about 18 inches apart from a single bed, both with mattresses about 3 inches thick and supported by two-by fours. If you like a hard bed, you’re happy here.
I had hoped to take a nap after we arrived, but discovered that the children who lived up the street shrieked like children everywhere, while their mothers shouted their conversations from one side of the street to the other. I finally asked Cecilia when the children might quiet down. She laughed and said 10 pm. And like magic, at 10, all went quiet. Custom? A local rule? I don’t know.
We read in the evening. There was a small TV with rabbit ears that sat on a small table, the only furniture in the room. Once and a while, there was an American show like the X-files on the tube with Spanish sub-titles.
We never used the air conditioner, as it was cooler in Cuba than we expected. Our bathroom had hot water in the shower, but only cold in the sink. It was fine.
Cecilia and her mother made us a sumptuous breakfast every morning, much more food than we could eat: cubes of succulent papaya, a 3-egg omelet with sliced tomatoes, fresh rolls and butter, guava juice, small pieces of mildly sweet cake, and excellent coffee served in thermoses to keep it hot. They spoke little English, but I was able to dredge up from the depths of my brain enough of the Spanish I once knew very well to get along just fine.
They didn’t eat with us and it would have been nice to talk with them more about their lives and expectations. But we did learn that Ceclia would be visiting America soon and staying for a few months with a relative.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Short Takes on Cuba

CUBAN PEOPLE trace their descent from the Spanish, Africans and the Chinese. The natives were all wiped out. The combination yields very handsome people in a great variety of skin tones.

I CAME DOWN WITH THE FIRST COLD I've had in a more than a year. I brought bags full of common Meds, but not the decongestant that can be used by people like me with high blood pressure. So, I went to a pharmacy hoping for the best. Pharmacies here have hardly any inventory. The shelf space might amount to a tiny corner of one in the U.S. In fact when we packed for this trip we followed Road Scholar's advice to bring our own shampoo and basic toiletries, and that if we wanted to give the people gifts, they would appreciate such things--not to mention toilet paper. So the pharmacy didn't have what I wanted. I had to settle for a Cuban version of Vicks and an antihistamine, which didn't seem to work at all. But the camphor would relieve my stuffy nose for a while, and I was grateful for that.  Although the country is famous for its doctors and hospitals, and has educated more than 70,000 doctors, the hospitals have shortages of basic supplies as well.

HORSE CARTS are an occasional sight in Havana, but a common one in smaller cities like Cienfuegos and Trinidad. These are not carriages for tourists. These are working vehicles used to transport all kinds of materials and people. There are also still carts drawn by oxen.

WHEN FIDEL DIED, most of the pictures of him that were everywhere in the country were taken down. That was his wish. And he was buried in Santiago de Cuba, far from Havana. Thousands of people lined the route of his hearse. A simple stone marks his grave, not any big monument. A good Communist to the end.

TAXATION OF INCOME is new to Cuba and is imposed only on certain kinds of income. When we told our guides that that our country used to have a 90% tax bracket, and that countries like Sweden still have very high taxes, they found it hard to believe. Instead of taxing people, Cuban takes the major portion of goods produced. For example, a tobacco farmer gets to keep 10% of the crop while the government takes 90%. Another example of the extreme economic control imposed by the government deals with cow. Apparently the government introduced cows into the country to improve nutrition for children. So the dairy farmer must provide a major portion of the milk produced to schools or hospitals. And the cows themselves are still the property of the government. Only the government can kill a cow. It's a crime for a citizen to do so.

WHERE'S THE BEEF?  In the tourist restaurants, not on the tables of the citizens. Pork, chicken and lamb are staples.

CUBANS ARE CHAMPION MAC GYVERS. They have learned to recycle everything. But that can't last forever. The combined economic stress of our embargo and the loss of support when the Soviet Union fell apart in the 90s means classic, but falling-apart cars from the 50s and 60s, plumbing fixtures that need replacing, not enough fishing boats to take advantage of the seafood in the ocean, and not enough tractors to farm the ample open land.

RAUL CASTRO HAS PROMISED to give up the presidency in 2018. The Cuban people will get to vote for provincial representatives who will choose the next president. Our guides have no idea who that will be, other than that it will be a member of the Communisty Party.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Cuban Government Needs to Unleash the Creativity and Enteprise of Its People

When I studied economics, a Professor pointed out that the nature of an economic system didn't necessarily determine whether it was a democracy. Think of Sweden, for example, socialist but also democratic with the kinds of freedoms we think of as American.

Fearful of a slide back to the bad old days of domination by the U.S., the Mafia and corrupt banks, the government of Cuba today is still locked into a system that not only forbids basic freedoms but also stifles the enterprise and creativity of the Cuban people.

We saw today an example of both when we visited an art project housed in a former derelict water tank. It had been filled with garbage, a vestige of the days when railroad locomotives used steam and needed water. Fourteen years after the first artist decided to use the space to revitalize a neighborhood and create a space for artists, the Muraliento Community Project is full of young people making crafts, painting, sculpting, making music and dancing. All done without any financial support of the government, just sweat equity and donations.

The restrictions on private enterprise and bans on foreign investment show throughout Havana: crumbling building facades, streets empty of traffic since people can't afford cars, people commuting on foot to work for miles every day because other transportation is so unreliable and scarce. Elevators in many places have human operators, and the insides of the cars have been polished down to the bare metal. Here at the high-end Hotel Nacional, the elevator floor indicators have given up, pointing perpetually, dispiritedly, down at the floor or stuck on a floor number.  Our room is spacious, but the tub enamel is peeling and the fixtures need repair. Housing is in short supply. The government after Castro's revolution invested in schools and hospitals, with great results, but there was nothing left to build or renovate housing, so 10 families live in buildings designed for one.

Some of the grandest homes are in the possession of people who used to be a servants to people who left after Fidel deposed Batista, expecting to return.  Our guide, Carina, told us about a relative who pays only 20 pesos a month for the privilege of living in and actually owning such a house. The owners told their servants to stay put, with this unexpected result.

The hardest time for the people of Cuba came in the 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been Cuba's principal supporter. Cubans call it "the special time," a euphemism for several years when food was very scarce and everyone struggled. They dealt with it through ingenuity and recycling, and learning, for example, to grow food organically instead of with chemical fertilizers.

Today, thanks in large part to tourism, things are better.  And all the people we've met have been cheerful, unfailingly polite and friendly, and bursting with energy. If you don't dance here, there is something wrong with you. But these people deserve better.

There's certainly no question that our continued embargo hurts, but much of Cuba's troubles now stem from the frozen policies of a government still very fearful of change.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Cuba Still Paying for Throwing Out the Mafia, CIA and Corrupt Banks

We're staying in the Hotel Nacional, a favorite of Mafia financier Meyer Lansky. With the support of the CIA and the money laundering services of American banks, they had turned Havana into a sewer of gambling, prostitution and drugs. Meanwhile the Cuban people were poor and illiterate.

Today, as we walked the squares of Old Havana, we saw the faded glory of monumental buildings like this Hotel, stuck in a time warp since we Americans instituted the embargo after Castro's revolution.   The people of Cuba, meanwhile,  are literate and healthy, yet unable to afford--or even have the chance to buy, as private enterprise is still so limited--not just new cars but even toiletries and household goods so universal and cheap for us. They've made lemonade out of lemons, repairing old Chevy's, Buicks and Fords, painting them Pepto Bismol pink, lime green and sky blue, and driving tourists around who are old enough, like us, to remember actually owning such cars.

It's odd being in a country devoid of almost everything commercial. There are no billboards advertising products, only ones that preach propaganda. One I saw compares the continuing embargo to genocide.

An overstatement, for sure, but close enough to the truth to be uncomfortable.

As our photographer-guide, Joel, told us, "Sometimes we don't have all we need, but we are happy people."

Sure, thousands of Cubans have left here, risking their lives at sea, for the freedom of speech and press and assembly that we have, and the opportunities of our free-market economy.

But it is inexcusable that we continue the embargo while we support repressive other dictators all over the world.

Surely it is time to admit the CIA was defeated by a college educated guerrilla named Fidel. As Trump supporters have become fond of saying recently, to those of us horrified by his election, can't we just get over it and allow the Cubans to prosper?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Off to Cuba with Road Scholar on Friday

After many years of wanting to visit Cuba, Harry and I are finally going this Friday, leaving on a direct flight from Miami. That's a new convenience, but the old U.S. State Department rules still apply, so we will be following a program of people-to-people cultural exchange with the tour group, Road Scholar.

The emphasis for this trip is photography, so Harry is in for a treat. He will be getting tips from Cyrus McCrimmon, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer.

I hope to blog about everything while Harry takes the pictures.

Not expecting luxury there, but do hope for lots of wonderful music and art and color.

Hope you'll tune in to see if my expectations are realized.