Report from Cuba
Story posted July 31, 2000
An interview by Alison Bennie with Allen Wells and Nathaniel Wheelwright, about their trip to Cuba in the spring of 2000 with "Let Cuba Live."
AB: Tell me about your trip.
NW: Allen, why donít you go, because you did such a wonderful job.
AB: Youíre so good at cheering me; make sure you get that one in there.
AW: We went to Cuba from the 14th to the 21st of April. Most of us left on a Friday, but Nat left two days later because he was teaching a winter ecology class. Then he came back two days after me, so we both each stayed a week.
AB: And you were both there during the time that there was a great deal of attention to the Elian Gonzalez case?
AW: Well, the U.S. Marshallís seizure of Elian took place Saturday morning, so I missed that. I wasnít there for that, but Nat was. Our group of 40 educators was put together by the solidarity group thatís actually headquartered here in Brunswick called Let Cuba Live. They had organized a group of healthcare professionals several years ago and took them to Cuba to look at hospitals and clinics in rural areas and urban settings. They took a number of doctors and nurses and practitioners down and this was a follow up trip. The idea was to take some educators down there and look at schools, with the idea of hoping to encourage professionals to take a look at Cuba and maybe think about Cuba in a way that they wouldnít normally. Their stated purpose was to encourage the United States to break the embargo. So, their agendaís fairly clear. They would like us to come back and spread the word.
AB: And promote that
AW: And promote the end of the embargo and the idea that the U.S. should normalize relations with Cuba. With that said, it was a wonderful tour in that we could go to schools that they had requested, but we could also go off on our own. So, some of us went on a few of the organized trips to school, we went to a primary school and to a pedagogical university, I think Genie (Natís wife) went to a number of them?
NW: Genie went to a daycare center. Essentially, we had an opportunity to see the educational system from the ground up Ė from six months all the way through university.
AW: But we also had the opportunity to go off on our own. So, I spent a day at the University of Havana and Nat went to an ecological institute. And we also did some other side trips that we were interested in.
AB: And how many people were there all together?
AW: There were forty of us. And the bulk of it-maybe more than 35-I would say were from Maine. We were all educators, anywhere from preschool all the way up to university level. There were a few people from out of state.
AB: And had anybody been to Cuba before in the group?
AW: Barbara had. Barbara is a very interesting person. She is a master plumber in Bath, Maine. She is one of the activists in Let Cuba Live. And she went there in í92. Alison Whitney had gone. She is the wife of a physician who organized the earlier tour. She is from Norway, Maine and she is a nurse. She had gone in í96. And that was very useful for us because we would ask them, "Well, what was it like in í92? What was it like in í96?" And we could learn how things had progressed.
AB: People have this idea that Cuba is kind of stuck in a time warp Ė how it looks and what the products are, and that itís all in this 1950s world. Did they say it had not changed much since 1992 or 1996?
AW: Actually, Barbara and Alison said that there were more cars on the road than there had been and fewer bicycles. They said that there seemed to more of a bustling economic life now than there had been. For us, in comparison with other Latin American cities, however, there was much less congestion on the roads, less traffic, less pollution. If you were to go to Mexico City or any other urban setting in Latin America, youíre going to get a dose of carbon monoxide. In Cuba it was much less because there is not as much oil to go around. They have to import all petroleum, and the regime has to pay for that with hard currency. They used to get oil from the Soviet Union for free; they donít receive that anymore. In the early years after the Soviet Union stopped sending aid bicycles were the order of the day, it was similar to China. In fact, the bicycles Cuba used were imported from China.
NW: Let Cuba Live clearly has a local agenda Ė and I would say it is an agenda shared by most of the participants in the trip Ė and clearly Cuba is more interested in attracting groups that are in sympathy with their plight than with groups that are opposed. But the actual time spent in Havana Ė and Allen implied this Ė was absolutely free. We could ask any question, and there wasnít at all a sense that the tours we were given at the schools were particularly planned to persuade one way or the other. I guess that what I came away with was a tremendous sense of pride and dignity and self-righteousness. I am sure that they showed us the better-endowed schools and I am sure that they prepared the children, but again it wasnít, as one might have expected of a socialist or communist controlled country, a situation where everything was tailored to give a particular impression. You could go anywhere and talk to anybody. Whether or not they would be fully open about political issues is another question. We had complete freedom it wasnít as if we were led on a
AB: A guided tour. You know Ė you canít go outside these ropes.
AW: Itís really your own willingness to explore that was the limitation. And the fact that there wasnít always great public transportation as there might be in other Latin American places. So, getting around was a little more difficult, but you had access to taxis or you could travel throughout the capital and into the countryside.
NW: For example, one taxi driver who we met, who happened to have kind of a black market cab, was hustling to find a way to get his hands on some currency. He decided to take Allen and me and Allenís sister, Vickie, and my wife, Genie, out to this institute of ecology where we spent a lovely morning. On the way back Ė in conversation Ėwe learned that his wife plays for the Cuban National Ping-Pong Team. When we expressed great interest in that, he asked, "Would you like to go and see where she practices?" So he took us inside a place that I doubt many tourists get to go. Her program shares a building with gymnasts and fencers and all these wonderful athletes who were wandering around and we got a chance to talk to the national coach.
AB: Really, did you see her play?
NW: No, it was lunch break.
AW: We saw the fencers and gymnasts working out, though.
NW: (to Allen) Did I ever tell you I met her, by the way? We didnít meet her that day, but when our taxi driver took me to the airport, he brought his wife along so we had a chance to talk with her. That was just one of the things that came up serendipitously. He was an X-ray technician who was now driving a cab. Another one of our taxi drivers was the son of the ambassador to East and West Germany at different times and Poland and Czechoslovakia. So, you never know whatís going to turn up inside one of those 1950s Pontiacs.
AW: And whatís happened is that access to dollars is such an important thing in Cuba that people have to figure out how they can secure them on a regular basis. Thatís a lot more attractive for people than a salary that they would earn through the state.
AB: So, thereís probably a fair amount of competition for these seemingly menial jobs?
AW: And a lot of educated people are doing very interesting things related to tourism.
AB: And thatís really the only way that you can get dollars?
AW: Well, the other way that you can get dollars is if your relatives in Miami or other parts of the United States remit them. Certainly that happens frequently, and there are dollar stores set up by the government, which sell all kinds of goods. I went into a dollar department store in Havana and there were three floors of goods just as you would find at an American department store, from stereos, walk-mans to clothing, to outdoor equipment, you name it and you could buy anything you want as long as you have dollars. They receive those dollars from their relatives in Miami who are sending money every month.
AB: And where do the goods come from?
AW: The goods are bought by the Cuban government from other countries, western Europe, Canada, Latin America, obviously not from the United States directly.
NW: One of the things that you notice in Havana is the virtual absence of commercial establishments. You can go block after block and not see a single sign advertising anything for sale. There are a few streets where there are stores Ė dollar stores and government stores Ė but it is sort of an odd feeling. There is not a city that I have been in that has so little commerce. Since the government is starting to loosen up regulations on people being able to go into business, you are starting to see people open the doors to their house and put up a sign in which they are offering to sell juices or sandwiches or a room to rent.
AW: Or have a restaurant in their home. You first have to get a license from the state, which costs a certain amount of money so there essentially is a user fee that, the state charges. There is a maximum size that they are held to, so that you could set up a restaurant with 12 tables or something like that in your home and you can open it up for dollars for tourists to come and use that. You see that quite a bit.
AB: And when you were there, did your program establish where you were going to eat, or were you all free to do whatever you wanted to do?
NW: We were aimed toward places that would give a kickback to the tour guide, which is commonplace, but again you could be a renegade Ė as we were mostly.
AB: And did that turn out to be successful?
AW: Sometimes the food was very good. Cuban food is very different from that of the rest of Latin America. Very little fresh fruit and vegetables Ė we were surprised by that Ė a lot of meat; itís almost European in that regard.
NW: I think thatís an overstatement. Thatís complimenting it too much. Itís very bland and very non-diverse. I think part of it reflects the absence of ingredients and spices. We ate more ham and cheese sandwiches than you could imagine. That was our fare for breakfast lunch and dinner, unless you really screamed in frustration.
AB: So Cuban food in Miami is not Cuban food in Cuba?
AW: No, no, I donít think so at all.
NW: And the average person is on a very low-calorie diet. You donít see overweight people. Thereís not enough food.
AW: On the other hand, you see very healthy people. You donít see the extremes that you would see in other Latin American countries where you have some people who are very well-off and well-dressed and well taken care of and then others who are malnourished. In Cuba, because of its health system, everybody seems to look good. They may be thin and since the special period Ė thatís what they call the period since the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing the Cuban State Ė the rations have dwindled. There isnít as much meat in the diet and there are only so many eggs per month that theyíre entitled to (unless you have a child) and the amount of milk that you can get is limited. They have ration books. So, in that respect, there isnít as much as there used to be and, again, one of the ways people supplement it is through access to dollars.
NW: Allenís point about lack of extremes extends to poverty. Generally, both of us have traveled a lot in Latin America and I for one have never seen a country with such a low average standard of living, at least as measured by material objects Ė and yet it is an equal level of poverty. Everybody is sort of in the same boat. I think maybe that is one explanation for why people havenít just risen up in frustration against the government, because they kind of share a common plight. I just returned from Bolivia, which was a wonderful trip, but I was struck with the more traditional Latin American pattern of fabulous wealth. People living in splendid houses and driving Mercedes Benzís and on the other extreme homeless people and people who are poor in a way that we just couldnít imagine in Cuba. They have billboards in Havana that say, "There are two hundred million children sleeping on the streets every night in the world. Not one of them is Cuban." This is something they are very proud of, and its certainly true; I didnít see a homeless person.
AW: Which makes the Elian incident so interesting because Cubans take tremendous pride in the family in every aspect of their lives and they were very insulted Ė at least the ones that we spoke with Ė that somehow Cubans could be labeled by some as not being good parents. We heard from some Cubans, "how could Americans criticize us given the numbers of homeless people in the United States, domestic abuse and dysfunctional families?" That is something that they were outraged about.
AB: And what did they think about the fact that the American Government was kind of on their side about that?
AW: Well, they had different takes on it. I think one thing we heard was that Ė we of course were there before the seizure of Elian Ė they couldnít understand why the American government seemed so paralyzed that they wouldnít move in more quickly and take Elian away from his Miami relatives. That sort of lends itself to conspiracy theories. Why is the American Government giving so much slack to the Miami people, whom they call the Mafia? From that perspective, they didnít quite understand it. But they also heard and understood that Americans were pretty much in favor of returning Elian to his father. They saw this as an issue where the extended Cuban family was divided. The people who live in Miami reject Castro and the regime in Cuba; they see returning Elian to Cuba as horrible. The government was certainly using the Elian issue; there were a number of staged rallies while we were there. I think there were two while we were there in front of the U.S. interests section, and the government obviously rounded up a number of students and workers and brought them there. Here was an issue that was going to energize the Revolution, recover what the Revolution was all about. It was kind of a gift-wrapped present for Castro, and he was clearly making the most of it.
AB: What happened, Nat, afterwards? Was there this feeling, if it was a kind of energizing thing to have happened, was there any let down?
NW: I was kind of surprised by the reaction that I saw, based on talking to 10 or 20 people. I was personally in favor of returning Elian to his father, as I think many people were and relieved they had gone in. I expected jubilation in the streets. What I saw instead were people sort of drumming their fingers on the table saying, "Itís about time." And there was very little spontaneous celebration. Possibly its because Ė this is a good conspiracy theory Ė the longer this went on the more it played into Castroís hands, I donít know. I think more realistically itís the fact they did not understand what civilized country could hold a child from his father for five months, or however long that it had been. Interesting, though, everybody just knows Janet Renoís name.
AB: And would they talk about her as much or more than they would talk about Clinton?
NW: Almost. Allen sort of referred to it, but the concept is of the divided Cuban family, but at the same time they refer to the Cubans living in Miami as "Mafia." If it is a family, it is kind of a rarified branch of the family. It is an unusual stratum of society that left Cuba. They are obviously much more European, from the upper echelon of society. I think Cuba today must look a lot different than the Cuba of forty years ago; there are now many more people of African descent who are holding positions of power. But the dollars that are coming from Miami to family members are not going to black Cubans, by and large; theyíre going to the same more privileged segment. And so there isnít a lot of identification or sympathy with the Cubans from Miami.
AW: Yes, there is a certain discrete group within Cuban society that has access to dollars and others donít. That creates antagonism, tension, and jealousy, and it also in a sense promotes racism. The revolution was founded on egalitarian principles and wanted to eliminate corruption, racism, and invidious distinction among groups in Cuban society. What remittances of dollars from Miami do is erode that. One of the interesting things to watch over the next five to ten years is how the government deals with that problem. There is a system of tourist apartheid, where certain sections of Cuban society are off limits for Cubans Ė the beach area in Vedado, for instance, is under government control. The government has set up a beach there and has arrangements with foreign hotel chains and so those hotels have been set up on the beach and many tourists from Western Europe and Canada go directly there. (To Nat) I think your plane landed there.
NW: All the sun worshipers got off.
AW: Itís kind of like Cancun, Mexico.
NW: People who were more interested in experiencing Cuba and seeing what it is like, continued on to Havana.
AW: I think that those class distinctions are not going to be as severe in rural areas in Cuba. We could see that even when we went out to the countryside. We went to Pinar del Rio on the western end of the island. In those places, you wouldnít be able to see the distinctions as readily between those who had access to dollars and those who didnít. You wouldnít have the criticisms; you wouldnít have the rising expectations as you might have in the more urban settings or places connected to the tourist section. In fact, it is interesting that all the relatives of Elian were connected to the tourist section, they all worked in Vedado in one form or another. The mother who drowned was a chambermaid at a hotel; Elianís father, Juan Miguel, had worked in that area and many relatives that are now in Miami had worked there.
AB: So they had access to dollars?
AW: And they saw the possibilities. For many of them, getting out was more attractive because of that. In rural areas, when you donít see those kinds of divisions, thereís probably more support for the revolution.
AB: How did people respond to the theory that none of the actions of the father were of his own free will, that he was forced to what he did, he was just a kind of pawn?
AW: You couldnít really raise that question there, because I think it would have been suggesting something about Cubans that would have been insulting. And so, it didnít really come up in conversations that I had.
NW: The relationship between the father and son is one thing, but the relationship between the society and the son was something I think we could gauge, and as some people have commented, Elian has been elevated to a kind of Christ-child figure. I think the people were very sincere about wishing he would come back. Everybody was supporting the "return of our son" or "our child." But I think that there was a genuine sense, as Allen was saying about the veneration of the family, that he belongs back in Cuba and with his father.
AW: We went to an elementary school, and we were greeted by a group of students and one of the songs that they serenaded us with was "Bring back Elian."
NW: The first line to it was, "We condemn Yankee imperialism."
AW: You have second and third graders singing about Yankee imperialism and bringing back Elian in the same paragraph Ė it was kind of interesting.
NW: I thought it was going to be a long visit, but after we got past that, we distributed some cards that a fifth grade teacher from Bath had her students write, and we all translated the letters for them. By the end, the children were swarming all over us, as children anywhere would do. The girl who sang the solo about how we condemn Yankee imperialism came up and kissed me. That was cute.
AW: You could see in a vivid way that ideology is very much engraved in the school system there. And not just at the elementary level Ė we went to a pedagogical university where we got into a discussion. There is a department of history, but it is not just called "the department of history," itís called the "department of history and Marxism." We had an interesting discussion there about that. In our society, we donít see as explicitly the connection between ideology and education, even though we know that it exists.
NW: And part of that is that they donít shy away from teaching values in school, whereas we are more reluctant to do that. So, they drum in to the children from an early age what proper behavior is and what is right, what is wrong. They involve the parents in the school, and if the parents donít show up they are subject to being fined. They have nurses and psychologists and sociologists integrated into the school. After 12 years of that the kids have a solid grounding in the morality of the culture. I think all of us were struck with how disciplined and alert and cheerful children of all levels were when we asked them, "What do you like best about your school?" Many of them said, "I like the way my teacher helps me learn." They seemed genuine about it.
AB: Did people say anything about people who leave or categorize them in any way? In other words, did Cubans say that the mother shouldnít have tried to take her son away?
AW: Again, we didnít really talk about the mother. But leaving is a fact of life there. There is a similarity to other Latin American countries that many Latin Americans leave and come to the United States because of the potential for economic opportunity. I think Cubans, like Mexicans or Haitians, see the U.S. as an oasis of opportunity. In fact, when we were walking through Havana that was a subject of conversation - "Take me with you!" It was somewhat in jest, but the idea of the United States is sort of Ė and you can understand why, they get these reports on Radio Marti, which is the U.S. government radio station beamed from Miami. All of these possibilities fill their minds, and they have relatives who then write to them about the wonders of the United States. And what did we learn from the BBC guy, that 540,000 Cubans applied for visas last year for which they take 50,000 a year, the United States takes 50,000 Cubans a year? That suggests that there are a lot of Cubans who want to come to this country, but if you think about it, in perspective, there are many Latin Americans who want to come to this country too. So, how much of it is that they want to leave because of political reasons and how much of it is economic opportunity? Itís hard to tell. Certainly for some people political reasons are a reality, but my guess for the majority is that the opportunities for economic improvement in Cuba just arenít there. The regime has not made that possible in a meaningful way in large part because of the embargo, which hamstrings economic development and creates the kinds of tensions that we talked about. It means that those who leave have to come up with creative ways of leaving and we of course get a healthy dose of that in our media. Taking a raft and risking their life for "freedom."
AB: When it might be simply risking their life for economic reasons?
AW: We donít hear about Mexicans who cross the border 6 or 7 times and then are returned by the border patrol or how some of them wind up dying in very distressing ways. And we donít hear about that as a quest for freedom. If we do hear about it, itís as a quest for economic opportunity or as taking away jobs from Americans
NW: Thatís a good point. I think that economic incentives are driving most people and Cubans distinguish between right wing politically active Miami Ė based Cubans and other Cubans. We met many, many Cubans who said proudly, "I have an uncle in Colorado and a cousin in L.A. and one in N.Y." I think they look to them with a certain amount of envy for having economic opportunities. Since many people we met certainly knew how to work hard, it was clear they were thinking that if they could "Bust out of Cuba Ė instead of earning $12 or $20 a month, working the way they did, they could have been fabulously wealthy." I spent a day with a biologist who has recently completed his equivalent of a masters degree and is on the faculty at the university Ė a very fine university Ė and he described to me his undergraduate curriculum. Essentially, it was everything offered at Bowdoin in the sciences. Everything in biology, everything in chemistry, everything in mathematics, everything in physics. He took 8 courses a semester for 5 years. Classes six days a week. He was enormously well read, well prepared and yet he did it all without text books, without chalk for the blackboard, without in many cases paper and pen. So, it was quite interesting to go outside to this wilderness area and have him stop before a tree and spout off the evolution of history of that family of trees, the physiology of the trees, the physics and biochemistry of the trees.
AB: And he did it without books?
NW: He did it without books. He did it from lectures. They refer to the professors as geniuses.
AW: We learned when we out there to the ecology institute that Internet access in Cuba is very limited and itís in public places and so, in that sense, it is not something that you can do without people looking on. You have to basically book your time there ahead of time because there is so much demand in the few places that it does exist. So, the flow of information is controlled to a certain extent Ė or limited is a better way to put it Ė and that means that there is some sense that they have to forge contacts with colleagues in U.S., Canada, Western Europe, rest of Latin America. I met with the chair of the department of history at the University of Havana and he said that in the last few years, the government has made it possible for him to make contact on his own with other universities and colleagues abroad to set up exchange programs. In this way he can get his work published in Latin America and Europe and seek grants that could be brought in that could benefit the history program there. You know, in a sense, the Cuban government has made it possible for entrepreneurialism to sort of spring up. Of course the state wants to get a portion of that back, but under the circumstances, the more of these kind of contacts that come up, the more it can help the situation. Itís very creative the way that they are going about it, but itís obviously on a small scale compared to here. I think that itís kind of interesting, the education system there is very competitive. In order to become a history major at the university of Havana, there are something like 20 slots for students each year, 13 are reserved, one for each province, so that there is geographic representation and there are competitive tests in each province. The other extra 7 slots are for outstanding students from anywhere. I talked to the professor about that system and he said, "Itís fair on one level because we bring in Cubans from the countryside, outside Havana. The best educational system is in Havana and if we just based entrance on exam grades, Havana would dominate that. We want to open it up, but it does mean that there is a disparity in the quality of background of the students, the preparation of the students who come in here." Now those students are given their complete education for free, they come in from the countryside, theyíre housed, theyíre fed, and of course they have the tuition paid for by the state. Not only that, they are guaranteed a job after they get out, but there is only 20 of them per class, so there are about 80 history majors at the University of Havana out of 20,000 students.
AB: Are there that many for the other disciplines?
AW: I didnít ask that question, but it might be less for other disciplines or might be more, it is based on the need in society. You can imagine that for technology, for science, for agriculture that there would be more slots available. It would depend on what the state considers important.
NW: So what seems to be important now, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, are tourism, biotechnology, and nutrition. Those were the three that were promoted there. I gather that Cuba is a leader in the export of various medicines.
AW: They build niches in areas like tropical medicine or vaccines, and certain drugs are exported throughout Latin America. They also bring in people from other parts of Latin America who want medical attention. If they can pay for it, they come to Cuba to receive it because the level of medical care is so much higher than in their countries. So, you have tourist medicine almost. Itís very interesting, they just have to be very creative because of what the blockade has meant to them.
We went to a baseball game and that was kind of interesting.
AB: How was the level of baseball in comparison?
AW: Unbelievable, they were amazing. Some of the players were on the national team. The Cuban National Team has won in international competition and the Olympics for years now. They beat the Americans soundly because the Americans use college players in those international competitions and the Cuban team is akin to a kind of a professional team. These are the best Cuba has to offer. They beat the Baltimore Orioles two out of three in the exhibition games last year. So, yeah, they are wonderful players. Although there are other sports there, baseball is the number one sport. So you donít have the competition that you would have here in the United States for kids that are playing soccer or lacrosse or whatever. They focus on baseball and play 12 months a year.
AB: And is that all sponsored too? I mean, that is your job?
AW: Thatís right.
NW: And during your school years you would take classes in the morning and practice baseball in the afternoon, probably doing it in shifts.
AW: Interestingly, one of the shortstops for my favorite teams, the NY Mets, is a Cuban defector, he left about five or six years ago. When I turned to the Cuban next to me at the game and talked to him about Rey Ordonez, and I said to him "what do you think about Ordonez?" and he said, "he was the fourth best shortstop in Cuba." And then he showed me the guy on the field who is number-one. And German Mesa then made this great play; he made a spread eagle and caught this line drive right in front of us, almost on cue. What it points to is that Mesa is in his thirties, Ordonez is in his 20s; the only way that Ordonez was going to make the Cuban National team was when Mesa retired. So there is a wall where once you have reached a certain point you canít advance. The slots are filled, and I think this is not just in baseball, but it is for professors at universities and in all other fields. There isnít the kind of mobility in Cuban society that there might be in other societies. I think that is going to encourage the kind of defections that you see. You know when you not only donít have a place on the national team, but you have the lure of millions of dollars out there that you could earn Ė as Ordonez is earning right now Ė you have a double fisted whammy in terms of reasons to think about leaving.
AB: Is there anyway for them to leave without them having to do something risky? Can some of them just go?
AW: They can apply for visas. Thatís a process, thereís a long waiting period, and they have to have sponsors. You have to fill out all these applications. You have to have relatives in the United States who are willing to vouch for you, the possibility of gainful employment. And thatís a process that is regulated by the U.S. government.
AB: But as far as Cubaís concerned thatís ok?
NW: Not everybody is free to leave. I spoke with one person in particular who was an academic who wanted to leave and couldnít because of his political affiliation.
AW: Baseball players for example are not free to leave.
AB: If they have a reason for wanting you to stay, then that becomes more difficult.
AW: Or it might take longer. If one person has gotten out and left, it might take a while for the relatives to get out, three or four years. So, yeah, that is true, in that sense itís constricted, but Castro has also used immigration as a tool to let people out at various times, as a way of lessening political problems on the island, as a way of diminishing pent up demand. The Martel boatlift in 1980 comes to mind. If there are a lot of people who want to leave, he has permitted that when he has wanted to leverage the U.S. in terms of foreign policy. One of the powerful tools that he has is to open up the floodgates to let people out. So, he states, "theyíre not committed to the Revolution, we donít want them." Thatís what he has always said. And so he has used that strategically as a way of diminishing political opposition on the island, but it is true, you can be prevented from leaving too. The pitcher for the Yankees now Ė Hernandez, El Duque, they call him, Orlando Hernandez Ė after his half brother had left and became a pitcher in the World Series for the Florida Marlins, he was kicked off the national team and could not pitch. The only way that Hernandez could leave was on a raft. He got on a boat and got off the island. He is now a multi-millionaire.
NW: One thing you donít hear about is people who go to visit their relatives in Miami and come back to the island. A lot of people from Miami visit in Cuba, but people donít seem to leave Cuba and then come back.
AW: Right, that is infrequent.
NW: They do go to Europe to study and to South America to work, or we met people who had worked in Africa and been in the military in Africa and so on. So, some people do travel, but not usually to the United States.
AB: What about things like music and art and things like that?
AW: I think that music is such an important part of the culture. All you have to do is walk anywhere downtown in Havana and you are going to hear music being played by bands and see dancing. Itís just unbelievable Ė nightclubs and restaurants where a group performs, and there are people up dancing and drinking and listening. Music is such an important part of Cuban culture and I think there is a sense that they listen to music from off the island so you have cross-fertilization of music. American popular culture is ubiquitous in Cuba Ė you hear the Backstreet Boys and see t-shirts with various American rock groups, Metallica or whatever, so, itís not like theyíre isolated in that sense, theyíre very much aware of American popular culture and music.
NW: In terms of the other arts, both of us went to the ballet, the National Ballet, which was of an international caliber, of what you would expect to see New York or Boston, but against a backdrop of shabby velvet curtains, and in a poorly lit theater.
AW: Entrance for us as tourists was ten U.S. dollars, entrance for Cubans was about $.30. Itís amazing to see the national ballet for that cheap
NW: And it was fabulous. The night we went they had children dancing, as well as people of other levels. These were grade school children who had clearly gone to one of these institutes of dance and had been dancing for 10 years already and they were staggering. It was a flawless performance. It was very classical and kind of a European ballet. It wasnít maybe as professional as New York would be, but technically it was superb, they were very well trained.
AW: There are big film festivals that the regime hosts every year, and you get a lot of European films that come in and there are long lines. Culture is very vibrant there, I think there is no question about it.
NW: Itís a priority of the regime, and has always been since the Revolution that for the full realization of our souls the arts and culture must be developed. People often said to us that even though Cuba has little to invest and especially little in terms of hardware to invest that what they invest in are people. They use people to invest in people; this kind of brings us back to the theme of education in the country. Itís education of all parts of people
AW: The trade off is that the infrastructure is falling apart. Wherever you look, there are buildings that are dilapidated and broken down and in serious need of repair. You not only have the tropical climate to deal with, but years of inactivity in that area and not enough funds too. I mean, housing is a problem in many socialist societies, but it is particularly acute in parts of Havana and there is a wide variation in the quality of housing there. Some places were quite nice and had been fixed up and other places just looked pretty sad. I think Nat is right, they are investing in people, the people are well taken care of, but the housing and the infrastructure for the regime are in pretty tough shape.
NW: It reminded me of what Berlin must have looked like five years after the war, everything was just collapsing.
AW: On the other hand, by and large, we felt incredibly safe in the urban areas. We walked around and we had only one incident, and that could have happened anywhere, where we had a near miss where someone tried to steal the cameras a person in our group by getting at her fannypack. That happened right outside of the baseball stadium, but other than that, we could walk alone in the evening, and there often isnít a lot of light. The city isnít well lit up, but we didnít feel unsafe at all. I couldnít say that about many Latin American cities or New York for that matter.
NW: In La Paz last week, my first going there, a major scam attempt
AW: Someone of your group?
NW: Three men had a ploy: one asked where a hotel was, then another, as if he didnít know the first one, showed false documentation that he was a policeman and they wanted a passport. Then a third person came and they just seemed too friendly for people who had just met, so I didnít go along with them, but it was clearly an attempt for a big time robbery. And that was more what I expect in any large Latin American City, but in (Havana) we wandered at 11 at night down streets that are totally blacked out because of the absence of electricity.
AB: And what was it that made you feel that that was ok? Was it just that there werenít people hanging out?
NW: Six prostitutes per block at least, and yet, you just had a sense. You could see the prostitutes lined up and then you would see mothers with children walking down past them and people sitting out on the steps playing dominos in the dark and you sort of got a sense that this is life here. It is dark out and people are hustling to make a buck anyway they can, but there was no sense of menace. Very few people came up and hustled us the way they would in Mexico City or Panama City or anywhere else. After the first time you are out till 8, then you are out till 9:30 and by the end, we were out
it seemed fine.
AW: You do see some plain-clothed policemen Ė many are youngsters, teenagers Ė in various parts of the tourist areas of the town. Other than that, you donít really see a police or a military presence at all in Cuba. You might expect that, but itís not there. I didnít see it; I didnít notice it in the rural areas or the urban areas where we were.
NW: Well we saw a little at the baseball game
AW: Oh, that was a great, tell that story, that was a great one
NW: At the singing of the national anthem, by the time the game was to begin and they were preparing for the national anthem, a few people had already been drinking a little bit too much. This group of young men had their shirts off, and they were getting rowdy and presumably out of respect for the national anthem, police came to them and asked them to put their shirts on. Most people did, but we sort of watched these rowdy men being egged on by their friends to escalate this encounter and see how far they can push it with the authorities. We were fascinated, because I thought someone was going to get their head cracked. In Peru you would get carried out on a stretcher. The policemen got publicly dissed by these rowdy guys, who partially refused to put their shirts on; they sort of draped them over their shoulder. Then when the police went away they would take it off and then he came and wrote the fellow a ticket and then walked away. Then the fellow was embarrassed in front of his friends and they were making jokes at his expense and so he stood up and started to rip the ticket and then they egged him on as he publicly shredded the ticket. Again, we were braced for nightsticks to fly, but as somebody explained to us, someone who has lived there for a number of years, he said, "In certain arenas, the authorities will let people let off some steam, as long as it doesnít involve going against the regime." They will just let people go rowdy at the baseball games. The officer got humiliated publicly, and he walked away and just took it.
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