CUBA: THE TRIUMPH OF THE REVOLUTION
[This article has gone through many revisions. My wife the Beautiful AP was of the opinion that it was mean and that I sounded much like Archie Bunker in it. I have fixed a few things but I just can’t run from what I saw and thought about Cuba and though my reaction is quite visceral, well, that is my reaction. So here it is. Comments are always welcomed.]
It was the “Triumph of the Revolution” as our Cuban state guides would tell us; as the signs would read in one way or the other on building walls and facades and under overpasses; the Triumph of the Revolution lead by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara that destroyed the grip of evil capitalism on this beautiful, Eden-like island.
Young girls with flowers in their deep, dark, well-tended hair wearing new school uniforms romped and jumped rope in the friendly parks within view of their attentive joyous mothers and those solid, happy working men sitting on the benches during their lunch breaks. Young boys in their spanking-new uniforms played catch in those parks waiting for their fantasies of becoming major league baseball players as baseball is the “national pastime of Cuba” as our guides told us.
The magnificent historic buildings in Havana and other cities were all perfectly restored; delights to the eye and to those who know the amazing range of architecture that had been built in Cuba for almost 300 years prior to the Triumph of the Revolution. Huge monuments, stunning buildings, all beautiful paeans to the communist revolution’s desire to make Cuba a paradise that freed an enslaved people from capitalism to enjoy the full fruits of their labor and their history.
“Everybody is equal in Cuba,” our state guides informed us.
The streets teamed with well-dressed people content with everything they needed to enjoy life. Their houses were clean and safe and open and aerie. Crime was non-existent.
The air itself was crisp, engagingly warm and enchantingly wonderful; the island was truly a Triumph of the Revolution.
The Triumph of the…
The Triumph of…
What We Really Experienced
Today’s Cuba is a torturously humid post-Edenic world; no other way to say it. The parks are not filled with flowered-haired little girls in their school uniforms jumping rope or energetic little boys in their school uniforms eyeing future major league contracts.
Instead, the parks are packed with lazy-eyed men who cannot find jobs and basically must laze the days away, and some poor women too, most looking down and out and (if not) homeless (then close to it); a hapless mob of the tired and the belabored, with also those shark-eyed legions of “beggars” and, if the protective-bars on the overwhelming majority of crumbling homes in the three cities the Beautiful AP and I visited (Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba) are any indication, Cuba has a serious crime problem.
“Everyone in Cuba works,” said our young (state) guide.
That was clearly not so. The older men (not elderly men; there weren’t too many of those) often schlogged along the streets tired of spending a lifetime schlogging along the streets; the younger men walked with purpose to find a place to sit out of the sun. Every hour of the day, countless thousands of people were outside, doing little or nothing because the communist state had nothing for them to do.
Even in the business districts — mostly what we in America consider second-hand stores — people simply ambled away the days of their lives mostly looking for shade from the repressive heat and humidity; shade where they could sit and spend huge chunks of the day. (The humidity in Cuba is unbearable. Breathe in deeply enough and you might drown from it.)
Many who did work had “sit-down” jobs where they sat down all day. The customs houses in Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba were more like two trailers end-to-end with probably 15 people lazing in chairs and one or two actually working.
You Gotta Tip Baby
We were told that we must tip for any services rendered – and that meant any and all. For example at the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca in Santiago de Cuba (a huge fortress overlooking the bay), the Beautiful AP got into a conversation with two women who were hiding so they didn’t have to work. They asked AP for a tip because they spoke Spanish with her (they couldn’t speak English) and she, being kind, gave them such a tip. She should have tipped them that if they were being paid to work they should work and not hide.
We tipped just about everyone who did any kind of service for us. (“Hi, my name is Jim.” “Hi Jim; here’s a tip for you because your name is Jim!”) We tipped one Russian professor of note who took us around a “special needs” school in Havana where we danced to music by their counselors. He made it a point that they received no money from the state – he was proud of that! We gave his “special needs” school a huge tip.
We tipped a man who made cigars even though he didn’t make one for us. We tipped a man who made hand drawings of us even though we didn’t want one made. When in doubt we tipped; the workers we would tip in the United States and the workers we wouldn’t think of tipping such as two women who spoke Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country!
Wherever we went we saw men lazing away at the entrances to shops, churches, schools, cafes. People were shabbily dressed. Communist Cuba had very few job prospects and little new industry.
We did see buses loaded with people (somewhat ancient buses) going to work but you could see that whatever jobs they had were not paying enough for them to look the least spiffy.
Our guides constantly ushered us to vendors on the street to buy books, trinkets, clothes (those infernal Che Guevara t-shirts) and paintings (some of which were quite good — usually of Che Guevara).
Of course we tipped our guides (there were several of them each day) and our bus drivers.
Those Great Old Cars
The famed capital of Cuba, Havana, did have those old-time cars. It was like going back to the 1950s except that those cars often rode on rotted roads and many were in somewhat poor condition.
Our guide said: “The cars are often owned by the state. These are kept in good condition. If you work for the state, you do not pay taxes and medical care is free. There are also ration booklets to obtain basic nutrition. Working for the state you do not make as much money as private owners of stores or businesses but those people have to pay taxes. I will never be able to buy a house or a car but I have a good job and I do not have to pay taxes and I get free medical care. People who own private businesses must pay taxes.”
Cigars, Rum and Musical Theatre
Other than the standard cigars, rum and sugar, Cuba is not an innovative country that builds enterprises – those cigars, rum and sugar go a long way back, way before the Triumph of the Revolution. Foreign money has built whatever new buildings and businesses exist in Cuba. There is a “luxury” hotel being built in Havana by the French across the street from Central Park – a hotel surrounded by deteriorating decrepit buildings that had once been monumentally beautiful.
This hotel is near the famed Gran Teatro de La Habana, the interior of which is swathed in marble but has had the floors in the theatre redone so that now they are uneven and eminently “trip-able” especially for the older members of our group. If you don’t look down as you try to get into the rows in this non-air-conditioned humid hot-house you might just go down (plunk!). Couldn’t the workers have made the floors level?
The Cuban ships in the harbor are rusted.
We were told by the Fathom Adonia’s mailings that we were not to give money to the beggars that would “occasionally” try to hit us up. These were aggressive beggars too; much like those squeegee men from New York City’s rotten days of the Dinkin’s era.
At the Catedral de San Cristóbal in Havana there was an old, withered woman with her hand out begging; I was so sad to see her ravaged face; she was looking for some money for sustenance, poor thing.
Now, the average wage of Cubans ranges between 10 to 15 CUCs a month. A CUC is worth an American dollar, so the average Cuban wage is $10 to $15 per month.
But this poor, withered, leathery woman with her hand out! My God how could someone not give this poor creature some money to satisfy her gnawing hunger and deep thirst? My soul went out to her.
I took three CUCs and gave them to her. Her face beamed as it immediately lost its leathery look; she straightened up and then she leaped off the Cathedral’s steps, giving me a “thumbs up” when she landed, and then she ran down the street. What the hell? I have a feeling this “old” woman drank plenty of rum that night to satisfy her deep thirst! She might even have smoked some cigars. We did see equal numbers of men and women smoking them.
So much for giving to Cuba’s militia of beggars. Is it possible that begging counted as work in Cuba so that is why there is no unemployment in this regime?
And the beggars were everywhere. In Santiago de Cuba a group of them came towards our party and that group did not look friendly. Luckily the four cops that patrolled that small park area came at the beggars who dispersed. The cops worked in teams; it was safer that way.
Let’s talk about bathrooms – a delicate subject but one that has to be (ahem) handled. You had to bring your own toilet paper with you when touring because many bathrooms did not supply such. At the huge Teatro Tomás Terry theatre in Cienfuegos, the Beautiful AP went to the ladies room. The attendant (all bathrooms have attendants that you should tip because they attend the bathroom) opened the door; AP entered, finished but when she flushed no water came out.
The attendant came in, carrying a bucket, and dumped water in the toilet. When AP tried to wash her hands, no water came out of the faucet. The attendant came over with a cup of water and poured the water over AP’s hands. AP tipped the attendant.
The auditorium was not air-conditioned (only one place we went to had air-conditioning, a privately owned restaurant in Havana) and we only saw a couple more air conditioners in our travels.
The choral singers of that place were quite good (though they sweated like crazy during their performance). The women wore what looked like second-hand brides’ maids’ dresses.
Jesus Christ and Che Guevara
On the first line on our first day to get on the cruise ship Fathom Adonia, we met a family of missionaries. They had just come back from some African country and they were really excited to see Cuba. The talk meandered all over the place from all the places they had visited and then we boarded the ship.
On the ship as we went over how to save our lives should it sink or hit an iceberg in the warm tropical waters off Cuba (this meeting was called something like the Muster Meeting), we learned how to use the life jackets and where to walk – not run – without panicking. I hate to tell the crew; I would panic.
On the ship we met a number of missionaries – husbands and wives and even some of their kids (adult kids). Some of these missionaries were nice people who did not push their religion on you too fiercely and some were your usual religious fanatics who understand everything about “God’s creation” and tried to shove it down your (and everyone else’s) throat.
In the Central Park of Havana, four of them were teaching me a holy lesson about how to save my miserable sinning soul. “All you have to do is accept Jesus truly in your heart and you will be saved. But if you don’t, at the ‘end times’ you will wind up in the burning fires of Hell.” That certainly made my day.
Then the missionary wife of her missionary husband said the only thing AP and I heard her utter all trip. “You…must…bring…Jesus…into…your…heart.”
This particular woman was weird, even weirder than the usual missionary weird. AP nicknamed her the “Stepford Wife.” The woman (maybe age 30) never had an expression on her extremely pretty face. She was a blank. She showed no emotion. In the brutally hot and humid weather she didn’t sweat (the rest of us were pouring gallons). Maybe she was one of those androids of the movies who seem somewhat normal but then go on a killing rampage.
Cuba is a largely a Catholic country while Santiago de Cuba tends to be Santerían as it seems Fidel’s legions did not try to stamp out religion as the communists did in Russia and China. I am guessing that these (what I took for) evangelical missionaries would not have much success if they were surveying Cuba for a conversion by divine invasion. The natives might not be interested.
But sans God, Cuba did have a secular pantheon. Using Catholic theological norms, if Fidel were Yahweh (who is God the Father), then Che Guevara was the Son of God, while communism was the Holy Spirit.
If the number of books, magazine covers, paintings, and photos that are sold at the great outdoor book markets and in stores were any indication, Che Guevara is their Jesus Christ. Walls are painted with his face; signs announce his greatness and even buildings have huge murals of him.
President Obama gave his “It’s great to be in Cuba” speech in front of a Che Guevara building. This was in a huge park devoted to the revolution. I would estimate that Che beats Castro by 15 to one in likenesses on any place that likenesses can be put. That’s amazing considering he died in 1967 at the age of 39 – killed by US-backed forces in Bolivia.
Che was a writer, a poet, a philosopher and thinker. Che was Castro’s second in command and was responsible for making sure their firing squads performed up to par. They evidently did. Che Guevara’s t-shirts sell like mad on college campuses and many leftist adults adorn themselves with them. (Hey, I read Free Inquiry magazine; I should know!)
Che’s facial image looms over neighborhoods that are so deteriorated that no one could possibly live in such surroundings (except they do). The Beautiful AP would say, “I thought those houses were abandoned, but look! They have laundry hanging out of the windows. People are living there!”
Is Cuba really that poor? From what I saw, yes.
Eating, Drinking, Music and Dancing
Cuban food is excellent although the Beautiful AP thought it was “heavy” as in too much meat and sauces for such a hot and humid climate. I liked it. We ate in three restaurants. The two privately-owned ones (in Havana and in Santiago de Cuba) were excellent (and the former was air-conditioned!) but the latter was hot and humid even though it was on the roof.
The state-owned one was what you would figure a state-owned restaurant would be like. There was no water served and there was a mangy cat roaming under the tables looking for scraps. Pieces of plastic blew across the floor. The napkins were as small (actually smaller) than cocktail napkins. We were given one free drink at this place but water counted as that drink!
Across the street from this restaurant a man slept soundly on an abutment. He was the valet parker! (I kid you not; dead asleep – or maybe he was just dead.)
I love the Cuban music and their singers and dancers. The music is energetic and driving – something strange in a hot and humid country where the weather can make you logy. We gave big tips to the musicians.
I also enjoyed the dancing and I even got to dance with a beautiful professional dancer at a cafe. Although she didn’t speak English she was able to count the steps for me so I didn’t make a complete fool of myself (I made an incomplete fool but, hell, I like getting up on stage). When we finished there was thunderous applause – mostly for her having to dance with a lumbering foreigner.
We gave her a big tip. We gave everyone in the café a big tip.
The Internet Arrives!
In Havana as our bus went down one of the streets I saw a large crowd, maybe a couple of hundred people, all holding cell phones or Ipads. Our guide explained that WiFi was available on some streets and the Cubans who had the technology could tap into it.
This may wind up being the door opener for Cubans to enter the 21st century.
What We Didn’t See
The British and other Europeans do vacation in Cuba but we did not see any resorts or beaches as our trip was strictly an educational one. Americans are not yet able to just go and let it all hang out. Perhaps that is soon coming and maybe boatloads of U.S. dollars will supercharge the Cuban economy so that the wasteland I saw will change and become a beautiful country. The Internet might well be the trigger.
As stated, I did not see anything other than the three cities that the government of Cuba allowed us to see. Most of the Cuban people were friendly and many celebrated the arrival of American tourists.
I am sure there are some beautiful areas of Cuba and that Europeans romp happily in them singing songs about the Triumph of the Revolution.