CubaNews notes from Havana, May 26, 2003

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Wed May 28 08:23:57 MDT 2003

CubaNews notes from Havana, May 26, 2003
by Walter Lippmann

Last night Cuban television, all three channels, broadcast
live, the speech given by the island's Commander-in-Chief,
Fidel Castro, to a crowd of five thousand gathered in the
plaza outside the Law School at the University of Buenos
Aires last night. The crowd was so much bigger than
originally anticipated, that it had to be moved outside to
accommodate the gigantic and VERY enthusiastic multitudes.

More on this later...
[This completely normal delay by organizers not used to
speeches by the Cuban leader caused a "reporter" of the
Knight-Ridder chain which publishes something called the
"Miami Herald" to prematurely brag to ITS readers:


I read this important announcement while taking a peek
at my e-mail right watching Fidel's live speech here on
Cuban television from the live feed on Argentine TV.

In 1948, when the capitalist media in the US was universally
campaigning for New York's Republican Governor in the
presidential race, Harry Truman, the Democrat who was in
fact elected, proudly held up the Chicago Tribune's DEWEY
DEFEATS TRUMAN edition in one of US politics' more
memorable moments.]

It was raining cats and dogs here in the Cuban capital
Monday. As someone who comes to Cuba from Los Angeles,
where it seems to never rain, this level of precipitation is
but incomprehensible.

How can people who must come and go to work on days like
this actually do so? Of course people here have umbrellas
and raincoats. No one seems to wear rubber boots, though my
neighbor Sandra Gonzalez says she recalls them from her
childhood. (She was born well before the Revolution.)

In recent days I've spent a good deal of time out and about
with friends and neighbors, away from the computer and
meeting and seeing new people, places and things. The big
political news at this moment revolve around the big
diplomatic visit of Fidel and a leading Cuban delegation at
the change of occupants in the Argentine presidency.

I've also got a good deal to report about things I've seen
and learned outside the strictly political sphere. This will
be a bit longer than usual and I hope you'll find it all as
fascinating as I did.

There is one big news story here in the Cuban media: the
visit of the island's Commander-in-Chief to Buenos Aires,
Argentina. He's participating in the installation to the
presidency of Nestor Kirchner, taking office from the
outgoing chief executive, Eduardo Duahalde, along with
several other heads of state from Latin America.

Kirchner was unanimously elected when the only other
candidate, Menem, withdrew in the face of polls telling him
he wouldn't lose, but he'd be vanquished.

The most prominent of the visitors, after Cuba's leader were
neighboring Brazil's Ignacio Lula Da Silva and Venezuela's
Hugo Chavez Frias. Many others came as well, including
Colombia's Alvaro Uribe, Ecuador's Lucio Gutierrez,
Bolivia's Gonzalo Sanchez,  Uruguay's Jorge Battle, Chile's
Ricardo Lagos, Panama's Meireya Moscoso and El Salvador's
Francisco Flores.

The United States sent an insignificant flunky to attend,
Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, a counterrevolutionary Cuban
exile. Perhaps Martinez' qualifications for such a junket
were that he could probably speak Spanish and that he would
certainly NOT shake hands with the leader of the Cuban
Revolution. He'd have been one of a tiny handful of such
rude individuals in any event.

(You'll recall gasps of horror awhile back when then US
president Clinton shook Fidel's hand and the US media wrote
shocked commentaries about the few seconds of common
courtesy which were exchanged at the time.)

It seemed this most remarkable occurrence for Cuba's
revolutionary leader to receive an ecstatic standing ovation
from all the members of the Argentine national legislature.
Here is a man utterly reviled in the media of the most
powerful nation on the planet who now is greeted with
unbridled enthusiasm in Latin America's second largest
state. Of course, Argentine politicians of whatever stripe
look modest in comparison to the leader of the Cuban
Revolution, but perhaps that is why they all leaped up to
applaud when he appeared before the cameras of the nation
and the continent.

The Governor of Buenos Aires province, introducing Fidel at
a big function described him as "the most respected man in
the world," before giving him an award. (It wasn't the keys
to the city, but a medal of some sort analagous to that.)

Groups in solidarity with Cuba mobilized to cheer and chant
their support for the Cuban and Venezuelan Revolutions. It
was indeed an inspiring spectacle and was shown several
times over the last two days on Cuban television and in the
print media here.

Their chant, "Cuba, Cuba, Cuba, el pueblo te saluda" (Cuba,
Cuba, Cuba, the people salute you) could be heard over and
over in the crowds both at the rally and elsewhere in the
city during the visit.

The Cuban approach toward Argentina is a hopeful one.
It reported Kirchner's promises for social and economic
progress in his country in hopeful and in positive terms.
Why not? Cuba both solidarizes with Kirchner, who needs all
the help he can get, and wishes him well. Indeed, the Cuban
delegation included not only Foreign Minister Felipe Perez
Roque, but the president of Cuba's national bank and other
top officials. It's unlikely the Cubans will be offering to
loan the cash-strapped new government of Argentina loans
from the island's treasury. But they may well have all
manner of other kinds of expertise they can share.

Cuba has asked Argentina to further strengthen their already
improved ties by sending a new ambassador to Cuba now.

Cuba's participation in this process, not long after
Washington's failed efforts diplomatic isolation of the
island through the Organization of American States (which
expelled the island at Washington's behest in 1962) provided
visual proof that it is in fact the US, not Cuba, which is
isolated in Latin America today. Monday's Mesa Redonda was
devoted to looking at these developments and providing
contest for them. Enough on that for the present. Lots more
will be coming out and there's even some reasonably accurate
stuff in the mainstream media about Fidel's visit.

In the last few days I've spent more time away from the
machine and out and about among Cubans, friends and
relatives of friends here. On Friday evening I went the
Parque Central to meet with a group of Jewish visitors who'd
been here for a week. Their groups had come through the
auspices of the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City. Theirs,
like many others, will be terminated by another decision of
the Bush administration to abolish "people-to-people"
contacts between the US and Cuban peoples.

This group had met with Cubans who support the process here,
as well as with the staff of the US Interests Section in
Havana. While these visitors weren't supporters of the Cuban
Revolution, they indicated they were surprised not to find
themselves in a police state. They also said they were,
however, surprised at how ill-prepared the staff of the
Interests Section was to answer their questions about Cuba.

And their questions weren't complicated at all.

They said they asked for FACTS to back up what they were
told: that Cuba is a state which supports terrorism. NONE
were forthcoming, but then, the USIS staff probably didn't
think that people who came to a country from which their
visits had long been discouraged would be likely to be
convinced by their completely unsubstantiated allegations
against Cuba.

The Parque Central is a beautiful Five Star hotel where some
guests pay as much as $250 per day to stay there. Service
was great. The ambiance was lovely in every way, and the
prices reflected that. After all, if you can pay those
rates, $2.50 for a beer and $9.00 for a hamburger isn't a
lot of $$.

>From there I walked across the square at the end of the
Prado to re-enter the Cuban world at the Payret theater to
see the very popular new Cuban movie ENTRE CICLONES,
which I commented on after reading an Associated Press
story on Friday of last week.

(Now that I've actually seen the movie, the rather large gap
between what the AP commentator had to say and what's
actually in the movie is clearer. I'm reprinting her article
here. To read my comment, which still seems on the
mark, use this address:

First off, the writer began by getting the price of
admission wrong. It's two Cuban pesos, which is the
equivalent of eight US cents. Remember, I went to the
Payret theater to share the identical experience as did
this writer. Getting something as simple as that wrong
sets a doubtful tone for the rest of the article.

The author spends an inordinate amount of time on a nice,
harmless movie which the actor Robert Redford did not make
in THIRTEEN YEARS AGO. She omits to mention that the
movie had a sympathetic attitude toward the Cuban Revolution
also. Redford's film was basically a sweet love story
reminiscent of Casablanca. Further, she talks also about
power and politics in relation to other Cuban films such as
Guantanamera, made in 1995, EIGHT years ago. Actually she
didn't say a lot, and she missed a lot about the movie she'd
just seen, ENTRE CICLONES.

The truth is that there's very little political debate in
public in Cuba. People here argue vigorously in private.
I hear about debates within the Cuban Communist Party,
or rather, I hear that they take place, but don't hear the
terms of such debates, only that they occur.

The writer confuses joint ventures in Cuba, which are
widespread, with privatization which does not happen in
Cuba. There ARE small and private businesses here. Some are
legal and many are, as they're sometimes called, part of the
"informal" economy. If there is anything I've had confirmed
in my visits to Cuba, it's the idea that "society" (aka,
"the state") should be seen as fully responsible for the
meeting of peoples' needs. It cannot be. But figuring out
just how and why and which businesses should be left to the
private sector is probably something of a trial and error
process. For example, party favors (birthdays, children's
events and such) are all sold in stores which are legal
private businesses. All sorts of small neighborhood
restaurants, repair operations and so on are all private
businesses, are taxi services in those wonderful old
pro-revolutionary cars.

I've heard lots of people say they wanted to have more
private businesses, and dreams of that kind are reflected in
ENTRE CICLONES, for example where the girlfriend of the
main character finally gets her own beauty parlor, a legal,
licensed business. She has then to get one other thing, much
more difficult, her own telephone so she can call out and
her customers can call in and out to make their appointments
or whatever. The boyfriend puts in an illegal phone line for
her, in one of the happiest moments shown for her.

The AP writer refers to the "privatized" phone company, but
it's not privatized at all. I admit I don't know the exact
legal arrangements, but it's a joint venture and, after all
these years, you can rest assured that Cuba is not going to
give control over so vital a resource as telephones to a
foreign capitalist enterprise.

I can tell you for sure that telephone service in Cuba has
improved qualitatively since 1999. Then, when you picked up
the phone you could rarely count on actually getting a dial
tone. You had to click and click and click repeatedly at
times to get a line. Now you always get a line. Clearly the
venture they made with the Italians is paying off in terms
of better service to the population.

The main character's home did NOT collapse because of a
storm, and that isn't why the audience laughed. Actually,
the fire fighters had tried to prevent him from entering his
little room. They argued and fought verbally for several
minutes. A few seconds after they firefighters got him out
of the room, it collapsed, which is why the audience
laughed. It was a normal sight-gag in any movie (think

And we do know, unfortunately, that collapsed buildings are,
of course, entirely familiar to people here, especially in
areas like Central Havana where they occasionally collapse
with tragic consequences. Housing is in such short supply
that sometimes people squat in places which aren't safe, and
then when the places collapse, we get articles in the
foreign media attacking Cuba for this.

The writer also humorously missed some of the significance
of what she described as his "eccentric" roommate. Actually,
the roomate, who seemed thin to the point of anorexia, was a
yoga practitioner. In the film, when we first see him, we
see him from HIS OWN POINT OF VIEW, upside down while
performing the famous yoga pose called "sirsasana" or
headstand. When this character says in an ironic manner,
"Here we have everything because we have nothing," he's
expressing the annoyed irony of people who encompass sharply
contradictory feelings in the same sentence. Anyone who
knows something about Marxist philosophy will recognize this
as dialectical logic, something which is both studied and
viewed positively here, though it's not applied as a state

This character also practices meditation in the film. For a
society which supposedly is as anti-religious as we've been
told Cuba is, this was quite noticeable. Another religious
or at least semi-religious reference was when the main
character's girlfriend wants to wish him bad luck, she and
HER girlfriends utilize the syncretic Afro-Cuban religion of
Santeria to try to bring about his punishment for having a
relationship apart from his with her. This is something not
at all shocking or unfamiliar in Cuba. It happens every day
and isn't seen as the monstrous thing it's considered in
more puritanical cultures, like that of the United States.

Another thing the writer missed was seeing a handgun in the
hands of Cuban criminals. This is so unusual and so shocking
in Cuba where gun control, that is the uncontrolled private
possession of firearms is restricted in the most firm
manner, it's something which she ought to have noticed, but

The frequently written about experience of Cuban women who
interact with foreign men and sometimes receive money or
food or clothing from these men, has been written about
widely and is referred to as "jineterismo" here. This was
humorously depicted in Danial Chavarrias's novel ADIOS

It's the second I've seen in foreign women (in both cases
Spain) are depicted coming to the island and looking for
relaxed sex with Cuban men. This was a thematic element
which continued in a series of scenes, but the AP writer
left this out entirely.

Personally, I found the movie too long at something like two
hours, but enjoyed my being able to see a window into the
Cuban reality which Cubans know all too well. It seemed the
audience really liked it a lot from the laughter all around

After the movie we walked down into more of the residential
parts of Central Havana to go to a friend's 40th birthday
party. He's a photographer by profession. His wife is an
actress on Cuban television. He's had the chance to live and
work abroad, but he and his wife are supporters of the
Revolution so they live happily here. Though they have
heavy iron barred safety doors outside their first floor
apartment, it was wide open late on a Friday night and
they feel completely safe. Later on in the evening we took
a further walk around the area, which is peaceful and quiet.

Some young boys were up playing dominoes on a table.
A few stores were open, including small dollar stores in
which some people were shopping. I ran into a friend
from Cuban Review magazine (Hi, Olga!) who was just
walking home after the ballet. And although this was
what people in the US would describe as a rough area,
there were no drunks, nobody sleeping on the street,
and no rowdy partying either. Just a quiet residential
street in Central Havana.

Back at home on Saturday afternoon we were experiencing a
rare but unpleasant Cuban experience: no water. There was a
problem with the building pump in the 16- unit building in
which I live. This originated in the building's water pump,
which does break down from time to time. It's not a great
way to conserve the precious fluid, but it does have that
positive, though quite inconvenient side effect. People here
mostly pay little for water. Most don't even have any meters
to regulate it. In my neighborhood, Vedado, people pay 1.3
Cuban PESOS a month for water, practically nothing, but
mostly aren't wasteful from what I see.

On Sunday a friend and I went out to the Havana suburb of
Cojimar, which is best known for the home of the US writer
Ernest Hemingway.

It's less well-known for the location of the rather
dilapidated stadium at which the Pan American games were
held in 1990. Lots of new housing was built for participants
in those games and they were turned over to long-term
permanent residents afterwards. They look pretty rundown on
the outside, in need of paint and repairs to the sidewalks.
But the area had definitely seen improvements since my first
visit back in 1999.

Transportation in Cuba is a major national and local
problem. We couldn't get out from down town near the
Capitolio out to Cojimar in one of the ten peso taxis.
They're not supposed to carry foreigners, though many do
anyway. As my old friend Mike Fuller says, in Cuba, any car
is a taxi, and so after a very short wait, one of the many
non-licensed cars drove up and offered us a lift to Cojimar
for $3.00. We took it. It sure seemed cheaper than taking a
dollar taxi which might have run several dollars more.

Then there were few local shops. Now all of the shops, which
function in US dollars or in Cuban convertible pesos (pegged
1:1 to the dollar) are functioning. All the shops I saw were
filled with local residents. Evidence of new construction,
though not a lot of it, was present, and there are new and
newly repaired places as well.

We visited two relatives of my friends, people whose homes
had no books, and nearly no indications of a revolution in
Cuba beyond the stickers on the doors of one of them which
showed that the census takers had come and that the homes
had been sprayed for the mosquitos which brought dengue
prior to the island's mandatory spraying campaign which
began last year. Neither of these families have their own
telephones, but the neighbors of one happily brought over
their hand-held phone to allow people to make whatever calls
they wanted.

In one family, the mother lives in a two-bedroom apartment
for which she pays no rent and very little for her
utilities. She lives on 100 pesos a month for a pension, and
makes and sells some women's clothing for a few dollars in a
private unlicensed business. She must have had a dozen
women's blouses available. She said she wished their were
other economic options, but didn't have any specific notion
of what she wanted, though I'd imagine she's like not to be
secretive about her micro-business. She also said, however,
that she likes the fact that hers is a peaceful and safe

She didn't make any link between the peaceful and safe
qualities and the social system and government which is
guaranteeing that safe and peaceful to the best of its
ability. I didn't try to conduct an "interview" of course,
since I was just the foreigner friend of a relative who was
coming out for a short visit, and I may not see these people
again anytime soon.

Another family was doing substantially better. The wife is
employed. The older child is just now finishing high school.
The husband has his own licensed taxi, one of those older
pre-Revolution (before he was born) US cars. They have air
conditioning in the master bedroom and also a nicely
furnished kitchen. They have both a TV and a VCR. They were
watching Sunday TV programming, which includes feature films
from the US. One had to do with a family whose lives are
disrupted by drug addition. Shown in English with Spanish

Then there was a documentary on Gene Hackman, also in
English with subtitles. Finally, as we were leaving, the
usual MURDER, SHE WROTE episode was starting up.

In both homes people had their television sets going.
I noticed that these Cubans, like many in the US, have
their TV sets going on all the time, whether they're
listening to it or not.

The only evidence I saw of politics in these peoples' homes
were the stamps on their doors indicating that the mosquito
sprayers and the census takers had visited. I don't really
have an acute sense of how such people relate to the
revolution. Unlike you who are reading this long essay in
electronic mail, who receives lots of news and information
on such topics, most people in Cuba, like most people in the
world, I think, don't have the kind of burning interest in
politics which readers of these lists have.

(By the way, most people I know who strongly SUPPORT
the revolution also don't have posters or portraits of
Fidel, or Che up in their homes, either. That's something
which activists in other countries are more likely to have
than Cuban are, though of course those who do.)

Because I'm enthusiastic and partisan toward Cuba and
its revolution, I should say here that I'm always highly
conscious that I'm always a foreigner in a country whose
language I'm not fully fluent in, whose culture I'm still
learning about. I don't think most visitors to this island
really understand just how intense is national consciousness
and identity in Cuba, and how aware Cubans are about these

And because I know I AM a foreigner, and sympathetic, I try
to guard against another temptation which all humans have:
to see what we want to see, to believe that what we want to
believe is what actually is there in front of us. I make
these cautionary observations to tell you, the reader, that
I'm presenting what I see, which isn't what you might see,
or a Cuban would see in some of these same situations I'm
describing. As the would say in "radio land", this is a
brief stop for "station identification," by me as a reporter
to you as the reader. I trust you will keep these cautions
in mind when reading these comments, or those of others
who come to or write about Cuba.

Later this morning I'm going out with friends to the eastern
parts of the island to see what all are telling me is a very
different environment. Before I go, I can tell you that what
all my friends say is that the eastern parts of the island a
re far more poor materially, but that support for the
Revolution is at the same time far stronger there than here
in the capital. We'll see soon enough.

You've noticed I've cut back on sending out news articles
significant. I'll still so some of that, but some readers
have stepped up to assist with this important work, and
you're all welcome to participate.

 Walter Lippmann

Cuba Cinema Revival
22 May 2003

HAVANA (AP)- The first burst of laughter inside the darkened
theater came during a scene of people dragging a soaked
mattress to a trash bin. Moviegoers needed no explanation:
thanks to a leaky roof, the mattress was drenched by heavy

Charging less than a penny per ticket, Havana's Payret movie
theater serves a public that easily identifies with "Between
Cyclones" (Entre Ciclones), Cuban director Enrique Colina's
first feature film. The movie's comic portrayal of Havana's
hardships has drawn hundreds of thousands since its April

Abroad, it has yet to be screened commercially but was
chosen for this year's prestigious Cannes Film Festival in
France. Colina hopes the distinction will help attract
funding for future projects.

Other Cuban filmmakers also wish the movie's success will
herald better times for the nation's film industry.
"Cyclones" is among five Cuban films scheduled for release
in 2003 - a blessing after a year that saw no movies made.

Cuba's government-run film industry used to produce up to 10
full-length features and dozens of documentaries yearly. But
the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the country's chief
benefactor, ended state funding for the main film company,
the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography.

"It was a total collapse," said Colina, who had to delay
production of "Cyclones" for several years. "There was a
whole generation of artists who should have been making
their first feature films during that time but couldn't."

The cinematography institute turned abroad to find partners
to finance some films. "Cyclones" was produced with the
French company Les Films du Village and Canal Plus of Spain.

"We're recovering. Five films a year might seem laughable to
other countries, but to us it represents a tremendous
effort," said Rafael Rosales, assistant producer of "Dancing
Cha-Cha-Cha" (Bailando Cha-Cha-Cha), among five films now in

While Hollywood is potentially Cuban filmmakers' richest
source of money, the U.S. trade embargo prohibits American
producers from filming on the island, except for

In 1990, Robert Redford tried to film "Havana" in Cuba's
capital but wound up in the Dominican Republic.

"If Robert Redford had made Havana here it would have
brought in a lot of money," said Rosales. "Instead, they
made a cardboard Havana and used actors who didn't even have
Cuban accents."

Yet Cubans have mixed feelings about a foreign role in their
film industry. After the 1959 revolution led by Fidel
Castro, artists wanted a "national cinema" that would
eliminate the bawdy stereotypes that traditionally dominated
Cuban film.

Some worry stereotypes are returning as Cuban film caters to
foreign tastes. The 1995 film "Guatanamera," directed by
Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio, was
well-received abroad but criticized at home. Critic Antonio
Garcia Borero said it was "excessively obvious out of the
desire to be understood, especially by those who brought
capital from abroad."

Cuban filmmakers also face criticism from the communist
government but often find ways to address Cuba's social ills
without directly attacking the regime.

"There's censorship of course. There's always tension
between art and power," Colina said.

The late Gutierrez Alea didn't shy from such tension. His
1993 Oscar-nominated "Strawberry and Chocolate" inspired
national debate about homosexuality in Cuba's macho society.
His "Guantanamera" was a dark comedy about the difficulties
of transporting a corpse from eastern Cuba to Havana for

In one not-so-subtle scene, one character remembers an old

"She taught socialist political economy. But don't think she
was dogmatic. She said some things that really made you
think. She got into a lot of problems because of that," the
character says.

Although audiences enjoyed the dark humor, one prominent
Cuban did not - Castro complained about the film's "morbid
fascination with tragedy."

"Cyclones" employs similar irony as it explores changes in
Cuba, such as the opening of the state-run economy to joint
ventures with foreign companies. The characters have mixed
feeling about the reforms.

An elderly telephone technician is resentful when his
beat-up company truck - which had to be pushed to start - is
replaced with a shiny new van by his newly privatized
employer. Looking sad, he removes the Cuban flag from the
rearview mirror as he takes the truck to be junked.

The technician's young subordinate, Tomas, welcomes change
but wants it faster. He has gotten a glimpse at the outside
world but is stuck in the stagnation of Old Havana, a maze
of beautiful but crumbing colonial buildings.

The film starts with Tomas' one-room apartment collapsing
during a storm, a scene that also elicited laughter since
losing a home to bad weather is not uncommon in Cuba.

At a state-run shelter, Tomas' eccentric roommate suggests
the young technician simply resign himself to Cuba's

"Here we have everything because we have nothing," the
roommate says.

A bit more the CubaSi website on "Entre Ciclones":

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