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.