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.
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.