Saturday, August 1, 2009

Preparing for Departure - Aug 1st

lucius is telling us about july 26th and his opportunity to visit with raul and then fly to habana in his plane and meet fidel. he says fidel is in good health, that his mind is as sharp as ever, and he has a huge amount of respect and gratitude for the work of the caravanistas and ifco.

contrary to what some believe, neither fidel nor raul have any say in where that humanitarian aid is delivered on this island. it's collected from people in the united states, loaded onto a cuban ship in tampico, and then delivered to a central church in havana. there's a committee of people who distribute the aid to organizations who have submitted applications requesting things. the committee is comprised of community representatives, doctors, people who work with seniors or disabled folk. the medical aid obviously goes to hospitals and poli-clinics, as it's needed. the sports equipment goes to youth centres or schools. computers and other educational materials are priorized for organizations that work with disabled or otherwise disadvantaged children. this year there was a lot of paint, shovels, other construction equipment that will go to neighbourhoods trying to keep up with the damage inflicted by the annual storms.

and now alison is telling us about the construction brigade that worked on a housing project yesterday in marianao, a neighbourhood in havana. there were plans to have the construction brigade situated in pinar del rio for the duration of our time here, but that was cancelled because of the july 26th holiday. the cubans took time off for the holiday, and decided there weren't enough consecutive days to transport the caravanistas and organize that level of work. but the folks who signed up to work were able to contribute yesterday, and they're happy about that.

today a few of us went to a beach just outside of havana. it's the same beach i visited last year. i learned some more about the neighbouring community. there are still over 10,000 of the chernobyl victims living there. they were brought to cuba after the nuclear disaster for the purpose of healing. it's a lovely neighbourhood and houses are also available for international business travellers and dignitaries.

cubans are able to visit specific beach resorts for a certain number of days each year. i think it's 3 or 5 or something. the government (which is, truly, all of them) pays for that. everyone gets monthly ration cards which are used to provide the necessaries of life (food and water, and children and elders get free milk), and if they're working somewhere, they get a salary too. salaries aren't, as i had thought, equal across the board. i guess the special period (their first peak oil experience) necessitated some changes. they needed to encourage people into certain industries, so farmers became the highest paid people in the country. next is military and police enforcement, as i understand it. there are young police on the streets all the time, but unlike police where i live, these guys seem to be part of the community. they do carry billy clubs and small guns, and they can ask people to produce identification at any time, but their job is to maintain social order - unlike our police who spend far too much time hassling homeless people.

there are no homeless people in cuba, so police can instead be on the lookout for those provoking violence, or theives, or that sort of thing. houses are built collectively here. if you want to build a house, you talk to your cdr (committee for defense of the revolution) to help organize a work crew (comprised of your neighbours), and to attain the necessary materials. there's still a problem with housing in cuba, primarily because of the hurricanes that batter their shores on a consistent basis, plus their inability to buy any building materials from anywhere since the usa government forbids it. but i understand there is no homelessness at all here. there is community. a community of people who care so deeply about each other they'll defend their revolution and, even through their most difficult times, make sure everyone's got access to health and dental care and some place to lay their head at night. i've also heard, but forgot to get it affirmed from the cubans, that they own their own homes but they don't own the land the house is built on. people live in the homes their family own, so sometimes they're a bit crowded, and that's one reason there are always so many people outside - children and adults and teens gathering on the malecon or in the parks or on the sidewalks. i don't know how much to attribute it to the police, but i've never felt safer in my life.

one night my friend tom and i went for a walk along the malecon and into old havana. we heard some music and went inside a building to find a theatre with young hip hop musicians on a creatively adorned stage with large screens on either side projecting images of themselves. they might benefit from some public relations planning, showing something more entertaining and informative, but they seemed very popular with the crowd. we couldn't understand much of what they were saying, but they werre sure enthusiastic about it. we stayed for a few songs but it was hot and loud so we tried another place across the street where we also heard some music. we walked up a staircase that was propped up with wooden two by fours, i suppose because of storm damage. the building was beautiful, ornate, the damage was heart breaking. i felt it was appropriate to mourn all the architectural damage i witnessed, knowing that the cubans are primarily focussed on evacuating everyone so loss of life is very minimal. i don't think i've ever felt sorry for a building before. we sat on the balcony where, presusmably, people of material wealth were enjoying what some would call 'fine dining.' the young trio sang 'hasta siempre' (a song about che) at my request, and later accepted tips from their small audience - some of whom seemed reluctant to contribute. on our way home we again walked along the malecon and there was a huge street party with lots of teens and young adults. i followed tom as he wound his way through the crowd, it was like being at a house party, and i'm delighted to report that not a single one of them touched me. not at all. neither an intentional feel, nor an 'accidental' brush against me. there were cuban women who fought or otherwise aided the revolution - wilma castro (raul's relatively recently wife) among them was one of those, and she founded the federation of cuban women that strives for real equality. i would argue there's no safer place for women than cuba. and their birth rate isn't spiralling out of control, further evidence that education is the best form of birth control.

though they love their rum and beer, there's not a lot of drug or alcohol abuse in cuba, as far as i can gather. that might partly be because there aren't needles readily available (diabetics are very grateful to the pastors for peace and other groups who bring needles and insulin), but it might equally be because these people don't need to escape from a society that is primarily motivated by selfishness and greed, that will stand by while their friends suffer through a lifetime of poverty and then freeze or die unnecessarily from some simple and curable disease. rum and beer are readily available from various merchants all over town 24 hours a day, but never once did i see any obnoxious drunken behaviour. and amazingly, despite their challenging sewage conditions (again no doubt the consequence of the international blockade dictated by the usa government), no signs of public urination problems. it's okay to take a bottle of rum to the malecon or walk down the street with a can of beer. these are a civilized people who are considered intelligent and necessary individual components of a little revolution that continues to succeed despite all odds against it.

if only people knew.