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.