[Marxism] Visitor to Cuba

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Tue Feb 3 06:49:27 MST 2004

Cuba Reflections from Annie' McGovern's s Journal

Miami to Havana: 140 miles away, about a 45-minute flight -- and
suddenly you're into  past time and a place like no other you've

Arrivals at Havana airport -- hundreds of eager, waiting friends and
families greet Cubans from Miami. An elegant gray-haired woman in a
wheelchair, holding more flowers than she could carry, happily welcomes
tearful embraces and gifts. One shy young woman is coaxed by her
boyfriend to get into the greeting line. Perhaps many Cuban-Americans
are here for the first or last time. Tears sting my eyes.

Women in tight-fitting jeans and minis show off high, rounded buttocks
-- walking the Havana walk. Skin tones range from cream to black coffee.
Polished cars from the 50's shine in the sun.

Our group -- we all have to be students from Virginia Tech studying
Urban Geography and Architecture in Cuba. 2 credits, pass/fail.  I plan
to fail because I don't want to be inside, listening to lectures while I
could be experiencing the vibrant life of Havana's streets.

We go straight to lunch at the legendary Nacional Hotel, where photos of
celebrity guests adorn the walls -- "Peter" Seeger, Errol Flynn. Johnny
Depp, Mae West, George Raft, to name a few of the dozens who came to
Havana when Cuba was a pleasure island for tourists and gamblers. On the
way we pass neighborhoods of small factories, the inviting coast with
its huge mansions that once were clubs for the elite -- now workers
enjoy them.

First "mojito" drink -- white rum, lime, sparkling water, mint ground
with sugar, first rice and beans. Hardly a day will go by without these
two Cuban staples. Salads will remain essentially the same: lettuce, raw
cabbage, tomatoes, cukes. Entrees are mostly chicken or fish; desserts
either ice cream or flan. You don't come to Cuba for the food. But the
Cuban 7-year-old dark rum is a potent treat.

What you find everywhere is Spirit: Though everyday life is still hard
(but getting better) and ration books are still used and there are lines
at food shops, there is a palpable exuberance, a resolve to make the
best of every situation with ingenuity and humor. If Cubans don't have
dollars from the tourist industry or from relatives in Miami, they have
learned to become small entrepreneurs and barterers

They know how to recycle. Men are constantly patching up 50's cars.  I
came home with toys made from beer and kola cans.

The Cuban spirit pulses in dancing and music -- in the streets, in
restaurants with their CD's for sale for $10, at concerts in museums and
churches. Strong African influence.

There are 40 museums in Havana alone and a fabulous art museum, recently

Artists are revered in Cuba, well paid in dollars. Before I left NYC, I
had arranged by e-mail to meet Victor, a Cuban entrepreneur, who drove
me to see artists in their homes and studios. I met their families, and
spent time with these talented men and women, and carried back good

It cost $10 to see a superb ballet production of Don Quixote at the
Grand Theater. It costs Cubans 40 cents. The theater was packed with
Cubans of all ages. I was thrilled to see Alicia Alonso, founder of the
Ballet Nacional de Cuba  sitting eight seats away from me. She looked
elegant in her red turban and her eyes, behind dark glasses, are blind.
She knows every step from the music.

No one asked me for money outright.  Children want pens; some women
asked for soap.  I carried both with me every day and added chocolates
to my small gifts.  You can see why soap is so important. Everyone
appears clean and nicely dressed, especially the beautiful children.
Politeness and friendliness abound. People smile.

Heavily subsidized are rent, food and utilities (almost free).
Completely free is the excellent education and health care. Whatever one
might think of Castro today, his Revolution 45 years ago made profound
social changes in a country beset by poverty, illiteracy and corruption.
Literacy is almost complete, infant mortality rates are admirably low,
the elderly and the poor cared for.

This is not to say that all goes well in Cuba. Housing is dismal and so
is public transportation. Deteriorating, fading, once-beautiful
buildings are being restored slowly. Near every bus stop (and buses are
overcrowded) are hitchhiking stands. Cars with blue license plates
(state workers) must pick up hitchhikers by law. After the fall of the
Soviet Union, Cuba went through their "Special Period" with drastic
shortages for all. Life is better today.

I encountered a few hustlers. Cuba is a sexually permissive society and
casual sex is rampant.  Teenagers become sexually active early -- girls
at 13, boys at 15. Our Cuban guide had been married four times and was
getting married soon again. "Marriages last about seven years," he said.

Six days in Havana is not nearly enough. Historic Old Havana is
enchanting with its small garden squares, plazas and renovated streets
and houses. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The things Yanquis take
for granted -- like flushing toilet paper down the toilet. Not so here.
We were cautioned to use the waste paper basket next to the toilet for
soiled paper, even in the best hotel, the Parque Central. It deserved
its 5-stars and nicely situated next to the Prado, the wide main street.
Every morning I wandered, photographing as early as 7 am. Everywhere I
was met with friendliness. New Year's Eve in Havana is a quiet night.
Families celebrate in their homes, perhaps with a pig roast. The night
before, I heard pigs squealing, the ones I had seen on rooftops.

New Year's Day we flew to remote Baracoa, a green and lush small city on
the Atlantic, ringed by mountains and bays. Everyone travels by
horse-drawn carts and carriages or bikes. I rode in a three-wheeled taxi
to visit some artists' studios. (Art not great here) One of our group
rented a red motorcycle and I rode behind him, on steep mountain roads,
holding on to dear life, passing coffee, coconuts and cacao used for
making chocolate. It was a wild, gorgeous ride but stupid on my part --
no helmet. An old man sold me a large bag of delicious bananas and
tangerines for a dollar.  A dollar also buys you two thin squares of
toilet paper at the door of the public toilets everywhere in Cuba.

Baracoa, about two hours from Havana by prop plane, is the oldest
colonial city in the Americas and as far off the beaten track as you can
get in Cuba. The town has been compared to Macondo in Marquez' Hundred
Years of Solitude. Every night, there is live music in the streets and
everyone dances. Me, too.  Over five centuries have passed since
Columbus arrived here, impressed by its beauty. "...the most lovely
scene in the world." His life-size statue looks like mud. I saw
Afro-Cuban dancing and music in a charming theater. There is Indian
blood here, short stature, light olive-brown skins, squarish faces.
Taino Indians suffered greatly at the hands of the Spanish but were
never killed off, as they were in other parts of Cuba and unlike the
rest of Cuba, there were never African slaves here. The food was great
-- fresh fish eaten in home restaurants, called Paladares. Because the
New Years holiday lasted for four days, I missed seeing a tobacco
factory (where a reader reads outloud to the workers), schools, many
museums. We did get a chance to visit a teacher, a minister and an
impressive medical clinic. People walked their pigs and goats on ropes,
on unpaved, muddy streets.

Lest you get tired of reading so much (afraid I got carried away) I'll
make short shrift of the other two places I stayed.  The colonial gem,
Trinidad, on the Caribbean, cobblestone streets lined with pastel tinted
houses, fronted by mahogany balustrades, turned wooden rods and wrought
iron grills.  A national monument, the city is going through a
restoration. Driving there, I was reminded of the days when sugar was
king -- acres and acres of cane and some amazing restoration of sugar
plantations - - turned restaurants.

We stayed at the beach, an area waiting for venture capital. Powdery
sands, warm clear seas -- everything a Caribbean resort should have, but
the hot water was intermittent and the three-year-old hotel was slowly
falling apart. Many European tourists.

Santiago de Cuba, called the home of rum and revolution, has an ongoing
rivalry with Havana. I found Havana the more charming, Santiago more
hustlers, more Africanized, both cities with many galleries. I visited
an artist, Julia Vargas, who lived in a once fashionable neighborhood.
Her home was filled with art, big rooms and a studio many of my artist
friends would envy. It was a short visit, due to my lack of Spanish and
her nonexistent English. She asked me to bring back two of her paintings
for a gallery in NYC that is exhibiting her work. Next year, she hopes
to come to New York for another exhibit.

I'm trying not to make my reflections political. But I have to say that
many Cuban artists and musicians are refused visas by our gov't.  And of
course, the punishing embargo goes on, denying basic necessities.  Bush
has also placed Cuba on the baddie list. And curtailed US cultural
groups from visiting as of this year. It's riskier now to go on your
own, from Canada or Mexico. Heavy fines have been inflicted upon return
to the US.  Maybe next time I'll have to join one of the licensed
religious or humanitarian groups to get into the country and then go off
on my own and do my own thing. I feel I have made friends in Cuba now.

I watched Castro on Cuban television. He looks older, his beard and
speeches shorter. What will happen after he dies? Some fear there will
be civil war. Some think Cuba will turn into an American shopping mall.
No one knows. Bush wants the Cuban-American support so nothing will
happen till after the elections.

I look at my photos: laundry hanging in former mansions, now shared by
many families. Open doors showing colonial caned furniture,  bare-assed
nudity at the Tropicana, a Las-Vegas style show still going strong since
1929, quick shots of couples embracing, a child dressed up like a bride
for her quince celebration (13th birthday). a man with his handmade
ice-cream wagon, fading glorious architecture, grinding sugar cane,
bullet holes  from the '59 Revolution, political slogans everywhere,
pictures of me posing with the artists and their art, light and
dark-skin students walking, laughing together.

I read about Cuba and marvel that its infant mortality rate is lower
than ours, everyone is screened for Aids, one doctor for every 170
people -- twice per capita as the US. Women have equality with men,
receive the same pay as men (low wages), but continue to do house stuff
when they come home from work, though I saw so many fathers interacting
tenderly with their children. Popular religions are Catholicism and
Santeria, an Afro-Cuban saint worship, entrenched for 300 years. Judaism
once thrived, now numbers about 1800, about five percent of its
pre-Revolutionary size.  Synagogues are being refurbished and new ones
opening. I read that Jewish religious schools were the only parochial
schools allowed to remain open after the Revolution.  In Havana, there's
a kosher butcher shop and Hebrew Sunday schools. My scuba diving friends
say Cuba has the best reefs in the Caribbean. Next time, I'll dive.

As Lorca, the Spanish poet said, "If I get lost, look for me in Cuba."

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