Saturday, April 25, 2009

De donde son los cantantes (Notes on Cuba, Part 2)

As I mentioned in my previous post on Cuba, I visited that country as part of an educators' tour, sponsored by the Center for Cuban Studies (CCS) in New York, and the Cuban Institute of Friendship among Peoples (Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos-ICAP). In this post, I'll write about housing, businesses, the farms, and the propaganda. Please note that these are unedited thoughts, and some may require correction. Let me also note that what provokes my beginning with them are the most common questions I've gotten since returning, which are: "What was Cuba like?" "What was best about it?" "What was dealing with the government officials like?" I've tended to answer these questions respectively with, "Amazing and complex"; "The educational system, the fact that health care and education are free, and that a basic safety net exists for everyone"; and "Complex and worth a long discussion." What I'll discuss in my next post are some other issues, including what I observed about the educational system, the arts, and three others I was curious about, race, gender and sexuality (and homosexuality).

HOUSES, CARS, FARMS, BUSINESSES, PROPAGANDA

On our tour, we saw not only a number of Havana neighborhoods (Vedado, Centro, Habana Viejo (Old Havana), Miramar (once a very wealthy waterfront suburb to the west of the city), Kholy (another formerly wealthy waterfront neighborhood), Jaimanitas (the location of the Casa Fuster and its taller [workshop]) and Habana del Este (more exurban in feel), but we also rusticated in the neighboring, rural, mountainous province of Pinar del Río, with its capital of the same name, and its almost unearthly beautiful town of Viñales, which was truly bucolic. What became clear was that, as my and all the photos you've probably seen of Cuba show, a great deal of the housing stock and architecture date from before the Revolution (pre-1959/1960), and in many cases, they are in a dilapidated and deteriorating state. This was particularly true in the Vedado (a nice district, with lots of things to see, lots of important institutions and sites, etc.) and Centro (really more of the 'hood) neighborhoods, but we could see it even in Miramar and Kholy. (There was another hidden neighborhood we passed on the way to Miramar, not far from where Fidel Castro's house was rumored to sit, that had also been a rich suburb, but it was situated down a road and we didn't venture into.) Outside of Old Havana, which was beautifully maintained, it seemed only the newest buildings in those neighborhoods, buildings constructed primarily or recently for tourism, and government buildings, were in very good to excellent condition. In many cases, as we learned, the lack of maintenance was the direct result of the government's and home occupants' inability to finance rehabs, the scarcity of materials (like paint, concrete, bricks, etc.), and deterioration related to the climate (especially for buildings facing the Straits of Florida or, to the south, the Caribbean). When the Revolution succeeded in 1959, and many wealthy and middle-class people left, the government seized their homes and land and then distributed it to the people who left. That is, all housing was redistributed; while people were allowed to stay in some houses, many of the grander homes (and believe me, there are quite a few) were turned into schools, community centers, and so on. We heard a story about how a former domestic for a rich family received the family's home, but it eventually fell into disrepair because she and her family didn't have the finances for the upkeep. In other cases, what had once been single family homes were now divided up into dwellings for multiple families or multiple parts of a single family, in part because people from outlying and rural areas moved to Havana and other cities. In principle--and the gap between "in principle" and "in reality" was key throughout the visit--there are no homeless people in Cuba, because the government provides everyone with housing, but what we learned was that the reality was more complicated. Everyone is guaranteed a home, housing is "public" in the general sense, untaxed and affordable to a degree we can't imagine in the US, and you can leave a home to your heirs (or the government will appropriate it).

In the 1980s, when the economic conditions were okay, people were allowed to sell their homes, but hte government ended this. Now you cannot "sell" a house; people swap them. You cannot freely move into unoccupied buildings, some people are living in hotels until housing frees up for them, and while you have claim to a home and are living there, there's no guarantee that you will be able to keep it up. (And some socially marginal people, suffering from addictions or mental problems, do live on the street.) With the house swapping, which is totally free (after fees for filing legal papers), has come middlemen and brokers, which means that people can earn extra money if they have valuable information about houses up for swap (in the US, we call it the real estate industry). In addition, people of all different backgrounds live beside each other, which is to say, the sorts of socially mixed communities that many US policymakers have aimed for have been widely achieved, though we learned that in fact while nowhere near the racial/ethnic, class and social segregation that marks nearly every part of the US, some disparities in terms of wealth and "class," at least to the extent that it exists in a post-Revolutionary de facto sense, do exist. I had thought that people could not own land either, but I learned that in fact, people can own up to a certain amount of land, especially in the countryside, on which they can build a house. But they could not sell that land to someone else or that house, as would be expected in the US. As in most major US cities, the pre-Revolutionary wealthy classes owned apartment buildings, multiple homes or vast tracts of land; the Revolutionary government appropriated entire buildings, allowing the owners to keep an apartment only, and, if my notes are correct, seized all homes beyond the limit of one urban and one rural dwelling. The aim was to free up property for the majority of people and equalize ownership, with the government holding the majority of land and the power to distribute it, but, as I've said, the difference between the revolutionary principle and the practice was sometimes quite evident. One other point to add is that some workers live in company housing; foreign companies that have Cuban divisions have constructed housing in Havana and other cities and provinces (Havana, like New York, being both), but the catch is, if a worker leaves her position or is dismissed, she must the leave the housing and, if she cannot find a swap or free housing, move into one of the waiting hotels until housing frees up.

I should note that the extent of Cuba's pre-Revolutionary wealth astonished me; it was if large chunks of Miami crossed with the Upper East Side, Chicago's North Shore, etc., had flourished along the waterfront up to 1959. We passed Beaux-Arts after Art Deco mansion after mansion, and later, when fellow group member Rachel and I walked to the outdoor rhumba party at UNEAC (the Union of Writers and Artists), I noted how beautiful and immense many of the houses in Vedado were. Our tour bus even drove past several major former country clubs, one of which we were told did not even admit the former dictator, Batista, because of his mixed racial ancestry; out of vindictiveness and visionariness, I imagine, Castro turned the most lavish one, once the largest golf club in the Americas, into the grounds of the Higher Institute of Art, one of the most remarkable institutions we visited, and you could see, on what was probably once its perimeter, the mansion in which Batista himself had lived. (I failed to take a photo of it.) One additional note was that the government forbids foreigners to buy homes or own land in Cuba (which includes, I supposed, Cuban exiles), but during the Special Period and the development of tourism, it allowed foreigners to rent homes and apartments, so in the Miramar section, we passed some exquisite and perfectly maintained rental properties, as well as some of the earliest tourist hotels, sitting right on the waterfront.

Looking at all those homes, I had the strange experience of feeling sympathy, to a degree, for the people who had built and lived in them before being they left for the US; while I understand, agree with and support the idea of economic, political and social equality and greater egalitarianism in all areas of life, I grasped how much anger the appropriation of those homes probably provoked. Even with all of the existing housing, however, there isn't enough to accommodate all the people who'd moved to Havana or who were already there because of natural increase. I did see newly constructed housing, some of it in what I thought was a stripped-down International style--or Soviet/Eastern European style, though our guide retorted "Chicago had buildings like this"!--throughout the city, but especially on the outskirts of Havana and Pinar del Río. In the case of Habana del Este, the government had run out of money for certain facilities, like a community center and sports center, so people were making do with whatever spaces were available. There were also some favela-esque shacks, not only in the rural areas, but even in Havana. Nevertheless, in both the capital and Pinar del Río, urban-suburban sprawl as we know it in the US, and luxury development, the metastasizing craze of the last few years, seemed to be in check. Even from the air we could see how delimited Havana province, and the city and its suburbs were, particularly in comparison to almost any other capital city I've ever visited (seeing northern New Jersey and then Chicagoland from the airplane window) was disorienting, to put it mildly. One thing that I and others discussed was what might happen if and when the US embargo (or blockade/bloqueo, as it's called there) lifted; in the US, private money fuels rehabilitation, so to what extent would the Cuban government allow this to flow in? How would the property be valued? And what would happen both with the buildings' current occupants, the millions of Cubans who've made lives in homes they gained as a result of the Revolution, and with the former owners now living in the US, Spain, and elsewhere?

Habana building
Street scene, Havana

I should note that we did visit a planned community, Las Terrazas (The Terraces), in Pinar del Río. Las Terrazas is a village built in and around reforested terrain, on a series of terraces ascending Pinar del Río's mountainous landscape. All the institutions that a well-planned town might have, down to a clinic and a disco (the Cubans don't play when it comes to music and dancing), were incorporated into the village; though it was very rural, with chickens and pea hens wandering about freely, we stopped at the main café and had delicious coffee, and met with one of the community's two doctors, who explained how he was incorporating non-traditional, natural indigenous and Asian medicine into his practice. To live there, we were told that you had to get permission from the government, that homes and spots were not transferrable or swappable, as they were in Havana or other cities, and if you left, your place might be given away. Because of people's interest in living there, the government had built new apartment blocks to complement the original housing, which initially caused me a moment of cognitive dissonance, as I'm not used to seeing apartment blocks (even mainly vertical ones) in a rural setting. They were fairly standardized in terms of (bright) color and style, however, so that the overall picture was of an appealing, organic community that was, despite the economic crisis, doing well.

This brings up the issue of the Cuban economy. It is a planned economy dominated by the Cuban government, and functioning completely under the shadow of the embargo/blockade. Whatever else one says about the historical economic failures of communism or the current problems communist economic policy are causing in Cuba, this cannot be bracketed out when discussing the situation in Cuba. One of the things that immediately became clear was the economic difficulty that most Cubans face on a daily basis. In the US, the richest country on earth by multiple measures, there are millions of struggling and very poor people, as there are in every country on earth (save perhaps small, wealthy countries with strong social safety nets like the Scandinavian countries or Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, etc.) and many people in the US fall through the cracks and are barely getting by. In principle, no one in Cuba falls through the safety net; everyone is guaranteed a bare minimum to live. Cuba's economic resources are so limited, however, that that bare minimum, though present, is still miniscule. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Bloc in the early 1990s, which meant the lost of $50 billion worth of subsidies, oil and 85% of international trade, Cuba suffered a severe economic blow, a period that is now known as the "Special Period." (Officially the country is still in the Special Period. The Cuban economy has improved noticeably because of Venezuela's support, but the US embargo is still wreaking great economic havoc.) With the US embargo limiting its ability to seek new trading partners in the hemisphere and Europe, the former Soviet bloc in transition, and low prices for Cuba's main commodities, sugar, tobacco, and coffee, Castro and the Cuban government took the for-them undesired steps of opening up the country to tourism, to garner hard currency, and of creating a dual system, one for foreigners and one for Cubans. As a result, visitors to Cuba use one currency, convertible pesos (or CuCs), which are (artificially) fixed at slightly more than $1 US ($1.08, or $1.20 with taxes and fees), while Cubans use another currency, Cuban pesos, which total about 25 or so to the CuCs or $1US. All US dollar-based remittances and conversions are taxed 10%, which is why euros are a better bet if you go to Cuba. During the late 1990s, the economic situation became extremely grim, and we were shown ration books, guaranteeing basic foodstuffs such as rice, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, some meat, etc., from that period that really demonstrated how rough things were. Beef was and remains a luxury for many people. One member of our group who'd visited Cuba in 1999 mentioned that Cubans were suffering so severely then that prostitution exploded at that time, and the social tension was visible on the faces of everyone if you walked down the Malecón. With the rise of a rich and independent Hugo Chávez-led Venezuela as a supporter and trading partner, however, and limited trade with other parts of the world because of the embargo, things have improved economically, both for the government and for a wide array of people, especially those working in the tourist sector, artists able to travel and sign contracts overseas (which is permitted), or people working in top government posts. Still, we were both told and witnessed the economic constraints repeatedly. Prices remain high, and many Cubans cannot afford much beyond the basics, and some of the Cubans we met voiced this to us directly. While people did sometimes ask for cash (or to exchange CuC coins for non-CuC coinage and money), or ask for US dollars, as is the case elsewhere, in some cases soap was the request (I had a woman ask me for my hotel so that she could come fetch some soap), or in others, clothes. One older gentleman had an entire shpiel ready to pry a CuC from me--and it worked. Many people on the tour did bring gifts (regalos) for the school children we visited, and these ranged from pens and pencils to paper to soap and toothpaste to toys. When we went to stores (about which I'll say more in a second), especially the littler stores or bodegas and bodegones, I noted the lines and limited number of goods on the shelves, as well as how most items were listed in general currency, which could either be CuCs (for tourists), or pesos (for Cubans). There were several moments during the trip when people in the group experienced some flimflammery concerning prices, including at the famous Coppélia, featured in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's landmark film, Strawberry and Chocolate (Fresa y chocolate), where Cubans actually do still line up for hours to buy ice cream and socialize, and I had an instance or two where people took an extra CuC (for an extra tip?), but I felt that it wasn't a big deal, especially once I realized how expensive things were. As I said in my previous post, Cuba is not cheap. This was one reason why Obama's lifting of the limit on visits and remittances by family members, though a baby step in one regard, was such a huge deal; for many Cubans with relatives in the US, any items from our land of abundance, and even a little extra money will be a huge boost.

One of the things people often also remark on concerning Cuban life today is the car situation. So here's what I learned--and I admit that I had started to zone out from exhaustion during the discussion on the cars, so I had to ask several people what I'd missed. The government does allow people to own and sell to each other those old 1950s American cars that often appear in photos of Havana and elsewhere. People who require cars for their jobs (doctors, government officials, etc.) are allowed to purchase and own cars, including newer ones. However, individuals cannot import newer cars into the country, though as the photos I've posted prove, there are not only 1960s-1990s models, especially European cars, in the country, but I even saw fairly new models, and we passed several car dealerships (Fiats, BMWs!). Several of us were curious as to who could afford to buy a Mercedes or BMW--certainly not the doctors we met! The government has the power to import and distribute new(er) cars, however, which is one way they end up in the hands of people. And there's a black market for cars. Most people do not have cars, however. In fact, it's the case that even if you can prove to the government that you can purchase a car and afford to maintain it, there's still no guarantee that you'll be allowed to own one. Artists who can travel outside the country, the best athletes, and a few others, however, have an easier time owning cars. During the most difficult days of the "Special Period," when oil was scarce and money to buy it was scarcer, the country received a large shipment (gift?) of bicycles from China, and I did see quite a few people riding bikes on the street. I also saw some horse-drawn or donkey-drawn vehicles in Havana itself, and more in Pinar del Río, as well as old machine vehicles (old tractors and so forth). I did not, however, see as many motorbikes and scooters as are common, ubiquitous really, in the Dominican Republic. With regard to all the vehicles, there were different colored plates for different classes of cars by ownership. Cars with certain colored plates were required to stop and pick up people along the road. Too there were different kinds of taxis and guidelines on who could take them. The 1950s American auto taxis were for Cubans, while the newer (say 1970s forward) European taxis were for foreigners. The buses ranged in style from quite old (1960s models) to some fairly new ones, and then there were guagua-style vehicles that picked up people for what I figured were very affordable prices.

Street scene, Pinar del Rio
Street scene, near Viñales, Pinar del Río

Which brings me to stores. So I noticed, in my shallow, aestheticist way, that the younger Cubans were quite fashionably dressed; their outfits would not be out of place in many parts of the US or, say, Kingston or Santo Domingo. The polos shirts, skirts, jeans, shoes, and so on, were what you would see 20 and 30-somethings in many other countries in the world sporting. (I'll add that when we hung out on our last night in Cuba at a salsa spot called Oasis, I was surprised to see so many men with dreadlocks, which was refreshing.) Even, our tourguide, closer to me in age, was quite fashionable. I wasn't the only person who noticed this, and several us asked about the stores, clothing and otherwise, and then had the opportunity to visit some. I happened upon a warren of stores attached to the Habana Libre Hotel (which had been a brand-new Hilton until the Revolution, and which is now one of the nicer tourist hotels in Havana), featuring brands you probably wouldn't find in the US and others, like Pierre Cardin, that you would, and then on our trip to a local restaurant Bernardo took us to another indoor mall (or arcade, rather, of the sort that would have set Walter Benjamin's heart aflutter) with stores stocking an even wider array of clothing, not all of it, I think, of Cuban provenance. What I learned was that people can own stores or any business, up to 49% or so; the government owns the other 51%. As a result, there are no taxes on clothes or any goods, because the government essentially taxes just over half of whatever is earned. For many Cubans, especially in the early years of the Revolution, this was intolerable, so they immigrated. The first restaurant we visited, the truly outstanding El Aljibe (the Cistern), in Miramar, had been nationalized (that dreaded word!), but several members of the family stayed behind and continue to run it, keeping their secret recipe for black beans alive; other members of the family, we were told, had left in the early 1960s. Now, this situation is more complicated with certain businesses, and I'll say more about that below, but this was a different situation than I'd imagined previously, because I thought the Cuban government owned 100% of businesses, which is a bit ridiculous, I know, but then when you think of how some foreign governments use tax policies on sales, wages and income to gain resources and redistribute wealth (more equitably or up or down the economic ladder), it struck me as less draconian than it initially sounded. I didn't inquire about the bureaucracy involved in setting up a business, though I should have, so I won't even venture a thought about how easy or difficulty it might be. In the liquor store, you could get almost any kind of liquor, but the brands were all government brands; the same was true of cigarettes, gum, you name it. No Poland Spring, Marlboros, Kools, Bacardi (their land and rum factories were nationalized and appropriated in 1959); only Cuban brands, as far as I could tell. The two types of beer, Bucanero and Cristal, were close in taste and appearance to Anheuser-Busch's (now AB InBev?) main offerings, Budweiser and Michelob, but I did wonder what might happen if and when the economy opened up, and Cubans had access to the range of offerings, and our accompanying anxiety about our wealth or even excess of choices, that we take for granted in the US. Would it be liberating? Bewildering? Enough to empower some of the Revolution's best ideas? Some combination of all three?

(I should add that Cubans can and do receive clothing and other goods from family members outside the US, and those who can afford to can travel to other countries to study and work (and shop), including Canada (we met a guy who was planning to study at the University of British Columbia), Spain and other European countries, Venezuela (of course), Dominican Republic and Haiti (where a number of Cuban doctors are working), Jamaica and the other English-speaking Caribbean countries, etc. I had to remind myself at one point that some Cubans do travel to the US, though acquiring visas became very difficult over the last 8 years, even for well known artists and scholars. And since some Cubans, such as artists and writers, can sign contracts in foreign countries and earn royalties or receive payment in those foreign currencies, they're able to purchase clothing and goods for others back home.)

Another little point related to this concerns some other goods. Cubans can purchase furniture directly from stores in the country if they can afford it, but because many cannot, some are living with what would be considered a great deal of antiques. This is the case also with appliances. To address energy use and improve efficiency, the Cuban government began a push to provide people with newer, more efficient Chinese appliances, and thus replace the appliances that were leftovers from the pre-Revolutionary period (and thus frequently American) or from the Soviet and Eastern Bloc. We learned that this had occurred in parts of many cities, but not everywhere. We also heard that the appliances weren't so great, though I had to laugh and point out that many "American" appliances were from China as well, and that the best ones still often came from Germany, Japan or South Korea.

This reminds me to mention the farming sector. We repeatedly heard that there was a crisis in farming, in the agricultural sector. In addition to the problems caused by governmental central planning of agricultural (which historically has been disastrous), we heard that are not enough farms or farmers, the government is trying to encourage young people to choose farming over other professions or immigration to the cities, and a great deal of the land remains unproductive. One problem, I learned, was that farmers simply cannot plant what they want, because, as I say, the government determines what they plant and when they plant, but also they do not participate in the global commodity markets the way farmers and the agricultural sector--and global agribusinesses, which we're always decrying in the US--do. For example, the government has told many farmers to plant tobacco, one of Cuba's major crops (the others being sugar and coffee), even in places where tobacco growing isn't a good idea (for climate, soil and other reasons). Then there's the issue of the wealth that farming can generate, and the threat that poses to the social order; I learned that at one point, in the early 2000s (I think, I may have the date wrong), farmers were allowed greater leeway to plant what they wanted, and given access to sell within the country, and this began to generate such wealth that the government clamped down on them. There was also the story about how one part of Pinar del Río (I think), the fruit trees were renown for their productivity, and as a result, the government cut them down because they gave the people harvesting them an unfair advantage. Another more basic issue is resources and materials. The sort of widespread, individual, subsidized farming that is so common in France, say, or the industrial farming that plagues the US and Brazil, would be difficult in Cuba, because of a lack of up-to-date mechanical equipment, seed stocks, and most importantly, capital investment and extensive and sustaining government subsidy. This was broached but not fully discussed, but I thought to myself how much small and medium-sized farmers in capitalist countries without strong governmental protection or with treaty obligations, like Nafta, that vitiate those protections, like the US and Mexico, struggle to survive, and it seemed to me this would continue to be an ongoing problem unless the government had the will and wherewithal to devote resources to make real agricultural development possible. Finally, there was the way that many urban Cubans are introduced to farming and rural life. Unlike in the US, there is no private education. None. No Catholic (or other religious) schools--though we did see some functioning churches, but more on that later--no private non-sectarian ones, nada. All Cubans are required to attend school through 9th grade, and then for 10th, 11th and 12th grade, a small number attend specialized schools (in technical and scientific subjects, for vocational training, in the arts), and the majority are required to leave the cities and attend boarding schools in the countryside, where they live in dormitories and work on farms. This is different from and precedes their national military (men) or service (women) requirement. The way one Cuban put it to me, the experience wasn't especially conducive to encouraging people to take up farming or rural life. In fact, it sounded like a bit of a free-for-all, though with the educational part being fairly sound. What I wasn't clear about was how these boarder-farmers fit within the existing agricultural system, who was supervising them (I gather it was minimal), and what they were learning from the land. It sounds like it could potentially be a valuable program, with adequate structure and supervision, though being forced to do it, and the Cubans traveling with us were, strikes me as the spark of all kinds of problems.

On the tobacco farm we visited in Pinar del Río, which sat right across the road from the school we visited, it was clear that the farmer took great pride in his work. His vega, or tobacco-drying house, was in model form, as were his fields, and the cigars he offered for purchase (I bought one, and smoked it there, as I'm quite aware of the US sanctions) were the best I've ever tried. We did hear about pig farming, which was common in some regions, and we drove past what appeared to be dairy farms and some collective farms that grew produce. I inquired about and learned that these were encouraged. There was a story about how the government was trying to reintroduce the zebu-type of cattle that were acculturated to Cuba's tropical climate, an effort that followed an apparently disastrous attempt to crossbreed the zebus with northern European Holsteins, thus producing cattle that were neither suited to the climate nor productive either for dairy purposes or meat ones. When I inquired elsewhere about the (sometimes delicious) produce we were eating, I was told that much of it came--somehow!--from the US, or not from Cuba. How that happens no one was sure, but it raised many questions for me, such as, what was really going on between the US and Cuban governments, and any third party governments who might be serving as interlocutors? If Cuba is importing US goods, how does that process work? And how might that change if the embargo were lifted?

Inside a gallery, Old Habana
Art gallery view, Old Havana

I'll only post a little more, but let me now say something about the government, Communism and propaganda. From the minute we headed towards Havana from the airport, we noticed the state propaganda; it was impossible to miss it. One of the most jarring and yet fascinating things about the trip was seeing all the billboards, and murals, everywhere we traveled featuring not a single advertisement (no iPods, no Coca Cola, etc.) but political slogans, commentary about the US and the embargo/blockade, disses of ex-Prez W, calls for the release of the "Cuban Five" who'd been tried in a Florida state (as opposed to federal) court as spies, reminders about the Revolution's 50th anniversary, and iconography, from photographs to sculptures to mural paintings of and quotations by post-colonial Cuba's visionary first revolutionary, José Martí, alongside its glamorous, controversial Revolutionary icon Che Guevara. Imagery featuring the previous and current president, Fidel and Raúl Castro, was, from what I could tell, less common, though there were paintings of him on some murals, and in photos in many of the museums we visited. Just imagine this, for a second; no ads, just political sloganeering, some of it quite artful. Framed photographs of (and other imagery, along with quotations by) Martí and Ché were in all the schools we visited; Hugo Chávez also made an appearance in one classroom. (We were told that he was even in the country during our week there.) As might be expected, all of the government-affiliated officials gave us the government's line on thing, emphasizing most of all the successes of the Revolution. During visits to some of the institutions, government or party officials were present, but said little beyond offering introductions or simply joining us on our tour of facilities. (I did appreciate the time and consideration they gave us, and they were unfailingly friendly and patient.) We did hear unvarnished though usually politely framed criticism of the US's policies and actions towards Cuba, particularly concerning the embargo and the imprisonment of the "Cuban 5." (In the Museum of the Revolution, there were more overt critiques of the US's actions, such as the Bay of Pigs (known there as Playa Girón) debacle.) Some of us pressed our guides or hosts on various issues (which was controversial for some on the tour, and I respect their position), and I must say that the Cuban hosts did answer (or attempted to do so) in ways that exceeded what I'd expected. For example, at the FEU meeting, I was curious to know about whether faculty and students who, though they might be ideologically sympathetic to the Revolution and socialism/communism, decided to study or write about politically controversial topics, or took stands in their work, say, that might be interpreted as in conflict with the government's line, in any number of fields--and in the humanities or social sciences, such as history, say, or sociology, anthropology, classical studies--would be subject to dismissal (and state proscription). The first answer I received fell along the lines of, no, there are no dismissals. People debate, and things are resolved. But then, when I pressed the issue, I learned that, as I suspected, yes, students and faculty could and had been dismissed. This was effected, I learned, not by the university but by the government. I didn't ask this question for the satisfaction of getting the answer I was expecting, but rather in the spirit of inquiry; I also made clear in asking the question that in the US, where we supposedly have academic freedom, there have been a number of cases where faculty and students have been disciplined or dismissed for exercising their right to free speech and inquiry, and I noted for all present that this ran along all ends of the political spectrum, from right to left. After a short amount of time, the relentless of the government's line, the omnipresent visual propaganda, did grow tiresome, and I became skeptical that most of what I was seeing was merely a Potemkin show, though I pulled back from this view, especially after discussions with some Cubans themselves. Two things I realized in relation to this onslaught were: first, I read it as a (sometimes desperate) means of public discursive reinforcement to ensure the ideas of the Revolution, particularly in the face of the ongoing economic siege by the US; second, I thought of how propaganda works in the US, how utterly we are bombarded, from childhood on, by the people, the economic and social elites, who run the US, to the extent that we internalize all kinds of ideas, values, about money, race, class, gender, sexuality, social relations, history and politics, and so on, without realizing it. In fact, many people don't know that there are other ways of living in the world, other systems--perhaps not Cuba's, but others--that are more equitable in many ways. What's different, of course, is that in the US, if we're lucky or have the determination or some combo of the two, we can develop the means to understand our propaganda, and at least in an official sense, it's nothing like Cuba's, although it approached that during the Bush administration years. But I tended to view what I was hearing and seeing with negative capability, so to speak, understanding its sources, how it was functioning, why it was functioning, and taking it at times with a grain of salt, particularly the more perdurable platitudes, recitations and ranting, while also never forgetting that not a single word of what we were hearing had developed in a vacuum, or rather, the vacuum was one that had arisen from Cuba's long colonial history with Spain, and then the US, which took control of Cuba in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War, served as a marionetteer for Cuba's Republican government and the dictatorships that punctuated it, and hovered as the chief antagonist over the last 50 years, longer than I or almost everyone on the tour had been alive.

3 comments:

  1. Okay, after this I definitely want to go.

    Anthony

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  2. Anthony, you must! How easy or difficult is it to travel from DR to Cuba? How expensive are the flights?

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  3. Air Cubana has flights on Thursday and Sunday. The last time I checked it was $500.

    Getting my passport renewed now so I can come visit NYC first. LOL.

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