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.