NEW FROM CUBA
For latest update, posted May 5,
click links for the
A reporter in Cuba
with a tourist visa again:
Restoring Habana Vieja
Changes people's lives:
The continued decline
of hustling in Cuba and
other ups and downs:
Hurricane repair in
The return of Fidel:
Cubans are getting
around in new ways:
Old Matanzas compared
to Varadero Beach:
When Fidel didn't appear at
Havana's May Day parade:
14 January 2007,
A reporter in Cuba with a tourist visa again: Because I decided
a while back to try to get a journalist's visa so I could stay in Cuba
longer and to ease my meetings with officials (see Chapter Six of Cuban
Notebooks), and because both The Nation and the LA Times recently reported
people with tourist visas somehow known by Cuba to be independent journalist
being sent back from Jose Marti Field on the next plane, reports I didn't
wholly believe, I applied a month and a half ago for the visa through
the embassy in Mexico City and went there over a week ago expecting
to just pick it up and, after wasting a week with the Cuban bureaucracy,
told the chief there, "Adios, senor, I have only one life and I
can't spend it like this; I'm on my way, once again with a tourist visa."
This message was accompanied by a sharp critique of the Cuban attitude
toward independent journalists, which I discussed with the Press Office
chief last Friday before I caught my plane. Jose Leyva is an amiable
bottleneck frontman (nobody but one guy in Havana can make decisions,
right) and he and I got along well. He assured me that, while something
like what had been reported had happened, I would have no problems,
and I didn't.
| Again, I don't advise you to
go to Cuba at all if you don't speak Spanish, haven't seen enough of the
horrors of the Third World to realize you're not
seeing them in Cuba, and haven't got enough sense to know when you're
being conned by a hustler who tells you what he thinks Americans want
to hear hoping you'll adopt him for a week. Also, though Washington has no legitimate right to bug you, you shouldn't risk a confrontation if you aren't ready to stand up for your rights all the way. It only hurts the cause when people crumble under pressure and pay fines they shouldn't pay. See this website's lead document by clicking HERE.
I came to Cuba this time to see how things are going without Fidel. I haven't been here long enough to know, but all I've seen since I got off the plane and all I've been told by about a dozen people I've talked to indicates that everything is "regular" (pronounced ray-goo-lahr). In spite of the absurd certainty of the U.S. media and politicians that Cuba would fall apart when "Castro" was gone, seven months after Fidel's hospitalization, virtually nothing has changed (they say and I can tentatively see). Several citizens have told me (after I told them what Americans think) that Cuba is run by lots of departments with lots of department heads and not only did Fidel not give orders for each lightbulb to be changed, neither does Raul. I knew that, and so did you, if you thought about it.
I'm immediately disappointed to see that restoration of Old Havana's tourist facilities is still getting priority over restoration of homes in Old Havana. It's happening street by street, but with an apparent intention to complete the playland part first. Furthermore, I saw some buildings formerly occupied by a lot of families upstairs restored without those homes. I asked, of course, and was told there is a philosophy afoot to move people who work elsewhere closer to their work, while keeping people who work downtown living downtown. I think that has ominous overtones, but maybe it doesn't. I've met downtowners who wanted out, but a lot don't, because the old maze is their home.
Ugly as the still worn-out old town is, I have to report that Cubans there aren't as impatient as I am and aren't as disenchanted with the place as I am. That's not 100%, and I have to tell you again, just in case you show up here, that Old Havana and Centro aren't Cuba. Everyone I've talked to agrees with me on that. Vedado is much more Cuban than Old Havana, and other cities certainly more so. The ugliness of the old town is getting worse by comparison to the extremely slick restoration, and, rather than be easily misled by that, I urge you, especially now, if you come, to get out of Havana and see the real Cuba where the other Nine million people live, so you'll understand why there is no uprising on the horizon.
A fashion note. Cubans this year are dressing like me, though the chicas make sure they add some notable element to the Levi's and casual shirt concept to let you know they're not really all that casual, like say, a colorful bra under a casually transparent shirt or a
T-shirt over their tight Levi's that looks like it's designer-casual.
17 January 2007, Restoring Habana Vieja changes people's lives: This woman I'm talking about was devastated, you might say, because she was lucky. A block further east on Sol Street where people told me a year and a half ago that their street was about to become beautiful, they were still waiting. They could see the restoration coming a block away, they were still confident, still patient, surer than ever that Fidel's promise was coming true, but they were still waiting.
This woman lives on the Plaza Vieja, which looked last time I saw it just vieja (old), otherwise grossly ugly. Now it's almost all as slick as Starbucks, all but one building beautifully restored inside and out. The buildings on the north and south sides used to be all residential upstairs, with shabby balconies and clothes drying in the hot Cuban sun. Now most of the buildings are commercial, more eye candy for tourists, maybe four of them still partly residential upstairs but not visibly so in front. The last one, not yet underway, according to the picture hanging on it, will have balconies. No drying clothes show in the picture. But, unavoidably, because the homes will be larger, some of the people will have to be moved - to new buildings for sure, in Cerro, Boyeros, Alamar, even Playa. That, in my opinion, is the important part. But this woman I'm talking about and her two friends whom I found sitting on the curb balefully staring at the new plaza get to stay.
That is, they get to come back. They'll be put or will put themselves somewhere else during the major work. But they will come back to new, solid, modern, larger homes with certainly a better view. So what's to cry about? The woman told me it is like a bomb dropping on her life. "Me da lagrimas." She traced with her fingers how the tears run down her cheeks. Oh well. The sad thing, she admitted, is that many of her neighbors on the plaza have to leave Habana Vieja. I don't think that's so sad, myself, but she said the ones who move to Boyeros will have the the noise of airplanes coming in and taking off. I guess so. But Boyeros has been looking very good for the last few years.
Anyway, the grand project goes forward. The goal is a long way off, but, besides having near perfect health care and education and dirt cheap public transportation and subsidized food and clothes and safe streets and unparalleled dignity, eventually all Cubans will have excellent homes. So why did the youth at the communist party table in the Zocalo in Mexico City assure me, though he's never been out of town himself, that Cuban communism is a fake - a trick - and a trick that's failing? Well he knew that because it's his party's line and must be true and because tourists he's talked to say so. Cuba, he told me has been bought by foreign investors who sell tourists Heineken beer and Cuban girls. It's the worst kind of capitalism, he said. He said the same about the plans of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. The debating club communists, remember, didn't join Fidel until he'd succeeded, didn't help Che because he wasn't Bolivian, and voted against Daniel Ortega in 1990.
But there is a grain of truth in the kid's spiel. Though some parts of the Cuban system are near pure communist, now, they are still in transition and therefore socialist. And I only hope the word is valid, because, besides the people's almost communist system at one level, the state is involved in two kinds of capitalist ventures. They are investing in and profiting from tourism big time. And, besides bringing in things for the tourists to buy, they are bringing in a lot of things for the Cubans to buy. That is, they are doing business with the tourists and also with the Cubans by letting them spend all the money sent to them from other countries in convertible peso venues, just like and along side the tourists. All the money ends up in the state's pockets and is used to advance the grand project. Militants will tell you that even the part re-invested in tourism is producing more money for that purpose.
There are sunset clauses in the contracts with foreign investors providing that when they get their money back and then some, everything goes to state control, and hopefully some kind of sunset mechanism will work for the rest of the game. If it does, the Mexican communist kid will get a surprise. If it doesn't, then maybe Cuba will have to call itself socialist forever. I don't know. If it was up to me, Cuba would be more purely communist, but Iěm not one who considers Marx's coincidental phrasing as scripture. The Cubans look to me to be living better and better, the problem being that they aren't all lucky at the same level. The official answering questions at the Maqueta (the model of the city on Mercaderes Street that shows how the project in Old Havana is going) almost angrily assured me that eventually everybody will be equal, but she met all my skeptical questions with whining about the embargo, so I don't know if I was convinced of anything but her militancy. Anyway, after four days in Havana, the worst part of Cuba, I don't see anything falling apart.
It's true that in La Fuente they've disposed of the ducks because they were supposedly pecking some people's kids. Unable to conceive of a better way for a duck to spend its time, I don't like that. I liked the ducks. Also, Dos Hermanos, which I boast of so much on this site, has been ruined again by another bureaucrat foolishly trying to protect the customers from people on the sidewalk. Last time it was planter boxes in the open archways. This time it's trellis-like barricades. I told them I won't be back until they remove them. I expect a lot of Italians and Spaniards have told them the same. We'll see.
24 January 2007, The continued decline of hustling in Cuba and other ups and downs: I don't remember noticing if she was black, mulata, latina, or white. It was my seventh hot afternoon in Havana and it usually takes just seven days in Cuba to stop noticing colors.
"You were asleep," she accused me, just as I snapped myself out of a doze and saw her watching me from the next table, which had been empty an instant before.
"Where'd you come from?"
"I live here," she said, "and you, where do you come from?"
"California. You live in the restaurant?"
"In Vedado." We were in La Fuente, the patio restaurant now without ducks, in the vast suburb of Vedado, which would be world famous for its beauty if it weren't overshadowed by the perversely famous ugliness of Habana Vieja. I'd finished my early dinner of bifstek de cerdo a la plancha with arroz moro and papas fritas and had finished half my Bucanero beer before falling asleep. The beer label said it́s 5 point something and declares it "fuerte." Therés now also Bucanero "Max,"which is 6 point something.
I'd never before been hustled in La Fuente, because only tourists living in houses nearby know about it; the diners and drinkers are mostly Cuban, but since she was a knock-out and alone, an inkling from previous years prompted me to ask her profession. She was a primary school teacher, dressed for 2007, of course, in casual jeans and a light, sleeveless blouse.
"Italiano?" she asked. I should learn Italian. To almost all Cubans I encounter, anyway, I seem to have the right accent.
I told her again I'm from California and she thought I was Mexican, which was OK, and I explained why I was so tired. I'm getting too old for all the walking I do in Cuba in search of conversations, and though it's much cooler in January than in the summer when I'm usually here, it's still hot in the narrow streets of the capital. She said I looked strong, and I told her I'm 70, too old for either the heat or romance (a subtle hint thrown in just in case) and we talked for awhile just politely until I mentioned that I'd be heading for Cienfuegos in the morning, where I hoped to find it cooler.
Then, just as if were a natural thing to say, "Would you like me to go with you?" she asked.
They're always original, charming, and almost irresistible. But she was only the third working chica I'd met in a week in Havana, where you're most likely to meet hustlers in Cuba, so the trend toward the disappearance of hustling jineteros and chicas in Cuba continues.
In 1989, I met only a few quaintly amateur prostitutes in Cuba, in 2000 none; in 2001, when the felt need for dollars by Cubans jealous of others who had them must have peaked, I and a young Mexican-American guy I was traveling with were pestered constantly by jineteros and, in certain tourist areas in the big cities, charmingly swamped by chicas. But since then, due to changing conditions or a crackdown by the police that nobody will admit to, they've dramatically decreased each year. In 2007, so far, in a week, I've been hit up by only 3 jineteros, strangely all white and all as obnoxiously forceful as if they'd just read a book about how to dominate and manipulate suckers; with the beautiful teacher in La Fuente, only 3 chicas. In Cienfuegos, where I'm struggling with a really contrary computer in the Hotel Jagua 3 days later, the absence of hustlers is so far total. So I think I can safely say that the trend of the last few years toward less and maybe eventually no hustling in Cuba continues.
Other unreported or misreported trends in Cuba include, for one thing, the growth of fat cops. In 2000, we never saw a fat cop. Now about 1 in 5 is fat, and Íve seen small groups of fat cops. Generally, the people are fatter than in the past, and I expect the casual jeans now in fashion do less to discourage fat than the hip-huggers they replaced.
A possibly more ominous trend (though the government seems to welcome it) is the increase in the number of people with money from abroad. If you think this supplement is critical, you should stand in line with some women in a dollar store and watch them buy silly trinkets. That's OK with me, by the way. It all goes into the state's pockets, and I find the irony exquisite that, besides financing the ongoing revolution, if the mark-up on the trinkets is what I think, the Miamistas are being cheated. Several people told me everyone has an outside angel now, which I doubt, but at least some Cubans definitely frequent all the tourist venues now, and they buy more booze, for instance, so the number of private parties I can hear from my room late on Friday and Saturday nights is on the increase.
I consider this ominous because, though clearly almost everyone is on their job, if too many people follow the course of an ex-dentist I talked to in Cienfuegos, who quit her job because she didn't consider it worth her time to earn a salary anymore, since she got all the money she needed from Miami anyway, participation in the system will drop, and the system runs (not on profit but) on participation. That woman, by the way, had been virtually given her house, her health, and etc., and was still taking advantage of all the subsidized necessities the Cubans get.
Related to that, the papers report about 3% unemployment and indicate that most of that is because young people just out of school are refusing to accept jobs in agriculture and construction. Comments in the street when I bring this up tend toward "Some people expect everything to rain down on them from the sky. They just don't want to work," which is only an interesting opinion as long as they're talking about a marginal faction.
In 2000, I saw more apparent street people than the one I saw in 1989, and each visit after that, up to '05, there were a few more, though never more than 1 or 2 a day, even in Havana. But this year I've seen almost no raggedy looking people. The only beggars are obviously conning me, working hard to put on long, sad faces. In Cienfuegos, we saw one apparent street person in 2000 and, though I always come here, I've never seen another, including so far on this visit. Oh, I saw an old man, not ragged, begging a Cuban woman at the bus station, his hand out, making piteous mewing noises. She kissed her fingers and touched his palm and shooed him away. I asked what she thought of him, and she said, "He's crazy."
"You don't think he might need money?"
"Don't worry. He has a family or some department takes care of him." And I know that's true. The tiny number of beggars in Cuba don't need to beg.
Traffic continues to increase and includes more new cars, mostly blocky little European models, including a lot of new Russian Ladas and several kinds of Japanese cars and others whose names mean nothing to me. One result is that the old 50́s cars are getting less obvious, though they're still here.
The story of constantly collapsing buildings in Old Havana (which ought to be true) is getting further from believable (I never believed it). There are some buildings on the Malecon they seem to have given up on, having removed the scaffolding without doing anything to them, but they look to me like they'll have to be forcefully knocked down. I see buildings that have partly fallen in but I've never seen or heard one collapse all at once or seen any evidence it had just happened.
The frequent claim by one-week experts that early revolutionary home building slowed to a crawl and little is being done now is more and more obviously uninformed. I've seen lots of home construction, but you only need to walk down the Malecon now to see quite a few new apartment buildings, while the going info on people being moved out of Old Havana suggests a lot more in other places. Billboards proclaiming that the revolution is still going forward aren't lying, though the oft-spoken asterisk comment, "poco a poco," is still true, too. More about that in my next letter from Cienfuegos.
There's a factory near Matanzas now making a grade of toilet paper superior to anything available where I live in California. Cuban boxed and powdered milk is starting to push Nestles products off all the store shelves. Delmonte stuff, cunningly laundered through Mexico, is still commonly available. But Proctor and Gamble products just as commonly laundered through Canada in the past, are disappearing. That should be because Cuban chefs now make their own much better potato chips, but, in fact, mock Pringles identically canned under different names from several other countries are everywhere.
Music is evolving toward a more and more popular version of salsa with more and more beat and less and less melody. I walked by a kids' birthday party in Nuevo Vedado one day with loud and unbearably redundant rap. But I enjoyed a group at 7 Mares on La Rampa several nights in a row that was still mellow with subdued drums, several guitars and a violin, and I was surprised by a marimba band in Varadero.
Travelers to Cuba continue to be delighted by TV with no commercials. But there are now oft repeated animated info-toons, almost like commercials, showing George Bush being abused like Wylie Coyote or Elmer Fudd that delight the Cubans. Cuban TV features no cop glorification shows and no TV in the wee hours. When the news comes on, everyone has to watch it because that's all there is. Believe it or not, there are lots of travelogues. Soap opera story lines are set in the sad days before the revolution, while comedies are contemporary. The acting is great.
Newspaper columnists are printing their e-mail addresses now and more people are telling me they use the internet, asking me, in fact, for my e-mail address. A cartoonist who draws tourists at Palatino's in Cienfuegos gave me his blog address today. But the disappearance of the ETECSA cyber room at the press center on La Rampa in Havana seriously reduced public access in Vedado that I could see. A cyber café in Cienfuegos has disappeared, too. There are news stories about college students using computers more and more at school, though, researching the internet, and I'm hearing of more people with access at work. Also, I'm told, the Juventud sponsors internet access sites.
I can't omit that, though state restaurants continue to beat paladars now, with bigger portions, prettier plates, and better quality, the private sidewalk and front porch stands are also putting out fatter sandwiches and other goodies that are harder to resist.
My reason for being here is to report from here, what I already knew, that things didn't fall apart when Fidel went into the hospital. Ana Maria, always my Cienfuegos hostess and my most trusted authority, says things haven't changed in Cuba with Fidel on the bench because almost all the Cubans run the system together. She's had a series of house guests who wondered why things aren't falling apart, and she's gotten used to pointing out obvious reality to the victims of mainstream media misinformation elsewhere.
I'd say about 25% of the adult Cubans actually run the system, but she's right. The first class Via Azul bus to Cienfuegos worked. In fact, I noticed that the second class Astro busses are all being replaced by new models that look like they work better than the old ones. That's a really important change. Ojala que they have new city busses soon. I've seen some of the old Astro busses operating as city busses in Cienfuegos. The street lights and water and etc. work, and garbage collectors still make an incredible racket at night The inadequate newspapers keep coming out every day at the same level of inadequacy. Everything keeps going. Why not? Why don't you write and ask The Times and the White House why they expected otherwise. Ana Maria also says Fidel's treatment will work (why not, since Cuba has one of the world's most sophisticated medical systems) and that Fidel WILL return to office "with reduced responsibilities." "Everything's fine," she said.
"Ray-goo-lahr," I suggested.
"Right," she said, "regular is a better word. Not everything's fine. But everything is regular."
Almost every person I've asked about this in the street, like a troop of echoes, have told me, "There is a system here, and the system works."
From my regular bedroom in Vedado, as usual, I had a free front row seat for the well-amplified concerts at the writers' and artists' club across the street. On Saturday night, before I left Havana for Cienfuegos, there was a group imitating American singers and groups from the 50's. The slightly base tenor couldn't really get up there with Tony Williams, the "tu-u-u" of "solo tu" falling lamely short of the top of the scale, but the "oo-oo-oo" of his back-up chorus, which sounded all chica, was delivered with such over-the-top elan that the final effect was deliciously Cuban. It seemed odd the guy also couldn't imitate Harry Belafonte's (I-always-thought) Caribbean English. I can't accurately spell his pronunciation of "Day-oh." But it was fun, since I'd already dozed at La Fuente, trying to figure out what singer and even what song I was hearing. One of the girls mightily improved on Frank Sinatra and, when the concert ended at 1 a.m. and the cats took over, I could hear a party somewhere else of teenagers, the boys showing off their new low voices with mock school cheers and the girls throwing shrill giggle bouquets out to the eager night.
28 January 2007, Hurricane repair in Cienfuegos: Think of New Orleans as you read this. The hurricane of '05, which struck Cienfuegos just after I left, was not as destructive as it might have been if the city were not so well protected inside its near landlocked, sea-size harbor. But it knocked down a lot of houses - did a lot of damage - almost none of which is apparent now, a year and a half later.
They say it leapfrogged, taking this house and not that one, and you can see that, not by counting ruined houses but by counting new ones. It did no apparent damage to my favorite house in Cuba, Hospidaje Ana Maria on Punta Gorda, though there were 6-foot waves on both sides of the point.
More surprising to me, the really old, often tilting, once fine (still oddly fine inside) 80, 90, 100-year-old wooden houses that you find here and there in almost all Cuban cities, weren't visibly phased. They give the wind so little trouble, I'm told, that it returns their courtesy and forgives them for getting so slightly in its way. An entire block of old fading board fronts under a dramatically sagging roof that looked like a set for a cowboy movie when I first saw it in 2000 still looks the same.
That's on the vulnerable west side of town, where I hiked most of the day on Monday and saw only two houses still knocked to pieces. All the others that had been destroyed or damaged were repaired or replaced or were being replaced with solid new houses.
Seeing a woman emerging from behind a neat, brightly painted new house, I asked her if that was her new house. "No," she said, "It's my brother's."
"Built by the state?"
"This one, yes," she said, but her brother was doing the work himself on his house with materials and help from the state. "Would you like to see it?" Then I saw that she had come from the house just beyond the one I was admiring, clearly the same size and plan, whole, but still raw concrete, unfinished, unpainted.
Inside, her brother and another man were smoothing a floor with water, creating a shallow flood that almost topped my sandal soles. He told me he was an albanil - a building tradesman - and so was his friend, but they were using the state's plan because it was a good one.
All the electricity and plumbing were in. The house was 80 square meters with three bedrooms and a galley-sized kitchen to give the dining/living room more space. The house it had replaced had been smaller and considered substandard.
"So you got your new house thanks to the hurricane?"
Everyone laughed but, talking to people with new houses that day, I was unlikely to meet anyone not feeling militant. "Si, but, really, senor, thanks to the state."
The construction brigades, they told me, had been on the scene and at work within the first week after the hurricane passed. In Cuba, there is no need for an act of congress or for a lot of procedure to appropriate funds. The capital of the Cuban system is mostly participation and the participants are able, willing, and ready.
I remember reading about this in the summer of '05 on the internet in an article from, I think, Atlanta, but the story I read ended with a really silly explanation that Cubans are so efficient because they know they have to do what they're told. I assume this was added by an old editor. Reporters in Nicaragua in the 80's told me that it was rigid anti-communist old fogeys back home who used their collections of tiny stamps to insert words like "regime," "communist backed," "Russian armed," and "totalitarian" into the news about the Sandinistas to keep their American readers well reminded of what they thought they thought.
The west side of Cienfuegos is vulnerable because it's open with more scattered homes instead of the solid blocks of row houses in the center, and I know it has flooded in the past, while the main townsite, though almost surrounded by the huge bay, has been dry land for centuries. Anyway, I was looking at new houses with space around them for the wind to blow. Houses there constructed of solid cement blocks had survived easily, and that is what the doomed old frail houses have now become.
Downtown Cienfuegos is mostly row houses and it is hard to see how houses braced up on both sides by other houses could have been vulnerable. But on Thursday, Eugenio Perez, an artist I always consult in Cienfuegos, walked me around his neighborhood pointing out quite a few houses that had fallen and been replaced. His wife had told me that the vibration of metal roofs had caused some houses to collapse and some large metal roofs just flew away, leaving the the house beneath more exposed to the deluge. Their own roof had shaken enough to crack the tops of their walls, and I could see the new plaster spread over the repairs. Across the street was a jammed in narrow house still with a metal roof but all new beneath it because it had literally crumbled beneath the bouncing metal.
Though people with poor houses often say they are "waiting for the cyclone," Eugenio was careful to distinguish for me the difference between new houses replaced after the last storm and new houses built as part of an ongoing home construction plan. On a half block where a row of old shacks had been pointed out to me several years ago as maybe the poorest houses in town, there were now all new houses, but they were older than a year and a half and had been built before the '05 hurricane. There are quite a few new houses in that neighborhood on what was vacant land at the edge of the bay, occupied by people moved in from poor houses intentionally destroyed in other places.
Everyone told me that Castillo de Jagua, the fishing village at the very mouth of the bay had been hit hardest but was now "todo reparado." So, on Friday, I took a long bus ride (for one peso which was worth not 4 cents as the bank says but a long bus ride) to Hotel Pasacaballo and then a short boat ride across the remarkably narrow channel that connects the huge bay to the ocean. From the boat, I could see no apparent damage in the village. Walking the paths that serve as streets in much of the village, I talked to people in obviously new houses who pointed out roofs that had not yet been replaced. But for the most part the town seemed perfect again.
In fact, a small cement platform by a tiny café where I had a dinner brought over from a nearby house in 2001 is now a restaurant with a 5-room hotel over it. After hiking the town and, just as in western Cienfuegos, meeting mostly happy patriots, I had a tiny (Spanish style) cup of coffee in the restaurant and talked to the totally unoccupied 4 waitresses and the cook. The youngest told me she was born and raised in Castillo and had never been anywhere further away than Cienfuegos. This wasn't a complaint. Even citizens of Cienfuegos, one of Cuba's most beautiful cities, consider Castillo de Jagua a paradise. It's true that many Cubans dream of traveling. Their very educational TV features a lot of travelogues. But I talked to an Ethiopian veteran a couple of days ago, and when I asked how he'd liked traveling to Africa, he said he didn't like it at all. He was glad to get back to Cuba then and he still feels that way. Of course he was in a war and seeing a really third world place, but, no matter, he's quit with traveling, he said.
31 January 2007, The return of Fidel: I saw Fidel on TV last night walking around talking to Hugo Chavez and other people. This was a video from Monday when Hugo was in Havana. But it was being seen for the first time, and it was the first time I have seen Fidel on TV since I got here over two weeks ago. He looked strong and my host told me that if I had gotten to the TV room a minute before, he was speaking lucidly and forcefully, too. My host is a very gungho retired army officer who fully expects Fidel to remain president, but others today have told me the same thing.
If the possibility of Fidel continuing in office alarms you, you should know that most Cubans do not agree with you. Everyone thinks Fidel has the right to retire, but few consider it wrong for him to stay president for as long as he can stay on top of the job. I agree with them. The purpose of a state isn't to have elections. It is to make life better for its participants. Elections are one supposedly effective means to that end. But there are other means. And, under Fidel's presidency, Cuba, using more direct means (plus elections), seems to be doing better than anyone else. His job is not what it used to be, anyway. Raul Castro, officially taking his place, has not been running Cuba. Lots of people do that now. Fidel, famous for getting more involved than he needs to, will, if he returns to office, be more involved than his brother. But nobody outside the U.S. imagines he will be dictating, if that matters.
In the 17 days since I got to Cuba, the papers have rarely mentioned Raul, and I have not seen him on TV once. There has been footage of the army preparing for George Bush, and that is actually Raul's department. Until last night, there has been nothing about Fidel recovering, either, though everyone in the streets fancied himself an expert on the subject.
Extensive coverage of the cementing of ties to Venezuela and other countries has spotlighted 53-year-old Carlos Lage Davila, the second vice president, the man most people I have talked to think will be the next president. About a dozen cabinet members and a lot of other officials of the government have been on the screen, too, all looking and sounding very much in charge of their own sectors.
In other words, there is no evidence in the coverage of daily Cuban affairs that this is a country under one-man rule. Of course, you knew that. But if the National Assembly and the Council of State choose Davila (they are the ones who will decide according to the Constitution) or someone else, like Ricardo Alarcon, U.S. media will have to learn the name of a third Cuban. I trust them, of course, to affect previous knowledge and to make up a reason for the selection that fits their own comic book version of history. Now that Hugo Chavez has announced that an attack on Cuba will be an attack on Venezuela, and it does not even seem improbable that several (if not all) of the other Latin American countries (and, who knows, maybe most of the world) will follow suit when the time comes, the time may have come for U.S. media to put away their comic book and read some real sources for a change -- maybe on the internet.
8 February, 2007, Cubans are getting around in new ways: Kids on bicycles, skates, and skateboards are increasing in Cuba, introducing (just barely) California style sidewalk terrorism, but with a Cuban twist. Cuban boys and girls every place I've been so far on this trip have developed a talent for weaving through crowds very fast without clipping anyone. That appears to be the game. I've seen no mishaps, though I'm guessing this has been reported in Juventud Rebelde with police stats included. Needless to say, being passed from behind is startling, but last night on Obispo Street I saw kids dodging smoothly around cops who didn't react.
I read on two of the links at the bottom of my front page that camel busses are slated for extinction and replacement, and, just now, drinking coffee at a window table in Cafeteria La Rampa, I saw what had to be the future, a double length (jointed), very new, very slick bus labeled Metrobus and inscribed with hype about making life in the city better, etc. It was full with nobody standing and may have been carrying dignitaries around on a maiden voyage, since I also saw plenty of crowded busses, including a camel bus. On the alert, though, I also saw what I'd seen in Cienfuegos, some old Astro busses converted to city bus use.
I'm going to investigate, at the risk of being tagged for practicing journalism on a tourist visa, because if I'm seeing what I think I'm seeing, this represents a two-pronged attack on Cuba's only real human rights abuse, i.e., city busses (well, there's also the continuing plight of people who still don't have good houses, which I'll deal with in my next report comparing Varadero with Matanzas).
Besides matronly women in Varadero wearing stunningly yellow jumpsuits, there is another fashion asterisk I have to report, though it pains me. This isn't common, like the casual jeans and T-shirts, but it's hard not to see. A handful of people, maybe dissidents, maybe not (I've been told it's a put-on), are wearing pieces of camouflage combat uniforms, or skirts or shirts that imitate the pattern. I've even seen maybe 5 or 6 men in full combat regalia, minus helmet but including boots, with brass lettering on their chests reading, "Delta Force," or "U.S. Army." Some Cubans roll their eyes. Others ignore it. It's certainly free speech.
P.S. on busses: I walked around for hours after starting this update and didn't need to consult any officials. A lot of Habaneros aren't up on it, but quite a few already know everything and can tick off the camel bus lines that will soon (hopefully) be metrobus lines. One elderly lady told me caustically that it's just because "they" don't want the tourists to have to see the camel busses. She considers this a frivolous concern. People lined up at Copelia when a Metrobus went by were enthusiastic, but a guy in line who told me he was a mechanic said the new busses aren't as strong as camel busses and don't hold any more people; they just look better. Camel busses aren't really busses; they´re trucks hauling a knocked together set of people containers that look a little like a giant double pumpkin coach and which somebody decided look like a camel. Most people with inside dope, confirming that old Astro busses are already supplementing the city bus complement, are more eager to have more busses than to have the slick new metrobusses. The downside, though, if what they tell me is right (and I suspect it is) is that the fare, at least on the metrobusses, will go up from 20 centavos to 40 centavos - double.
According to the World Bank, that's up from 1 cent to 2 cents. To a Cuban, it's from 20 cents up to 40 cents, a lot if you ride the bus every day. To Miamistas competing with the Cuban state to see who can do most to help their relatives, it means only another dollar a month in the mail, which, when converted at 24-1, will buy 60 bus rides. Obviously, Cuba needs to go to a one-money system, as I thought they intended to do in '06, because then the Miami angel would have to send $300 (instead of $12) to match his brother's or cousin's salary and would either have to surrender or really start contributing big-time to help pay for the new busses and etc.
6 March 2007, Old Matanzas compared to Varadero Beach: A dissident of another kind told me in Cienfuegos, "I'm hot for communism, but this isn't communism."
"Well," I argued, "some sectors - health, education, and (really) housing, too - ARE communist," but I reminded her, "it's socialism, a transitional phase, and most Cubans always say, todo va bien, poco a poco." "Forty eight years," she declared, because it was January, 2007, two years less than half a century since Fidel marched into Havana, "is too little by little."
She was visiting someone on Fat Point, where all the Homes & Gardens look Better. She was a typically healthy, well dressed, well educated Cuban who looked as good as the house we were in, as do a lot of clerks and housekeepers and bus drivers, but I didn't know where she lived. And I didn't know if her grievance was about her own house or that she lived entirely in the peso economy or if it was even personal. She talked like a philosopher and maybe she was. But even if it was just that she had no Miami relatives sending her dollars to buy things she didn't need, I couldn't argue with her.
She looked 30 something, but 35, 25 or 45, the revolution had been transitioning "poco a poco" all her life, and I thought of the really old man I'd met in Batabano still living in 2004 in the age blackened hovel where he'd always lived, though finally about to get a new house just before he died. And I thought of the women at the silly trinket counter in the Foto Service store contributing their relatives' money to the revolution but, while it transitioned through their pockets, getting a taste of decadence.
The difference between them and Ana-Elsie in Baracoa who is proud that she and her husband live just on their salaries and who makes her own clothes from rationed fabric isn't communism, and neither is the difference between Punta Gorda or Varadero Beach and a Russian era edificio or a sinking, crumbling old barrio in Matanzas.
On this trip, besides seeing more of Matanzas than I'd seen before, I finally went to Varadero Beach, a place I've always avoided because, I thought, it isn't Cuba. I was right, and if you're wondering, I'll still tell you you've already seen it. It's a California beach town with a nicer beach and, at the tip, where there's nothing but grand hotels and where redundant anti-communist apocrypha always includes maids who supposedly weep to tourists that they aren't allowed to pay $200 a night to stay there, it's Cancun.
I still didn't bother looking into the grand hotels. I've never looked into the Sea World Drive Hilton in San Diego, either, to commiserate with the maids there who, like me, aren't going to check in. But I found something unexpected in the beach town.
Besides the tourists, there is an old and new Cuban population in Varadero and even some smaller hotels where some Cubans do stay (probably with the help of Miami relatives) and which even I could have afforded if I hadn't easily found what's not supposed to be there, a room for rent in a Cuban house. And since I didn't spend a moment lying down on the picture-perfect beach, but stuck to my walking talking job, I found that, besides being a tourist mecca, Varadero is a good place to live and work for Cubans.
I'd rather live in Baracoa or Gibara or Holguin or, maybe, several other possible pocket paradises I've too briefly seen to talk about, but I learned that, besides those who bus in daily from Cardenas, a neat but drab city on its own beach, or from Santa Marta, another rockier 100% Cuban beach town just a bike ride away which looked pretty good from a bus, there are also workers living in touristic Varadero, in OK little houses or in clean, well painted apartment buildings.
It's offensive that a casual (inoffensive) checkpoint discourages hustlers and itinerants from entering the peninsula, but passing it twice in taxis and four times on busses, I saw no luggage or ID checking or anybody being checked but the drivers and nobody offended. I don't even know if it works. In fact, I met zero jineteros, beggars, or working chicas in Varadero (though I enjoyed some typical Cuban flirting including with a woman cop at the checkpoint), but the hustler count was almost zero everywhere else I went in Cuba this year, too. More importantly, I didn't meet a single weeping maid or other worker or resident in Varadero and I saw no reason for anyone there to weep.
By contrast, the 20 or so blocks of soggy slums on the south bank of the Yumuri in Matanzas, where houses impatient with officialdom are deciding to level themselves and pipes broken by the sinking ground spew green sewage into the gutters, made me wonder, as I did in Batabano (see ch. 5 in "Cuban Notebooks"), how long the people there will go on waiting for the revolution to find them. And thinking of Cuba's obscenely splendid new and over-proliferating tourist hotels in Old Havana and nearby Varadero, even if they are the solution, didn't ease my concern, because, whatever their future, people who still live in ugly places still live in them.
In five days in Matanzas, in contrast to Varadero, I met two beggars; one working chica who spent a night in the room next to mine with a guy from Barcelona; an exceptionally obnoxious jinetero at the Hershey train station accompanied by three women dressed to kill and who lit one cigar from another while proudly showing me a wallet full of possibly a thousand convertible pesos; and a dissident claiming to be a history professor who joined me on a park bench and lectured me at length about people who left Cuba to be free but who, when I told him I'd met them and knew for a fact they'd left Cuba to make money, wilted and lectured me instead on the difference between merely greedy dissidents in Florida and real dissidents in Cuba.
I also met some funny librarians who were delighted that I came back every day to look at their city maps and ask questions they couldn't answer; an old man who was born in Matanzas but had spent his life in Havana going to various schools and serving the state in so many different positions that he said he had known all the national leaders and, now that he was retired in a house off the malecon which he pointed out in the distance, if I would come to visit he'd answer all my questions about the revolution; and the students in a cooking school set up like a tiny restaurant on the most hectic block of Calle 272 (an arbitrary number that won't help you find it) who enthusiastically invited passersby to try their fare and service and criticize them.
In ugly old Matanzas, by the way, on a throughway porch with safe and convenient parking, there's a fast-food place called La Vigia that serves the best ham and cheese sandwiches in Cuba, including Varadero, and world-class hamburgers; and, on the same porch, there's Ediciones Vigia, where 14 friendly women carefully, lovingly HAND publish 200 copies each of an ongoing line of beautiful handmade books that you're free to examine and buy. But, after stopping for those two attractions only, the tourist who pokes his head around the corner and peers up narrow Calle Medio toward the city's casbah-looking heart will probably jump back in his rent-a-car and speed on to Varadero.
There's more to things than meets the drive-by eye. On my first all-day walk around Matanzas, where I'd only stopped a couple of hours in 2000, I thought I saw long rows of dark black scrap-wood shanties as ugly as anything in Latin America stretched along the north bank of the Yumuri and the south bank of the San Juan, the two river mouths that frame downtown. Since I've actively sought shanties in Cuba and thought I knew where they all were, you can believe I was stunned. But it turned out to be an illusion I'm explaining to other tourists who will also be fooled and won't look closer.
Beyond the nearest of the city's many bridges, down a long age-slick stairway, I picked my way from a dirt work-road to where men were throwing nets off the shaky wooden docks in front of the shacks and found out they were only make-shift sheds for locking up the gear of fishermen and boatwrights who use the two wide river mouths that open flat into Matanzas Bay as narrow, inner harbors.
OK. But the two shabby black mock shackrows do fit well into the generally cramped gray ambience of old Matanzas, where I stayed in a very nice house behind a forbidding wall on a forbidding street that depressed me every time I stepped out the door. Generally cramped grey ambience is an important part of the lives of people who live in it. And though it's just as grey in larger parts of New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, that SHOULD be because those places are capitalist jungles and NOT communist.
I walked for miles uphill and back and forth across an old but attractive and breezy residential slope where it was much nicer above the dank old center, visiting the up-riverside market and watching canoe races on the Rio San Juan. I walked north to the Versalles quarter, south to the bus station, and east the length of the malecon that half circles the bay on the way to Varadero, and found all those places - most of Matanzas - especially the residential aura of the miles-long malecon, clean and solid and pleasant enough and some of it relatively new, open, and even upscale. There's even some there there. But the dreary old heart of the city, which Lonely Planet cunningly grants "an ambience and cultural vibe that enchants if you give it a chance" while suggesting that you just "drive by," is unforgettable for the wrong reasons.
Though, except for thick and noisy traffic which nearly swatted me a few times, it felt as safe to me, day and night as Centro Habana (and I spent some late night hours seeking a grail-like piano bar heard-of by many but pinpointable by none and always fabled not to start until "later"), its ambience is mainly noise and narrowness and an absolutely wrong but strong sensation that one shouldn't stray too far from the La Vigia porch.
In fact, the further you stray, the pleasanter Matanzas gets, but after exploring the slummy river-bank area, I found the downtown ambience, though really only old and narrow, not different enough from the slum ambience to make me forget the slum. It presents in miniature the same should-be-out-of-date social dilemma as Habana Vieja, Centro, and Diez de Octubre. I wouldn't want to live there, and the only way I could see to make it liveable for anyone (since I don't think anyone should have to live where I wouldn't) would be to paint it all in bright pastels and open it to the sky by razing whole blocks to checker it with parks, starting with a big riverside park entirely canceling the sagging north-side, whose residents should be moved to new housing along the malecon.
Maybe the state intends to do just that, after they've built a few dozen more tourist palaces to milk for the cash. I hope their obvious overbuilding of the tourist sector doesn't bring them a bust before they get around to it. But the best hoped-for future of the revolution, in stark contrast to old Matanzas, though visible in the town's new suburbs, is most visible in that part of Cuba, in the workers' quarter of Varadero.
And maybe in the grand hotels I scorned. I personally don't like the idea (I hate grand hotels), but there is, I swear (I've seen it!), west of Santiago on the Sierra Maestra coast, an equally grand hotel reserved for Cuban workers' families. Maybe, when its oil and the technical scientific ingenuity of its totally educated people make Cuba self-sufficient, the grand hotels of Varadero will be virtually free resorts for Cubans, too - a fitting part of a future Cuba's uniquely flamboyant style of communism. Ojala!
May 5, 2007: When Fidel didn't appear at Havana's May Day parade as expected, U.S. media took the opportunity to rehearse yet again their standard-issue Cuban talking points, reminding both themselves and their readers or listeners, for instance, of the world's supposed surprise that Cuba remained "calm" on the supposedly protracted but still supposed eve of its still supposedly anticipated liberation and/or miraculously curative soon-to-come exposure to our wonderful ways.
The continued progress of the workers' revolution being celebrated was not reported, of course, though, oddly, one wire story included a dissonant quote from a marcher that Fidel's "spirit" would still lead "the revolution."
Still shuffling my January and February Cuba notes from far away in California, with hopefully beneficial perspective, I was disappointed but not surprised by Fidel's absence. The last time I saw him speaking to a crowd in the sun 3 years ago, he looked weak to me; for over 2 years, he's usually appeared only on TV, seated at a table; now, even if he has recovered from last year's operations, he's another year older; and inside sources only expect him to resume some of his presidential work.
In fact, Fidel's health is not necessarily 100% corollary to the health of the Cuban revolution. My latest view from the Cuban streets showed me continued and even stepped-up progress during his convalescence. Of course, my frequent visitor's perspective, though in some ways keener than a provincial view, is limited, which is why I keep links on my front page to Circles Robinson, who lives in Cuba, and to a couple of sites that run objective daily updates from a variety of sources. Contrary to U.S. delusions, Cuba is run by a big bureaucracy, and neither I nor my other sources can easily know what all the string pullers behind the Cuban scenes are up to. But leaders like Ricardo Alarcon and Carlos Lage seem well focused on the revolution, and I know all the militant party members I meet are, too.
It's always easier to know what I don't see in Cuba than to understand what I see. And with one exception (freedom of the press), what I don't see is always enough to put Cuba head and shoulders above the world. That's not changing, and most of what I do see seems to keep corroborating what the militants I tend to trust always tell me. "Todo va bien - poco a poco." All goes well - little by little.
The word todo means all or everything, and in that context it means the revolution - the same revolution that the hopeful May Day marcher in the wire story expects Fidel's "spirit" to keep leading. The revolution is everything. U.S. media never appear to get it, but what property rights are to Republicans, the Cuban revolution is to Cubans and THE revolution is to champions of the poor everywhere. In Cuba, the Cuban revolution is like their gold buried in Fort Knox. It's real. It's happening. And whether you know it or not, so is THE revolution. THE revolution is a phrase almost unknown (or officially forgotten) in America, almost never printed or spoken by the media - a concept almost never referenced in U.S. political discussion, though it is commonly understood at least among leftists all over Latin America, in much of the world, and by Cubans in general. And it's what U.S. politicians don't know they mean when, with ostentatious stupidity, they "suspect" Hugo Chavez of "going Castro's way."
THE revolution didn't start with the landing of the Granma in 1956 or with the heralding of a revolutionary spectre haunting Europe in 1848 or with Paul Revere's ride in 1775. And it didn't end in 1990. It started when Neolithic men first cleared a civic enclave in the jungle, planted crops, fashioned huts and, most importantly, built a wall against savagery, starting the long march away from the jungle toward civilization. Obviously, still guided by savage greed, most of shooting, bombing so-called western civilization has lost its way, but Cuba hasn't - yet. It's not almost home yet, either, but most Cubans know (or think they do) that eventually every Cuban will have an equally good home and his fair share of a more abundant flow of goods and services to go with the good, civilized, peaceful, comfortable, happy, dignified lives most Cubans already have, providing a model (that capitalist savages who hate the idea of equality don't want) for the world. And that's what they mean, in Cuba, when they say, "Todo va bien - poco a poco." We're getting there - little by little.
The philosophical Cienfuegos woman quoted in my last update may be rightly worried about the revolution's momentum, or she may simply lack a reference point, because Cuba has come so far in her lifetime that she can't remember when it was just like the rest of the world. But America's so-called "think"-tankers, politicos, and embedded reporters who still "think" the Cuban revolution is one man's ego trip and that the important questions are, "What happens when Castro is gone?" and "Are Cubans ready for U.S. Democracy?" should talk to her, because they're way off the screen, and they obviously can't assess what they don't acknowledge or even know about. Wider awake Cuba watchers know the important question is whether the islanders' brazen effort to pave their path to a purer and better communism with capitalist gold from Club-Med tourism will work or backfire.
I don't know. I've met Cubans whose heads are turned by exposure to what look to them like wealthy foreigners. But I met people like that in '89, almost 20 years ago, I meet them every time I'm there, and I have no reason to assume their numbers are growing. I meet people who wish Fidel were a complete dictator, because they think there are insiders who've fallen in love with Cuba's supposedly only temporarily expedient tourist-sector capitalism who need to be set straight or fired. Most Cubans I meet think the revolution is going fine. I don't know. I only know what I see and what I'm told and what I can figure out.
I'm not neutral. Before I go back to struggling with my book, I have to add a note to my January 14 update about Cuba's unfortunately absurd stance on independent journalism - but not to show I'm "even handed." Nervous journalists who are "even handed" to be politically correct and to not be suspected of communism are not my brethren. Neutrality isn't objective, and objective reality, the rightful subject of journalism, isn't neutral. It's what it is. I've been looking at it for a long time in a lot of places, and I've seen too many shanties and filthy beggars and AKs pointed at me or carelessly at my toes by boy soldiers and I've been scared too many times by the desperate poor to be neutral. I'm very objectively for civilization and since Cuba looks more civilized to me than the rest of the world, I'm glad to report that I don't think the Cuban revolution is about to crumble.
All Cuba needs from Washington is the repeal of the entire Cuban Assets Control Act, the return of occupied Guantanamo land to Cuba, and the resolution of several other nagging injustices, of course, but mainly for Washington and Miami to get completely off Cuba's back.
(To read all the latest updates posted since Jan. 14 in chronological order, click HERE. To better understand Fidel's role in Cuba today, see my April '05 letter "Viva y Habla Fidel" by clicking HERE.)