(Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of Anthony LoBaido’s in-depth exploration of Cuba. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)
HAVANA, Cuba – Would closing the American military base at Guantanamo Bay bring change to Cuba and accelerate Cuba’s desire to reform her prison system and human rights record?
According to the Jan. 23, 2012, “Briefing” section of Time Magazine, “January 11  marked 10 years since the first detainees in the war against al-Qaeda were taken to the U.S. facility at Guantanamo, a slip of land held by the U.S. on the eastern tip of Cuba. Critics decry the murky legality under which hundreds of supposed ‘enemy combatants’ have been held without normal rights of due process. Inquiries found that few detainees have had concrete ties to al-Qaeda. Yet despite earlier promises to shutter the facility, the White House seems prepared to keep it open for years to come.”
The article reported the following numbers:
779: number of men imprisoned at Guantanamo since Jan. 11, 2002.
171: number of men still imprisoned there as of January 2012
92 percent of prisoners at Gitmo were never al-Qaida fighters, says U.S. govt. data.
5 percent were captured by U.S. troops
86 percent were handed over via a bounty
13: age of the youngest prisoner
98: age of the oldest prisoner
21: number of children held at Gitmo
Amendment of the Geneva Convention is a hot topic for both American and Cuban intellectuals. Many argue the Geneva Convention states combatants must be released or put on trial. Since al-Qaida is a supranational actor, once the war is over and a nation hosting terrorists is defeated (Iraq/Afghanistan/Yemen/Somalia), the POWs must be let go, even though a threat will remain, according to the argument.
Cubans, who look back and forth between their own prison system and police state on one hand and Guantanamo Bay on the other, believe a new accord is needed to deal with the issue. They feel terrorism is a tactic and historically a police matter. Cubans fear both domestic and international terrorism and have a tremendous heart for the American people in this matter. They do find the existence and legal machinations of Guantanamo Bay to be funny, puzzling and somewhat horrifying, seeing it as an American case of “Do as I say and not as I do.”
Guide on the side
(Photo: Anthony LoBaido)
Alex Gonzales was my guide during my most recent trip to Cuba. He is a kind and bright man, handsome with an average build and possessing a superb command of English. It was he who taught me so much about ordinary Cubans, their hopes, dreams and aspirations, which delicately fit together like a multidimensional jigsaw puzzle. Through Alex and many other Cubans, I was able to piece together the cognitive dissonance between how Americans and Cubans view one another. This was done through gathering intelligence and real facts on the ground in Cuba, and comparing those facts against what Americans believe to be true about the island nation. Added to that is the deconstruction of the many myths Cubans and Americans believe about each others’ peoples and nations.
I met Alex through Claudia, an attractive posada entrepreneur. She let me into her house and called no less than 15 different posadas trying to find a place for me to sleep – as her posada was full. She had a baby girl on her hip as she introduced me to her mother, who seemed to have an Internet database stored inside her head of various other posadas. Again, who lets a total stranger in their house, with a baby no less, to meet their grandmother, then makes 15 calls on their behalf for free?
“We are industrious … and because of the embargo, we need to recycle just about every item you can think of … like ‘Survivor’or ‘The Beach’ or ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ We are in a siege mentality, and have not grown soft … not our bodies nor our minds. All of the men and women have to serve in the military for two years and this is an important. It is a source of life-long friendships,” said Gonzales.
“Our operational capabilities are limited, but Cubans only need to defend an invasion of our island. Should Americans fear the Cuban military? It is not uncommon to see an Army colonel riding around on a bicycle. They don’t make much money. What is there to fear?”
Yet Raul Castro, who was the Cuban minister of defense (1959-2008), won’t let Cuba’s military forces go to pieces. Many key aides and ministers serving under Raul are ex-military officers whom he trusts and with whom he developed a relationship over the years.
Alex, a hard-working taxi driver and guide, explained how ordinary Cubans struggle to form a capitalist society in the face of their self-involved leaders. He detailed how Fidel Castro was more of a megalomaniac than Raul. Raul is less prone to calling meetings between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. and not as enchanted with the idea of seeing Cuba as a Shangri-La rather than as a troubled nation on poor economic footing.
Paying for the Cuban welfare state is no easy task. Massive hurricanes of biblical proportions and trouble on Wall Street and Fleet Street have hurt the tourism industry. The storms caused tremendous damage to housing infrastructure. Cuba is still tied into the global economy, no matter what anyone might say, do or think. In 2011, almost three million tourists came to Cuba on holiday. An 80-year-old man as we approach the middle of 2012, Raul is filled with notions of practicality. He cannot risk offending his brother, Fidel, but he must continue phasing out the cronies of the revolution. Raul understands that stripped of all the hype, deep down, Che is no different than Tony Soprano, and the blessed revolution cannot pay Cuba’s bills.
Speaking of the government, Gonzales said, “You will go to jail if you criticize the government in a radical way … Look at that man on the hunger strike, for example. And there are others. So whatever you say, you have to be careful.”
One can witness the disconnect here between the requirements of the U.S. for lifting the embargo and how Cubans feel about their own elites. There is fear and even loathing, but not hatred. There is thinly veiled contempt. In America, the politics are segregated into two rival camps who hate one another, and this hatred is filtered through comedy shows. In Cuba, the whole economy and the politics just skip right to the comedy show. Instead of a short, vulgar, Christ-hating man who smokes marijuana like Bill Maher orchestrating the dissent, in Cuba you get Alex Gonzales and his gentle smile and words.
Billboard for Radio Havana, the official, government-run broadcasting station. (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)
“As most people know, we have good schools and health care. People want those things. And it is safe to walk the streets of Havana, even at night. Of course, if you had a big camera and it was 3 a.m. … God forbid if you hurt a tourist. We have the death penalty, but the government must sign off on it. We could not go to a nice hotel while Fidel Castro was running the nation, but now we are able to go, legally speaking, but it is too expensive. The women, as you can see, are beautiful. We have good men … I try to be a good man. There are Christians in this nation – Catholics and evangelicals, and don’t underestimate their influence or ability to change this nation. I don’t mean just in a political sense, but in a way that transcends politics and culture. I mean living for God. I mean loving our enemies. I mean putting aside lust and pride. I mean establishing a society truly built upon the ideals of Jesus Christ, and the character of the saints in the Old Testament.”
Gonzales continued, “Still I must say that the elites take away everything in this nation. We can speak only according to expected social norms, more or less. Of course, many people have fled Cuba. If they go to Miami, I say, ‘Good for them.’ You never hear ordinary Cubans speak badly about them.”
It is not surprising that Gonzales veered again and again toward pelota, or baseball.
“We love baseball, and we are proud when our Cuban national team does well in the World Baseball Classic. You know about El Duque of the New York Yankees? [I assured him I did, indeed, know El Duque well.] We are proud of him. If your life depended on one game, wouldn’t you want him on the mound?”
Asked about Cubans’ national pride, my guide once again explained the sense of solidarity that makes Cuba so special: “Why are we Cubans so proud? In the EU people live for themselves, for their wallet or their cars. But we care for each other. You can pick up hitchhikers and give strangers a ride. There is no robbery or assault, even with eight million people.
“We have salsa, and we are welcoming to foreigners, who can learn much about our nation by coming here. Foreigners can teach here. On TV there is always baseball, Chinese programs, Russian shows, humorous shows … but in the future that will probably change. It is a strict society, and in the 1990s the government decided to eliminate 80 percent of the drugs in Havana. I have never been offered cocaine but marijuana, yes. If I had a DWI [Driving While Intoxicated] I would lose my license and lose my job.”
Echoing the aforementioned theme of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who promoted the idea of cultural power as being the most important type of power, Gonzales said, “When I was young, I saw movies from Russia and Poland, the East Bloc. But now the movies I see are mostly from the U.S. There is no way to fight the power of Hollywood and American culture.”
Concerning his job and what shaped his work ethic, he said, “I was taught by monks at school. And a part of them is inside of me. I know that to be a good father a man must have love and put others in front of yourself and have a strong will to fight for what you want. If I see my son’s picture in my taxi (under the sun visor), I will work another two or three hours. This taxi is owned by the government, so I must pay them 70 CUC per day.”
The Cuban convertible peso, or CUC, is directly linked to the U.S. dollar, is used for foreign tourism and trade and is worth about 74 percent more than the Cuban peso, which foreigners are not allowed to use. This frustrates investigative reporters and foreign economists as everything in Cuba, for Cubans, has a price listed in Cuban pesos.
For the most part, the Cuban peso, which was first pegged to the U.S. dollar in 1881, is shunned. Like Cambodia, Cuba might be better off just adopting the U.S. dollar as the unofficial official currency. Some items in stores can only be bought with CUCs and, thus, are out of range for ordinary Cubans unless they work in industries that bring them into contact with foreigners. Cubans who live and work abroad in the U.S. and mail money home to the island are an important part of the economy.
“I have a ‘Movemiento’ sheet on this clipboard in the taxi every day, ‘Control de movimiento de pasajes,’ and I must record where every single passenger goes,” explained Gonzales. “In total, I pay the government 3,000 CUC per month … maybe I can keep 200 to 250 per month. This is my life. I am in business for the government.”
The average Cuban makes about 500 Cuban pesos per month, which is about $20. Alex grosses 75,000 Cuban pesos. But as a kind, moral, nice-looking, clean-cut man with a wife and child, tourists are more likely to give him tips. CUCs are 25 times more valuable. So Alex makes about 14,000 Cuban pesos per month. But he keeps less than 10 percent of his gross earnings and, in effect, pays 90 percent taxes to the Cuban government. This is no different than the highest tax bracket in the United States during the 1950s. And this is no different than the racket the mafia was running in Cuba before Fidel came to power. If there is anger in Cuba, it’s about one’s sweat and ingenuity wasted by the elites.
The Castillo de la Real Fuerza (the Castle of the Royal Force) is one of the main attractions in old Havana. It was built in 1555 by Spanish authorities to defend Havana from invasion from pirates or a rival European power. (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)
Cuba has millionaires, and you can be sure they’re selling food in bulk, tapping into the island’s tourism industry or have government connections. Cubans have to save for their retirement because the average pension is $10 per month, and even that low amount will eat up about 10 percent of the Cuban gross national product between 2015 and 2020 – perhaps more. So many Cubans are leaving the island that the future economic imbalance of the nation might reach a crisis state. Demographics are causing Cuba to fall apart, just as demographics are hurting Japan and Russia. This is part of the reason why America does not view Japan, Russia or Cuba as a grave threat – their respective population problems.
Asked what is needed to change Cuban society, my guide added, “We need new ideas. In Cuban prison are the thinkers. But you know, I have never met anyone in prison. I have never had a problem in this country, and I am 35 years old. I am a Christian, and that is what matters. Not if I am a communist or a Marxist or a capitalist. Yes, I know about Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot. We cannot identify in any way with these murderers … Look at the famine [the Holdomor] in the Ukraine. There are many opinions in the newspapers, and you can criticize the government. In the newspapers there are journalists who offer suggestions and analysis about what needs to be fixed and how we can fix it. What I read in the newspaper – that is what I know. I am optimistic. Hope is the last thing people should lose.
“We have many races, and we all get along, grow up together, go to school together … the Russians helped with our schools. These days, we get help from China. But you know, China is very capitalistic – Vietnam as well.”
Concerning his feelings about Americans, he added, “It is one thing to talk about the United States government, another thing to talk about the people – like you, Anthony. There are no contrary feelings, and there is no reason to hate. But again, as many Cubans will tell you, we feel like there are those in America who demonize all Cubans, as if we are all Marxists and communists ready to launch nuclear weapons, or we wish to be in league with the Russians. You know the American mafia was here, and there was crime and drugs and prostitution. Bautista [the dictator before Fidel Castro] … he did many bad things.
“Between capitalism and socialism and communism, there are good and bad elements in all of them. But if you cannot stay in Cuba, then you must go to Miami. Go there if you need a new life. But don’t forget the old life – even if it was less than perfect. Getting a passport in Cuba is very complicated, and few travel overseas. But one day, if I could, I would like to visit Italy or France. Joan of Arc, the French Foreign Legion, the wine, the food … that I would like to experience. As for staying here, many say, ‘Why try when your efforts and abilities are taken by the government?’”
The UJC logo touts three things around which a young revolutionary’s life is expected to be centered: "estudio," "trabajo," "fusil," meaning "study," "work," "rifle." (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)
Final thoughts on leaving Cuba
Many Americans might ask, “Can and should I go to Cuba, and is this possible?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Journalists, religious missionaries and a few other categories are allowed to officially visit. You can fly from Miami or even via Cancun, Mexico. Usually Americans don’t get a stamp in their passport when entering or leaving Cuba, but this journalist asked for and received such a stamp from a Cuban woman reading a book by writer Josh McDowell. The woman asked me if I knew Josh McDowell. I affirmed this and recommended Dr. Charles Stanley and John MacArthur as well as Paul Washer. The woman was very agreeable and happy.
The airport in Havana is a place where you really come to understand that you are in a communist country with totalitarian aspects. The departure gates were totally closed off from the front part of the airport (the check-in area) through the enclosed security screening areas. Our party met with a few state functionaries who didn’t know what was going on with our flight, which was delayed by eight hours. We got to know Chris and Barbara, a nice-looking blonde couple from Austria, and talked about a pretty black prostitute who looked like Naomi Campbell and how the Russian men in the airport seemed so interested in her. I taught Chris how to say, “That’s how we roll,” and “Nom-sayin?” He was an eager student.
(One strange incident really bothered me. It was the way the prostitute resembling Naomi Campbell stared at me. It was as if she were trying to see into and through me, but she had been unable to do so. I thought of the novel, “The Stand,” where “The Antichrist” Randal Flag tried to see with this third traveling eye – Flag could turn into a Crow – and “see” his enemies. But there was one holy and anointed enemy, Tom Cullen, a big, strong blonde man who was retarded. Flag was unable to see the role Cullen would play in the demise of Flag and his post-apocalyptic kingdom. That’s the best way I can describe the way this woman looked at me. It was like voodoo meets the light, or the immovable object meeting the irresistible force.)
The security at the airport in Havana contained, unfortunately, various TSA elements in a Keystone Cops sort of way. The security personnel had “special training” and were fearful of real hijackings, one of which had actually happened some years before. They were stressed but professional, kind and happy to talk in Spanish about their lives and their views. I could not have been more impressed with their professionalism and genuine kindness and care for others.
The airport was filled with Russian and Ukrainian women who were angry and spoke poor Spanish. No one really respected the Cuban authorities after none of them wanted to take responsibility for our delays. Many travelers had babies and small children and didn’t even receive vouchers for food, or a way to exchange more money for CUCs. This was inexcusable and stained their honor. None of the airport officials sought to show initiative to fix our situation; rather, they performed as cogs in the state machine, seeing nothing and knowing even less. Other officials worked so hard to reschedule our flights, spoke perfect English and demonstrated amazing class and kindness. Passengers trapped in the airport formed a strange sort of bond that mirrored the multiculturalism of the Cuban people.
The José Martí Memorial is a memorial to José Martí, the national hero of Cuba, located on the northern side of the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. (Photo: Anthony C. LoBaido)
I was glad for our delay, as hard as it was to endure, because it brought out the best and the worst in both the Cuban officials and in the tourists. Prostitutes who were flying out of the country appeared in plain sight. Men who had come to Cuba particularly for the prostitutes were, of course, ogling them. The conversations we had with people from all over the world were intelligent, ranging from Angola to Guantanamo Bay and the need for an amendment to the Geneva Convention, currency exchange, Penelope Cruz, Russia, Wall Street, capitalists, American banks, the TSA, nuclear war, Myanmar, North Korea, Fidel Castro’s time as a left-handed baseball pitcher and the fact that peace in the Middle East or between the U.S. and Cuba should be negotiated by nurses, taxi drivers, garbage men and teachers.
Again and again, the same tome was uttered about American MTV culture and what it would eventually do to the youth of Cuba. There was mention of the “idiotic” “Good Morning America” TV show, with “retarded Americans” holding signs and jumping up and down while Justin Bieber grabbed his crotch during a singing rendition. There was talk of an Arctic gold rush for $200 trillion in oil and natural gas just waiting to be claimed – by Russia. There was mention that there are those in the West who envy the control Cuban and Beijing elites have over their own people. Finally, a handful of Russians spoke of the loss of 100 million from their population since World War II because (they claimed) of vodka and abortion.
When it comes to Cuba, one must seek to be understanding. Advancing without boundaries, Cuba watchers will then be able to pursue new realities without demonizing the enemy. Since the conscious mind is the gatekeeper of all things subconscious, Americans and Cubans who look at either nation with suspicion can move past a nomadic mythology that falsely erects walls and “keeps us safe” from what seems alien.
Cubans don’t want to be like Americans in so far as having ground water contaminated with pharmaceuticals, 30 million illegal aliens invading, 100 million people without jobs, 50 million people on food stamps and another 50 million who can’t read. They don’t want to be like the people holding signs and jumping up and down in the background during “Good Morning America.” They don’t want Bill Maher’s filthy talk, a “gay” Oreo cookie and commenting on Kirk Douglas’ 95-year-old sex organ on HBO. Cubans can see why they are demonized by the Yanks, but they also wonder what Monsanto is up to with its genetically modified foods in St. Louis, or the rape and murder inside the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or that infamous late-term abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan.
Cuban Christians understand that American evangelicals have become materialistic, seeking prosperity through money-minded preachers while at the same time waving the flag to kill people overseas while spreading depleted uranium. Just as Cubans understand that the spiritual and cultural changes needed in America will come from those disgruntled and embarrassed by the right-wing evangelical excesses in America, so too will change in Cuba from those who can see through the bankrupt ethos of the ruling Stalinist elite. Chaos, confusion, secular humanism, violence, escapism, idolatry, spiritual blindness, hardened hearts and loss of faith reign, while abortion turns into a weapon of mass destruction. When the world came the closest it ever has to a nuclear holocaust, Cuba was in the middle of it. This is reality and historical fact, not sensationalism in regard to some futuristic end-time prophecy.
Cubans remain confused about America and about themselves. They are confused by sanctions and an embargo against them (like apartheid South Africa) while America grants “most favored nation” status to communist China. They are called murderers, but they see 50 million abortions in America and their own abortion issue and ask what happened to “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, the average Cuban woman had five babies. Today, that number is less than one-and-a-half per woman. About 30,000 Cubans leave the island for good every year, heading for the U.S., Spain and Venezuela. More than a few of the doctors in almost 80 countries around the world never come back.
Cubans and Americans continue to look at one another with distrust, most likely because both countries engage in many of the same types of behaviors in both the macro and micro spheres. Americans have a technocratic computer system, the TSA as a possible emerging civilian force and the faux pas of Elian Gonzalez. Cubans have a policeman on every street corner and citizen informants. Americans have rule by experts, be it vaccines or a privately owned central bank and “global warming” mania (in the 1970s Americans were told a global ice age was upon them), while Cuba has ministers who control most aspects of society as anointed “experts.”
America exports MTV, Hollywood and Madison Avenue values all over the world at great moral peril to normal, decent people everywhere, especially the youth from Asia to Africa to Australia, while Cuba has served as a springboard to broadcast Marxist ideology in Central America, the Caribbean, South America and South Africa. As it is said, “We hate most in others what we hate in ourselves.” Accusations, not missiles, are the weapon of choice.
In the end, one is left wondering: What form of societal organization is truly the most enlightened – one that is purely capitalist, or one that is socialist or communist – or some other unknown system? Undoubtedly, the very best society would be the one that gives the most people the best chance to go to heaven. And although America at its founding was the closest the world has ever come, it has fallen very far in recent decades. And for Cuba, long past the glory days of its communist revolution, the debate over which system is best is not only still open, it hasn’t even begun.
Author signature and biography
Anthony C. LoBaido has published 339 articles from 46 nations around the world on WND. LoBaido received a full scholarship to Baylor University and also taught at Baylor while earning a master of international journalism. He has taught 42 university-level courses since 2006 in the fields of journalism, strategic communication, photojournalism, ESL, TEFL teacher-training, history of mass communication, advanced globalization studies and psychology of communication. Anthony worked as a radio reporter for e-FM in Seoul, South Korea, and was featured in a full-page article in the Korea Herald. He also appeared in a definitive South Korean documentary on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. Anthony worked as a language trainer with the South Korean armed forces, training its highest level officers, including only the third woman to be named a general in the history of Korea. He was recently offered the head English-language teaching position with the South Korean Armed Forces Nursing Corps.
LoBaido’s WND articles have been cited in scores of books on Amazon. He is also author of “The Kurds of Asia,” published by Times-Lerner Ltd. of Singapore. LoBaido’s favorite journalism stories include his work with CNN “Hero” Aki Ra of land mine fame in Cambodia, Time magazine’s “Hero of Asia” Lek Chailert and her elephant park in Thailand, the leper colony in Myanmar run by the Sisters of Charity, a troika of articles with Harry Wu – the world’s leading human-rights dissident, Little Angels of South Africa who care for throw-away HIV-positive babies in Cape Town, Karen Russell and the Miss World Pageant in Nigeria, the Rhodesian mercenaries and blood diamonds in Sierra Leone, as well as the British army’s jungle warfare training in Belize.
LoBaido’s adventures and articles overseas include tales of the Yeti in the Himalayas, the biblical Noah’s ark in Turkey, Petra in Jordan, Tikal in Guatemala and retracing Lawrence of Arabia’s World War I trek through the Middle East. Anthony is also a photographer and filmmaker and was hired to direct the major fundraising video for the George H.W. Presidential Library at Texas A&M, where Anthony received a fellowship to begin his Ph.D. work and where he also taught. That video was featured on CNN. Anthony has studied foreign languages such as Korean, Afrikaans, Spanish and Thai. His motto is simple: “Real journalists take real risks to cover real people and real stories in real places – they don’t hide behind a desk.” You can follow LoBaido’s blog at TheWallsofJericho.multiply.com.
(Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of Anthony LoBaido’s in-depth exploration of Cuba. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)