David McReynolds on the treatment of gays in Cuba

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 18 18:10:26 MST 2002

(David McReynolds is a veteran socialist and peace activist in the USA.
Neither he nor his party, the SP, are considered friendly to Castro. The
Leslie Cagan mentioned below is the chair of the liberated Pacifica
network, a long-time Cuba solidarity activist and a lesbian.)

Havana on My Mind

by David McReynolds

When I thought of Havana I thought of Cigars, Revolution, Fidel,  Bay of
Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis. What I didn't think of was a tropical island,
huge trees with showers of roots hanging down to touch the sidewalk. I
hadn't even thought much of ancient cars and collapsing colonial houses.
Those were, in April of this year, only black-and-white photos in my mind.
(Even the music of Cuba was new to me -- it was only a couple of years ago
that I got interested after hearing my friend Bill Koehnlein's CD of the
Trio Matamoros -- recorded as far back as the late 1920s.  Unique, more akin
to New Orleans jazz than I would have imagined -- but why not? Black slaves
and Spanish conquerors).

Cuba. The Revolution just 90 miles from our shores. My life has taken me to
Vietnam, East Berlin in the old days, Iraq, Libya, to the old Soviet Union,
but not to Cuba. What about this "already existing socialism" so close to
us? In retirement, I thought to make up for lost time. I got an announcement
from the Committees of Correspondence for Socialism and Democracy (of which
I'm a nominal member -- my main allegiance in politics is to the Socialist
Party). It said "Celebrate May Day in Havana." I thought, "what the hell,
join the delegation and go now, before either Fidel dies or I do."

On April 27th I took off with Leslie Cagan, her mother, and several other
members of the CCSD from JFK on TACA Airlines. (If you are with a nominal
study group -- and in our case we were traveling as members of a group which
had academic credentials -- you can fly direct from JFK to Havana).

My only trip to the Caribbean was a few years ago, at the invitation of an
old friend, Bill White, to visit him in Costa Rica. A marvelous trip -- but
a sense of a high crime rate with lots of guns. My experiences with "already
existing socialism" had ranged from drab Moscow, to the chilling experience
of East Berlin at the height of the Cold War (a grey city, the flowers that
bloomed even in the poor sections of West Berlin appeared nowhere at all in
the East; soldiers in dull green uniforms walked in pairs, guns at the
ready), to Hanoi, which, because it was in the midst of a war -- that had
gone on for a generation -- had no time for painting the old colonial
buildings, and of course to Prague, (one of the most beautiful cities in the
world) and the dubious joys of watching Soviet tanks roll by my hotel that
August in 1968 as Czechoslovakia was saved from the dangers of "socialism
with a human face."

I do not mean to be overly critical of the Soviet Bloc. These countries had
medical care, education, food, housing. It is only now, after the "glories
of free enterprise" have devastated Eastern Europe and Russia that their
citizens look back and often long for what they have lost. I didn't know
what Cuban Communism would look like but unlike most tourists, I brought
with me lots of ideological baggage. I was determined to try to look with
open eyes, listen with open ears, and see what my impressions were in a
single short week. Anyone who thinks they can tell you what Cuba is like
after spending seven days there, most of it in Havana, should be dismissed.I
don't know what Cuba is like. These are only notes on a week, and
reflections on revolution.

First, I urge folks to travel to Cuba and see for themselves. Send an email
to Common Ground, the travel agency which took care of the trip
<commonground at mediaone.net> or write: Common Ground, 55 Norfolk St.,
Cambridge, Ma. 02139, Cambridge, Mass. 02139.

For a political background, if you have a computer, download two articles on
Cuba, one by an American Trotskyist who is Cuban and lives in the United
States, the other by a British socialist. They are differing views, and
good. Go to:

The whole world seems to be going to Cuba.  Tens of thousands of Americans
visit each year. You may have to fly to Canada or Mexico to get a direct
flight.  If you are going, as we were, with a group that has a State Dept.
certificate, you can fly direct from JFK. We landed at a dismal little
airport, very much "already existing socialism." I found out the next day
that Havana has a large modern airport, but TACA airlines didn't have
permission to land there -- so much for the dangers of first impressions!

We were met by our tour guide, and taken directly to our hotel, The
Presidente, close to the Malecon, the great sea wall that runs along one
side of Havana. It was a little unnerving to be in a Communist country and
find a staff all in proper hotel uniform. Sure, there were a few problems
with the hotel -- my toilet wouldn't flush at one point, and when I sent my
shirt to the laundry I got two shirts back instead of one. But I'd happily
stay there again. There was a little bar in the lobby where you could get
espresso. We had a fabulous breakfast, cafeteria style, with an unlimited
choice of sausages, bread, butter, fresh fruit, juice, coffee, potatoes, or,
if we wanted, a ham and cheese omelet cooked to order -- in addition to all
the rest, not instead of it.

Lunch and dinner we had on our own, though the outdoor bar at the hotel
served good and reasonable fried chicken. We could go to restaurants -- one
in Old Havana had a fine meal for $20, with live Cuban music. One could also
visit the "paladars" (family owned and family run restaurants) -- these can
vary in quality. One was excellent, another seemed to serve everything on
the menu as if it were a stew. Duck stew. Beef stew. Vegetable stew. And
rather bad stew at that.

Impressions? After the Soviet Union, where, even as late as 1987, tourists
could not count on buying a new toothbrush if they lost the one they came
with, could not be sure hotel rooms would have toilet paper, or bath tubs
have plugs, it was a surprise to find an abundance of these things, at
reasonable rates, if you had dollars. The stores were filled with CD's,
clothes, film.

Safety. I walked around during the day, and at night, carrying my faithful
camera. I felt safe, even though I got lost. I'm told by a friend who was
there a few months earlier that crime is a problem. But to compare my week
in Havana with my week in Costa Rica where -- to pluck one image from others
that were similar -- my friend had to visit the optometrist, and I went with
him. The office was protected by a steel fence. As we entered the office, in
addition to the receptionist, there was an armed guard. For an optometrist?
Cuba felt a lot safer.

Beggars? Yes, there were a few, not as many as in Manhattan. Lots of folks
eager to sell us black market cigars.

Medical care? I didn't need any, but one of our party was taken ill and was
immediately taken care of by a doctor and nurse who got to her hotel room,
for a minimal fee. We visited a medical clinic in the country and were
impressed. Medical care in Cuba is considered very good. (The rate of death
in childbirth is, if my information is right, not only the lowest in Central
and Latin America, but lower than in our country).

Housing? There is a housing shortage so that the old stock of housing, which
had been allowed to run down, is now being rehabilitated. Havana had been
ignored after the revolution, in order to get electricity and other basics
out to the provinces. But now, with tourism a major source of income, the
housing stock is being upgraded, and new housing being built. The images of
Havana as an "elegant slum" no longer fit..

Cars? Roads? Folks make fun of the cars in Havana. Yes, there are some
seriously elderly cars. Some almost as old as me. And they still run.
Probably with epoxy and masking tape. The Cubans have small factories which
make needed parts to keep them running.  There are funny little taxis which
look like bright yellow bugs. For the "masses" there are huge lumbering
buses which pack in a lot of people. Some new cars are coming into Cuba -- I
saw several. The roads were good. We didn't travel all over the island --
just a one night excursion to see one of the towns in the country side. But
our tour bus never broke down, the roads never turned into rocks. For that
matter, the power never failed. (And yes, the hotel was air conditioned).

Homosexual life. As a homosexual, let me not dodge this. I am told there are
gay bars in Havana. I didn't ask to go -- at 71, bars are not that exciting,
no matter where they are. (Doubly so for alcoholics who no longer drink!)
Yes, a young teen age boy tried to pick me up. At least I think he did --
his English was not working, and my Spanish is very poor. I assume there is
prostitution.  You can't sell tourists on the idea that Havana has a hot
night life and lots of beautiful women (and men) without seeing a revival of
the sex trade. But are homosexuals repressed? I don't think so. I was
visiting one evening with a gay man who works with the government who asked
if I had seen "Gay Cuba." I hadn't, he had a copy and put it in his VCR. It
was a good video -- it documented the genuine repression which had existed
not so long ago, and then the sharp change in government policy.

May I suggest renting the video "Strawberry and Chocolate," about a gay
Cuban artist who falls in love with a square young Cuban Communist? The film
was widely shown in Cuba (including, I'm told, to the Party's Central
Committee). It was more sympathetic to the gay artist -- who eventually
leaves Cuba because his art is not well received -- than to the young
Communist militant. The film will give you a very good idea of what Havana
looks like.

AIDS concentration camps? When AIDS first hit, the Cuban government put all
those who with AIDS into hospitals. Two things should be understood. First,
Cuba had little medicine, and it had no answer to the AIDS crisis. The only
way it could think of stopping the spread of AIDS was to quarantine the
victims. (This policy has been, I'm told, sharply modified, with most
patients being permitted home visits and with some returning to their
neighborhoods.) Second, until well into the last century US policy toward
those with tuberculosis was to do exactly the same thing -- quarantine them.
Beware of Yankee self-righteousness.

Before going on to the political questions, I return to my statement -- go
see for yourself. The ritzy hotels (which ours wasn't) can compete with any
in the world. Go -- with your own list of questions. (One good hard question
to ask is why Cuba still has capital punishment! Bad enough we have it, but
for a Communist state to have it is intolerable).

The hard questions. "Money" and "After Fidel." Cuba today operates on a dual
dollar and peso economy. You can buy anything, go anywhere, with dollars.
American credit cards not accepted -- you need to take in all the money you
will need. We bought our rum, our CD's, our souvenirs, our meals with
dollars. We took taxis with dollars.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there were extremely hard times in
Cuba. One friend, guiding me through the streets of Old Havana, noted the
pigeons and said, "Ah, I see the pigeons are coming back -- during the
'special period' they were being eaten." The "special period' was the time
when Soviet aid had ended and there were severe shortages of everything,
including food and medicine.

To deal with this, the Cuban Communist Party has chosen a policy of
encouraging tourism. If the Soviet Bloc was known, for most of its life, as
"the area behind the Iron Curtain," there is no curtain obscuring Cuba. The
only "iron curtain" is the idiotic (and harmful) sanctions and travel
restrictions imposed by the US government, and ignored by all the world and
a great many Americans. (You can buy a can of Coke for a dollar -- imported
from Mexico).

But the tourist trade has meant a dual economy. Times are still hard for
Cubans. Many work two jobs to survive (sound a little like America?). If you
are paid in pesos, there is much you can't afford. If you can get dollars --
either from relatives in Miami, or from work in the tourist economy -- then
you can buy pretty much whatever a tourist can buy. It is inevitable that,
while taxi drivers are supposed to report their tips, not all their tips
will be reported. It is inevitable that young men and women will enter the
sex trade for dollars. A government doctor in the provinces is paid a barely
living wage -- if that. But those who have access to dollars can make it.
(One tour guide admitted that he sent his daughters to the Catholic Church
for breakfast, saying they could eat better there than at home).

The big question is what will happen in this odd dual economy, where if you
have access to dollars you are rich, and if you don't you are economically
marginal? What kind of socialism is this?

"After Fidel." Fidel looked fine on May Day, as he strode to the outdoor
podium, with minimal visible security, and made a brief, effective speech.
But Fidel is old. I saw him on television (the hotels get several western
stations, including CNN and, of course, Cuban programs) -- he looked healthy
but genuinely elderly. Someone I talked with said, "I worry that he has
begun to ramble when he talks." Recently, in response to a fainting spell,
he indicated that he had chosen his not-much-younger brother, Raul, to
succeed him. That decision should not be Fidel's -- it belongs at least to
the Communist Party, and more properly to the Cuban people. And of course,
the Communist Party, tropical as it may be, does still have a monopoly on
power. There are other voices in Cuba and they are not easily heard. They
have no press. They have no legal organization. The Communist Party is like
the 900-pound gorilla in your living room -- even if it doesn't actually
repress you, you can't quite ignore it.

Time and space force this to a close. Western observers of Cuba impose their
own values on the reality. Revolutions, all of them, must come to an end.
Despite Trotsky's talk of permanent revolution, people get tired of the
chaos. Will the legacy of Fidel be, as I hope, a Cuba that will retain many
of its good qualities and find its long-term survival based more on Cuban
nationalism (Jose Marti is visible everywhere -- while there are almost no
posters or photos of Fidel in public) than Marxism/Leninism? One can
certainly hope it will continue to march toward a socialism in which the
workers have a more direct voice in their place of work, where there is
respect for political pluralism, where the press comes alive. But Fidel is
the great political "fact" of Cuba, and anyone forty-one years old or
younger has never lived under another leader. Cuba must eventually find an
identity beyond that of Fidel, if the best of what Fidel fought for is to
have meaning.

As for me,  I'd love to go to Havana again and see all the things I missed,
ask all the questions I should have. Perhaps in January or February... I'm
brushing up on my Spanish.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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