Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Some Final Thoughts About Cuba

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


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.