[Marxism] Wrapping up a three-month visit to Cuba

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Thu Jan 5 14:59:59 MST 2006

After three months here in Cuba, I'll be returning to Los Angeles next week.

I've been privileged and fortunate to spend yet another extended period in a
society without commercial advertizing, billboards selling commodities, and
many of the other things which are part and parcel of capitalist living
Though I haven't travelled widely, from everything I've read, Cuba is quite
unique in that it's both largely (though not entirely) devoid of
Naturally many individuals have consumerist wishes, a few of whom are able
have their wishes granted, even here in Cuba, but on the whole there's very
little in the way of consumerism here. And yet it's a place where people
fun in the face of the travils of daily living. 

It seems a good time to assemble a few notes on some of the things I've been
seeing and hearing before returning to Los Angeles, California. These are in
no definite order of significance, but I hope readers will find these of use
to keep track of and to understand Cuba's revolutionary process and some of
the ways Cuba is relating to the world and the world relating to Cuba as is
reflected in the media of this country.

Earlier this week I returned to Havana after spending four days in rural
in the sugar central city of Bartolome Maso in Granma Province. I've been in
Maso several previous times at this time of year. It remains a quiet place
the sugar harvest isn't set to begin until later this month. Maso is one of
the cities and centrals where sugar production continues in a factory which
remains active, though of course just during the harvest. Driving around the
area you continue to see large sugar fields, as well as bananas and other
agricultural commodities being grown. This year one new development was the
new organoponico market set up right across the street from the sugar mill.
Prices seem cheaper there with lettuce being sold for one peso per head and
mandarin oranges for 70 centavos per pound. I could be mistaken about this
I like salad more than most Cuban friends I know, but it seems there is a
interest in salads in the country I'm seeing more Cubans eating salads then
the past. Public education here encourages such developments, along with the
big push for urban agriculture in the country. Indeed, right adjacent (just
single block away) from the Plaza of the Revolution where many of the main
adminstrative buildings of the government are you can find a large field
lots of fresh vegetables being grown. They've really blossomed forth since
arrival on April 7 when it seemed there were nearly no green vegetables in
markets here. In Bartolome Maso the urban agriculture is practiced right in
the center of the city, across another street from the sugar mill.
I saw no particular changes in Bartolome Maso, except for the replacement of
incandescent light bulbs by the compact flourescent type, a step in the big
energy conservation process here. All over the country social workers are
coming out to people's homes and replacing the incandescent bulbs. I haven't
seen many of them in the stores and don't know now how they'll be replaced
when they go out, or when they break as some certainly will, but reports in
the Cuban media speak of hundreds of thousands of bulbs being replaced and 
I've heard less about blackouts, though they continue to take place here.

Taking the bus across the country is a lot cheaper than renting a car which
I've done in the past. Of course, it can be less comfortable but you don't
have to do the driving. Eating options on the way out were rather limited
and on the way back it seemed none of the bus stops we stopped at had any
food for sale. At one bus stop along the way there was a sign over one of
the offices saying "We do not defraud our Commander-in-Chief", reflecting
the new public discussion of corruption here in Cuba. Since Fidel Castro's
major discussion of corruption, where he made it plain that the existence
of the revolution can not be assumed to be guaranteed, there's been lots of
discussion of this deep problem in the Cuban media, and among the population
generally, from what I'm hearing and seeing. And, of course, discussion goes
beyong the specific cases and situations such as the theft of gasoline and
the wasting of electricity through old-style technologies like incandescent
bulbs and ancient refrigerators, but to man other areas in public life. We
will be presenting more of this information as it comes out, and others as
we review and revise translations to English from the Cuban media. Cuba's
had a few genuine scandals on its hands which, though reported here in the
Cuban media, haven't as yet caught the attention of the international media,
even though it's always out to find fault and difficulties in this country.

Today I took a look through one of the larger department stores here in
LA EPOCA in Central Havana, on Galiano and Neptuno. It's a four-story high
structure with another level in the basement. This place was completely
packed with people, indeed they were lined up, at 11:00 in the morning with
people who were coming to spend money on housewares, cosmetics, clothing
televisions, refrigerators and much more. The basement includes a modest-
sized food store, a liquor store and a mid-sized hardware store. If Cuba 
was broke and everyone was starving, how could there have been so many folks
in a place like that obviously with money to spend, or why else would they
be there? The Cuban Revolution is a constant process and is changing and
re-inventing itself through many challenges. I recently noticed that some
of those cute little coco cabs which have been for tourists in the past are
now available in regular Cuban pesos. There are so many other changes we're
seeing that it's impossible to keep up with all of them, though I'm trying
to follow them, and to bring as many as possible, to the public's attention.

The problems this revolution faces are daunting, and as I leave here I know
that the talk about corruption here, its widespread nature and the fact that
Cuba's leaders have put a question mark over its successful continuation is
a sign that we're in for much more changes in the months and years ahead.
We've had public discussion of getting rid of the ration book system, which
has been a staple of Cuban life almost from the beginning. In time I'm sure
they'll get rid of the Cuban Convertible peso and return to a single
currency. How long it will take is outside my ability to guess, but we
have surprises here. As I leave, the new increased (for some) utility bills
will hit, and will be the subject of more discussion and complaint for those
who get hit with the new rates. It's the simplest and fairest way to
people into energy conservation measures, beyond those provided by getting
rid of incandescent lighting. Cubans, who love to complain, have had so many
forms of support and subsidized living over the years, but that's coming to
an end and the government is trying to get people to understand why everyone
here needs to pitch in, and work in one way or another in support of the
process of societal development. The ability of Cuba's revolution to resolve
some of its big challenges in the future will be a test of its viability.

I'd like to suggest that you take a look at Fidel Castro's very long speech
at the University of Havana in mid-November to get some idea of what's now
being talked about here. I hope to get my own commentary out about it in the
near future. Celia Hart has one which appeared at the Rebelion website in
Spain and we'll get the translation to you as soon as possible. There are
also important reports and discussions such as those presented by the Cuban
National Bank President, Francisco Soberon, about many of these issues.

While in the past I attended few of the sessions of the Havana Film Festival
(correct name: Festival of New Latin American Cinema), this year I went to
many movies. Cuban, Latin American and a few English-language features and
documentaries came from the United States to be presented to the public here
which hungers for such materials. Cuban movies are one of the ways in which
the contradictions, problems and challenges of daily life in a blockaded
country are publicly discussed. This isn't new. Going back as far as the
movie DEATH OF A BUREAUCRAT in the early 1960s, these have always been a
part of Cuban films. Now such issues as people leaving the country and the
various reasons why they do so are being explored in many different ways,
both comedic and serious. Gender and sexuality issues have been taken up in
movies as well, where gay characters, particularly transvestites, are now
seen regularly incorporated in movies, and on television by the way. One of
the films shown at the festival was a documentary on safer sex produced by
a workshop of transvestite men here in Cuba. This was hown together with a
Chilean documentary THE CHE OF THE GAYS which got a very enthsiastic crowd
for a large theatrical showing and at least two other showings away from
the regular venue. I didn't see any reviews of these films in the media

Along these lines, the Mapplethorpe exhibition also got big press in the
international media, and one very enthusiastic review article which was in
Juventud Rebelde newspaper early on during the exhibition's run. Among the
points in its very enthusiastic review was linking Mapplethorpe's work with
that of local artists and a call for an even larger exhibition to be
With all of the negative press Cuba has receive in the past over the way gay
Cubans were mistreated in the past, these new approaches reflect a far more
open and accepting approach. There's still nothing like a formal or legal
scene here as you'd find in other countries. I noticed this way back in my
TWO MONTHS IN CUBA essay in 2001 which can be read at NY Transfer's site:
http://www.blythe.org/2months4.html (The fourth page of a longer essay.)

More on Mapplethorpe on Cuba:

Still, I'm seeing more opennness in this area than was the case even just a
few short years ago. I'm hopeful that this trend can continue and deepen.

As I prepare to leave, Cubans find themselves both fascinated by and very
enthusiastic over the election of Aymara Indian leader Evo Morales to the
presidency of Bolivia. I hear and see lots of enthusiastic comments about
Morales, not only here in Havana but saw this in little Bartolome Maso as
well. That city has a population of just 5000, but they know about Morales
and are excited about his successes and hopeful for more of them. Washington
and the international media were forced to accept the legitimacy of Morales'
triumph, but they aren't enthusiastic about what he has announced for the
future of his country. Nasty comments denouncing Morales have appeared in 
the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and by some on the political
left as well. CubaNews will continue to follow the situation in Bolivia as
it's so important to Cuba. Morales' very first international stop on his
five-continent pre-installation tour was here in Havana. This reflects his
deep support for the Cuban Revolution and Cuba's enthusiastic support for
him as well. There are hundreds of Bolivian medical students here at the
Latin American School of Medicine, who had a chance to meet with Morales 
and Fidel over the weekend. That meeting was broadcast not once but several
times. The faces of these largely indiginous Bolivians was striking as was
their eloquent comments in discussion with Morales and with Fidel Castro.

There are many projects which I've worked on and won't be able to complete
in the days before I leave. I've got some back-ed up translations which will
not be able to get out until I return to Los Angeles. I've been running out
to see friends and colleagues for one last time during this visit, and it's
good to be able to do that and to find most people are working productively,
thinking deeply about this country and its future, pondering its problems in
search of solutions for them. I hate to pack and have to go ahead with that
pretty quickly now. I am looking forward to being back in the United States
where my home is and to take care of some needed personal business. While
there I'll continue to do my best to follow the Cuban Revolution from that
vantage point. Readers who've travelled to Cuba are encouraged to write in
with comments and suggestions. I listen carefully to everything which is
written in and suggested, though I don't necessarily agree with or feel
obliged to publish everything which is sent in. We're all drowing in a sea
of e-mail these days. I get hundres of messages per day, many of them being
of dubious value, probably the great majority. I think that those of us who
live in what are referred to as the "advanced capitalist countries" can at
times mistake the fact that we can write any opinion we want, and just hit
the "send" button with genuine freedom. Most of us who are reading these
kinds of messages are doing so on personal home individually-owned
Some write from libraries and universities, but the great majority of the
world's peoples are still outside of the so-called information society.

At times I wonder about the utility of e-mail as a way of reaching people,
but it does continue to provide one way of putting information into the
hands of many who might not get it otherwise. I'm not certain that this is
always going to be the case. CubaNews list continues to grow and is now at
780 subscribers, a big leap up from the few dozen who came together when it
was founded in August 2000 after Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba.

As a political person and activist, I have opinions on all sorts of issues.
Among these are opinions of my own about Cuban life and politics, but these
invidicual opinions of mine, which I'm not shy about expressing when it is
appropriate, invarably emphasize that Washington's blockade of Cuba is the
decisive factor framing all discussions of this country's life and politics.
Cuba's right to solve its own problems, without the massive intervention of
Washington working overtime to overthrow the Revolution and to bring back
the capitalist system, frames and distorts everything about this country.

That it does as well as it does in face of massive obstacles are testimony
to Cuba's effective revolutionary leadership, and the massive support the
country's population continues to give its government, inspite of terrible
contradictions and problems. Defending Cuba's right to solve its own issues
and problems on its own is central to my approach. I'm a guest here in this
wonderful but blockaded country. This reality is never far from my mind when
looking at life here, and when experiencing its various frustrations.

Those of you who are fluent in Spanish and wish to help with the work of
this project should let me know. There's lots of material which we need
to bring out to the English-speaking world.

Today is the last day I can tell people I'm 61 years old when they ask.
Tomorrow is my birthday. I've never been enthusiastic about birthdays for
myself, though I organized one for my 50th. Here in Cuba birthdays are a
big deal for everyone. I have learned to change my approach as I know that
there are more than a few people among my friends and acquaintances whose
appreciation for my existence, friendship and work are reflected in their
wanting to celebrate my birthday and wish me many more successful and
productive ones. I'm also pleased to be alive, healthy and relatively
solvent, so I'm able to pursue this work as a full-time occupation. 

I wanted to get this done before leaving the country, and now it's done.

Cuban National Bank President Francisco Soberon: We're on the right track:

Fidel's speech at the University of Havana:  Cuban gov't website:
Fidel's speech at the University of Havana: Word Format, 33 pp.

Walter Lippmann, CubaNews

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