HAVANA, Cuba – Cubans are proud of standing up to America, and they gleefully rally behind the never-ending stream of signs spouting “Socialism or death!” (Many foreigners, upon viewing these signs, simply say, “Whatever.”)
Money is always an issue in Cuba because of the leveling effects of Sovietized socialism. Money spooks the people as some kind of unknowable boogeyman. Cubans are actually proud to be poor, it seems – because, no matter how hard they work, the government will find a way to bring them back to earth.
Then there is paranoia. When changing money at the bank, foreigners must stand at the window in a single-file line to prevent what the Cuban officials fear will be “Bonnie and Clyde” shenanigans. If a couple approaches the teller standing side-by-side, the police will respond like they are mobilizing for Iwo Jima. No country is more disdaining of American capitalism yet so obsessed with dinero. Cubans both fear and love money, for they need it to live.
Cuba is a hardcore place, like South Africa, Lebanon, Cambodia and Laos. Every once in a while, a visitor is given a literal, experiential sign they are only a few steps away from North Korea. Yet when they let down their guard, Cubans can be articulate and insightful. There are always things to talk about: baseball, Afrikaners and the war in Angola, Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, American culture, learning Spanish, Gitmo, God and nuclear war. Cubans will also grudgingly admit they dutifully follow Cuban-born baseball players/defectors (like “El Duque” of erstwhile New York Yankees fame) and offer good wishes to Cuban exiles in Miami. Cubans seem annoyed and occasionally angry but never truly bitter. They are opinionated people eager to point out the hypocrisy of others while wallowing in it themselves. It is perhaps their only major collective flaw as a people.
Many Cubans are Catholics and evangelical Christians who lament what they see as human-rights abuses in mainland China or even Guantanamo Bay. They often point to the Elian Gonzales affair as an example of people who live in glass houses throwing stones, if not boulders – on Easter Sunday, no less. They say they’re not invading other nations, stealing natural resources, exporting a revolting anti-Judeo-Christian ideology, moving borders, ordering austerity and sucking up productive potential through never-ending wars and Wall Street and bank bailouts. The truth, however, is that the Soviet-Cuban element has provided a mirror image of all of these things and perhaps many more. Again, it was Cuba that nearly brought the world into a nuclear holocaust. And it was Cuba that served as the launching pad for Soviet-style Marxism in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
When Cubans standing in front of a Che poster in Havana were informed that the revolutionary had been a doctor who took the Hippocratic Oath “to do no harm” yet murdered innocent people in cold blood, they smiled pensively. They “know” this deep down – but they don’t really want to know their hero is a mass murderer. Like Nelson Mandela and the Church Street bombing in South Africa, or Bill Clinton, Loral and nuclear technology for mainland China, some mythical bubbles must remain forever inflated. Nothing ruins a great myth more than the pinprick of cold, hard truth. Such truths are too much for Cubans and aficionados of Che the world over.
Cubans will continue to focus their attention on America rather than themselves. Cubans will almost joyfully explain to visitors that the American economic model has been discredited by exotic financial products like synthetic derivatives. Although they may not understand the nuts and bolts of that complex issue, Cubans do understand the consequences of fake Monopoly money, which is not worth the digital paper it is printed on. One hears in Spanish, again and again, the axiom of Saint Paul: “The love of money is the root of all evil.”
How poor is Cuba? To quote a Feb. 15, 2001, Associated Press article on then-New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez: “More than seven years after their divorce in Cuba, Hilda Maria Fillao, the ex-wife of New York Mets shortstop Rey Ordonez is asking a Florida court for nearly $8,000 a month in child support. That would be a huge increase from the $1.50-a-month payments a Cuban court granted her.”
The article continued, “‘He [Ordonez] basically did not provide any support while she and the child were living in Cuba,’ her attorney, Javier Perez-Abreu, said. He said he believed about $1.50 a month, or 30 pesos, was standard child support payment in Cuba. Ordonez defected during the Pan American Games in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1993, four days after his divorce was granted in Cuba. He signed a $19 million, four-year contact with the Mets in January 2000. He made $2 million last year and received a $1 million signing bonus under the new contract. He will make $3.75 million this year, $6 million in 2002 and $6.25 million in 2003.”
The loss of America as a financial and cultural touchstone for the world to emulate is deeply felt in Cuba. Cubans may disdain their own national police state, but they boldly claim the Transportation Security Administration in America is a fledgling national police force ready to crush the Yankees. Cubans don’t trust in Goldman Sachs or AIG. They say U.S. federal regulators were in bed with the worst of the financial criminals. Cubans have seen this all before – 20 years ago when they watched the USSR die. They understand Tiananmen Square. They saw their soldiers return from fighting the apartheid regime in Angola, some stricken with HIV/AIDS and dumped into camps along with evangelical Christians, Catholics and homosexuals, free only to “work out their problems together.” Cubans, like Sicilians, are loyal, passionate and family oriented. But they are not fools. They wave their flag as all patriots do – as a fig leaf – knowing that kings and presidents are a poor substitute for Moses, the pillar of fire and direct revelation from the Almighty.
(Such camps are nothing new to Cuban soil. In fact, they are part of long-standing tradition. During the era of Marti, the Spanish Empire liquidated 400,000 Cubans in fortified towns or “camps” known as “reconcentrados.” These camps, like those in South Africa that saw 26,000 Afrikaner women and children die of disease and starvation during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, are regarded as the first modern concentration centers that became so popular during the 20th century. )
Marco Robinson, a Cuban artist, said, “We can see why Americans look at us with one eye askew. But many Cubans also wonder if American Christians and conservatives hate Cubans because the idea of continuing to fight the Cold War makes up for losing the culture war and their fight to end abortion. We Cubans are demonized. The ‘American Cowboy’ sees the Cuban people as an easy target. Cuba is not free – sure. But honestly, how free are you Americans? How many children can you afford to have? How many details of your daily life are tracked by computers? Can you walk the streets of your cities at night in safety as you can in Havana? What about insurance if you get sick? Fidel made Cuba an atheistic state – but has the Bible not also been banned from American public schools? What about America’s secular state religion promoting Darwin’s ape man with no soul, no spirit, no intellectual and moral life? Do you fight wars with big countries like Russia or China or pick on smaller countries like Cuba? Instead of criticizing Cuba, America and Americans should take a long look in the mirror.”
Robinson continued, “Why do you have sanctions against us [Cuba] but give China ‘most favored nation’ trade status? Is China free? Is China not communist? Does China not have far worse human rights abuses than we have in Cuba? I am sorry to say there is a loss of respect for American institutions. What’s really saddest of all is that most Americans can’t even begin to see this. Do you have racial and cultural harmony? Are your minorities ‘citizens,’ or do they view themselves as ‘victims’? South Korea has high-speed rail – does America? South Korea has national dental and medical insurance at very low cost – why doesn’t America? You have the one percent capitalist elite. We have the one percent communist elite. Is one really better than the other in terms of providing optimized chances for realizing the human potential of all?”
Yet Cubans do understand why Americans still view them as a strategic threat. They also understand why Americans, while admiring certain talents of the Russian people, do not fully trust Russia’s leadership, linked as it is to the former KGB and Stasi and, yes, to Cuba. Cubans have been permanently marked, stained and tainted for embracing the values of the Soviet Union. Again and again one hears the phrase, from Russians in the U.S. and from Cubans themselves, “Cuba is Russia’s little monster baby.” Cubans know Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are malo.
Cubans will also begrudgingly admit that some of the very best freedom-loving Cubans left the country on rafts because of the police state shackling their nation. Those who stayed behind enjoy the benefits of socialism, including free rations of salt, sugar and other items from the government. These people like being taken care of. They are the ranks of the unambitious. Yet others are fiercely independent, industrious and ready to cannibalize items for spare parts needed to fix whatever is broken. The national interest in do-it-yourself repairs and ingenuity comes from Fidel Castro’s “Book for the Family,” which asked Cubans to overcome the American embargo by making do with the technology and machinery on hand.
Cuban-American artist and designer Ernesto Oroza wrote a book titled, “Technological Disobedience,” which explains how innovation, combined with a spirit of working together, helped Cubans survive the U.S. embargo. This became especially vital after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba was cut off from Soviet subsidies. It is known as the “Special Period in Time of Peace” in the Castro timeline. It should be known as “Fix what’s broken – because we’re dead broke.”
The Malecón, a long stretch of road built by the American colonialists around 1900, is the signature motorway of Havana. It is a sun-drenched and occasionally water-drenched road where random waves sometimes bathe pedestrians. The Malecón winds along the sea wall in Havana. Here one can observe automobiles from the 1950s and 1960s still running in pristine, perfect condition. This is because the Cuban people are smart and unafraid of a little elbow grease – the heart of the message in Oroza’s book. Those vintage cars seem to define Cuba as set apart from the 21st century, a harbinger of a simpler time denoted in “The Good Shepherd.” The idea of a wall around Havana is not new. The first wall was constructed between 1674 and 1740.
Cubans and foreign tourists alike fear an invasion of Starbucks and McDonald’s. Havana (minus her slums) is beautiful beyond belief, gentrified, clean and even features cobbled stone streets in some quarters. There are brand new signs in English demarcating the treasures to be beholden by the interloper – including the oldest fort in the Western Hemisphere. The sweet smells of Cuban food, including the infamous Cuban sandwiches of ham and cheese, fill the street stalls.
The parks are immaculate, and people often congregate on the sidewalks while sipping tea and coffee. Coffee is important in Cuba and has a long history dating back to 1790, when the revolt in Haiti against the French sent thousands of French coffee planters from Haiti to Cuba seeking sanctuary. (Arabica coffee, which grows on the rolling hillsides in the city of Trinidad, is also quite popular.) The most impressive structure in Havana might be the statue of Fernando Marti, one of the pillars if Cuban identity. Marti, an exile writing in New York, penned his “Manifesto of Montecristi” and fought against the Spanish army in Cuba. He died in battle in 1895, which designated him a patriotic hero. The Catedral de San Cristobal was famously described by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier as “music set in stone.” It was built in 1748.
Everywhere, it seems, one can find song, wine, food and women. If good wine is sunlight captured in water, then Cuban music is moonlight caught in a flame.
Havana is rising in 2012. The city was founded in 1514 by conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez. Havana became a major trading hub because of the brief period of British rule. The British in Havana were led by the Earl of Albemarle, who landed from the sea on June 6, 1762, marched inland with a column of soldiers and eventually surrounded the defensive Spanish positions. While the French were busy losing their colonies in Louisiana and Quebec, the British strengthened their position in the New World. In the 11 months they ruled Havana, the British, rather than going on a killing spree, told the Spanish free trade all around the world centered on Cuba’s coffee, rum, sugar and tobacco and would be of advantage to the Spanish Empire. These days, Habana Vieja is being rebuilt, reclaimed and restored. Sites like the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest fort in the Western Hemisphere built around 1558, are the main attractions in the Plaza de Armas. It is here the first outdoor Catholic Mass was said in Cuba – under a cieba tree in the humblest of settings possible.
Of course, Havana is not without its dangers and always has been filled with romance and uncertainty. Local slaves encouraged by French corsairs (“course or journey,” as derived from the Latin “cursus”) attacked and burned Havana in 1538. Havana has been attacked by the Spanish, the French, the British, Americans and the communists. It’s as if Cubans have a sign on their heads that says, “Come colonize us!”
Today, the police force is vigilant, ever present and careful to watch out for foreigners. Crimes against tourists are punished with heavy sentences. Prostitution is legendary and, although it is not at the level it was in the 1940s and 1950s when the mafia was involved, a bevy of Cuban Naomi Campbell look-a-likes patrols the streets, often searching out Russian men. Sometimes the prostitutes are caught soliciting these men and then immediately released by the police right then and there as if nothing happened. Witnessing this spectacle calls to mind my first-grade Catholic school teacher, Sister Marilyn, who often told our class, “You reap what you sow … if you can get any.”
The nightlife of Havana is legendary, hot, sweaty and punctuated with salsa dancing and rum. But there is something even spicier that comes out when the sun goes down. In Cuba, the Internet is something that is to be used late at night – an idea not to be uttered above a whisper. Like the intrepid South Koreans who dare to log onto KCNA, the North Korean official government website, owners of “posadas” (the quaint, tidy guest houses where Westerners pay about $30 per night to stay in the homes of Cubans) speak in hushed tones about the Internet and its transformative powers. They wait until nightfall to log on, when the Russian satellite flies overhead like some kind of space cowboy bringing the Internet to life. Here, Sputnik, DARPA, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Internet all come full circle in a cosmic tango between irony and karma.
The power of the Internet to connect and inspire while, at the same time, hide the truth under an insurmountable amount of information is a conundrum Cubans are only beginning to inculcate. Cubans who run guesthouses are often required to open up their books to police and other government officials. The Internet is a forbidden pleasure – a weekend in Rio with Megan Fox. As for the posadas, they are charming places that remind one of Forrest Gump’s own mother entertaining Elvis. Can you imagine the typical American allowing Cuban tourists to just show up and sleep in their homes? Can you imagine being afraid to log on to the Internet?
Much worse than the fear of the Cuban Internet cops is the worry of being locked up without legal recourse in a manner that eschews Western norms and takes mankind back to the pre-Magna Carta era. There are, of course, the Cuban hunger strikers, most notable being dissident Wilmar Villar Mendoza, who died last winter in Santiago after a strike of 50 days. He had been on a hunger strike to protest a four-year sentence for “contempt” against the government. Cuba is estimated to have about 60 such similar political prisoners. The Cuban government claims Mendoza was an ordinary criminal sent to prison for domestic violence. Amnesty International stood by Mendoza, as did President Barack Obama. Cubans are sensitive to such issues because deep down the people believe all forms of unfairness should be eliminated.
Yet unfairness is not new to Cuba. By 1840, Spain had brought 400,000 black slaves to Cuba, mostly from the western coast of Africa. (As noted, ex-slaves came from Curacao.) This legacy is still alive amongst black Cubans today, who feel at times they are victims of discrimination. Blacks in Cuba also have higher rates of crime and gang membership than other races. Although racism in Cuba is in retreat, the white-skinned Cubans (who consider themselves to be purely European) are viewed as either running the country or having advantages over others in society. Such notions of the desirability of whiter skin are found in nations as far away as Thailand and do not detract from the sense of solidarity Cubans of all races share in a robust way. But it is there, nevertheless. Thankfully, black Cuban teens don’t walk around with their pants hanging halfway down their thighs with their names tattooed on their necks.
The highways linking Cuba’s towns and cities are clean, wide and in good shape, but they are bereft of cars. There are only 600,000 cars in all of Cuba, but they stay 99 percent local. In fact, almost all that is tranquil in the Cuban lifestyle is local – playing chess and dominoes, sipping rum, dancing. These things make Cubans happy, as they are things that can be done near one’s home. Cubans don’t really go anywhere, since travel is expensive. When hurricanes hit, the civil defense machine is quickly up and running. Crime, especially violent crime, is unknown. This is mostly because of harsh penalties and the fact that to be a criminal in Cuba is a disgrace, in the way that being a poor student in South Korea is a disgrace to one’s self and one’s family. Cubans genuinely love one another in generic terms. There is solidarity, something you might see between the Hmong in Laos, the Karen in Myanmar, Afrikaner farmers or black evangelical Christians in the United States. There is a human bond, a belief in a higher and self-imposed law – a true sense of community.
To be a racist in Cuba is to be a disgrace and an affront to national unity. Blonde people from Russia are routinely carted out in government propaganda films to emphasize that all Cuba’s people are welcomed by the society at large. Cubans are a real multicultural society, while America’s melting pot is more of a salad bar, with American Indians living in abject poverty on reservations, the KKK, poverty in Appalachia and the Ozarks, La Raza, the Black Panthers, affirmative-action quotas springing from hopes that new racism and discrimination can heal old racism and discrimination, race-oriented killings (James Byrd, Channon Christian, Abeer Hamza) and similar evidences of a racially dysfunctional society. Cuba doesn’t have this mess of regional tribalism. It doesn’t have homeless people in wheelchairs panhandling for spare change in the middle of rush hour, as on the streets of San Francisco. Cubans don’t have armies of illegal aliens or homeless people camped out in tents and trying to jones the broken electric toaster you’re dropping off at the Salvation Army. Cuba doesn’t have 30 million people on anti-psychotic medications. The reason? There’s no money for such medicines, and if your toaster is broken in Cuba then you’ll find a way to fix it rather than buying a new one at the Great Wall of China Mart.
Of all the great achievements of which Cubans can boast, their devotion to the nation, their sense of patriotism and aversion to racial hatred as a national distraction may be their finest attributes of all. Havana’s parks are filled in the after-school hours with children of many races playing together in harmony. Like it or not, it is family, nation, Christianity, socialism, patriotism and the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity that make Cuba work despite the embargo and economic stagnation, waste, fraud and mismanagement. While human creativity and business entrepreneurship are stifled, Cubans still are rich in many of the things money cannot buy: honor, kindness, friendliness, ingenuity, humility and compassion.
Ancillary cultural products
The policewomen were omnipresent around Havana. In fact, every single policewoman was relatively tall and slim and looked like Zuleikha Robinson (of “Hidalgo” and “The X-Files” fame) or Penelope Cruz. Posters of Penelope Cruz were ever-preset (rivaling Che and Fidel) and were especially prominent near the Spanish embassy. American products like Sprite, Coca-Cola, Nestle and AT&T were on display, along with a Cuban version of Coca-Cola that isn’t really “the real thing.” Santeria dolls wearing immaculately clean white dresses were for sale on every street corner. VH1 Classics featured videos of Billy Joel and the always annoying Christie Brinkley, as well as other retro acts. The Ministry of the Interior had soldiers on display in 1950s-style uniforms, which made them appear to be better-looking versions of Forrest Gump. America’s holy trinity of state ideology (abortion, homosexuality, multiculturalism) is matched by Cuba’s own statist holy trinity of poverty, Soviet communism and ancillary American cultural products that would make even the Dukes of Hazzard cringe.
The women dressed sexy. More than a few had “tramp stamp” tattoos. Closed-circuit TV from communist China was widely available – boring and uninviting. Unemployment was rampant. The buses are made in China, featured no working bathrooms (they were locked), rarely stopped (even on the direct route from Havana to Trinidad) and played Cuban propaganda movies showing a North Korean-style “Workers’ Paradise.” There was no litter. One was reminded of the film “American Graffiti,” due to all of the 1950s archetype vehicles emanating a special ambiance.
Everything in Havana is done by the book, and if you wish to stop to take a photo of a statue of Fernando Marti while en route to the city from the airport – that is severely frowned upon – as if there is some anointed order of where everyone should go or shouldn’t go. There was also a lot of dog excrement everywhere. The city looked like Beirut, Lebanon, when it was being rebuilt – again. The Seville Square was the loveliest place of all – an epic piece of Spanish civilization in the Caribbean. The live music was as free as the air itself. The aforementioned posadas were clean, cheap and filled with friendly New Yorkers and Canadians ready to tell you their life story at the drop of a hat over breakfast. Of course, normal people don’t tell total strangers their whole life story over a bowl of Corn Flakes, but Americans in general are insecure, unable to form deep, logical thoughts because of the sub-moronic, superficial, self-involved culture of “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol,” as well as the never-ending mass media and technological stimuli, so such conversations are sadly a part of life when meeting other Americans in Cuba. Cubans understand this and are fascinated by the American cultural train wreck.
There were no fat Cubans. Food is expensive in Cuba, and much of the food they do have has been imported from America. The men were handsome, and the women were attractive as well. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, of the 3 million men in Cuba aged 16 to 49, more than 2.4 million are fit for active combat duty – this as opposed to the American male youth, which is so troubled by obesity, video games and pornographic addictions. Cubans, both male and female, are required to undergo military training and serve in the armed forces. This is a social leveler.
Fidel Castro, perhaps emboldened by the lack of fat Cuban youths wearing their baseball hats sideways and their pants hanging half off, took down the anti-American graffiti at the Arch of Anti Imperialism. A few black women stopped on the Malecón to tell me how President George W. Bush had been given a good going over by the Cuban regime in regard to street art. The people I encountered cursed the BP oil spill, praised the pope (“El Papa!”), hissed at the attractive women (well-built, no tattoos of the symbols of a deck of cards on their arms, nor their names on their necks) and wondered about actually using emissions testing for their vintage automobiles. Everywhere there were the signs touting Fidel and Che and their war.
Cubans were shocked to learn that Americans don’t have posters of George Washington crossing the Delaware, celebrating the Battle of Long Island, Redcoats being shot down in the swamps of South Carolina or captured Seminole Indians in the Everglades splattered on every street corner. Americans don’t celebrate 1776 or Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Dresden or D-Day or Fallujah. Cubans do. Americans don’t have and don’t want signs declaring, “Capitalism or death!”
There were oil derricks, sublime and tacky truck stops, few if any Internet cafes, separate buses for tourists and locals, a cost of 1 Cuban convertible peso for a pork sandwich and $5 for a small bag of popcorn shrimp without the shrimp. There was the feeling that American culture, via Starbucks and Burger King, will one day soon wash over Cuba and ruin it. One billboard read, “I am the revolution!” which is about as inspiring as “A walk is as good as a hit.” Communism still unites Cubans the way the economic draft in American turns fat, white men into latter-day John Rambos ready to take the diaper off of a 90-year-old granny going through security at Los Angeles International Airport.
Everywhere I traveled in Cuba, I heard praise for El Duque, the ex-pitcher for the New York Yankees, especially for “having ice in his veins,” a shark biting his baseball glove while floating on his raft for Miami, strong baseball intelligence by understanding how to pitch to a certain hitter based on his batting stance or how he fouled off a certain type of pitch. Cubans know baseball: hitting behind the runner, fouling off a pitch when you have two strikes, swinging and missing to protect the runner trying to steal, the right sequence for a relay throw from the outfield – real nuanced fundamentals. If you know your baseball, Cubans will take to you. After five days passed, one might learn that El Duque’s real name was “Orlando Hernandez.” Who knew?
Everywhere, Cubans were obsessed about the Internet, worrying that such an influx of technology might distract them or unleash Internet stalkers or other assorted losers. Cubans would sometimes ask, “If we had unlimited high-speed Internet, would it take over and waste our lives?” They noted how, in the old USSR, photocopy machines were made illegal to suppress information, but they heard the Internet had so much information that you could also hide things under “TMI.” They well understood that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the first mega-important news event ever covered live on TV, about DARPA and how that group had helped launch the Internet, as well as just how close the world had come to nuclear war.
They wondered if Americans have the freedom to be heard or understood. They wondered why American children were so obese and why they needed a pill for every mood, or to wear a helmet and elbow pads while rollerblading on their own driveways. Cubans, trapped in so many ways in the 1950s, think Americans also share the rugged traits of the 1950s – when communism in America and around the world was opposed. But like Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future,” Cubans would see a vast disconnect between 1950s Americans and modern Yanks.
Finally, there was the need to confront and interact with Santeria, a pseudo-religion of black Cubans that is a mixture of African paganism and Catholic saints who can still be found around the island. Cubans who practice this religion feel they are demonized as Satan worshipers, a charge they reject. They believe Santeria is linked with their black skin and that this further marginalizes black Cubans. When a few black Cuban Santeria practitioners in Trinidad were told that black Americans have eight abortions for every one white abortion, and that many actually view this as a key “civil right,” they responded, “And they call us Satanists?!”
Adherents to Santeria in Cuba believe their tribal knowledge is persecuted in the same manner and for the same reasons as American Indians, Afrikaners, Libyans, people living in the tribal areas of Western Pakistan, Aborigines in the Australian outback, Eskimos and various shamans around the world. They believe this persecution takes place in the broadest sense because tribal peoples have a special, ancient and sacred knowledge that can somehow defeat the 21st century technocratic model of genetics, artificial intelligence, robotics, finance capitalism and a reliance on pharmaceuticals in everyday life.
Such notions are important because Cubans truly believe they have power to reform society, when in reality they have very little power to do so. This belief system stands opposed to that of everyday Americans, who actually have the power to reclaim a government truly by, of and for the people, yet may feel helpless and impotent to do so.