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Sunday, November 28, 2010

So, how was it?

“So, how was it?” is the short-hand question everyone always asks, but one anyone who has ever traveled knows you should not ask if you want a real answer. Angie and I once spent an entire summer sharing about our mutually intense international experiences. Once again, this experience has underscored for me how entirely different Cuba looks like from the inside. One author has described Cuba as “neither heaven nor hell,” and that phrase so aptly describes what I experienced. It’s neither the behemoth that the revolution’s opponents commonly depict, and it is hard to understand why the United States so fears the processes that have been underway here for half a century. Neither is it a socialist paradise that some have wished, though compared to many of the places I have visited during the last year it is relatively better off. In a nutshell, I would describe Cuba as so entirely ... Latin American, complete with all of the region’s advantages, liabilities, and contradictions.

Leaving the Havana airport, Ignacio runs ahead with my 20 kilos of books and throws the bag on check-in counter scale. I don’t like to check luggage because who knows what one will lose down in baggage handling, and I momentarily protest but than I let it go because the bag is indeed heavy. While I’m wondering around in the departure lounge looking for more books to buy I hear a call over the crackling loudspeaker for me to come to customs. The woman in front of me is in the process of having her cigars confiscated because she is carrying more than she can legally import into the U.S. Who knew Cuba cared so much to carry out customs inspections for the U.S. They want to see my books, and I have to pull them all out. The customs agent slowly starts leafing through them one by one, and then when she sees nothing but boring history she begins to speed up and rather carelessly skips over the last ones. She asks if I’m a writer and I tell her I’m a historian, and hence the books on Julio Mella. When she tells me to pack everything back up, I ask what the problem was. She says they check to see that people aren’t taking library books or books older than fifty years out of the country. I understand antiquities laws and problems with archival thefts, but who knew anyone cared about books that anyone can pick up so easily and cheaply in numerous libraries throughout the city. I still wonder what that was all about.

Coming thru US customs in Dallas was a breeze, further contributing to this deep irony of mine that the easiest time I have getting back into the US is when I’m coming from Cuba. In contrast, coming through Mexican customs was more of a pain, which one of the immigration workers justified because the flight was coming from Cuba. A further irony of this increased scrutiny is that during the cold war Mexico was the only one of the American republics not to break relations with Cuba, tho Chris White argues that this was not so much out of political sympathy as a way for the empire to keep tabs on the rebellious island. In contrast, I think the U.S. is now the only American republic not to have restored relations with Cuba. Opponents characterize Cuba as a military dictatorship, but the atmosphere at the Cancun airport was much more overtly militarized than anything I saw in Cuba. And this is perhaps with due justification, because Mexico faces far more serious problems than Cuba, including being much more politically unstable and having a much higher degree of inequality.

La Cabana

La Cabana is the old military fortress where Che set up shop in January 1959 after the guerrillas took power, and allegedly shot two thousand of Batista’s henchmen. The fortress is now a museum with an exhibit in the building near the entrance where Che had his office. The exhibit contains a lot of interesting objects and details on Che’s life, but as far as I could find only one oblique passing references to the trials and no mention of the firing squads. I’d really love to ask about that detail, including whether Che himself personally participated in the executions. He had everyone under his command share equal responsibility for the firing squads and he did order the executions of numerous people, but I have not found evidence that he personally killed anyone himself. I’m left wondering whether he is modest in his writings, wants to dodge culpability, or simply was a bad shot.

As a bonus, I found another Che museum in the house where he lived during those first months when he was in charge at La Cabana. Located rather ironically directly across a Christ statue that oversees the bay, this was probably the best Che exhibit I’ve seen, and includes some amazing artifacts. One was the stretcher on which the Bolivian army carried Che’s dead body by helicopter to Vallegrande after executing him in Holgera. The dried blood has left a caked image of Che on the stretcher as if it were the Shroud of Turin.

Today I was on my own, and I managed to get around entirely on public transit. There is something empowering about mastering that skill in a strange city, not to mention that it is dirt cheap and not so bad on the new Chinese articulated buses (a very similar traveling experience to Quito’s Trole). I bought another pile of books, so I’ll be bringing back quite a heavy load. Don’t worry Cheryl, I’ll leave these in KV. The temperature and humidity spiked which left me soaked in sweat (not to mention probably smelling like Che), dehydrated, and finally with a heat migraine. But this was my last full day on the island, and now I’ll be doing one of those legendary transitions from 30 degree weather to 30 degree weather. Quite a shock to the system. I prefer this 30 degrees, even though it is a tad bit on the warm side.

Friday, November 26, 2010

What Would Che Do?

Two days ago I found a fancy French hotel just beyond the Copacabana that has WiFi which of course completely changes my life now. I downloaded my email to my computer, and now I’m trying to sort through and respond to some 574 messages, which means that I’m not getting anything else done, including writing on my blog. The connection is expensive ($9 an hour, versus $6 in the cyber café), but it is well worth it for me.

The other two people on the delegation left this morning, or at least I assume they left because they have not returned to the hotel from the airport. So, I’m left here all by my lonesome now, which is annoying considering how much I paid for this delegation but I never have any trouble finding enough to do to keep myself busy. I started out today walking around the old town, then went to the Museum of the Revolution (which is fascinating but after 2 hours a bit exhausting). The museum as the Granma on display (encased in glass), and the museum had the name of the gringo who sold the yacht to Fidel. Unfortunately, I didn’t have anything with which to write down his name, but I always wanted to chase down his story to find out how he felt about supplying a boat that changed history.

After lunch, I launched into my book buying endeavors. A couple of the books I wanted to buy were sold out, but available used from private booksellers on the Plaza de Armas for roughly 20 times their original cost new in a bookstore. This is such a weird country where books are almost free when they are new, and prohibitively expensive when they are used. Just as an example: last night I found the second volume of Fidel’s new book in a bookstore for about $0.80USD, and today I had to resort to buying the first volume from a private bookseller for some $20USD. They are beautiful books that Pathfinder was selling at LASA in Toronto in October for something like $40 a piece, and they are probably worth that much. Not only does this speak volumes about the priorities of this country, but I fear that it also is an indicator of the nature of the increase in inequalities that Raul’s reforms will also exacerbate.

Yesterday was the third and last day of our very short program here in the capital city. We started with a visit to Flor de la Revolucion, a special education school named after Celia Sanchez. The school was founded in 1989, just as the country was entering into the “special period” with a crashing economy. I asked the director why the government launched new programs during such a difficult period, especially since in comparison Truman is cutting everything during a similar belt-tightening period. The director said that this effort was indicative of the government’s priorities.

In the afternoon we met with labor leaders at the CTC in the Juan Marinello room, which was particularly special to me. Again a key topic of a broad ranging conversation was how the projected layoffs would be handled, and what impact they would have on workers. The secretary general said that the country was over-educated, and they needed more technicians and agricultural workers and fewer professionals. But once someone becomes a professional, we rarely are content to go back to a lesser level of employment. It feels to me that, much like what the administration proposes at Truman, that the lowest level and least paid employees will take the hit for the mistakes of the over-compensated administrators. I desperately wanted to ask, and did not know how to do so without sounding obnoxious, what would Che say about these proposed changes? Maybe that should be our new slogan: WWCD.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Apparently there is a high pressure area off the coast, and I woke up early this morning with a headache that has lingered with me all day. I heard the waves crashing on the shore just outside our hotel and at first I thought it must be raining, but then I noticed the beautiful just past full moon shining in through the window on my bed. Another gorgeous day.

We continued our tours of educational facilities today, beginning with the Instituto Pre-Universitario de Marianao Manolito Aguiar. The school is named after a student who Batista killed on November 1, 1958. Ramon, one of the five heroes, was also a student here.

We then continued on to the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes San Alejandro. The school dates back to the early 1800s, and is the only one from that era of Spanish rule that still exists. Just inside the front door a poster proclaimed that “dos iguales tambien hacen pareja.” On one hand, given this country’s machista history of homophobia such a display is somewhat surprising, but I suppose if we are going to find something like this somewhere an art school is as good of a place as anywhere.

We tried to go to the famous Tropicana nightclub for lunch, but unfortunately the place was booked full. It did not look at all like what I imagined it would. Instead of a Los Vegas-style strip, it is in a secluded, wooded area–really quite nice. So, instead, we came back to our hotel for lunch where we have eaten all of our meals so far, and the bland redundancy is beginning to wear on us. (On a related note, I’ve been doing my Internet at the Copacabana that Barry Manalow called the hottest spot north of Havana, located just a couple blocks from our hotel.)

After lunch, we concluded our short day with a visit to the Escuela Primaria Vo Thi Thang, named after a Vietnamese fighter who they thought had been killed in the war when they named the school after her in the 1960s only to find our later that she was still very much alive. She is now 64 years old and keeps in regular contact with the school. As commonly happens not only here but elsewhere in my travels, students greet us to the school with a song. We visit classes, including one where students are receiving their history lesson via a televised program. I want to ask more about the pedagogical value of such a passive means of content transference, particularly in a relatively well-off part of town that apparently has good instructors, but I’m not sure how to phrase the question in such a way that would elicit a serious response. The school is across the street from a very large church (I couldn’t confirm what church) and kity-corner from the very weird looking former Soviet embassy.

Every school we’ve visited has a computer lab, and the director of this school contended that every school in the country, no matter how isolated, has such a lab along with an instructor. The computers come from China, but to my surprise they are all running Windows software. I asked why they were not running free Linux software, and they said that Windows was better and easier for the students (I, of course, have friends who would seriously contend that claim). None of the schools we’ve visited has internet, although the high school we visited in the morning was networked to a server. The instructor at the primary school said hopefully one day they would have internet. A major problem is that due to the blockade, the U.S. does not let the country tie into a line that runs just off shore of the island. Instead, the government is working with Venezuela to run a new cable to northern South America and tie in to the internet there. Until that happens, apparently all of the connections on the island are through a slow and expensive satellite connection. What this means, of course, is that I’m back to a situation where it is hard to post to my blog or to check my email.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

In the footsteps of General Eloy Alfaro

If I wrote a travel book following Eloy Alfaro in his travels across the continent, would anyone read it (or, much less, I guess, want to publish it?). I fully expected to find traces of Ecuador’s liberal leader on this Caribbean island because before returning to South America to become the father of his country he had spent time here. It did not take me long to find him. This morning we met at the Circulo Infantil Vietnam Heroico, and the Independence Boulevard that runs in front of the school is lined with statutes of Simon Bolivar and other such American heros. On recognizing the memory space, I logically expected to find Eloy Alfaro, and very soon my search was successfully rewarded. The plaque on the statute notes that in 1895 as supreme leader of Ecuador, Alfaro pleaded with Spain for Cuba’s independence. The statute is a recent invention, only being inaugurated in that space on September 17, 2006 by then president Alfredo Palacio and his ambassador Universal Zambrano. It would not surprise me to find other such memory spaces here.

Some delegations are packed to overflowing. This one is on the light side. After a long trip back from Holguin yesterday, today started slowly. We began at 10am with the Circulo Infantil Vietnam Heroico that was founded in 1968 in the midst of the war. The thing that struck me most about the visit was the gender politics of the place. Walking in the front door we see a memorial wall of nationalistic heroes. Almost all of them are men, with the notable exception of Vilma Espin who apparently founded the circulos in 1961. The entire staff was female, and when I inquired as to the imbalance the director told us that women were better suited to deal with young children. I wondered if this were true, or just more evidence of the persistence of gendered divisions in this society. Undoubtedly, Che would have agreed with this assessment. But decades ago the London Day Nursery intentionally wanted me on staff in order to give the children a positive male model. I still have trouble believing that women are somehow genetically programmed to be better with kids than we are.

After a long leisurely lunch, we met with labor leaders at the university. It was one of the best conversations I’ve had here so far, generally revolving around issues of what Cuba’s plans to fire half a million laborers means for the workers. The leaders adhered to the party line that these types of reforms are necessary, that local solutions need to be found to local problems. But I can’t help thinking that this is a capitalist turn, with all this talk about productivity and efficiency. It reminds me of the conversations that we have at Truman, with an administration that insists we need to reduce the workforce. It seems to be nothing more than an attempt to get fewer people to work harder for less pay, which of course raises the question of who benefits from such a move. I fear there, as here, that it will exacerbate class divisions. It makes me feel that a move from moral to material incentives must have Che turning in his grave.

And so we are back at the hotel with the sun setting over the Caribbean. The breeze off the ocean is nice, and I now have time to turn to the work I brought along from home full expecting to have such empty spaces. I am way too german to relax, and if I had my druthers the spaces would be filled up with things that I could not do at home, even though the weather here is much more sane than it is back home right now.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

For the lack of an appropriate post title

Last nite we visited neighborhood CDRs. We arrived in a square surrounded by apartment blocks to the warm welcome of the local inhabitants. Organizers divided us up into small groups to visit individual committees. Ours included a school teacher who spoke English, and I wondered if that was purposeful because we were all from the US and Canada. They greeted us with scripted readings and songs (I wondered if these were individual creations of each committee or a common assignment or shared creation) and food, which was nice because the slow pizza at the hotel was not ready by the time we left. We try to have a conversation with the group, but it is one of those that is long on rhetoric and short on substance and serious solutions. I wonder how Che would feel about such conversations. It takes time to gain a rapport that extends beyond superficial exchanges.

Today we again broke into groups, and ours traveled to the municipal of Baguanos for another colloquium that once again is long on rhetoric and short on serious content or organizing ideas, but again it is nice to be with the community and have some type of personal contact. We are with Rene's mom, and a lot of the attention is focused around her. One of the combatants who was on the international mission to Angola speaks, and so afterwards I seek him out to ask him more questions. One of the students in my Che class said she didn't see the difference between Che's international solidarity missions and South Africa's imperialistic support for mercenaries in the Congo, and I wanted to ask him how he would respond to that type of question. What it basically boils down to, I guess, is a question of political consciousness which is difficult to explain in a country that is notorious for its lack of political consciousness. I hunger for deeper and more meaningful political conversations, but it is difficult to get there.

On the way back to Holguin we stop to plant 5 trees in memory of the 5 heroes. In town, we head up to the Loma de la Cruz that looks over the city. Tomorrow we wake up early and head back to the capital. Right now I'm sitting in the dark by the pool in the hotel with a nasty disco beat blaring over the sound system but a beautiful full moon coming up over the horizon.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What a long strange trip it’s been

I arrived in Holguin this morning at the tail end of the Sixth International Colloquium for the Release of the Five and Against Terrorism. I’ve been traveling now since Thursday evening, I’m tired, hungry, and thirsty, and the speeches are long and redundant.

In Cancun, we boarded a Soviet era Yak 420 for the short hop to the island. My seat was 20E, the middle seat in the last row against the bathroom wall and beside the engine. It’s probably the worse seat on the plane, and to add to the confusion the seats were listed with Russian letters and E is the sixth (ie, window) not fifth letter of the alphabet. The plane is full of tourists, including several from the states. I think being on such a plane makes everyone jumpy. When it takes off vapor starts pouring thru the cooling vents, which completely freaks out a woman across from me because she’s convinced the plane is on fire. It’s raining, and the storm front tosses the plane which unsettles the woman sitting next to me who, for some unknown reason, has not fastened her seat belt.

I’ve learned the hard way to give as little information as possible at immigration checks, but I feel so unsure of myself here I don’t know if that applies or not. My standard response to “what are you doing here” has become “tourism.” The immigration officer begins to quiz me on whether I’m planning to do anything else here, whether I work with an organization, or.... I’m not sure how to respond to the leading questions, so I just explain that I’m meeting some companeros in Holguin for a free the five symposium. He asks me what I think of the five, and there is of course only one logical answer a rational person could give: it’s a travesty of justice, an irrational action from a government that claims to be against terrorism, and a hypocrisy in a country that allows people like Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles to walk free on its streets. I’ve never had such a conversation with an immigration officer before.

Once out of immigration and before customs we go through an airport-style security check. I’ve never had to pass a security checking coming into a country. The cold war stereotype is that such a country tries to restrict exits whereas so-called western democracies seeks to restrict entrances. Is this part of a serious and well-grounded fear of terrorist attacks? The security officer looks at the xray machine and asks if I’m carrying 2 computers (no, it’s one computer and my DSLR). But how can it be a contraband check if it comes before and separate from customs?

The airport has a Via Azul ticket counter and they sell me a ticket for Holguin. A traveler beside me complains about prices getting “rounded up” in Mexico because of a lack of change. The clerk says that they would never do this here, but then launches into a long complaint about how their wage in pesos amounts to about $10USD/month, and then shorts each of us about $1USD each because of a lack of change. What a nice tip.

On the ride into the city we pass the Plaza of the Revolution and I see that once again they have redone the Che on the Ministry of Interior building (it’s different every time I’m here). But what surprised me is that it is now twinned with a Camilo on a neighboring building. Maybe I’m just hyper conscious right now because I’m teaching my Che class, but I’m surprised at how ever-present Che is here. Does Camilo’s presence on the plaza indicate that his star is in ascendency? He has never has had the same cult status as Che, but one could argue that he is more deserving of the recognition.

While I wait for my bus to leave I walk around for a bit. I want to buy stuff, but I’m so confused by the dual currency system I’m not sure what I can do. I walk into a bookstore and I find a book on Mariategui written by none other than an author from Holguin. I feel as if I’ve scored, and as a yapa they have a book on the African influence on the revolution. Together they cost 15 pesos, but all I have is CUC. So they take 0.75 CUC for the 2 books, which is like about 75 cents USD. Cheap. But then I later find out that I way overpaid a taxi driver because of not understanding the dual currency system.

The all-nite bus ride to Holguin is freezing cold, of course, even tho the temperature is perfect outside. I’m not sleeping well, it’s raining, and my head is pounding. We pull into Santa Clara and I wish I could spend some time in this heroic and historic city. I think I must have been here in 1989, but I now remember little of that experience and it was before I started to leave ethnographic traces of my travels on my blog so I can remind myself of what I have done. Finally I fall sound asleep and then I hear the bus driver announce that we are in Camaguey. I feel as if I should raise my head and open my eyes to look around at Madison’s sister city, but instead I promptly fall back sound asleep.

It’s already the middle of the morning by the time we pull into Holguin. Everything looks very normally Latin American to me, except I guess for the bikes, bike taxis, and horse-drawn vehicles that now crowd the roads. Even with Venezuela’s assistance, the blockade still has that type of impact? I catch a bike taxi to my hotel, and all I think is that I’m going to be mince meat if that track doesn’t pull back into its lane from swinging around that other bike.

This is a country that always looks so different from inside than it ever does from the outside. I’m always so nervous about what it will be like and what I will find, but it is so nice to be back.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A long voyage begins with .... a drive to the airport

Tonite I drove to the airport because the flight leaves early tomorrow morning, and then I have an all nite bus ride tomorrow nite. I like being different places, I just don't like the process of getting there.

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