Letter from Los Angeles, February 14, 2003
walterlx at earthlink.net
Fri Feb 14 20:53:46 MST 2003
LETTER FROM LOS ANGELES
by Walter Lippmann, February 14, 2003
Dear Friends -
This is to let you know that I'm now back in Los Angeles
after another three months in Cuba. I'm both glad to be
back here, in the familiar surroundings of my own home,
and sad to be back here as well. Familiar sounds, friends
and surroundings to which I'd got accustomed are gone,
now replaced with others, very different in many ways.
The threat of a sharply escalated war against Iraq now
overshadows everything else on earth.
The flight in was long but uneventful. This was my fifth
visit to Cuba since retiring from Child Protective Services
in 1999. When returning from an international trip, you
complete a form on which countries you've visited and
of course I've always listed Cuba, as required. On past
occasions I was asked if I'd brought tobacco or alcohol,
and after explaining I didn't, US Customs waved me on
through. This time things were very different.
US Customs, in the form of a uniformed agent wearing
rubber gloves, inspected my suitcase and briefcase in a
way which I found very frightening and intimidating.
My travel to Cuba certainly falls under the category of
a General License for journalistic work as my numerous
writings, posted photographs and so on, demonstrate.
The agent's demeanor was ominous and threatening,
as she said to me, "You knew it was illegal to travel to
Cuba, yet you went anyway? Don't you know you can
be fined $7500 for this". Worse still, she copied of some
of my work, including lists of names, addresses and
phone numbers of people I'd contacted in my work.
She also copied a petition I'd been circulating to the INS
protesting the threatened deportation of Roger Calero,
an editor of Perspectiva Mundial, the Spanish-language
companion publication to The Militant. Is there something
suspicious about a petition to redress a grievance?
It is of course NOT illegal to travel to Cuba, as we know
from the case of William Worthy, the though there
are certain restrictions on such travel. (These are highly
unconstitutional, in my opinion.) And if you aren't familiar
with Worthy's experience, take a look at him and it here:
During my professional career in children's services my
experiences with law enforcement personnel was generally
positive and helpful. Because of their assistance, children
were taken out of some potentially dangerous situations
with a minimum of difficulty. I was grateful for their help
and was not afraid to say so openly at the time. But this
was a completely different kind of experience, one which
I hope you will NEVER have yourself.
This kind of thing is yet another reason why we all need
to do what we can to bring about normalized relations
between our two countries. There's no good reason why
anyone should be subjected to such grilling and such
intimidation by the US government.
During the last couple of weeks of my time on the island
some medical problems caused me to reduce my flow of
work. I also took some time to read informative new
books about Cuba and its foreign policy, which I'll be
telling you about separately. Now I'm planning to resume
a more normal flow of work to bring you news and analysis
about Cuba and issues and struggles related to Cuba.
Most of you realize it's a tremendous amount of work to
read and review the volume of material available about
Cuba, and to try to make some informative comments
as appropriate. With the experience of having spent
three months on the island, looking around, meeting
and talking with people, reading and viewing the media
and talk on the street, I'm struck by just how remote is
the Cuba that I knew and saw from what's reported in
the mainstream corporate-controlled media.
It's not so much that what they do is lie and falsify what
is happening on the island. (There's plenty of that, of
course). Rather, they simply don't really report what
is going on at all. The rhythms, the feel, the smell and
sounds of life on the island are basically not told.
On returning to the US I have taken some additional
time to both absorb and reflect on the big differences
between life as I've seen and experienced it in the two
countries. It has been an incredible shock to be back,
let me tell you...
Though it's rather unfair to compare or contrast the life
in Cuba with that in the United States, some of this is
impossible to avoid, so bear with a few moments...
Being back in my own home, my own space is something
I'm deeply grateful for. The conveniences of having both
hot water at the tap and the ability to sit in the tub and
soak in the heat are among the genuinely special things
I've never been able to experience on the island outside
of hotels, where I rarely stay. Having high-speed internet
access here also makes my work and internet experience
radically different here than on the island. From a
technical standpoint, it's far easier here
Being the homebody I am, I actually didn't get out of the
city of Havana this time. I regret that, and in the future
I'll try to get out and see more of the rest of the island.
For three months in Cuba I never put my hands behind
the wheel of an automobile. To go to the local market for
fresh produce, I had to walk a few blocks as virtually all
other people there do. Indeed, I walked everywhere but
the longest distances, and didn't miss having a car at all.
Back here in Los Angeles it's simply impractical to try to
do the simplest things without using an automobile. I'm
glad to have a nice car which is comfortable and works
well. I bought it when I was still working and, at the rate
I use it expect to keep it for another ten or twenty years.
(It's a 1998 Honda Accord with 41,000 miles on it.)
How easily we forget: city traffic in Los Angeles is so
terrible, and the lack of public rapid transit so stark that
I'd really forgotten just how much time I spend (that is,
waste), in bumper-to-bumper traffic to go to the shortest
distances. Now I really know and dread the traffic here.
Public transportation is one of the biggest problem areas
in Cuba, and everyone complains about the bus service.
Cubans can often bee found in long lines to get on the
big and often sardine-packed buses, but they seem to
work and get people where they are going, though very,
very slowly. Foreigners with dollars, such as myself,
can always find ways to use the Cuban ten-peso taxi
cab system, or the various other ways Cubans use to
get around. As my friend Mike Fuller says (he's lived
in Cuba for eight years and is married and has a son)
any car in Cuba is a taxi, and so those who can afford
to, don't seem to have difficulty getting around.
Every time I've been on the island I've noticed, with
amazement, all the women out on public streets who
are hitchhiking in evidently complete safety. Women
of all ages do this. I don't see many men hitchhiking,
though one sees a few doing it. I gather that women
are usually picked up by men and there's a bit of
friendly flirting which takes place, but not much else.
Cuba's a country where people talk about the way
life is, its troubles and problems, all the time. Some
days I think that complaining is the national religion
in Cuba, as there's so much of it. Thus "No es facil"
(It's not easy) is one of the most frequently heard
expressions, as is "acustombrado" (I'm used to it.)
in the Cuban lexicon. If there were real problems of
sexual harassment in hitchhiking, I'm sure we'd have
heard about it, if only on the ubiquitous Radio Bemba
as the Cuban grapevine is often called.
Cuban news media, being public entities, have either
little or no advertising. Here in the US I rarely watch
television, and mostly listen to the radio in my car,
because it's all dominated by commercial advertising
in one way or another. Even supposedly alternative
sources, like NPR (sometimes cynically referred to
as "Nearly Private Radio") have lots of ads now.
Cuban newspapers are small tabloids, which run from
eight to sixteen pages each. They have no advertising
at all and are incredibly cheap: 20 centavos a copy,
which is the equivalent of less than one US penny.
(In Mexico City, on the way back, I picked up a copy
of the Sunday New York Times, which cost an amazing
$10.50 USD. It's filled with advertising, but also includes
the beautifully slick magazine section. Some of what's in
it is worth reading, especially the cultural coverage.)
On the news in Cuba, reporting on the Middle East
invariably had a pro-Palestinian perspective. News
on the Iraq situation is analysis of the causes and
consequences of Washington's plans to escalate
the war and invade and occupy Iraq.
Cuba has every reason to be concerned about the
escalating US war against Iraq because the island
understands and functions on the traditional idea
of solidarity: an injury to one is an injury to all, so
if Washington succeeds in replacing the Iraqi
government with one acceptable to the US and its
oil companies, the independence of all other states,
including Cuba, will be at greater risk.
The Bush administration is doing everything it can
to convince the people of the United States that
anti-war demonstrations don't stop wars and that
their determination to invade and occupy Iraq is
an unstoppable juggernaut. It certainly gives that
impression, but it's imperative to try to mobilize as
much public opposition to it as possible. Thus, the
Cuban media gives extensive coverage to and
support for the anti-war struggle in the US and
beyond that internationally. CubaNews list tries to
share as much of this with its readers as it can.
In Cuba there's one point of view on the media, the
viewpoint of the Cuban Revolution. It's rare to see
any other point of view presented. Since most of the
analysis and information given refers to things that
I'm interested in, and the analysis coincides with the
way I look at the news, it's not bothersome to me.
I never saw any discussion or debate in the Cuban
media, not even a letters to the editor column.
News of the major political news on the island, and
its relations with the outside world, are at the center
of coverage in the print and electronic media. The
World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was
attended by 100,000 people.
The Cubans sent a massive delegation to the WSF
which was covered every day during the week-long
gathering. Among the members of the Cuban team
were Culture Minister Abel Prieto, Aleida March,
daughter of Ernesto Che Guevara, Pedro Ross, the
head of the Cuban Trade Union Central, Hasan Perez,
President of the University Students Federation
(FEU), Juan Miguel Gonzalez (Elian's father, newly
elected to the Cuban National Assembly) and many
others. Granma's website linked to the WSF site and
Cuban TV also provided full presentations of talks by
newly-elected Brazilian President Ignacio Lula Da Silva
and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Using feeds
from Venezuelan TV, Cuban TV news presented the
full talk given by Lula at the WSF, with Cuban trade
union leader Pedro Ross standing right behind Lula.
The WSF is at the center of the anti-globalization
movement and Cuba is the only country on the planet
whose government explicitly supports this struggle.
I used to have the impression that the Cuban media
never presented any analysis of social problems on
the island, but if that was true in the past, it's certainly
not true now. Serious social problems are now being
taken up and discussed in the media.
Yes, most of the news presents the positive side of
the revolution and the island's accomplishments, and
these are fully justified. A careful look at the Cuban
media now, particularly the daily print media shows
in the last couple of years more and more analysis
of some of the social problems which clearly exist.
During the time I was in Cuba, an entirely revised and
updated traffic code was implemented, and those who
drive automobiles found lots of cops out on the street
giving out tickets for various infractions. Cynics say
such changes are always heralded by an early period
of strict enforcement and then things quiet down and
become more relaxed. These are matters affecting the
daily lives of many people, but which one nearly never
sees reported in the international media.
Long, detailed articles on driving problems appeared in
the newspapers on the island. The entire new traffic
code was distributed to everyone via inserts in the
newspapers. I don't recall the various penalties, but
I heard a lot of complaining from drivers who were
getting tickets for offenses they'd never got before.
They particularly complained about the fact that the
conditions of many of the streets are terrible and
there's no compensation for damage to the cars by
the pot-holed streets of the nation's capital.
Even more striking, was the announcement by the
Cuban government that it now acknowledges what
it refers to as an incipient market for the sale and
consumption of illegal drugs on the island. This was
completely new for Cuba since the Revolution. The
international media ran a few articles about it when
the issue first came up, but hasn't said anything on
it since that time.
In January the Cuban daily newspaper GRANMA
presented a major editorial on this subject, which was
also reprinted in another paper, Juventud Rebelde, on
the same day, and in the weekly Trabajadores (Workers,
the organ of the Cuban trade unions) as well the next
week. In order that no one miss the point, I happened to
watch the morning news that day, and saw the entire text
of that editorial being read out, word for word, by the TV
anchor, not once but twice. The main evening newscast
(emision estelar) again presented the same editorial
being read, word for word, by Rafael Serrano, the main
anchor for the show. There was no way that anyone who
paid any attention to the news that day could possibly
miss the fact that this was heralding a major campaign
by the Cuban government.
In the days which followed, Cuban mass organizations
all stepped up to the plate and issued statements on
the drug issue. Cuba's leadership is deeply concerned
to prevent the spread of a drug culture on the island.
In addition to the news coverage and statements by
mass organizations, the media also began to present
discussions on drugs and other addictions. After my
years of seeing the frightening impact of a culture of
drug abuse in the United States during my days as a
child protective services social worker, I can see how
the Cubans don't want anything like this to happen in
There's very little evidence of a drug culture in Cuba as
we know it in the United States. I've never seen anyone
smoking marijuana in Cuba. Indeed, while I've heard one
or two people speak about it, in ten months on the island
over the past three years, the most I've seen has been a
kid or two with a hat or shirt bearing the familiar image of
a marijuana plant. Whatever drug culture there is must
be extremely discrete from what I have seen and heard.
There's a certain recognition that addictions in a broader
way are significant social problems there. Alcoholism is
certainly one of these and is said to be one of the reasons
why a new traffic code and new enforcement activities
were being implemented.
Remarkably, smoking is also viewed as a problem of
some significance, and the term "tobaccoism" has
been used in tandem with "alcoholism" to discuss
such issues. I wish it were possible to present some
of this written material in English, because I saw many
articles on this in the Cuban media, but virtually none
was translated into English beyond the most important.
Given the role of sugar, rum and tobacco in the island's
historic life and culture, taking on such problems has to
be a daunting task. Like the need for Cubans to adopt
a healthier diet and lifestyle, with more fruits, vegetables
and less fats, etc., these are being dealt with through
education and consciousness-raising.
A chain of vegetarian restaurants has opened in the
past year as well. While expensive by Cuban standards,
they are priced in pesos and seem aimed mostly at the
Illegal drugs, on the other hand, and here I'm referring
to both marijuana and other, harder drugs, are being
dealt with in a very sharply "law and order" manner by
the Cuban authorities. I think it may be useful to read
that Granma editorial again since it's become a major
theme of life on the island right now. This anti-drug
campaign is being coupled with stepped-up activity
against many other kinds of illegal activity, including
unlicensed room rentals, video banks, sales and etc.
It wouldn't surprise me if there isn't some kind of flap
developed around this by libertarian types, but so far
it hasn't happened. Since the initial round of articles
when the anti-drug campaign was first inaugurated,
there's been nothing else on it in the US media.
(Since returning to the US I've not of course been
able to read the Cuban newspapers in print, and
have simply not looked at their websites which are
of course available.)
THE CASE OF THE CUBAN FIVE
One of the biggest areas on which the Cuban media
pays attention are developments in the case of the
five Cubans who were convicted on charges of
conspiracy to commit espionage (no actual acts of
espionage were alleged or charged against the men)
and who are now incarcerated for immense terms.
Outside of the Miami area, the case has received
virtually no publicity, so the Cuban media and the
government officials on the island are doing everything
they can to generate some attention to the case and
the harsh prison terms meted out to the men.
These five men had, in fact, infiltrated ultra-rightist
Cuban exile terrorist organizations and were actively
working to obtain information on terrorist activities
which these groups have been carrying out against
their homeland for over forty years. These groups
can publicly boast of the violent acts they have been
committing within Cuban territory as recently as just
LAST MONTH, and no law enforcement attention is
focused on them. When some Cuban hijack planes
and bring them to the United States, they are given
the red carpet treatment as heroes. All of this goes
on at a time when Washington tells us it is waging
a war against terrorism in the Middle East.
Earlier this week I attended an excellent meeting at
which important steps were taken to bring this case
to broader public attention. Attorney Bill Paparian,
former mayor of Pasadena, California, and a long-
time friend of Cuba, pulled together an impressive
gathering at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum and
Betty Warner in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles.
The gathering was aimed at winning broader public
understanding of the case of the Cuban Five and
their efforts to secure a new trial in a jurisdiction
outside of Miami, Florida where it was impossible
for the men to have any kind of fair trial.
Among those attending were Ramona Ripston,
Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties
Union of Southern California and Mark Rosenbaum,
legal director of the SC-ACLU, and California State
Senator Kevin Murray (my State Senator!) who
authored the recent California State Senate resolution
to end the blockade of Cuba. Murray, who had also
attended the National Summit on Cuba in September
and who has traveled to the island several times,
is that rare public official who speaks out against the
blockade and does NOT attack the Cuban Revolution.
Indeed, he states openly that the black population of
Cuba is better off today than it was before the Cuban
Revolution, and that the Miami Cuban exiles are the
very people who had orchestrated the island's prior
historic policies of racial discrimination.
Also in attendance were United Farm Workers Union
Vice President Dolores Huerta, National Lawyers
Guild local executive director Jim Lafferty, Office of
the America's director Blase Bonpane, actors David
Clennon and Mike Farrell, and Academy Award-
winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler who filed
Film-maker Saul Landau presented an interview he
had made on video with Cuban National Assembly
President Ricardo Alarcon two weeks earlier in which
he thanked those in attendance for coming out and
supporting this case.
Gloria LaRiva, who heads up the National Committee
to Free the Cuban Five www.freethefive.org read a
personal letter from prisoner Gerardo Hernandez to
this meeting thanking those in attendance for their
efforts, on behalf of all five of the Cuban men. She
announced an effort to gather funds to place a full-
page ad in the New York Times, the newspaper of
record for the United States. This would be a very
costly proposition, but would enable the issue to be
brought to a larger public than has been the case to
Attorney Leonard Weinglass, now representing
Antonio Guerrero on the appeals presented many
key aspects of the case, riddled as it is by procedural
irregularities and prejudice against the defendants,
and took questions from those attending.
Weinglass also spoke on local radio stations and to
a public event at Loyola Law School later in the week,
as well as appearing on Pacifica Radio affiliate KPFK
The weekend's international anti-war protests are a
prime area where people in solidarity with Cuba can
work to get out some of the facts about these five
Cuban men, imprisoned for their ANTI-terrorist acts.
Banners, literature and other activities to help bring
the news about this case to the attention of protesters
will be part of the protests widely, and their case will
also be addressed from the speakers platform.
The Bush administration wants us all to believe that
nothing can be done to stop their march toward an
escalation of the war leading to an invasion and an
occupation of oil-rich Iraq. Back during the Vietnam
war period, we were similarly told that the Nixon
administration paid no attention to the protests.
We later learned that they paid very close attention.
The same situation applies today, which is why we
all need to get out and join the protests this weekend.
Walter Lippmann, Moderator, CubaNews
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