An Unexpected Trip to Cuba
January 25th, 2012 | Blog, Cuba, Musings/Reminiscences | 20 Comments
Dear Blog readers (if you’re reading my posts, I consider you a close, personal friend):
I have been MIA for almost a month. I apologize for my silence, but I have a good excuse. I’ve been in Cuba.
No one was more surprised than I.
As those of you know who follow my blog, my intention is to post about writing and books. But sometimes I wander far afield, as far as Cuba, in this case. I’m so saturated with Cuba at the moment that I must tell you about it.
It happened like this. In January I came down to Key West to attend the Key West Literary Seminar and teach a workshop. There was a tour going to Cuba on a humanitarian mission, which basically means you carry OTC medical supplies to a charity which distributes them to the Cuban people. Someone who had signed up for the tour had to cancel at the last minute, did not have trip insurance, and was willing to sell her place to me for a greatly reduced price. I finished teaching the workshop at 12:30, got on the bus to Miami at 1:30, and flew to Santiago de Cuba early the next morning. A week before, Cuba had been the farthest thing from my mind.
I’m pretty sure if you ask 100 Cubans what they think of Castro and their country, you would get a lot of different answers.
I’m even more sure if you asked the various members of our tour group for their perceptions of Cuba, you would get widely varying opinions. I came away feeling how superficial my knowledge of Cuban history is, how little I know of Cuba/U.S. relations over the decades, and how difficult it is to get a deep sense of the culture and people beyond a bus window. I was often surprised, sometimes confused, occasionally troubled, and always curious and energized by the experience. Here are a few of my impressions.
We rode around in a big Chinese bus taking in cultural events. Two of the most impressive were Teatro de la Danza del Caribe, a fantastic modern dance group that danced to classical Cuban music combined at the end with Handel’s Messiah. We heard Beethoven’s 5th in a concert in an 18th Century church rebuilt as a concert hall. Cubans seems to go for the big bang. We also saw two folklorico dance groups, with the dancers dressed in colorful costumes as Santeria dieties, dancing themselves into a frenzy suggestive of a religious trance. At least I think that’s what it was….
In Santiago we visited San Juan Hill, which I, never having given it a thought, kinda assumed was in Texas or Mexico or perhaps Spain. Duh.
But there we were, standing on the little mound where the Americans known as Rough Riders under the command of future president Theodore Roosevelt won the most famous and bloody battle of the Spanish-American War. America had intervened on behalf of the Cuban people’s struggle for independence from Spain, but also to establish and protect its interests in Cuba. The Platt Amendment granted the U.S. the right to intervene militarily if it felt its interests in Cuba were at risk, and establish a permanent naval base, Guantanamo Bay, which the Cubans want back. As one of our speakers pointed out, it wasn’t called the Spanish-Cuba war. It was as much about American interests in Cuba as about Cuban freedom from Spain.
We visited Monacada Barracks museum, where Castro with a small group of men first tried to overthrow Batista in 1953, the start of the Cuban Revolution that culminated in victory in 1959. Castro escaped to the mountains, though many of his men were killed outright or tortured to death. We were told how a lieutenant sent to capture Castro returned him not to Batista but to another police headquarters, thus saving his life. Castro was tried, imprisoned, and released, and made the lieutenant a personal body guard after the successful 1959 Revolution.
We visited several artists’ studios. One in Santiago was in a dank, smelly basement where the artist’s work featured, of all things, polar bears. Don’t ask me.
In Havana, we visited the Ludwig Foundation, which is housed in a 1950s building with a beautiful view of the city and ocean. The top floor is an open, light-filled gallery in which the work of the artists the foundation supports is displayed. We met with 6 or 8 of the young artists in their twenties who had just completed art school. What struck me was that we might as well have been standing in an art gallery in Minneapolis, talking with American artists. There was no, nada, Cuban influence visible in any of the work. Instead, there were images of Lady Gaga, Superman, stylized flowers in vases, precise, miniature pencil drawings of tropical landscapes, photographs of movie audiences from odd angles. I asked one young woman why there was no Afro-Cuban culture reflected in any of the work, and she just shrugged. It wasn’t important to her, or the others, apparently. I found this disturbing and sad, and like a lot in Cuba, I didn’t feel I truly understood it. The director spoke enthusiastically of connecting with “the major New York art institutions,” which I get, but it made me a bit melancholy.
I had assumed from being in Santiago, a provincial city, that all the Cuban people dressed in modest, conservative clothing, until I got to Havana and looked into the nightclub in our hotel there. Amidst ear-piercing American rock and roll and a dense fog of cigarette and cigar smoke, a fashion show was underway. Beautiful young women paraded and posed on a runway, their stylish white dresses seductively sheer to reveal their black bikini panties. Three young women passed by me going into the club, dressed to the hilt in ultra short minis and stiletto heels. This blew my mind for several reasons. We had been told that first year doctors in Cuba make about 30 cucs (the tourist currency, as opposed to the pesos, the people’s currency) a month, which is about $30.00. To put this in perspective, when I bought a CD of Cuban music from one of the many groups who serenaded us through meals with Buena Vista Social Club music, it cost 10 cucs. From what I knew of Cuba, I didn’t understand how they could afford those clothes or the club. When I asked our local guide about it, she said they were probably prostitutes. Oh. They can buy clothes like that in Havana, but it’s also possible that relatives in the States sent the clothes. Did I mention they were being trailed by three men?
How beautiful and ruined Old Havana is! They are restoring it, but talk about a drop in the bucket.
The architecture is extraordinary. Founded in the 1500s by the Spaniards, by the 18th Century Havana was a prosperous colony with many beautiful mansions with central courtyards, narrow streets and balconies to combat the climatic heat. It’s been described as a “city of columns” with many arcades, built around four or five main squares. In the 19thCentury the town grew out of its city walls and neo-classical architecture was introduced. The previously open galleries on the upper floors of buildings were closed by louvered shutters and colored glass, two of the most important architectural characteristics of Havana. 1902-1959 saw Cuba opening to the world. The Prado, for example, a beautiful wide boulevard around the corner from our hotel, was built by a French architect who was brought to Cuba to work out a master plan. In the late 20s and 30s Art Deco buildings became prevalent, with the Bacardi building being the most important. American influence was reflected in the Capital building, built in 1927 and inspired by the U.S. Capital building in Washington. In the 40s and 50s lots of beautiful homes were built, but they’ve fallen into great disrepair, with no maintenance and almost no new construction since the Revolution of 1959. In 1982 Unesco designated Old Havana as a World Heritage Site, which will help with increased government and foundation funding and assistance for restoration.
How strange it was to see people on the streets not holding cell phones to their ears or texting (though they do have the right to buy cell phones since 2008, just not the money). Cubans don’t have access to the internet (nor satellite TV), though we did have slow service in the business centers of our hotels. Do not take your Internet access and high speed connectivity for granted! There wasn’t that much traffic, at least compared to other big cities (Havana population is about 2 million). Again, there isn’t the money, which could be the running theme for the whole country. It was mesmerizing to stand on the balcony of the Parque Central Hotel in Old Havana and watch the stream of American cars from the 40s and 50s passing below. After the 1959 Revolution, time froze in Cuba. Maybe it’s romantic to us to see these old cars, but probably not so to the Cuban people who have to keep them running and live with worn-out upholstery or seat springs. There are other modern cars from various countries, but crossing a busy street was not that much of a problem. As for the people, invariably they seemed open, friendly, quick to smile and speak, with no subtext of resentment, envy or antagonism. They like Americans, apparently, or maybe just tourists, since that is Cuba’s main industry these days. Our Havana hotel was overrun with Europeans, Canadians, and other Americans on tour.
One of the big thrills for me was to walk along the Malecon, the seawall in Havana. I have been under the influence of Bob Neuwirth’s bluesy, jazzy album Havana Midnight for years, in which he sings “Havana midnight…velvet winds…soft as sin against the skin…along the Malecon.” I couldn’t believe that I was there, on the Malecon, a dream come true! It runs about seven miles at the edge of the city, where people stroll it with waves splashing up against a surprisingly low barrier. I could almost see Key West ninety miles away, so near and yet so far for the Cuban people. I remember in the early 2000s how some of them would try to come ashore in Key West in make-shift boats, or fly over in confiscated planes. I don’t know if that is still going on.
I hadn’t really understood that most Cuban people backed Castro’s 1959 Revolution. Not the wealthy elite who were perfectly happy with their slice of Cuba. But there were two Cubas: the one Americans flew over to vacation and party in under a US backed Batista dictatorship rife with corruption, Mafia, gambling, prostitution, mismanagement and the torture and murder of 20,000 Cubans; then there was the Cuba the elites didn’t see or want to see. According to one of our speakers, in a 1952 Census, of the people living in the country outside Havana, 90% had no water, toilets or electricity; only 4% ate beef and 2% eggs. 46% were illiterate, with 20% unemployed and another 20% underemployed. It was no Tropicana for the poor folk.
According to our lecturer, Cubans have a pragmatic approach to life. When Castro came to power, what counted was what they could touch—free housing, free health care, free education. People were euphoric about the Revolution. Even today, when there is no euphoria left, Cubans are proud that they have free health care and a high literacy rate. They were never Communists as such, according to the speaker, because as a people they are not programmed to fit into that rigid structure. When the Russians left in the 90s, they left very little imprint on the people. Cubans were described to us as very nationalistic, with a powerful sense of identity, a deep longing for independence which they have never had, are not very modest, overreact and always think they’re right. They’re inclusive, anti-xenophobic, a country of survivors, a stubborn, unfearful and unprejudiced people.
What will happen with Cuba in the future is anyone’s guess. Our Cuban tour guide felt that Cuba will retain its identity no matter what, pointing out that the Russians didn’t really make a dent despite 30 years involvement. One lecturer said that Cuba has to open to the world and the world to Cuba, which needs foreign investments. She said that Cuba has censorship, but not repression. They don’t have freedom of speech, press, and assembly, but have never been a repressive state, in the way of the former Soviet Union or Saudia Arabia. Asked about dissidents in jail, she said she didn’t know of any, and she believes that stories of dissidents in jail now are fabrications. Her email and phone can be tapped, which makes her mad, but she said the same can happen in the U.S. She wanted us to know, “It’s not so bad, guys.”
Change is coming to Cuba. In 2009 Obama loosened the travel ban for Cuban-Americans, allowing them to travel freely to the country (and bringing lots of goods to struggling relatives there). We learned that as of November, 2011, under Raul Castro’s efforts to remodel the crippled economy, Cubans can now buy houses and used cars, and open their own businesses, for the first time in half a century. Raul Castro is implementing agricultural reforms, and the city of Havana has a well-respected City Historian Eusebio Leal overseeing restoration of the city. Unfortunately Hurricane Ike did great damage to restoration already underway in 2008. People who had been to Cuba in prior years could see changes in the amount to buy in stores and the quality of the food available in restaurants. For us tourists, we constantly overate at gigantic breakfast buffets in our two five star hotels, at lavish lunches on beautiful patios and in lush, tropical gardens, and at delicious dinners in roof-top paladars (private home dining establishment). The tourist trade is the main industry now, and Cubans are on to it. For example, they are restoring Hemingway’s house, which I’ll post on later, as a major tourist site.
But to keep things in perspective, in Santiago our Cuban guide took us into one of the government ration stores. All Cuban people get food rations, not enough to sustain them, but to supplement what they can buy. We were not allowed to photograph in the shop, because the place was so pitiful with so few provisions, of the most basic quality. The government does not want that made public. I did not see any fat people in Cuba.
One final story about Cuba, which I hope captures some of the surprise and contradictions I experienced there.
We were having yet another 6,000 calorie lunch in an eco-tourism area called Las Terrazas, a gorgeous, mountainous, forested area. We sat in an open air thatched roof cabana eating ropa vieja, pork, chicken, salad, black beans and rice, and potatoes, when what should appear but familiar looking little gold-wrapped packets of butter. Examination of the wrappers revealed they came from New Ulm, Minnesota… So much for the embargo. The chicken we were eating also came from the U.S. Since 2000 certain agricultural goods are allowed into Cuba from the U.S. Nothing is quite what it seems.
Cuba is a country of complexity, history, culture, art, music, sophistication, poverty, survival, courage, triumphs, defeats, great natural beauty and most of all–wonderful, warm, welcoming people.