Wednesday, July 16, 2008

first impressions of havana and cuba

julio 6, 2008, casa de la amistad (friendship), havana cuba

click here for photos of our arrival and welcome to havana (the bus that says 'end the embargo' is the one that was seized in 1993, caravanistas lived on it for 23 three days, on a hunger strike, before the clinton government released it).

more photos - first impressions of cuba

there's a discussion happening just across the marble floor in this 'conference' centre place where i've found a plug in for my computer. there's no wifi, no cell phones - i've heard that fidel and raul are concerned about the health effects of those things, so i have no idea when or how i'll have a chance to update this blog. the discussion is about the hip hop exchange that's going on between the estados unidos and cuba. the room is full of young hip hop artists and interested caravanistas. i've chosen to sit here across the hall, where i can charge my computer's battery and download photos. it's a beautiful building, i'd say definitely spanish architecture (as so much is), and there's a small bar that serves the local cerveza (bucanero) and rum.

i spent the afternoon at a cuban playa (beach) called tarara. the option was a tour of old havana and a dance performance, or an afternoon at the beach. surprisingly, there were only a few of us who attended the beach. i imagine the historical city is muy interesante, but i couldn't resist the rhythm of the sea. we rode in the much renowned little yellow school bus, the one where the 1993 caravanistas spent 23 days in on a hunger strike when the gobierno de estados unidos refused to let it leave america at the cuban border. lisa's across the hall, at the hip hop conference - she was on that little yellow school bus. 'i was younger then,' she says of herself when we discussed the documentary about it (titled 'who's afraid of the little yellow school bus') back in mcallen texas.

mcallen texas seems a lifetime ago already. i've only been here two days and i've fallen in love. i'm not sure why it's necessary to 'fall' in love -- actually, it's more like i've been inspired by it. i've already discovered some things about the revolution that aren't so great - i'm sure people will want to know about that, it's what a lot of people, led by the corporate media, mostly seem to focus on, but i'll get to those later. what i love about cuba so far is beyond words.

as if a greeting of song and spoken words and rum at the massive press conference upon our arrival wasn't enough, after we left the airport our luggage was safely transported and we were bussed to our places of residence - three in total, to accomodate all of us. when i arrived at the martin luther king centre, after all those days with very little sleep, i couldn't believe what i saw. along the corridor into the inner courtyard were women and men clapping and cheering and hugging and gifting flowers to welcome us. a few of us had to step aside to wipe away our tears prior to proceeding along the corridor. after the welcoming committee was through with us we were ushered into the dining room, fed, and our luggage was unloaded from the vehicle. after dinner we found our rooms - younger folk were encouraged to inhabit the upper floor, elder folk the second, so as to ease the number of stairs climbed. i'm bunking with relative youngsters katie and mary beth, and they chose the top floor. so i'm climbing many stairs, especially because i'm good at forgetting things in my room and end up running up and down them when it's time to get ready to get on the bus to go somewhere. it's good exercise after all those days on the bus. my precious life-saving pain-relieving yoga will no doubt continue to happen in selective moments, whenever possible.

last night we went to a greeting ceremony somewhere. i was dead tired, almost didn't go, but i'm sure glad i did. in typical latino style we found ourselves seated in a court yard, with the building surrounding us on all sides, and the stars above us. there was a woman emcee, a very self-secure and, i imagine, no-nonsense woman who read (very theatrically, with much passion), poetry in between performances. the cuban national orchestra was there, and a very famous cuban band whose name escapes me, and dancers - it was warm and welcoming and wonderful. we returned to the martin luther king jr centre and slept and woke up to a beautiful breakfast that included lots of delicious local fruit.

after breakfast this morning there was church - a very lively discussion and song opportunity. i especially liked the song about the water. it's certainly not true, the lie about all communists being athiests - the church was packed with enthusiastic celebrators of life. after church, at lunch, someone came into the lunch room with my camera bag, equipped with my two cameras and my sound recording device, asking who it belongs to. i had left it in the church and someone went to the trouble of finding me and returning it. i thought i'd put it back into my room, had no idea it was left somewhere. i like a lot about cuba already.

although my first impression is that these folks appear contented, healthy, and community minded, there are some things that concern me about cuba so far:

1. there's not enough recycling. i try, in my broken spanglish, to explain that recycling would create jobs (trabajar), generate revenue (dineros), and is good for the earth (bueno para la tierra). apparently everything just goes in the garbage at present.

2. although there are no corporate billboards (a good thing), i saw one large sign advertising the beijing olympics (definitely not a good thing). cuba is sending athletes to the 2008 olympics in china to compete in basketball, volleyball, track & field, other events. i'm not opposed to athletes, or athletics, but i know too much about the olympics and its history to sit silent. on the way to the beach, i launched into a lengthy rant about the evil olympic organizing committee, how they are a bunch of fascists stealing land, creating homelessness, making themselves rich, that the torch relay was hitler's way of touching ground on all the nations he intended to conquer, etc.....

3. it seems that cubans have to pay to go the beach we were at today. there were a bunch of interesting looking houses nearby the beach with a guard sitting nearby, and i asked our interpreter what that was about. he said the houses are empty, owned by the government. i later learned that's where the chernobyl victims were housed, and healed (as best they could be) after that disaster. the area has also been used as an educational facility. that's all well and good, but people shouldn't have to pass through a gate and pay a fine in order to get to the ocean. i'm with the indigenous philosophy that teaches nobody, not even governments, should own the land, the air, the sea, the sky.

4. there is no option for people who don't want to live in a house, aside from being institutionalized because of a mental illness, or being sent to a shelter. not like the shelters we have in vancouver, our guide told me at dinner tonight (he's seen the downtown eastside of that city, the poorest postal code in canada), something a bit different from that. different how, i don't know. they don't like people sleeping in tents, i asked? apparently not. there are houses available for all, some definitely in better shape than others, and there's a bit of a housing crisis, but it's not possible to be a gypsy. it's not legal to sleep in the streets. so, there are homeless people in cuba. but it sure doesn't look like the downtown east side of vancouver. there aren't necessarily beggars, but there are hustlers. they prey on tourists, they're tricksters, con artists, trying to get a few extra bucks. the free market at work.

5. while it's wonderful that there are many transport options (the buses from china are nice, though trade with cuba is unfortunate), and the cars on the street are a car collector's dream, there's definitely a layer of pollution here that has been remedied in other places. california, for example, has very strict legislation about emissions. there doesn't seem to be anything in place like that here.

i really like that the people live with a guaranteed livable income. i don't know how much it is, i don't think it's much. but in addition to personal wealth, there's an enormous social wealth. free health care and education, and people own their homes after paying rent for a period of time. there's not a lot to buy beyond that. a lot of food is locally grown and there aren't any walmarts of other places with cheap consumer crap.

the cubans look healthy and seem very contented. there's definitely a different energy here. so they don't earn a huge income, there are no millionaires (and no corporate advertising!), but it's really terribly beautiful and friendly and wonderful. of course, we're special visitors and we're being treated really incredibly well (we're fed regularly, we have comfortable sleeping quarters and informed and interesting interpreter/guides). i get the feeling that a lot of what i've been told about cuba, and that's not much, is complete and total bullshit.

the streets, compared to mexico, are very clean. obviously these people take a lot of pride in their surroundings. i guess it's a different feeling getting up every day to work for the revolution, versus getting up every day to work in the maquilladoras and make someone else rich. there's the odd pocket in some neighbourhoods that has small piles of basura (garbage), but for the most part it's very beautiful. i've seen patches of gardens here and there from the windows of the bus.

there's a guy on our caravan who worked for the american military and was stationed at guantanamo bay. in guantanamo bay, he told me, there are subways, and a & w's, and mcdonald's, and these are staffed by philipinos and jamaicans. there's only about 10% women stationed there, and nobody can leave the base. they're stuck there. it's awful, he said. i asked our guides about it - when it's going to go away. it's never going to go away, was the reaction. my caravanista amigo said what happened is there was an agreement between the pre-revolutionary government in cuba and the gobierno des estados unidos. the agreement was about money. fidel chose to cash the first cheque, then decided not to cash any after that. (i asked one of our interpretors about that and they said no money ever changed hands). in any event, the american imperialists are there, enslaving jamaicans and philipinos in corporate dead animal food places, in a little piece of tropical paradise, for free. that american government, they sure know how to save money. take computers from caravanistas, and keep your torture camps on rent-free land. of course, what they win on the horses they lose on the roundabouts - apparently federal american employees spend a lot of people to track american travellers to cuba, many more than are hired to track the dreaded taliban.

i really don't see what they're so afraid of.