Cuba is awash in government billboards and slogans. My favorite is ‘un mundo mejor es posible’: a better world is possible. Most praise the leaders, past and present, of the revolution, or have lofty hopes and visions for what the revolution will continue to deliver to the people. Some spoke of solidarity with Venezuela. Some praise the people, such as praising the farmers for feeding the people in agricultural areas. Some thumb noses at the U.S. or otherwise look to embarrass or expose the U.S. There was one billboard in Havana with a giant uncle Sam who couldn’t quite reach a defiant Cuba. And a nearby gruesome one with the military abuses by the U.S. military in an Iraqi prison.
The eeriest and most pervasive campaign is about the 5 ‘heroes’. These 5 men were Cuban spies in the U.S. and were caught and put in prison. From the Cuban perspective they were not given a fair trial, and did not deserve their fate since they were not agitating against the U.S. government, rather their mission was to infiltrate the Cuban-American community in Miami. It certainly would be in the interest of the Cuban government to keep tabs on the political force involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and more recently the Elian Gonzalez fiasco. I have no idea personally who these five men were supposed to spy on, though it doesn’t surprise me terribly that caught spies from an ‘enemy’ nation ended up in jail. All I can tell you is you cannot escape these five when you are in Cuba. They are everywhere. I think I would probably recognize them if I saw them. For example most bus terminals featured their faces floating on a wall somewhere surrounding the word ‘volveran’: they will return. Somehow I doubt it. Modest monuments to these five fashioned out of pebbles were in evidence in even the most remote villages, typically outside of the local party headquarters.
One time I sat down to read a few copies of Granma. This is the official party newspaper. It is put out daily and available everywhere in the country. It is only a few pages, and it is the only newspaper I personally noticed anyone reading. More than half of the ink was devoted to the U.S. One article was about U.S. expenditures in the Iraq. One was about Bush not having authority to engage in domestic eavesdropping. There was a lengthy front-page story on the Cuban mafia (this refers to the politically connected members of the Miami Cuban-American community, and they are very anti-Castro), Bush family, Kennedy connection. There was some coverage to the recent election of Evo Morales (new Socialist Bolivian president). China also got some positive press and an American author who has written good things about Cuba and apparently was not cleared by the Bush administration for travel to Cuba for a book festival was covered. The rest of the international section was only a few paragraphs.
I have heard that Cubans are not free to dissent, that they do not speak out against their government because they are afraid. I don’t know if this is true, I can only share the impressions I got during my short trip. Several times Cubans, after only knowing me for a few minutes, told me things they did not like about their government. A mother in Los Cabanos told us the bureaucracy was unimaginable. A young man in Cienfuegos told me that the government did not understand what the people wanted (cheap TV’s, free press). A middle-aged woman in Havana told me she wishes travel were freer so she could visit her daughter in Florida. None of these people seemed to be looking over their shoulder or afraid that someone might overhear and turn them in. There wasn’t that palpable police-state feel of Syria, where cheesy identical posters of government leaders are plastered in every shop, for fear that lack of one might signal subversive views. So, if there is a fear of expressing dissident views in Cuba, it is not so pervasive that Cubans are afraid to speak their mind to a stranger. I cannot speak to the important topic of freedom to oppose the government, my understanding is that it is not tolerated.
When I went to Cuba I was under the impression that the government jailed political dissidents. I got that impression from the publicized incident in 2003 in which over 75 people were jailed in Cuba, some of whom remain in jail. Amnesty International championed their cause referring to them as political prisoners and opposition journalists. I can remember sitting in my home in Montana and typing up a letter to Fidel Castro in Spanish in response to Amnesty’s campaign.
I have now heard from more than one source that these ‘journalists’ were all in the pay of the U.S. government and were actively working against the Cuban government. It would certainly not be the first time that the U.S. government tried to influence a government in Latin America, and if that is the case I don’t think Cuba’s response is much different from how most governments would respond in a similar situation.
Many of you know that officially I went to visit the Jews of Cuba. I did indeed visit with the Jews. A few excerpts follow. Adela Dworin is the official at the largest synagogue in Havana who has the job of having to repeat the history of the Jews of Cuba to all of the American Jewish groups that come to Cuba. I’m not sure how many this is but on our flight from Miami there was a group of about 10. One woman from my synagogue in Boston has been 3 times. It is one of the few ways that Americans can go legally to Cuba. So an exhausted Adela was kind enough to give us an abbreviated version. Of interest to this audience is that in the early 80’s when Cuba was most reliant on the Soviet Union for aid, the Cuban government officially declared Cuba an atheist nation. Adela said this period was difficult for believers in Cuba. She did not elaborate, nor did any of the other Jews we visited with, so I do not know what this difficult period entailed. (Do not confuse this with the ‘special period’ which refers to the very difficult period since the Soviet subsidies ended with the fall of the Soviet Union.) The atheism of the nation passed with the fall of the Soviet empire apparently, and since the early ‘90’s the Cubans have been free to worship, and there has been a corresponding resurgence in religiosity. They showed us photos of a visit by Castro during a Hannukah party a few years back. After a brief speech (which turns out to mean 2 hours, Castro isn’t know for brevity), Castro apparently asked some quiz questions of Jewish trivia and when he didn't get a response from community members, Castro encouraged them to learn better their heritage. So says Adela.
Life Under the Blockade and Under Castro.
As far as I could tell the concept of universal education has truly been implemented in Cuba. Education is obligatory and valued by the society and government. University education is available to all who pass their exams. Cuba has a very high literacy rate, and many trained professionals. Many of these professionals are frustrated that there are few professional opportunities for them in Cuba. The economy is currently very dependant on tourism, and there are many professionals renting out a room to tourists, because that is the only way to make a bit more money than the the typical Cuban. Cuba has many trained doctors, and Cuban doctors volunteer in rural parts of Latin America, but in Cuba medicines are very scarce. One naturalist I spoke to said he’s had doctors come to him from all over the island for his knowledge of medicinal plants.
The Two Economies.
All aspects of the economy are tightly controlled by the government. People cannot just start up some business. Anything bringing in foreign currency is either very heavily taxed or government owned. Cubans make about $11 a month and most tourist services cost about what they would cost in our home countries. This has created two economies with two corresponding currencies. They are both called pesos and the dollar sign is used to represent both, but one is worth about 4 cents and the other is close to a dollar. Cubans are meant to primarily use the former and tourists are meant to exclusively use the later. When we ate where the Cubans eat, we ate for about a dollar a day. When we ate at places for foreigners we spent about what we would spend at home to eat. With the recent influx of foreign currency there is something of a nascent class difference in Cuba. Those who have dollars have access to all of the fancy foreign goods that can be purchased only at dollar stores.
Cuba is by far the most color-blind, integrated multi-racial society I have ever seen or heard about. In Havana groups and families of mixed race are the norm. Outside of Havana mixed race families are less common, but people of all different colors still seem to live as neighbors and interact regularly. Racism is not unheard of, (one Cuban recommended that I avoid Trinidad, a city in south central Cuba, because there are too many blacks there) but as far as I could tell, it does not structure society or dictate class. Keep in mind that Cuba has a plantation and slavery past. It was one of the early edicts of the revolution in ’59 to ban racism, and it seems to this foreigner that the rest of the world could take some cues from the Cubans as to how to implement such an ideal.
To look from the outside at how Cubans live is in some ways beautiful. It is a common sight to see a roadway where the majority of people are transported without internal combustion. Bicycles are the most common conveyance (usually with 2 or more people on each), and horses are also widespread. Many people walk, and it was not uncommon to pass through a small town and have the road be nearly full of people walking. There is also mass transport, buses in cities, and often in the countryside a tractor pulling a trailer packed with people. Flat bed trucks and even dump trucks (!) are also used to transport people. Cities also have rickshaws and motorcycles are as common as cars. There are any number of tiny motorized contraptions (models of Fiats you have never seen, and things even smaller) sharing the road with the American cars which remain from the 50’s and the soviet cars of the 80’s. But the sight of one person in a car is exceedingly rare and if you look at what percentage of the people on the street are in cars at all it is quite small.
Disposable plastic bags are uncommon. When you want bread you go to a bakery with your bag and you hand them your bag into which they put the bread. There is very little liter on the side of the road, and waste in general is an uncommon extravagance. People generally eat enough but not to excess. Obesity does not exist.
As far as I was able to tell this sort of efficiency is only beautiful to an outsider. I did not speak to a single Cuban who did not have a relative who had risked everything to go to the U.S. And many (most?) would follow suit if they had the opportunity. Apparently the number of cyclists has dropped dramatically in that last few years now that the government can (with the dollars from tourism) provide mass transport. This is not to suggest that Cubans have no loyalty or appreciation for the gains of the revolution, most do. Do most humans choose gluttony when given the option?
Street scene in Cienfuegos: bicitaxi and horse carriage
Outside of Vinales