Wednesday, April 29, 2009

El Mundo Alucinante: Notes on Cuba, Part 3

I was all set to post yesterday's new poem with commentary and my Obamatude post today, but after two meetings this afternoon my eyes started to give out (so much stuff to read these last few days), then a headache entered the mix, and I ended up by the early evening lying down and listening to "Brother President," as Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell described him recently, work his magic with the press corps. So perhaps some Obamatude tomorrow. Overall, as I said on Monday, concerning Mr. President Obama, todo chévere (and don't think I've ever uttered this word even once in a Spanish-speaking country. Excelente or chido always come to mind first...).

El Mundo Alucinante: Notes on Cuba, Part 3

Another post on the still energizing and unforgettable Cuba trip.


Let me mention one point that I forgot in the initial post, which concerns connectivity. I consider myself a reasonably hyperconnected person. I don't talk on the phone all that much, but I do use my cell phone, an iPhone, to text, check and send email, listen to music, and use numerous applications/apps. I almost always carry my laptop with me and often check my various email accounts several times a day, except when I'm teaching or writing; I visit a number of news and blog sites, forums, social networking sites, and so on every day, and as is clear here, I blog when I can; I often read magazines online; and I frequently either listen to or download podcasts and radio programs from the Web. While I imagined that things would be different in Cuba, and that I would not be able to access the net as readily as I can in the US, I was a bit surprised and chastened by how limited the options were. In 2 of the 3 hotels we stayed at, the only net access was via very slow PCs, at the rate of $7-8 CuCs per hour (about $10). [If you are in Havana, I recommend going to the business center at the Havana Libre Hotel, 2nd floor, where the computers are a lot cheaper and a little faster. I was able to upload some university work using a flash drive without any problem.] I had this fantasy that I was going to upload pictures every day with microblogposts, but the reality was that in the first hotel, and sometimes use emailing and Skype as ways to chat with C, but there was barely even an adequate outlet to keep my computer charged, let alone my phone (+camera); in the second hotel, in Pinar del Río, I was able to charge my computer and phone, and the hotel not only didn't have net access. In the third hotel, there were several outlets, but only a two net-ready computers, and they moved at a glacial pace. In the various schools we visited, we learned that internet access was mostly nonexistent, though various Cuban intranets did access. Our guide Tati explained that one of the problems was a lack of broadband wiring and an updated grid, which cost lots of money, financed here in the US both by governmental and private funds. Let me also add that Bernardo suggested I go to the International Press Center, which he was pretty sure had computers, phone access and cards, and so on. So I dropped by there on a particularly muggy day, and was shooed away by an officious official who promptly went back to chatting on the phone with who knows. I stood my ground and said I was a visitor, blah blah blah, and he kindly sent me on a wild goose chase for net access and a phone card (see below) that I described that evening to C as "Kafkaesque." Oh well--at least I did get to walk through the sweltering streets of Havana. One of the things I imagine that will happen over the next 10 years in Cuba will be the development of its data and communications networks, especially if any sources of private funding are allowed in.

One of the letters thanking Fidel for the literacy campaign, Museum of Literacy

Then there was the issue of telephony. I am not a telephone person, let me state that at the beginning. I have always found using telephones in foreign countries baffling, and Cuba was no different. We were told that we could rent cell phones, but I was unable to find any spot that would rent them. From my experiences in other countries (cf. DR, France, Brazil, etc.), I knew I could use phone cards. Hah! The first problem was getting a phone card. Bernardo, knowing such things, urged me to go to an outlet of ECTESA, which is the state phone company. He specifically told me to ask for a phone card priced using the national currency, and not CuCs. So I went to do so, and lo, she requested far more CuCs, not the national currency, than Bernardo had said. Then she and the other people in the little kiosk-sized office proceeded to have a good laugh at my expense in Spanish, until she realized that I was staring at her and listening intently, and then asked, "Me entiendes?" and I said yes, which immediately provoked more professional behavior, and a nice(r) send-off. Truthfully there were speaking so fast I had no idea what they were saying, but I've learned that it's best to appear as though you have half a clue if you want to preserve any dignity. I got the phone card, which was 15 CuCs ($17), and tried several times to call C and several Cubans for whom I'd brought books from a friend, finally getting through briefly before it canceled out. The next day we headed to Pinar del Río, so I couldn't go back to ECTESA for another card, but Bernardo sold me his. I tried repeatedly to use it at the hotel we were staying out, but it wouldn't work, so I tried to use the hotel's main phone to call the US. They told me they couldn't do it, so that led to a late evening attempt to find a phone in the town at which I could use the card. I ended up taking one of the bike taxis, pedaled by a man who might have been 100 years old but huffingly did manage to get us into Pinar del Río's downtown, but I couldn't find a single public phone, including the one used by the "foreign students," that would go through to the US. So finally I walked another 10 blocks and found a charming, small hotel to make even a short call to C. When we returned to Havana, I experienced the encounter at the International Press office that I mentioned above, which included my trolling every hotel and store in the area for a "tarjeta telefónica" before I returned to the ECTESA office (which sits right across the street from the famous ice cream stand Coppélia), and they were completely out of phone cards. The woman whom I'd encountered a few days before was taking cash for people to call at the phones in the office, and I thought I was encountering a scam, so when I protested, I received a nice "mi amol" and was told that, no, they didn't have any cards. And was promptly sent off to one of the many hotels that of course did not have them. I never got to inquire at the Hotel Nacional, which is the largest and grandest hotel in Havana, but I'm told they had everything, including the best cuba libres in the city, so I'll have to try them out next time. At any rate, my expectations for connectivity dropped radically, and I felt that this was excellent preparation for any potential future trips into the rain forest, the desert, or some other spot where the webs of communication I've become so used to, to dependent upon, do not exist.

Entering Casa Fuster (Alex Fuster at bottom left)


The main reason for the trip, of course, was educational research. Both groups visited a range of educational institutions, from elementary schools (in Havana and the rural district of Pinar del Río, quite comparable in many ways to public elementary schools in the US) to college and university-level institutions (such as the Institute of Higher Arts [Institute de Artes Superiores] built on what was once the largest private golf course of one of the most exclusive country clubs in the Americas, in Havana). Given that, as I said before, the tour was listed as a "research" trip, the terms of our license--the visa which all Americans are required to acquire to visit Cuba legally--mandated that we spend a sizable portion (somewhere around 60-70% of every weekday) visiting institutions or organizations for research purposes, and we did. We even went to meet with a retired teacher who volunteered at the Cuban Pedagogy Association, which seeks to disseminate best teaching practices (primarily via DVD and TV) to teachers throughout the country. I was put in mind of MIT's open-courseware efforts, which include online classes and materials, and other online-based pedagogy projects aimed at elementary and secondary school teachers in the US, and thought about how useful such efforts are, at all levels, to teachers anywhere.

Performance by children at school in Pinar del Río

As part of the tour, we also met with education-related organizations and groups, such as the Cuban Student Union (FEU), a union structured as a quasi-parliament, with members participating in and linked to the government, for university students; and we heard from Cuban social work students and officials. The tour took us to governmental spaces, like Revolutionary Square, constructed originally during the Batista dictatorship in Fascist style, but since the Revolution reformulated as the site of major governmental institutions; the government-focused institutions, like the Museum of the Revolution, which was housed in the former presidential building; the Museum of Literacy, which celebrated the Revolution's striking early and swift success at overcoming the problem of illiteracy, and which featured one of the most moving artifacts I saw all trip, a book of letters written to Fidel by former illiterate people, many of them from the countryside, many women, many mixed-race or black (we learned that the oldest person who learned to read [alfabetizado] during the literacy campaign was 106 years old, and the youngest reading teacher [alfabetizador] was 8); cultural institutions like the national Museum of Fine Arts, whose "Cuban" exhibit sections we saw, including a room dedicated to the marvelous Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, and a privately established social service organization in Pinar del Río, run by artist Jesús Carrete that provides structure and arts opportunities for people with Down Syndrome.

The focus on the arts encompassed several other community-focused projects, such as the Callejón de Hamel project in Havana's Centro district, in which artist Salvador González Escalona, whose sculptures, paintings, installations, and multiplatform works were the first murals in Cuba to celebrate and synthesize Cuba's four-major Afro-Cuban religions (Abakuá; Arará; Reglas de Palomonte; and the best known, Santería--and all the orixás were present in various forms throughout the space), created an expanding, open-air workshop along an important side street in Havana's cultural history; we were unable to attend the all-day Sunday rhumba parties that are acclaimed across the city, but we did get a brief taste of the opportunities that the space provided for people in the neighborhood and city. A different analogous site we visited was Casa Fuster, a fantastical estate developed the internationally renowned artist José Fuster, who we learned created workshops and projects for the people in the surrounding neighborhood, Jaimanitas. But then, as one of the deans at the Institute of Higher Arts put it quite succinctly, in Cuba "every artist is a teacher," and it became clear to us that this was more than a mere statement--if artists were not teaching in schools (at any level), the societal expectation was and is that they somehow will and must interact with their surrounding communities, a very different approach from the generally cloistered, market-based focus and perspective in the US.

Tati showing us a blackboard damaged by machine gun fire during the Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) Invasion in 1962, Museum of Literacy

I could write quite a bit about the primary schools we visited, basing most of it on my notes, but I'll only say that I was quite impressed both by the teachers we encountered and by the students, who were incredibly adorable and sharp. We witnessed 5th grade students not only describing with great sophistication why José Martí was a favorite historical figure, but also very diplomatically breaking down for us one of the few Americans who'd supported Cuba's early attempt at liberal, in the late 19th century. A fifth grader. As I said in an earlier post, I did and still do wonder whether we were taken only to model schools and what other schools are really like, but seeing how these institutions operated, particularly given the economic constraints we witnessed, I was impressed. To give one example, since the state cannot afford laboratory equipment, students learn chemistry via videotapes and the intranet. To give another, primary through secondary level teachers earn only about 300-500 Cuban pesos, not CuCs, per month. (Remember, 1 CuC = $1.08/$1.20 with taxes, and there are about 25 Cuban pesos = $1/CuC.) I and others were quite curious about Cuba's secondary schools; education is compulsory through the 9th grade, after which Cubans have several choices. For 10-12th grades, they can either try go find jobs, or select from several educational options. There are technical schools focused on the sciences; there are military schools; there are vocational schools; and then there are schools in the countryside, where students devote a portion of each day to agricultural work. As there are no private schools and as the admittances to the other schools listed above are limited, the majority of 10-12 level students, including all who live in and around cities, either attend these country boarding schools or attend schools in the city where they have to dedicate a portion of their time working in city gardens and the like. As one Cuban told me, the education is very good, but the farmwork immersion and related chores are far less appealing, to put it in nice terms. Naturally, I really wanted to see one of these schools, but we didn't have the opportunity to do so. We did, however, see students in Pinar del Río who appeared to be heading back from vacation (it was around the time of Easter) to their schools, but we (I) didn't get an opportunity to chat with them.

As many (most?) decent jobs require a secondary school diploma, a sizable portion of students pursue this three-year option. I picked up that there was a problem, however, in terms of some students not continuing in school after 9th grade, and so the government and educational authorities were trying to improve the rates of continued school and graduation. At a certain age, all men must serve a period (depending) in the military, 2 years if not attending college or 1 year before college, while all women must participate in a 2-year public service project. To attend college, educational officials look at students' grades and test scores, and depending upon where they fall, they are given an option to attend certain universities or colleges. All education at all levels is free. (The state has also opened an array of what we might consider community colleges that provide people with the option of studying towards a high-school degree, vocational training, what would amount to associate and bachelors degrees, and even professional study.) Studying certain fields, such as the arts, was more difficult than others because of the limited amount of spaces. We also heard that one pending issue was the large number of students studying the journalism, humanities and social sciences (especially psychology) versus the hard sciences (and agronomy, I would add), and how the government was trying to nudge students towards the latter. In the US, of course, parents, the marketplace, colleges' and universities' course offerings and faculties, and our culture in general have a determinative effect, whereas in Cuba, personal choice (to a degree) combined with the government's (and society's) needs control what people study. As someone working in the arts and humanities, I thought about this quite a bit, particularly in relation to the constant and growing discourse about the "uselesness" or lack of utility of not only the arts, which has manifested itself in the stripping away of arts programs in many K-12 systems and the concern of some students with parental approval for taking arts and writing classes, etc., but also of the humanities. Even some very famous humanities scholars have advanced such arguments, to our national and international detriment, I would argue. Ignorance is not bliss, and scholarship is important both on its own terms but also because it often has profound effects in the world, in ways scholars might or might not imagine.

But back to the arts. One of the highlights for me was visiting Havana's Institute of Higher Arts (ISA), which would be equivalent to a state version of most of the US's top art schools combined. Admission is selective, and follows prior study in artistic fields at other institutions. It is the only higher arts school in Cuba, and students from across the country attend to receive a more humanistic training, that is, to receive grounding in aesthetics, philosophy (including Cuban Marxist-Leninism), art history, psychology, and cultural studies and appreciation, and to "experiment." The institute representative told us that students at the Institute could study music; visual and plastic arts; theater (including playwriting) and dance (as is the case at many US arts schools, i.e., NYU's Tisch School of the Arts); and audiovisual communication arts (which I imagine would include photography, film and video production). When we walked up to the spot where we were going to meet our rep from the school, we saw students strolling about the grounds playing instruments, memorizing their parts in plays, and just enjoying themselves by thinking. When we reached the little patio area, we received an impromptu jazz performance by several student musicians. At this point we were able to ask questions, and I had to inquire about creative writing, or the formal study of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, including journalism. (Playwriting and screenwriting, as well as cross-genre writing, should be part of this mix, but in most institutions are not.). The representative told me that there was no such thing as a creative writing program. Quoth she: "People write who are called to write." No MFA (and now PhD) as the stepping stone for literary projects or production. Nada. She went on to say that people who wanted to become writers usually but not always studied "artes y letras" (arts and letters) at the University of Havana, which was only steps from our first hotel, and then practiced and refined their art. Of course this is how writing training and as a career unfolds in most countries outside the US and Anglophone world; although some countries in other parts of Europe (like Norway and the Netherlands, I think) have writing programs, it is really only the USA, Canada, the UK, and Australia for the most part that people can and do study and get degrees in writing. And of all these countries, the USA far away has the most writing programs, in no small part because of the large market for them.

José, an artist at the Callejón de Hamel

There were several writers on the trip, and we discussed this a little; it also brought to mind a discussion Harvard scholar Marjorie Garber led a few years ago concerning her study of the role of arts at Harvard, which became a fascinating little book. One question she posed was whether the arts ought to be together in one school devoted primarily to the arts--as at Pratt Institute or RISD--or one division of a major institution--as is the case at Columbia, for example--or distributed throughout a university, as is the case at Stanford, say--or linked to certain schools and departments, as is the case at the university (where undergraduate creative writing study in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction is part of the English department of the College of Arts and Sciences; graduate creative writing in those fields is housed in the School of Continuing Studies and formerly in the Graduate School; undergraduate and graduate journalism is in the Medill School of Journalism; and playwriting is in the Theater department, and screenwriting is in Radio/TV/Film (RTVF)); or present only in a limited sense (with a department of Visual and Environment Studies, i.e., studio art, and a few creative writers on the English faculty or teaching writing and composition more broadly), as at Harvard. Personally, I believe that all the arts, including computer and online arts, gaming, architecture, graphic design, fashion, and performance arts, should be together, but also part of a larger institution in which the humanities, social sciences, natural and applied sciences, and professional-level studies are present. The divisions strike me as artificial and problematic, but that's for another discussion.

One of the International Arts Biennal outdoor installations (giant roaches crawling up the side of the building!) at the Museum of Fine Arts

I will say that the experience also got me thinking personally about the formal study of creative writing and its usefulness, whether and to what extent writing can be taught, what my and others' real aims are in the classroom, and so on. My experiences at the university and other institutions has proved year and year out that students can and do learn to write better than they did before they began, in no small part because of the focused emphasis on practice, on the technical aspects of writing, on learning to edit their own and others' work, on offering critiques and thinking about how critical reading opens up how works of art function, on modeling based on reading--on reading itself, and its role in changing and enriching one's writing. I see the results in undergraduate and graduate students' work, so I know the programs justify themselves, and yet I worry about the increasing notion that you must have an MFA or even PhD to write and teach writing, or that they're even necessary to be a writer at all. The question to the Institute rep about creative writing led to a lovely moment, however. The dean of the Institute, Jorge Braulio Rodríguez, presented two of us writers with copies of his book of translations of Richard Wright's haikus! It was an extraordinarily thoughtful gift, and for me took on great importance because it was Wright's work, I'd only read a few of his haikus, and I wasn't able, as per my usual fashion, to buy any other books during the trip (the main and famous bookstore in Havana had been closed, and I didn't pick up any books at the outdoor book market or used bookstores as I'd wanted to.)

Ana Laura's visual diary

We later had the opportunity to view some student art exhibits, which were very promising, and chat with some of the students. I also peeked in at a print studio and some classrooms, and snapped a few pictures. In preparation for the trip, I'd made up Spanish versions of my Emotional Outreach cards, and I handed them out to students and faculty. This led to one student who was there to view the art exhibit to assume, based on the Spanish on the card, that I was fluent, and a conversation with another, first-year student Wilber Aguilera, whose powerful ceramic wall sculpture, based on Edvard Munch's "The Scream" I featured several posts ago. I and another person in the first group chatted with student artist Ana Laura Tamburini, who had created a visual diary, comprising months' (a year's) worth of drawings, paintings and mixed-media works, which covered several walls, as well as a diary book that she was displaying. Along with Callejón de Hamel and the Museum of Fine Arts, is one of the places that I really would have loved to spend more time at, and I also would love to return and spend a quarter or term, or some length of time, teaching and learning there myself. One final thing I'll say about the Institute of Higher Arts is that its architecture is worth seeing. The visual art exhibit was in one of the main buildings that had been designed, we were told, by avant-garde and Revolutionary supporters Cuban architect Ricardo Porro and Italian architects Vittorio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi in the 1970s, after Fidel Castro created the institution in 1976 by consolidating and expanding several higher arts schools, including the original post-Revolutionary National Arts School of 1962. The buildings are quite futuristic, in an almost Star Trek-ish style, though using distinctive local red bricks and tiles. Among the more interesting architectural effects they created was an open plaza designed to appear if viewed from the air as a clitoris. (I kid you not.) I heard that while many of the structures were completed, there were a few that had not been built, though this wasn't apparent from a walkthrough. The overall effect was of striking, futuristic buildings that probably do have a beneficial effect on the creation of works of art.

ISA buildings, from a distance

I've written a lot, so I'll stop here. I still have not said anything about discussions with Cubans about politics vis-à-vis the US, gender issues and homo/sexuality, and a few other topics, including those that remained a mystery, like the prison system, so I'll aim for those in my next posts.


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