Friday, May 7, 2010

What I Learned in Cuba

On May 4th, Zulema and I and a group of students landed in Houston and made our way through immigration and customs. Almost the entire group was “randomly” selected for secondary screening. The customs agents spent an hour going through Zulema and my bags, opening each letter that Zulema’s Cuban classmates had sent back to her class in Portland as part of a pen pal exchange. The agent informed us that the only items we were allowed to bring back were books and educational supplies, but he generously ignored the key chains, baseball bat and other artisanal paraphernalia in our bags. He did, however, cut open a “tape ball” in Zulema’s bag, which is a ball of paper covered in scotch tape that is used by Cuban kids to play baseball. Even though he could see that the ball was just paper and tape, he confiscated it along with a feather she had found in Pinar del Rio.

The customs agent, who had lived in Miami, asked me about Cuba and the situation in the supermarkets there. I told him that the supermarkets were quite empty and that it was hard to find food. Then I commented, “the embargo is working well.” He didn’t smile. The agent was a scuba instructor, and he asked about the diving in Cuba. As we were ready to leave, I told him that I hoped one day he would be able to visit Cuba to go diving. The other students who had a few cigars with them and planchao (rum boxes) were allowed to keep them. There was a brief debate among two customs agents about where a ceramic mug counted as art, a conversation that I wish I could have recorded for its sheer absurdity. All in all, the agents were not overly strict or abusive, but why does one have to made to feel like a criminal for travelling to Cuba and bringing back a tape ball. As we left the customs area, Zulema whispered to me “I don’t like security.” Neither do I, I thought.

The last few weeks in Cuba were filled with talks, concerts, May Day marches, despedidas, and trying to squeeze the last drops out of our experience. Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul Castro, who is the head of CENESEX, a sexual education institute, came and spoke with us. She is credited with helping the government to adopt a more open and accepting position toward gays, lesbians and transsexuals, but when the students asked her about the limitations on Cubans to form independent organizations, she looked at them as if they were living on a different island. The students characterized her as a “politician” and an “actress”. Our final Voces talk was by Fernando Pérez, arguably the most important Cuban film director. He has just released a film about the young José Martí, which can be read as an critique of the limits of political freedom in Cuba today. Pérez has a soft-spoken and humble manner about him, and spoke quite movingly about his struggle to make movies reflecting and commenting on Cuban reality from within the Revolution.

At 5 am on May Day, I could hear the sounds of a marching band playing the Beatles song “Hey Jude” as the people gathered to march to the Plaza of the Revolution for the annual celebration of workers and the Revolution. It is ironic to hear that song because the Beatles were prohibited at the beginning of the revolution as dangerous and capitalist music, but now the Beatles were easily incorporated into the Revolutionary ritual of May Day. Thousands of people paraded in front of the Martí monument carrying signs supporting the revolution. Some workplaces and schools force or strongly encourage, their workers to march on May Day, while others seemed to be out there of their own will. There was supposedly a speech by Raul Castro, but I couldn’t ascertain whether it was recorded or he delivered the address in person. But it didn’t really matter either way, the march was its own speech, everyone in unison with one message, “long live the revolution.” I wondered to myself, “what will May Day look like the year after Fidel dies?”

On my final night in Havana, my friends who managed to score some lobster and shrimp on the black market prepared a despedida dinner for me. Eating well in Cuba always requires creativity, ingenuity and buying on the black market. The conversation turned heated between the Cubans, with the younger Cubans yelling that they just want the “lies” to stop. “We’ll still be living in poverty, but don’t try to sell me the idea that everything is beautiful, and the public health, and education system are wonderful.” The middle-aged Cuban stood up, breathless, and began to shout that none of them would have been anything without the revolution. “You would be guajiros from the countryside if not for the revolution,” she shouted, adding “cojones” for emphasis. “Bueno,” the young Cuban said, “esta bien.” “We will leave this shit to you, and we are going to leave the island because we can’t take this anymore.”

The evening ended with all of us driving down the malecon, laughing till we cried about the drunk drivers that almost killed us all, the langosta that never seemed to get finished, and this island that we all hated and loved in equal measure, and sometimes more.

Here are some of the things I learned in my 3 months in Cuba:

1) That having tickets to an event doesn’t guarantee entry.

2) That not having tickets doesn’t mean you are not getting in.

3) Busses may stop before or after the bus stop, and they may pass and not stop at all.

4) There may be different prices in restaurants for foreigners and Cubans, and they may have different offerings.

5) It is illegal to buy lobster and shrimp outside of tourist restaurants but if you go to the agromercado, some guy will sidle up to you and whisper “langosta, camarones.”

6) That Cubans who rent rooms usually rent more rooms than they have a legal right to rent, and that the inspectors are paid off to look the other way.

7) That being white in Cuba helps you get into places where darker people are denied access, and that white people rarely get harassed by the police.

8) That pesos can mean Cuban pesos or convertible pesos, and that dollars can mean convertible pesos. Cubans also don’t like their moneda nacional which they call “bad money.”

9) That there are virtually no homeless people in Cuba.

10) That many Cubans are hungry but few are seriously malnourished.

11) That most theater, music concerts, and sporting events are free or almost free.

12) That the US economic embargo really hurts the Cuban economy.

13) That the Cuban system is to blame for a good share of the failures of the Cuban economy.

14) That not everyone who complains about the Cuban government is a mercenary on the pay of the imperialist yanquis.

15) That some dissidents are tools of the imperialist yanquis.

16) That Granma is a source of misinformation, and that you have no idea what is happening in Cuba by reading it.

17) That reading the international press on Cuba also gives you no sense of what is going on in Cuba.

18) That foreigners who visit Cuba for two weeks have no idea what is going on, which goes for foreigners who visit for three months as well.

19) That Cubans who have lived on the island their whole life also have no idea what is going on in their own island, or the rest of the world.

20) That Cubans will flock to a Calle 13 concert, and avoid Silvio Rodriguez’s concert against the media war at the tribuna anti-imperialista.

21) That there is a much more varied music scene in Cuba than you might imagine after seeing Buena Vista Social Club, and that apart from Son, Salsa and Timba, there is hip hop, reggaeton, rock, electronica, and classical music.

22) Most Cubans move like Shakira, but some Cubans don’t dance at all.

23) That Cubans are black, white, and every shade in between, some have blonde hair, others dreds, and that anyone can look like a Cuban but few can actually move like a Cuban.

24) That having a scanner and color printer is very useful for falsifying tickets, IDS, and traveller’s cheque receipts.

25) That an event may or not start at its advertised time, or may not happen at all, and that there is usually no explanation. And that Cubans don’t seem to mind this much.

26) That Cubans don’t complain that much, but when they do complain, it is usually accompanied by large hand gestures and a verbal tirade that makes hip hop rapper Fifty Cent sound like an infant saying “dada.”

27) That when Cubans say “it is not possible,” keep asking because anything is possible.

28) That Cubans love Fidel.

29) That Cubans hate Fidel.

30) That there are way too many blogs about Cuba, and nobody really reads them.

Going through security at the Cancun airport, you find yourself in the middle of a shopping cornucopia of high-priced alcohol, perfume, and jewelry. In most airports, you have to choose to enter the shops, but in Cancun, there is no option, you must walk through the stores to get to your gate. Jimmy Buffet’s Air Margaritaville, the sourvenir shop selling artisanal goods by Mexican women dressed in folkloric garb, the pharmacy selling cheap prescription drugs, Starbucks and the food court all designed to keep you consuming was a shock coming from Cuba where the only advertisements are for the government, and where so little is available to buy. A big poster on the wall featured an image of two tourists shoving merchandise into their overstuffed bags, with the blaring slogan: “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. Keep on Shopping.” This was the capitalist equivalent of the Cuban billboards denouncing the Imperialist Blocade.

I leave Cuba recognizing that the beautiful socialist dream has failed because the system has not provided enough food and opportunity to its people. I enter the capitalist world recognizing that the beautiful capitalist dream has failed because the system engorges people with too much choice, too much consumption, and not enough substance. Somewhere between Havana and Cancun, there must be a middle ground, and when I find it I’ll start another blog.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Malanga y Cultura

In my last post, I made the case that Cuba needs to focus on solving its food problem before worrying about art and culture. I changed my mind. A Spanish colleague of mine made the case that the Cuban government should stop subsidizing free concerts, cheap theater, movies and books, and focus on feeding its population. This makes sense on the face of it. It’s hard to appreciate a great concert or a brilliant play on an empty belly.

One materialistic argument for Cuba to continue subsidizing art is that art and culture have become a major source of hard currency earnings for the country. Beyond that there is a more intangible benefit to art and culture. Even though there is a shortage of food in Cuba, and people here are hungry, they have access to cultural activities to a much greater extent that most people in the US. Not only are the prices of cultural activities incredibly cheap, but the education system has prepared a populace that has a desire to go to the theater, discuss films, listen to music and watch dance. I wouldn’t want to romanticize this either. Most of the Cuban people consume popular culture like North Americans consume junk food and Coke. It’s sweet, addictive, and it gives you an energy boost.

However, if Cuba were to give up on the cultural aspect of the Revolution, it would become just another poor country with hungry people like so many others in the Caribbean. Sure, channeling some pesos from art to food would allow people to eat another egg every month, or maybe provide another kilo of subsidized rice, but people do not survive on food alone.

There needs to be a better balance between the material needs and the cultural needs of the Cuban people. As the food situation becomes more desperate I hope that the Cuban state doesn’t give up on its cultural project. Viva Cuba Libre: Malanga y Cultura!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Leche, Jugo and Planchao: Food and Freedom

A Cuban academic who studies marginality told me the other day quite bluntly, “either Cuba solves its food problem or it disappears from the map.” I was struck by the simplicity of the statement. My students and I spend most of our time analyzing music, theater, movies, literature, drums, dancing, gestures, and clothes, looking for clues about how Cubans understand their situation, about the degrees of liberty and freedom. We put the culture under a microscope, training our eyes to see veiled discourses of resistance, hidden transcripts, along with cataloging the numerous everyday definitions of revolution and revolutionary. We stay up until the wee hours of the morning in search of urban subcultures that are so underground they may not even exist, except in the minds of the urban ethnographers who dream about them. And this cultural analysis is rewarding, providing us with the challenge of coming up with sophisticated understandings of a very complex situation.

We may be missing the forest for the trees. Perhaps there is one primary problem, and the rest follow, or at least depend on the first one being solved: food. Right now there is a severe scarcity of rice, eggs, and milk. The answer for why these basic foods are so scarce is complex and different for each item. In February, Granma, the official communist party newspaper, had a small article buried in the middle of the paper about the rice harvest. While I usually never learn much from Granma, this article actually provided an explanation for the rice shortage. The annual consumption of rice in Cuba is about 800,000 tons, Granma reported. In 2003, Cuba produced almost all of this rice, and had to import about 70,000 tons to make up the difference. By 2008, Cuba was only producing 235,000 tons of rice, meaning that it had to import around 600,000 tons to meet the demand. Given the absence of hard currency, the government just doesn’t have the money to buy the rice. And the rice that is available in convertible currency is just too expensive for most Cubans to afford. So, one question is why did rice production fall by more than 60% in Cuba between 2003 and 2008.

When we first arrived on the island, the supermarkets had shelves filled with fruit juice and milk produced in Cuba. The same company that sold the juice and milk also sold small juice-box size containers of a popular and cheap rum drink called Planchao. A few weeks ago, the juice, the milk, and the Planchao disappeared from the supermarkets. I have heard two explanations for what happened. The first explanation, and the one that seems most plausible, is that the company that made the juice, milk and rum drink was a Spanish-Cuban joint venture. The Spanish company was in charge of producing the goods, and the Cubans were responsible for distribution. So, the company delivered the goods to the Cuban government which in turn sold them in convertible currency stores at relatively expensive prices (about 3 dollars for a liter of juice and milk) , but the government never paid the Spanish company. After a few months of this, the Spanish company got fed up and closed down the operation. The second explanation, which I appreciate for its sick sense of the Kafkaesque inefficiencies here, is that the company that produced the boxes for the juice, milk and rum, went out of business, and therefore, they can no longer sell the product because they have nothing in which to put the liquid. Whichever one of these explanations is true, or even if none of them is true, the reality is that now only powdered milk is available in the stores, and that fruit juice and Planchao are gone.

Let me be clear, the milk, juice and Planchao sold at convertible peso supermarkets were not sold to the poorest Cubans who could not have afforded them. Rice, however, is a staple of the Cuban diet, and the absence of rice is like a Mexican meal without corn. Freedom of expression and access to the Internet are clearly legitimate and important demands. Freeing political prisoners is also a legitimate demand. But before you can enjoy freedom, you need to eat, and Cuba seems dangerously close to not being able to feed its people.

UPDATE: The manager of the Rio Zaza fruit juice company was found dead in his Playa apartment a few days ago, apparently something to do with drugs. There was an official declaration about it in Granma. The Juice story continues to get more interesting.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Media Wars, Musical Protests and Martí’s Cuba Libre

The newspapers and TV news has been non-stop decrying the “media war” against Cuba that the Cuban government argues has been launched by the international press led by the imperialist yanquis. What they are referring to is the coverage of the Damas en Blanco who a few weeks ago were daily protesting in the streets of Havana, and who were surrounded by mobs of “citizens” who shouted at them “the streets are Fidel’s.” This “media war” also includes coverage of the death of the prisoner Orlando Zapata who died after a long hunger strike, and the on-going hunger strike of another dissident Guillermo Fariñas.

According to the Cuban official line, echoed on the TV, in Granma, and on stage by countless artists, musicians and intellectuals, such coverage is unfair and distorted because the same media ignores human rights abuses in other countries. This line of reasoning makes some sense, but it is a weak argument because they are not saying that the news being reported is untrue, just that it is out of proportion to the weight it should be given.

But then who decides what should be covered and what should not be covered. If one has freedom of expression, then all points of view have a right to be aired. The Cuban media can present its version of events to counteract the other stories. But the Cuban government seems disingenuous when it refuses to allow multiple and opposing viewpoints in its own media. In fact, the death of Zapata was only reported days after the fact, and only in response to international coverage of the event.

Yes, Cubans have sent hundreds of doctors to Haiti, and the world should recognize that. Yes, journalists are killed every year in Mexico and in Honduras, and that should receive more coverage. And yes, the US is one of the worst offenders of human rights on bases from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. None of this seems to negate the stories that have appeared in the international press about hunger strikers in Cuba and peaceful protestors being mobbed in the streets of Havana.

In response to this “media war” the Cuban government orchestrated a major concert at the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista. The concert scheduled for 4 pm on Saturday included major musicians like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo FG, and intellectuals like Nancy Morejón and Miguel Barnet. The TV publicized the concert non-stop for several days, urging everyone to go to the Tribuna to protest the media war. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, with so much publicity, and a free concert with the most popular Cuban bands, I expected to see a sea of people on the Malecon. Some of my students even arrived a few hours early to get a spot close to the stage.

When I arrived there at 4:30 there were barely three hundred people in the audience, barely ten deep. This scant crowd was a striking contrast to the 20,000 who showed up to see the Puerto Rican Reggaeton group Calle 13 just two weeks earlier. In that concert, there were people packed in all the way to the Hotel Nacional, with all of the side streets teeming with an excited crowd. Despite the incentive of seeing the most popular Cuban bands, including reggaeton and rock groups, the tribuna was barely half filled even by 7:30 pm for this political concert. Silvio came out and played guitar for one song, singing “Soy Cuba.” The TV news that evening reported thousands of Cubans who came out to the tribuna to protest the unjust attacks on Cuba.

Cuban filmmaker Fernando Pérez just released his new film about the life of young José Martí. The film entitled José Martí: Ojo del Canario is an intimate portrait of the young independence leader before he was a major political and literary figure. It shows Martí as a shy, effeminate young boy who learns about social injustice by seeing first-hand the barbarous illegal slave trade that his father, an officer in the Spanish military, was charged with preventing. The young Pepe slowly begins to develop character and speak out against social injustice, eventually publishing his Patria Libre newspaper after the Spanish government issued a declaration allowing free press. It was ironic to watch the Spanish colonial government decreeing free press in the 1860s in the Chaplin theater in Vedado. One of the most emotional scenes in the film occurs when Martí and his classmates discuss the meaning of democracy and liberty in their classroom. But, the one that left me with chills was when Martí was arrested for writing a letter that indicated his sympathies for the cause of Cuba Libre. In court, Martí begins to defend himself, and the judges tell him to be quiet that he doesn’t have the right to speak yet. Martí explodes saying that he has seen people living in poverty and misery, and he has never been given the right to speak freely. Martí is dragged out of the courtroom shouting “viva Cuba libre.” Indeed!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

April 4: Passover in Havana

My daughter, Zulema, and I went to the Passover seder at the Sephardic synagogue in Vedado, called the Patronto. It was held in a large hall in the basement, decorated with Jewish stars and a Cuban flag. We sat at long tables and happened to be in front of a couple of young Cuban women who had been invited by their Israeli friend. They had no idea what was going on, and they lasted for fifteen minutes and then disappeared. The other people at our table were a couple from Los Angeles, who it turned out had brought the chocolate covered matzoh and horseradish from Trader Joes. The woman in the couple had left Cuba when she was very young, and hadn’t been back. The other couple we talked to were Argentine and Mexican, but now living in New York. It may have been a coincidence, but it seemed like more than half of the people at the seder were non-Cubans.

The Jewish community in Cuba is quite small, and getting smaller all the time as the older generation dies out and the younger generation emigrates. It is also relatively well-off given all of the donations they receive from well-meaning foreign Jews who come to Cuba. The seder was modest, and our table never received the full seder plate, but we made due with matzoh and harroset. Nonetheless, the mere fact that they had a data projector which showed a video made by kids recreating the story of the Jews in Egypt suggests that the synagogue has more resources than the universities where data projectors are impossible to come by.

The other sub-culture in Havana that I visited this week was Los Kent. This rock band was started in 1965, and has continued to play American and British rock classic covers throughout the revolution. They play every Sunday at the café cantante, literarily and metaphorically underground in the teatro nacional in the plaza de la revolución. These long-haired and bare chested sixty-year old Cuban rockers belt out their songs on the loudest sound system I have heard in years. The crowd is a bizarre mix of sixty year olds who shake like they are at a blues concert in Portland, and younger folks who weren’t even born when the Rolling Stones got started. The highlight of the evening, and one which they repeated twice for the benefits of video cameras recording this 45th anniversary of the band, was a rendition of the song “An American Band.” There was something charming and slightly creepy about this straggly haired sixty-year old Cuban singing, “We’re an American band. We’re coming to your town. We’re going to party down.” The politics of that song being played just beneath the plaza de la revolución with Che, Camilo and José Martí looking down was just too much to comprehend for me on that particular Sunday evening.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mar. 14- Zona Cuerpo in Vedado

I have been thinking a lot about bodies. Free bodies. Imprisoned bodies. Dead bodies. Dancing bodies.

Tonight at the Teatro Mella on Linea in Vedado, I saw a performance by Danza Combinatoria of the Rosario Cárdenas company. The performance entitled Zona-Cuerpo (Body Zone) featured six dancers (two men and four women) with painted bodies, live music and chanting, and spoken words. The bodies interacted with one another, at times in extremely erotic poses and other times fighting violently with one another. The erotic poses that combined every imaginable preference and position transported the audience to another space, apart from the everyday struggles of life in Havana.

At one point toward the end of the performance, one of the dancers could no longer sustain herself, and had to be supported by the others. She was a limp vessel, being twisted, held up, dragged, and carried. Finally, the whole group tried to support, push, and encourage the image of a man on a screen as he walked forward, but in the end the man stops, frozen in time, and he disintegrated into nothing. The dancers fell to the ground, low red lights washed the stage, and slowly they writhd to life shedding all of their clothes. They were left to confront the world as they came into it, completely naked, and also completely free.

The dance company held an open forum with the audience after the show. One person referred to the freedom that the dancers exhibited on stage, saying how he too would like to inhabit that world. There were a large number of psychologists in the audience who spoke about how people go around with a lot of repressed ideas and feelings, and that the dance served as a metaphor for free expression of these repressed ideas. One retired factory worker stated that he felt transported from the struggle of the crowded guagua (the bus) to another world. He didn’t understand what the dance was about, he said, but he was able to see another world was possible. In what other part of the world does a retired factory worker pay the equivalent of 20 US cents to see a postmodern dance performance, and then stay to engage in an open forum about its meaning? He and his wife will still have to board a crowded bus to return home, but the best of the revolution was somehow present there in Teatro Mella.

I was reminded of the Cuban filmmaker Fernando Pérez’s film “Life is to Whistle” in which a psychiatrist explains to his patient that Cubans need to say what they have been bottling up inside to free themselves. He runs around the street shouting “doble moral” (literally meaning double morals but referring to the act of saying one thing in public and doing the opposite), “sexo”, and “libertad.” As people hear these taboo words, they faint. The dance performance tonight was a public expression of that which goes hidden in plain sight, and remains repressed in everyday life. Numerous people in the audience said they envied the dancers, they wanted to be on stage, they wanted to be liberated. One of the young dancers took the microphone and told the audience that the performance means nothing if they go home, go to sleep and forget about it. They must be willing to change, to free what is being repressed, to dance, to move, to interact freely.

The images of the emaciated body of the dissident journalist Guillermo Fariñas, engaged right now in Santa Clara in a life threatening hunger strike for the release of 26 political prisoners, flashed into my head. Does one have to starve ones body to gain freedom? In the late nineteenth century, Cuba had the highest suicide rate in the world because so many Chinese contract workers, who were being treated like slaves on sugar plantations, chose to kill themselves rather than submit to continued bondage.

As I walked into the twilight falling on Linea, the P 1 guagua streaked by loaded with passengers squished against one another as if performing a postmodern dance, the boteros (collective taxis) belched thick black smoke as they roared down the road like motor boats on wheels, and I imagined a day when the Zona Cuerpo could be performed on Linea without professional dancers. That day all bodies will be free from Havana to Guantanamo, from Madrid to New York City.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mar. 8- Todo Incluido: “It’s Time to Change”

The tourist resorts in Cuba are a weird circus mirror reflection of socialism on the island. You arrive at one of these 1980s modernist Soviet-style cement-block complexes and receive your “todo incluido” bracelet that provides you with unlimited access to the bar and an excessive buffet with all the food that one could possibly eat. The rum is cheap, the drinks all taste like alcoholic Tang, and the food lacks subtlety, but the mountains of food in a land of scarcity is quite shocking. While I can imagine tourists complaining about the low quality of the food, they are missing the point.

What is not included in the “todo incluido” package is any contact with the real life scarcity that almost every Cuban has to confront on a daily basis. The lack of money, rice, eggs, cheese, toilet paper is all carefully cropped out of the frame that the tourist sees. This is of course no different in Mexico, Jamaica, Los Angeles or any other neocolonial economy where the tourist is kept at a safe distance from reality. It reminded me of the conversation I overheard on the airplane to Cancun where two guys talked about how they were afraid to leave their Sandals resort in Jamaica for fear of being mugged. What is different in Cuba is that it is supposed to be different here.

The problem with Cuban socialism is not the tourist resorts, but that only the tourists have access to the plenty that should be distributed to everyone. Inside the tourist resort I saw a cook throw away an egg she was frying because it didn’t form a perfect round shape. Outside, it is hard to even find eggs. Inside fat tourists pile their plates high with several different kinds of meat, cheese and fish. Outside, Cubans eat gooey peso pizza and sandwiches with a thin slice of mystery meat on it. Inside, there is access to the Internet and CNN. Outside, well, you get the idea.

As we travelled across the island through Camaguey, Santiago and Santa Clara, there was not even a whisper about the “dissident” who had died during a hunger strike a few days earlier, or the others who were arrested while trying to attend his funeral. For days there was no official mention of the death, but eventually the state media had to respond, and they did so by blaming the death on the “imperialists” the “mercenaries” and the foreign press. The few Cubans I talked to who knew anything about the hunger strike death echoed the state media explanation. Most Cubans, however, were too busy dealing with their everyday problems to notice. It was strange to read the international press on the few occasions I could and see how distant its concerns were to the vast majority of people on the island. The press both inside and outside of the island seemed to be describing a fantasy Caribbean island that only existed in their minds.

Another “dissident” in Santa Clara has vowed to continue his hunger strike until his death unless twenty-six political prisoners are released from jail. I didn’t know about this until I was back in Havana and was able to get access to the Internet. But while I walked through an alley behind the main square in Santa Clara I saw a graffiti that repeated the words that the Juanes sang when he performed at the Peace concert in Havana in the fall. It read: “It’s time to change.” Maybe Cubans should get bracelets too, allowing them unlimited access to food, drinks, and nice beaches. Until then “todo incluido” is a tourist fantasy sucking precious resources and mocking a

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Feb. 24, Chasing Fulas in Habana

A woman who cleans and cooks in a house in Vedado told me today, “it’s the law of the jungle here.” She was referring to the way people chase money, and mostly the all important CUC, called fula, divisa, dolar, peso. Like the Inuit, who apparently have 30 different words for snow, the Cubans have 30 different names for money, not because there is so much of it, but because there is so little of it.

The question I wake up with everyday is how can people survive on their extremely low state salary. And the answer is: they don’t. People must supplement their income by doing odd jobs, some legal some not so legal, receiving remittances from friends and relatives abroad, tips from tourists, or the black market trade. And mostly people rely on extended friend and family networks to get by in lean times.

One of the thriving arenas of entrepreneurial activity in Havana is the rental of rooms to foreigners. The prices range from 25-50 CUC for a legal room, and slightly less for an illegal rental. For those who rent rooms legally, the taxes are quite high. In slightly posh neighborhood of Vedado, it is over 300 per room per month no matter how many days the room is actually rented. At the end of the year, the government taxes the entire amount as income at about 40%. Anytime someone refers a tourist to a “casa particular,” they receive $5 a day. This rate supposedly holds regardless of the rental price. For long-term rentals, the “commission” is 100 CUC a month per room. You can see how lucrative this business can be in a country where the minimum wage is about 10 CUC a month.

Hypothetically, imagine someone arranging the housing for 10 rooms for a group of students. That person would make a whopping 1000 CUC each month for next to no work. Meanwhile, the professor, surgeon, architect, or lawyer earns anywhere from 20- 30 CUC a month. The value of work and commodities have no relation to any standard measure or value. Today I saw a kilo of Provolone cheese that cost 30 CUC (35 USD) in Palco, an upscale supermarket. Meanwhile the pizzas on the street cost 4 Cuban pesos (about 25 US cents). The pass for a multi-day film festival going on now costs 40 US cents for Cubans, but a bottle of olive oil costs 18 USD. The bus costs 40 Cuban cents (about 2 US cents), but an hour of Internet access costs 8-10 US dollars.

The other day, when I changed a 100 CUC note in a bar, I was given change that I later discovered included a counterfeit 20 CUC bill. The paper was a different quality, and the watermark of Martí was missing, but otherwise it was a fairly good fake. Word on the street is that fake bills are being produced in Miami. Is it that Cubans on the island lack the technology or the gumption to counterfeit currency? Some people suggested passing the bill onto someone else, or perhaps going back to the bar and passing it off to them. It seemed like bad karma either way. What would Randy Cohen do? What would Jesus do? Or more appropriately, what would Che do?

It made me think that as long as everyone believed the piece of paper had value, it would keep circulating, and nobody would be the wiser. But once someone decided that the value the bill declared was an empty promise, the whole chain of obligations responsibilities would fall apart. The bank note would be just a piece of paper. The dreams and hopes that the bill could produce would vanish into the air, leaving the holder with the distinct feeling that they had been scammed. This is a sentiment not unheard of on the streets of Havana, especially among young people.

I decided to keep the fake 20 CUC bill as a souvenir of all of the fake promises, the promises made by banks and politicians, the promises made by lawyers and doctors, the everyday promises we make to each other as well. This fake 20 CUC bill takes on a new value now as an objet d’art. This tattered piece of paper is a poem, a flag raised in honor of the false prophets and false profits of people chasing the fula and dreams on a humid and rainy day in Havana in late February.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Liberal Arts Education and Soviet Nostalgia

Feb 21: Liberal Arts Education and Soviet Nostalgia

In our weekly reflection, my students talked about the difficulties they have trying to explain to Cubans the meaning of liberal arts education. The idea of spending four years in university without specializing in a particular career seems strange to them. Of course, this seems strange to most of the world, and even to most people in the US. But in Cuba, when people find out that students pay upwards of $40,000 a year for the privilege of studying and exploring ideas, their jaws drop.

It was a good opportunity for the students to think about why exactly they chose a liberal arts education, and what they are getting out of it. One student who studies biology explained it with the metaphor that they learn not only to look through the microscope but to look at the microscope itself. Then there was a whole discussion about whether it was better to learn about the forest by going into the forest, or whether such a perspective from the ground didn’t allow you to see the forest but only the trees. After about twenty minutes, one student hit on the central idea: liberal arts education teaches you how to think critically. In Cuba, people are given the tools to think critically, but then they are encouraged to not exercise their critical thinking skills, or to curtail them in very particular ways. As one Cuban art student put it to me in 2004, “they give us wings, and then don’t allow us to fly.”

At the Feria del Libro, I saw a presentation of Russian and Cuban science fiction writers. One young Cuban science fiction writer who goes by the name Yoss, and who looks like the love child of Rambo and Fabio at a Death Metal concert, told a joke to introduce his presentation about the Soviet influence on Cuban science fiction. It went something like this. A Jewish man, Issac, goes looking for his friend Abraham in the Soviet Union who had been in Auschwitz with him. After a long search, he finally finds his friend Abraham who was now a street sweeper in Red Square in Moscow, and he says, “I can’t believe it’s you, Abraham. Remember the gas chambers, the starving children, the piles of dead bodies.” And Abraham looks up, and says, “Ah, yes, I remember, gas chambers, starving children, dead bodies. Those were the days.” Russia is the honored country at the book fair this year, and there is a fair amount of nostalgia for the good old days of Soviet subsidies for Cuba. From the perspective of 2010, those were the good old days indeed.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

La Libreta: Rationalizing the Rations

Feb. 17- La Libreta: Rationalizing the Rations

For a few months now, there have been rumors and discussions about the elimination of the libreta, the ration card that has been one of the guarantees of basic food necessities for everyone since the early years of the revolution. The television news even announced this measure might take place first in the province of Matanzas, as an experiment.

The reaction by Cubans has been schizophrenic. On the one hand, everyone I have talked to says that nobody can live on the food that is provided by the rations anyway, which amounts to a little oil, some rice, beans, sugar, eggs and other basic goods. “No da para nada” (it doesn’t amount to anything) is the typical response. However, when I ask people what would happen if the rations disappeared, they react quite strongly, saying that many people depend on the rations to survive, and that taking it away would lead them to starvation. Or, they say, if they take away our rations, they better raise our salaries enough so we can pay for food in CUC, the convertible currency, not the Cuban peso.

Providing adequate food supplies seems to be a basic function of a state. So far, the Cuban state has managed this through the libreta system, combined with some somewhat private enterprise agromercados where fruits and vegetables can be bought in Cuban pesos, and state supermarkets where imported and Cuban products like milk, pasta, and oil are sold in CUC. However, many, if not all, Cubans supplement these official channels for food. The black market in hard to find food items is thriving, with people selling eggs, tuna fish, cheese, and lobster door to door. I even bought some potatoes outside of an agromercado, which were hidden under a bush covered with a piece of cardboard. It felt more like a drug deal than buying a bag of potatoes.

When I asked one woman whether people could survive on the rations, she told me that you could survive for 7- 10 days. “You want to know how people live,” she asked? “Stealing from the state.” The bodega manager will get the truck driver to “lose” a sack of sugar, and then he will sell that on the black market. This informal economy is what supplements the monthly rations, allowing some to profit by selling and others to survive by buying stolen goods. Even though the ration system seems to have degenerated into an irrational and inefficient system of corruption and fraud, it is hard to imagine a Cuba without it, unless there are some more significant changes in the economy and how people are paid.

Here is a breakdown of what the “libreta de consumidores” provides each person each month. People still have to pay for the rations, but at highly subsidized prices (Cuban pesos). 1 CUC= 24 Cuban Pesos, and 1 USD = 20 Cuban pesos.

Total cost for one month of rations is about 31 Cuban pesos or 1.5 USD. While this are extremely subsidized prices, the minimum wage in Cuba is around 225 Cubans pesos per month, which is also what many pensioners receive, meaning that 14% of a monthly salary is spent on buying rations.

Rice- 7 lbs. at 21 cents per lb.
Sugar- 3 lbs white (15 c per lb.), 2 lbs dark (6 c per lb)
Salt- 1 packet of 2 lbs every 3 months (20 c per lb.)
Peas- 8 ounces (.6 c per lb)
Beans- 8 ounces (.6 c per lb)
Lentils- 8 ounces (.6 c per lb)

Coffee- 4 ounces (5 pesos)
Toothpaste- 1 tube, (.65 c)
Washing soap (.2 c)
Bathing soap (.16 c)
½ lb oil (.45 c)
Pasta- 1 packet (.9 c)
Eggs- 10 at .15 c and an additional 5 at .9 c
Chicken- 1 lb. (.7 c)
Fish- 8 ounces (.6 c)

Children up to 7 years old and old people on a special diet also receive:

Powdered milk- 1 kilo (2.5 pesos)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Feb 13, Feria del Libro: Cubans call for Anti-Racism and Gringo Marxists call for Class Struggle

Feb 13
Feria del Libro: Cubans call for Anti-Racism and Gringo Marxists call for Class Struggle

The Feria del Libro in Havana is like no other book fair I have attended. The site for the fair is the Cabaña-Morro fort complex, sitting on a bluff with a magnificent view of the city’s skyline. Thousands of people arrive by the busload, school kids, families, the elderly, making the fair feel like a carnival more than a literary event. The passages of the fort are filled with bodies moving in and out of labyrinth cells that had at one point been a prison. The prisoners have been replaced with mountains of cheap books. The lines for the greasy food are often longer than the lines for the books. Feed your body and your soul for just a 3 Cuban peso entry fee.

Cuban books are incredibly cheap, around 10-20 Cuban pesos (40-80 US cents). This makes books accessible to the population but publishing is a losing financial proposition on the island, and so the more they sell, the less money the press has. Authors of books published by foreign presses must arrange to have the copyright donated to Cuban presses to allow this heavily subsidized system to make their books accessible to Cubans.

I saw a panel by historians discussing the history of race and racism in Cuba. They mostly spent their time talking about the silences that exist in Cuban historiography around the issue of race. Foreigners have made far more use of Cuban sources about race than Cubans because it has been hard to get approval in Cuba to study such topics. Recently there was a TV roundtable, Mesa Redonda, dedicated to the issue of race, suggesting more “official” openness on the topic. The historians recognized this opening but also complained that publishing books and having conferences will not change anything until the school curriculum is changed. One of the issues an audience member mentioned was the absence of the history of Africa in their curricula, something that many US universities, including mine, face. Eurocentrism thrives on this tropical socialist island, despite the rhetoric of solidarity among the people of the “South”.

The Cubans had some very insightful and open comments about racism in their society. Nobody there claimed that racism had been eliminated by the Revolution. Two foreigners, one a Spaniard and the other a guy from the US, spoke in the question and answer period, using a Marxist Leninist discourse that had been in vogue up the 1970s. When the gringo began talking about the “dictadura del proletariado” in Cuba as a positive thing, and commenting on the working class struggle in the US, I had to hang my head in shame. Que verguenza! It is a strange irony that the last hard line Marxist Leninists in Cuba should be Spaniards and North Americans, representatives of the two former colonial powers.

Nadine Gordimer, the South African nobel literature prize winner, released a Cuban version of her book “Caprichos de la naturaleza” at the fair. With all of the TV cameras rolling, Gordimer began by condemning the US occupation of Guantanamo Bay. “How can the US simply take possession of a piece of another country?” she asked quite astutely. But then, in what seemed like a scripted or at least prompted intervention, she also condemned the treatment of the five Cubans who have been convicted in US courts of spying for Cuba. I have not met one Cuban who cares much about the “5 Heroes,” in spite of government posters everywhere exhorting the public to demand the return of los Cinco. Whether or not the alleged “spies” have been treated fairly in US courts, it seems like there are more pressing issues facing Cuba that she might have addressed. In a later comment, she mentioned the problem of ghettoes in South Africa and also in Cuba. The Cuba part was left out by the Spanish translator. Gordimer also made the distinction between “committed writers,” who she called propagandistic writers, and other writers, who she explained, need to talk about all of the aspects of real life, not just from the perspective or for the benefit of one political party. Gordimer is a shining example of a writer, notwithstanding the Cinco Heroes comment.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Culturas Híbridas: from underground hip hop to avant-garde theater

Feb. 11, Culturas Híbridas: from underground hip hop to avant-garde theater

Where is the cultural underground in Havana? It seems like an overdetermined question, and the answers one finds are perhaps also overdetermined. The other night I put on my urban ethnographer’s hat and went with some friends to a hip hop concert by the “prohibited” and “underground” hip hop group “Los Aldeanos”. The concert was being held at a theme park all the way out near the airport. Rio Cristal had apparently been quite a beautiful park before the revolution, or so I was told by someone who lived a bourgeois life then, but now it seemed like a deserted museum to a theme park of fifty years ago.

The group set up beneath the diving board in front of a pool filled with only 2 feet of murky water. There were only about 30-40 young people, mostly Cuban, and a small smattering of foreign (gringo?) hip hop fans. Although I had been told that los Aldeanos had been prohibited by the government, there are apparently different levels of government censorship. They are allowed the play in public, even if their music is not recorded or played on radio or TV.

The fans, a racially mixed group, all seemed to know the lyrics, and they sang along with the group, pumping their hands in the air as a pair of gringas waded into the pool to dance. What seemed bizarre was the self-consciousness of their subversive status, as if it had become part of their image that they had to keep selling to their audience. We are los Aldeanos, “hip hop underground,” they belted from beneath the diving board.

The next night I continued my tour through alternative hip hop, and saw Las Krudas, a lesbian hip hop act, that was playing at a small, very smokey, divey club in Vedado. One of the Krudas now lives in California, but she was back, and they were performing again. The hip hop scene in Havana seems almost completely dominated by men, so it is that much more impressive for an all female, and explicitly feminist group to have gained such a following.

The lyrics of Las Krudas’ songs are overtly political, calling for a global revolution, declaring equality with men, and even one song glorifying fat women. The disjunction between the militant anti-machista feminism of las Krudas and the machista ambience of the club was striking. Before las Krudas sang, the dance floor filled with Cuban men, almost all black, dancing very tightly with white, foreign women. There were almost no Cuban women in the club, and the ones who were there were not dancing with the men, but sat with their boyfriend’s at tables. Feminism as discourse more than practice. One of the songs was about men and women being equal; everytime she sang “somos iguales” (we are equal), a Cuban man in the audience responded, “mentira” (lie).

Tonight I went to the Llaurado theater in Vedado to see a Chilean play called Neva. The play is set in St. Petersburg in 1905, on the eve of Russia’s 1905 revolution. Chekov’s wife, Olga, an actress, bemoans the death of her husband while she and two other actors keep reenacting the final moments of Chekov’s life. The actors kept slipping into and out of character, leaving the audience wondering where the acting ends and the “real” story begins. The staging was very minimal with one chair and a low orange light that came from something that looked like it was a heater around which the actors huddled to keep warm in the cold Russian winter.

The play climaxes with one of the actresses, who plays Chekov’s sister at one point, declaring that she hates the theater, and hates the public who goes to the theater. Why don’t they give their money to the poor instead of spending it on the theater. She calls on the other two actors to wake up and recognize that a revolution is about to happen. Chekov’s wife, Olga, wails that nothing ever changes, and nothing ever will. The other actress says she dreams of killing rich people, burning down estates and theaters, and assassinating generals. She finally shouts, “no habrá mas ricos” (there will be no more rich people). A long silence, and then one of the other actors says, “yeah, we will all be poor.” The audience laughs, because they don’t want to cry.

Tonight was the last show, and I waited in a long line two hours before the show to try to squeeze in at the last minute despite the fact that the show was sold out. And then once the doors opened, everyone seemed to be allowed in for 10 Cuban pesos (40 US cents). There were people sitting in the aisles on lawn chairs, two-abreast, and people standing several rows deep in the back. If there were such a thing as a fire code, this would certainly have been a major violation. The crowd, unlike the mostly black Cuban crowd at Las Krudas, was lighter-skinned Cubans, suggesting that after fifty years, cultural life is still somewhat segregated along racial lines in Cuba. And unlike the large presence of gringas at the hip hop show, this was an almost entirely Cuban audience.

My Cuban friend who saw the play earlier, left trembling. I’m not sure whether it was my hunger, dehydration, or what, but the play brought tears to my eyes. The glorious idea of a revolution that promised so much, that hoped to bring down the czar and eliminate all rich people, ended in nihilism and tragedy. “We will all be poor,” was the line that received the most laughs tonight. And at the end of the play, the heater emanating a dark orange glow, was turned to face the audience, and the stage went black.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Writing is on the Wall

Feb 7: The Writing is on the Wall

Havana is a city surprisingly free of graffiti. Perhaps the expense of paint is too much in a country where most people can barely afford enough food to survive. However, recently there are political messages appearing on the streets. They are not explicitly anti-government. Instead they invoke abstract ideals like “libertad” or “freedom” (written in English on Linea in Vedado).

These furtive messages do not last long before people (local CDR representatives perhaps) come along not to erase or cover over the graffiti but to do something much more ingenious: they change the message. When there were elections on the island, and a list of candidates was posted, someone came along and wrote “no” next to each name. Then a government sympathizer came along with a stencil and painted “al bloqueo” (to the embargo) under each “no.” What had been a repudiation of an electoral system where the communist party always wins, for more than 50 years now, becomes an anti-US imperialist slogan.

On Saturday morning I noticed a new graffiti on a wall a few blocks from my house: “Libertad” it proclaimed in a thick black paint scrawled on a low wall on 19th and D in Vedado. Within a few hours, someone had come by, and in a clearly different writing had painted “para los Cinco” (for the Five), a reference to the five Cubans in jail in the US for spying.

The Cuban state is genius at incorporating and defanging dissent, either by hijacking graffiti messages, or through the very hegemony of the revolutionary discourse. There was a protest at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), the premiere art university in the country, in October of 2009. Although news of this spontaneous protest reached the international news, few people in Cuba heard about it. Students, fed up with poor quality and scarce food, and terrible conditions in their dorms, demanded improvements and staged a sit-down “strike” until things changed. Students, being videotaped by cell phones, spoke loudly and articulately about their complaints. They painted posters satirizing the conditions at ISA, danced, and one student even staged a performance in which he covered himself with mud to symbolize the problems they face given the absence of water in the dorms, sometimes for two days in a row. Some students claimed to not be staging a strike, and others said that this was not a political act. “We are artists, and we only want to be able to express ourselves as artists,” one non-political artist declared.

In an edited video that is circulating around Havana, one sees these students confronting the Rector of the university quite directly and dramatically. A student yells plaintively that the people who are supposed to represent him, don’t do anything. The Rector calmly explains the difficulties they face in this revolutionary process. At the end of the video, one of the students reads a printed manifesto in which they affirm their revolutionary commitment, and argue for rectification of these problems within the context of the revolution. Although these kinds of spontaneous protests in which people openly confront authorities are rare in Cuba, even this act of defiance was carefully couched, by the students themselves, as part of the revolutionary process. As Fidel said in his address to intellectuals in 1961, “within the revolution everything: against the revolution, nothing.” The students at the ISA have learned well!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

el dinero degenera, y tambien el socialismo

January 28th

It always strikes me how quickly one leaves Cancun and arrives over the island of Cuba on a plane. It is just 40 minutes by airplane from Cancun to Havana, but the two places are worlds apart. We arrived, breezed through migration, the health questionnaire and customs. The customs officials waved the whole group through without even asking anyone questions. Apparently this lax attitude was due to something that had occurred a day or two earlier when a president of another country arrived as a tourist and was subjected to rigorous questioning about the contents of his luggage. For now anyway, it seems that all tourist types get waved through. This was a relief given the printer, data projector and other various items that I was bringing in.

Julie, our Cuban host, met us with kisses for everyone, and began to tell me about all of the changes in the last day. Two of the homestays for the students that had been arranged three months earlier fell through when the owners decided they wanted to “permutar” their houses. This means exchange their house for another one, which is the closest thing one gets to actually selling a house in Cuba. Luckily Julie was able to find another amazing homestay.

The bus that brought us into the city, for a reason nobody could understand or explain, was not allowed to drop us off at the houses where we were staying, even though these are government sanctioned home rentals. Instead the bus driver dropped us and our luggage at the nearby Hotel Presidente. Julie and I went with the students in a taxi, placing them one by one. The whole complicated operation took about an hour. The houses and the families are all great, and in the best neighborhood in Havana, which is Vedado. There were the usual problems, like some tourist who was staying in one of the rooms of the houses for another two days and the absence of two beds where two beds had been promised, but we hope to resolve these issues in the coming days.

We all walked to dinner at Carmelo, a restaurant on G y 23 looking like a troupe of 20 gringos parading down the streets of Vedado. The DJ at the restaurant started playing dance music and Jesse got up and began dancing. By the end of the dinner, almost everyone was up dancing at our first of many spontaneous dance parties. That evening the International Medical School was having a party there, and we met an African American US medical student from Chicago wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Karl Marx. He has been living in Cuba for the last few years, and offered us some tips on how to make cheaper calls to the US. The medical students are hoping to be sent to Haiti to help with the relief effort there.

We walked down avenida G to the Malecon, running into many jineteros who the students chatted up, and several of Julie’s former students and colleagues along the way. The students drifted off to their houses to read for the next day’s lecture from Rafael Hernández, the editor of Temas, an important intellectual magazine, about Civil Society and Communication in Cuba. Thus ended day one with me exhausted and content and missing my Internet connection.

January 29, 2010

Today we met at the Sociedad Cultural José Martí for our orientation meeting. This building has an amazing history. It is a mansion that was owned by the owner of a dance club, the Tropical, then it was the Japanese embassy, then the Consejo de Estado used it as a storage site for their archives, and finally in October it was restored and opened as a cultural center for activities related to Martí.

We expected Rafael Hernández at 10:30 to give a lecture, but he never showed up. The students took all of this in stride, and we took the opportunity to visit the agromercado, a supermarket with very little in it, and the Melia Cohiba, a fancy Spanish hotel on the Malecon. The contrast between the fancy hotel and the emptiness of the supermarket was striking.

In the evening we had a cocktail party at the Ludwig Foundation, an arts organization founded by a German art collector. The Ludwig has a beautiful terrace overlooking Vedado. The students, invited professors, and some of the people from the Ludwig ate and drank while the sun set, and a large orange moon slowly rose on the horizon. It was a magical feeling to be floating above Havana, so far from the problems of everyday life in the city, so close to world of art.

As I lie in bed, I watch the Mesa Rendonda, a nightly news program, that still, after all these years, seems to focus on the 5 heroes, prisioneros del imperialismo. Tomorrow the students will split into pairs for a treasure hunt to find important monuments and buildings around the city. They will finally be forced to move around Havana by themselves, and forced to talk to Cubans to find their treasure.

January 30, 2010

This morning the students had to do a treasure hunt in Havana, and find certain buildings and monuments based on clues that I gave them. After they found their sites, they had to make their way to plaza vieja in Habana vieja. Almost all of the students made it, save one, who never met up with his partner. The students walked, took busses, and collective taxis and made their way across a part of the city. I think the experience will give them more confidence in moving around on their own without the gringo train.

In the afternoon, I bought a cel phone line in our Cuban host professor’s name, and then we went to a place in Habana vieja that unblocks foreign cel phones. The only phone on sale at the ETECSA office cost about $250. The cel phone line cost $40 CUC plus $10 to add minutes. The calls are very expensive but since last year Cubans were finally allowed to have cel phone lines, and the prices dropped from 150 to 40 immediately. This is still a small fortune, two months salary, in Cuba.

There was a problem with one of the host families because the father in the house was ill, and so we had to find another house for them. The new house is even better, in spite of the crucifixes everywhere in the house. One of the families also complained about the students’ using their kitchen, but there is another kitchen upstairs that they can use.

In the evening I attended the penultimate performance of Josefina la Viajera, a play by a Cuban playwright, Abilio Estevez, who lives in Barcelona. The play is about a woman in 1902 who wants to travel across the island to Havana. It is also about the reality in today’s Cuba, and the parallels between the two periods is an interesting reflection on history. At one point the protagonist screams out against “totalitarianism castrista.” I have seen lots of indirect critical references to the regime, but never something so directly critical of Castro. The theater was packed, and, at 5 Cuban pesos (about 20 US cents), very accessible to everyone. I’m not sure a two hour near monologue is so accessible, pero bueno.

February 2, 2010

Not having Internet has reduced my motivation to write everyday. But, now that we have been in the country for almost a week, the realities of life here are setting in. First, the lack of food in the supermarket and basic items in the stores is worse that I have seen it in the last eight years. Students have been unable to find basic food items like beans and rice in the agromercados or the supermarkets. Even in the big supermarkets like 70 y 3ra, there is almost nothing. Even blank paper is hard to find. Finding paper to print for sale was impossible. A nice woman at a fancy hotel wouldn’t sell me paper but handed me a small stack.

Today I went to one supermarket that had no plastic bags for customers. One Cuban who I was with began to complain, asking how she was supposed to carry the items home. Finally I saw that they had black garbage bags in a corner, and they gave her one to carry her shopping. It is ironic how in places like Portland we are trying to get rid of plastic bags, and how not having any bags in a supermarket in Havana is a sign of a system that no longer works. Everyone shrugs their shoulders, and says “we have been living this for 50 years.”

As soon as the rest of the passengers in my collective taxi (botero) got out, the driver asked me where I was from. When I said the US, he was very excited, and said he was a political dissident and was getting a visa to go to the US. According to him, he had been jailed a few times for long periods, and had his house taken away simply because he doesn’t like the system. He was very vocal that “this is a castrista dictatorship” and ranted on about how terrible the system is. He went out of his way to drive me to exactly where I was headed.

The students are still enthusiastic and excited about Cuba despite the frustrations. One student complained about always feeling hungry and not knowing where he was going to find his next meal. Now the students have a lot of money relative to most Cubans but one can’t help feeling the scarcity when you go to the market and see empty shelves, or shelves full of Guayava paste and not much else. I also found out that I can’t get an Internet connection in my house because they have all been frozen until March. The only news I have seen recently is the Mesa Redonda talking about the US imperialists stealing babies from Haiti.

February 3

Tonight as I walked by Linea in Vedado, I saw three people trying to scrape off a graffito message on a building that read “freedom.” They looked like local residents, not police or official city workers. What does freedom look like to the painter of the message, and what does it look like to the people scraping it off of their residence?

This afternoon in the Inventario, a weekly exhibit for young artists at the Ludwig Foundation, I saw a print of the slogans “dignity” and “patriotism” in a vice grip.

I also saw an incredible Afro-Cuban dance class at the art high school (ENAH), complete with drummers and singers doing call and response Yoruba songs. The sixteen year old students repeated the Afro Cuban steps over and over again, demonstrating the discipline that dance requires.

I saw the most incredible architecture at the ISA in the unfinished Artes Escenicas building by Ricardo Porra, half in ruins, half reconstructed, with no work continuing due to lack of funds.

I ate 3 peso pizza (about 12 US cents) at the ISA outdoor café, and heard a professor there complain that it is a lie that her food is subsidized. As she put it, if I earn “bad money” and the prices are cheap, then I am paying what I should be paying. And when I earn “bad money” and have to pay “good prices” I am being screwed.

There is a wifi connection in my neighborhood with the username “animal” and in desperation for a connection, I am reduced to guessing the password with words like “jaguar” and “elefante,” but I am tempted to start using other words like “obama,” “bush,” or “fidel”.

Conversation overheard on the street between a young, idealistic Latin American and a Cuban:

Latin American: El dinero degenera.

Cuban: El socialismo tambien degenera. Mirame a mi. Esta revolución me ha dado ni pinga en 50 años, solo trabajo.

Tengo, vamos a ver, lo que tenia que tener

Pero los demas, quizas no tanto.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Leaving Portland and Cancun

January 27, 2010

This is a blog that I am starting in Cancun, as I depart for 98 days in Cuba leading the Lewis & Clark College study program in Havana. I am not sure what the purpose of this blog is other than to force me, or encourage me to write down some observations about Cuba in 2010, and about the experience of being a leader of one of a handful of US study abroad programs.

Yesterday as I strolled the aisles of Office Depot where I was to buy toner for someone in Cuba, I kept thinking about all of the possible office supplies I might want in Cuba. Neon colored post-it notes, a small stapler, folders, pens, and highlighters all ended up in my basket because it was there, available and relatively cheap. The same story was true at Fred Meyer and Trader Joes where I loaded up on cliff bars, nuts, emergen-c, and other items that are impossible to come by on the island. The abundance of choice in the US versus the absence of choice in Cuba is one of the starkest differences that anyone who knows both places notices.

As I packed at night, Cubans from Portland who I know kept arriving with small packages for me to bring to their families: diabetes medicine, sunblock, $120. I had received a list of requests from my Cuban friends on the island: a hard drive, parmesan cheese, a shower curtain from Ikea, almonds, and vitamins. The random assortment of items requested from Cuba is as good a gauge as any as to the needs.

At the airport at 4:30 am in Portland, my assistant Brenda was not allowed on the plane because she is Peruvian and didn’t have a visa for Mexico. She headed for the consulate, and the rest of us took off on our journey, meeting up with students in Houston and then Cancun. The two guys sitting next to me on the plane were talking about how much they loved the all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica like Sandals, but one of them warned the other not to leave the resort or they would surely be mugged. I wondered what kinds of travel experiences these people had. Whatever it was, they loved it.

In Cancun, we checked into the Courtyard Marriot with its wifi, comfortable rooms and nice pool. The students and I took a public bus into town and ate a great meal at a Yucatecan restaurant. I kept thinking about how much food, ease of living and general luxury there was in a place like Cancun, and how that would mostly end once in Cuba. It is impossible to keep appreciating what we have when we have it. It is only once it is gone, that we really take notice.

The students all seem excited for this new adventure. I am also excited, but still wary of the tragic situation that Cuba finds itself in today. Cuba attracts me, and the students, but I always ask myself “what is it that I am being drawn to”?