Sunday, October 14, 2007

La Ultima Canción

"It is trust that opens wide the heart, without the longing of expectation.”
--Mark Turner

The late afternoon light was yellow and sharp, every brick and stone standing out against the deep blues of sea and sky. I wandered with nothing particular to do or see once the heat was bearable, exploring the backside of a remote town called Baracoa. It is a town just beginning to feel the impact of increasing tourism as roads get better and travelers get more adventurous, more willing to spend twenty-plus hours on a bus to get to the farthest reaches of Cuba. I wasn’t in the touristy section of town; I’d wandered into purely Cuban neighborhoods where the streets were too narrow for a car to pass easily. The streets were pretty desolate; at ten that morning they’d been bustling with shoppers and people walking to and from work, school and markets, but by late afternoon everyone had gone home to enjoy the waning heat and the touch of evening breezes coming in off the ocean.

I was photographing a paper dove stapled to a doorway, the words “contra el terrorismo / against terrorism” handwritten on its warping surface, when I heard the singing. At first I thought it was a woman; the voice was a loud and clear high tenor, powerful and resounding in the empty street. I followed it, but hesitant to intrude I ended up skirting the block before I mustered the courage to approach. The song drew me to a small cement patio outside a simple cinder-block home in the middle of a block, a patio crowded with adults and children of all ages, nearly all afro-cubanos gotten up in their nicest clothes to gather around the singer. It wasn’t a woman; a young man around 25 was belting his heart out as he strummed intensely on his guitar. I could see his neck straining and I imagined my father saying how he’d blow his vocal cords out in no time, but it was worth it to listen in that moment, to get to hear such talent so accidentally.

I leaned back against the building across the street from their patio. They saw me at once, and I smiled widely and tried to make myself infinitely approachable, the kind of person anyone would trust with their children. Within minutes, they were inviting me onto their patio and into their festivities. I tried to refuse the rocking chair given up by a woman 20 years older than I, but as the honored guest I was goaded until it seemed far more polite to accept. It was a birthday party, it turned out; the old woman on the rocker in front of me was turning 90. Someone came around with a tray of shot glasses filled with a thick white drink; it was sweet and strong, going straight to my head and relaxing me into the rocking chair immediately.

The singer finished a song and made as if to leave his seat, but the crowd insisted on another, blocking his path and pushing him back down with friendly but insistent hands. Another song for the birthday girl. And then something happened I’ll never forget. The singer began, and the song he chose, I’m not sure why, was a beautiful ballade all Cubans know called “La Ultima Canción/The Last Song.” The song was written by a celebrated Cuban musician named Polo Montañez, who was killed early in his career by a drunk driver and who is still mourned by all Cubans. It’s a beautiful and popular song, mind you, written shortly before his death, but I immediately worried about the choice. The refrain is the most famous line: “El ultimo momento de mi vida debe ser, creo que debe ser romántico. / The last moment of my life should be, I believe that it should be romantic.” Many adults began singing along, and the patio came aloud with the sound. I started singing quietly as well, and I received smiles and impressed nods that I knew the words. But my eyes were on the birthday girl, the old woman of nearly a century whose eyes had filled with tears. No one else noticed until after the song ended and the young musician successfully fled, but she was weeping silently through every word.

Her family gathered around her the moment they realized, of course. She was lovingly coaxed out of her claims that she was useless to them and nearer her end than anyone wanted to admit openly. They calmed and soothed her, a woman who looked like her smoothing back the old woman’s white hair. Her lovely grand- and great-grand-children lined up to recite poetry which they’d memorized for school. The kids kept looking over at me every time they said yanqui, and everyone started laughing and cheering again. Often patriotic and evocative of the Cuban landscape and revolutionary spirit, the poems made the birthday girl smile just a little, though she was still wiping at her eyes twenty minutes later.

I am always amazed by the moments when strangers let me into their lives so fully, when I see the raw and authentic wounds of the human experience open before me. It’s painful to live with one’s eyes open and one’s heart prepared to by changed by the truth, another truth, someone else’s real and delicate experience. It’s painful to grasp life by its guts and pull them up close for a look, and that’s exactly what happened to the old woman, exactly what happened to me because I was privileged to bear witness to her moment. But just as there’s nothing more tragic than an old woman crying about death on her 90th birthday, there’s nothing more beautiful than a community coming together in the darkening light to honor a life well lived and to share a little common ground with a stranger in the gentle breezes of early evening.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Guilt of Humanism

My parents raised me to be a humanitarian, to be a humanist who didn’t just notice the problems of the world but who really identified with people in difficulty and gave of myself to improve their lives. And it has never been as clear as it is today how guilt-laden that education really was. It’s not just guilt over the accident of birth and the advantages I’ve been brought up with, but guilt because that accident makes me feel I have to give everything I possibly can to those who have less. Che Guevara said “El conocimiento nos hace responsables / Knowledge makes us responsible,” and I agree—once we’ve recognized how good we have it in one part of the world, we have a responsibility to respond to the needs of people who don’t. That sense of responsibility weighs on the soul sometimes, even makes me feel sick with guilt when I can’t give people everything they need, when I’m not capable of solving someone else’s problems or fixing the realities of their lives. I feel like an egotist today, selfish because I want to protect my life even while I want to help those I love. My sister reminds me that it’s not selfish to take care of myself—perhaps being an activist isn’t all that different than being an enabler, leaving me feeling I’ve failed others when I simply have no more to give.

All of this has surfaced recently as I tried to find the words to tell my dearest Cuban friends that I’m unwilling to marry into the family to help them. I’ve been married before, I’ve been alone for almost a decade now, and I know I can’t possibly retain the life I’ve built and come to love if I bring a Cuban into my home and life for two years without actually being in love with him. Is this selfish? Or is it too much to ask that I be willing to go so far in my constructive action? I’m not sure I even understand where those lines lie; I don’t think it’s too much that my friend Mark is willing to put himself in front of Israeli tanks; I don’t think it’s too much for an activist to put her life or livelihood on the line for what she believes. So maybe I’m just too attached to my first-world life, to the privileges I’ve been born to and built into my life. On the one hand, it seems an easy thing to take someone in, and I often help friends by giving them a place to live when they need it. But I don’t feel right about this one, and I can hardly find the words to explain why I can’t do it. I feel selfish, nauseated by the thought of my own inability to step forward and act on his behalf.

Am I less an activist and humanist than I thought I was? Am I just another selfish American who wants to protect her own gains? Could it be that I’m not as much a socialist as I’d like to think? Raymer moved me almost to tears when he spoke of a Cuban giving away not just his leftovers but what he himself needed, saying that if he had to share his half-loaf of bread with a neighbor, at least they’d share their hunger as well. So why can’t I build the willingness to think the same way, to share my tiny apartment, not just my leftovers or the extra spaces in my life and heart?

Friday, August 10, 2007

To The Man Who Called Me an Imperialist: Snapshots from the Grey Area

Any point of view taken to its most extreme is dangerous, and opinions about Cuba have always been intensely polarized, deeply divided. On the one hand, conservative Cuban-Americans and a fair number of U.S. liberals come together in an odd political mix to attack Fidel Castro as a menace to the world and a dictator who is crushing Cubans half to death in the name of a Revolution only he believes in anymore. On this side, Castro is seen as a terrorist and a dictator, not a visionary; they believe he violates human rights regularly. This voice dominates the U.S. press. They believe Cuba will only be free once the dictatorship falls and socialism is gone from the island so they, the exiled, can get their homes and lands back. They see dissidents as unjustly jailed for fighting against the system Castro has imposed, and in typicallly extremist fashion, they recognize little or none of the good the Revolution has done for the Cuban pueblo, the people. These people are generally materialists, capitalists, imperialists.

The other side can get just as extremist, sadly. People who are devoutly pro-Revolution can also become fundamentalists, and in an equally odd mix of liberalism and right-wing conservativism, they believe Castro has the right to impose socialist thinking because it's better for more people in Cuban society and has significantly improved the life of the poor. In their fervor over Revolutionary philosophy and pedagogy, they often brush off questions of limitations to freedom of expression and controlled press, and invite too little dialogue or critical analysis of the failings of the Revolution. Their voice totally dominates the Cuban press. These people are humanists, socialists, Marxists and Martianos (followers of the philosophies of
poet José Martí), and they think differently about human rights.

They become so dedicated to the Revolution because it represents free socialized health care, free education and less extreme social classes and limitations. To them, the right to well being for more Cubans matters more than the difficulties faced in daily life. They believe Cuba is already free, and that dissidents and counter-revolutionaries are the real terrorists, as their attacks so often take Cuban lives.

To understand how this odd dichotomy splits political and social thinking, take the example of Luis Posada Carriles, the Cuban-American convicted in U.S. court of the 1976 bombing of a Cubana flight which caused the death of 73 people. Sympathizers with the Revolution believe he is a terrorist and belongs in jail for his crimes; in the U.S., however, he has been allowed to go free as a dissident in spite of his conviction in the bombing. In contrast, "The Five" are five Cuban-Americans who were jailed for working against counter-revolutionary violence, a story kept from the American people almost completely. Revolutionary sympathizers feel The Five were protecting innocent lives and protecting Cuba against terrorist violence, and in Cuba they're called "Los Cinco Heroes." In the U.S., they are all facing severe sentences as terrorists and spies, and no one seems to know they exist.

So perhaps I need to make my own biases clearer, as I've never been called an Imperialist sympathizer before. Communist, yes. I've been called a radical and a leftist idealist, and I'm a self-proclaimed socialist because it seems just and right to make sure more humans have more of their needs and rights met. I belong to the second group. I am a teacher and a humanist, and I believe in the goals of the Cuban Revolution. I believe in standing up to injustice, and I believe in action. I remain personally committed to the fulfilment of the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights for all world citizens. I agree with Che Guevara that the most beautiful quality of a Revolutionary is his/her capacity to feel indignation at any injustice committed anywhere, against any people of the world, and that constructive action and revolution are needed across the globe to improve the human condition.

At the same time, I can't let myself become an extremist, as extremists become so dichotomized that they miss the grey area completely. It's one thing to believe in goals, philosophies and pedagogical approaches, and it's another thing entirely to experience real life, far from the dreamland of ideals. The ideas of the Revolution are exceptional, in my opinion, but many of the practicalities of daily existence demonstrate problems in the system which even Raul Castro openly recognized in his speech to the nation on July 26, 2007, Cuban Independence Day (probably a day of mourning in Miami). Raul has already acted to break down the corruption which has kept the Transportation Ministry in such disarray, and improvements to services are in the works. He spoke in his address about the need to produce more of what they need on the island rather than depending so much on imports they can't afford as a nation, and about the need to refocus on Marx's idea of each receiving according to his work and capacity so that Cuban youth won't want to leave the island but will improve their work ethic and work harder to build a better socialist society. He said it was time for Revolution again on the island, this time a
revolution for what needs to be improved and updated in the system itself. One of his best examples was milk; Cuba is one of the only countries on the globe where children are guaranteed milk until age seven, which is an exceptional accomplishment. However, as Raul pointed out, the real goal needs to be to ensure milk for everyone, at any age. Even my cynical friend Micha was hopeful, encouraged by Raul's promises and willingness to analyze the system so that it can be
improved. And I hope the U.S. took note of Raul's willingness to begin dialogue with us again, too, as anyone with a heart can see that the embargo is only making a bad economic situation much worse.

In Cuba, I've argued endlessly in the name of the achievements the Revolution has made, of the rights they've managed to fulfill better than most countries on this planet. Sometimes I get tired of listening to cynical, bitter Cubans complain. When Cubans complain about their salaries and their lack of motivation, I point out how many more hours a week I have to work than they do, how much more my life costs in the U.S. When they complain about economics, I point out the right to a ob and a home in Cuba and the U.S. problem with unemployment and homelessness, how quickly it can happen to anyone in a capitalist system. When Cubans complain about unmotivated teachers, I talk about the U.S. system and how it is developing an exam culture and maintaining class structures because of its pricetag. When they say the hospitals aren't good enough and the doctors pay more attention to people with divisa, I remind them that most of the world doesn't enjoy free health care of any quality. But I also argue with Revolutionaries about the controlled press and lack of freedom to print radical ideas, the lack of real classroom debate in a naturally argumentative culture, the loss of relativism I see across Cuban youth
culture. I argue when Revolutionaries say the system is perfect, and I do see the impact low salaries have had on the quality of education, the motivation of Cuban youth, the Cuban work ethic and even their
sense of national pride.

So it's not balance I'm actually seeking, but the ability to see what's really there, to avoid the blindness that comes with extremism so I can notice what Cuban life is really like. It has to be possible to criticize without being an Imperialist, to celebrate without being a Communist. It has to be possible to analyze the system without being a traitor to all it stands for, just like it needs to be possible to criticize U.S. governmental action without being accused of a lack of
patriotism. I talk to everyone willing to talk to me in Cuba, from extremist dissidents to extremist Revolutionaries--and everyone in between. They all love their country, and I ask what they think of the Revolution, what they appreciate as well as their frustrations. Even with the double moral, they usually say what they really think
eventually. I listen, I write, I try to ask good questions that span a pluralistic array of nuances and political views, and only at the end do I argue. And I probably love Cuba as much as they do, and I try to share the realities of Cuban ideologies and daily life as honestly as I can.

These are the images I take home with me, the images that make me love Cuba and the Cuban people. In Santa Clara during a rainstorm, I watched children turn a tiled sidewalk into a water slide, narrowly avoiding head-splitting concussions and squealing with glee as shoppers tried to pick their way through without being tumbled. During the Panamerican games, I loved how every Cuban win was audible wherever I was because the cheers emanated from homes, markets and streetcorners.

Cuba was second only to the U.S. in gold medals, with 59 golds, beating out the much larger country of Brazil. With 135 total medals, Cuba showed that you don't have to have a giant population to pull from if you know how to train athletes. I met every sort of character you can imagine, from an old man dancing rhumba so well he was allowed to make himself part of the show at El Heron Azul, to the MC at the Casa de la Trova in Baracoa, who had the audience in hysterics with random guesses at people's origins, including "Alaska?" and "Malasia?" One of the best was the one-eyed, black Cuban Elvis who sang some seriously wicked versions of the Cuban classics without most tourists having the slightest idea how raucous his versions were; he made me blush, and that's not easy.

I was invited into homes and lives, even into the 90th birthday party of a stranger. I cried with her when they sang Polo Montañez and his hope to have his life end romantically, and I clapped when her great-grandchildren recited poems about an island so beautiful both the Spanish and the Yankees went to war to try to claim it. I watched Ana ream out the police after a neighborhood mugging, screaming at them to get the streetlights fixed and put a cop on the corner, hands on hips and chin up high, shouting, "This has never been a bad neighborhood before!" And I felt pride when she went to the regional director the next day to announce a neighborhood strike, and how she refused when he asked her to be the neighborhood snitch, saying it was their job to protect the neighborhood, not hers.

I love Cuba. I love its well clothed children and its educated, insightful adults. I love walking streets without homeless and with only the rare beggar. I love Cuban generosity, the way strangers gather to help an old man to his feet and rush him to the hospital, the way people with so little offer me so much. I love the smile of my tiny goddaughter when she hears my voice, and how her eyes were really taking me in the day before I left. I love Cuba's barracks turned into schools, seeing policemen and soldiers reading on streetcorners. I love how everyone wants to teach me history, how every Cuban reveres
poet José Martí and quotes him regularly. I love how people want to argue U.S. politics constantly, even if it's exhausting sometimes. I won't let my eyes close to what's still wrong here, but I love this country and its vibrant people. I have learned more from them than I have imparted, and that should always be the goal.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Reflections on Human Rights: Who Are the Real Terrorists?

"Today, our attention is concentrated on the fight against terrorism... We have reiterated our condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. The government of the United States has cynically included Cuba among the "countries that foster terrorism," but Cuba will never permit that its territory ever be used in terrorist actions against the people of the United States or of any other country." --Fidel Castro

It's all over the Cuban news and I can hardly breathe: G.W. Bush is giving money and arms to Israel. I feel sick; my eyes fill and Ana sits in shocked silence beside me, watching my reaction--she has never seen me cry before. I'm so nauseated I miss all the details. How much money? Over how many years? A contract, they're saying--how many guns and missiles? Again?! I feel like throwing up. All I can manage is to curse in Spanish: comemierdas. Shit eaters. Who are the real terrorists, I wonder silently.

In the name of liberation and justice, the U.S. has helped to kill thousands in such a wide range of global conflicts it hurts the brain to take it all in. In the name of liberty and human rights, we have taken away the right to live, the right to safe custody and trials, the right of other humans to make their own choices. In the name of our right to impose our rules on everyone else, we've broken the 4th Geneva Convention and the rules of war at whim. Our children die while we torture and bully the children of other nations without conscience. We refuse to play by the very rules we insist others live by.

I got into a terrible argument with a Cuban dissident over this very topic last week, just days before "Bushecito," as Castro calls him, decided to further formalize America's support of the systematic military oppression of the Palestinian people. Cubans support the Palestinian cause very openly and with great solidarity, but Palestine wasn't the topic of this conversation. First, let me clarify that in Cuba, dissidents do fight for important human rights like freedom of expression, but that they tend to come at life from the right more than the left. I said something to the effect that America needed to realize it had no right to police the world, and this dissident erupted. He insisted the world needed the U.S. to police it, to impose its sense of justice and rights, particularly where no one else would step in. "The Communists are just waiting for the U.S. to stop governing them," he told me. "Imagine what the world would look like if Communism took over everywhere," he said with disgust.

Ok, so let's try to imagine that. First, let's dispell the myth that communism has to include a malevolent dictator, and acknowledge that there is a difference between a dictator and a terrorist. I'm not a supporter of dictators, mind you, and I know the Castro brothers have made a wide range of mistakes in Cuba, but there are definitely times when a benevolent dictatorship is the only way to control human stupidity. The example I've used in my Spanish class is of a hurricane that passed over Jamaica and Cuba several years ago. In Jamaica, where citizens are welcome to be stupid enough to stay in their homes and there is little state infrastructure to get the poor to safety, 800 people died. That same hurricane, passing over Cuba a day later with even more ferocity, took no lives whatsoever. So ok, maybe it's not so great to be forced to leave your home by military personnel with guns. But I'm willing to bet the victims of Hurricane Katrina wouldn't have minded being saved by force if there'd been a system in place for saving them. In Cuba, human life matters so much the government will save people from themselves, and it won't let economics or class decide who gets to survive.

Breaking it down a little further, what has always mattered most about communism in Cuba is the socialism at its heart, the economic structure and philosophical belief that all humans deserve to live adequately at least, and that all humans matter. Socialism was never meant to be egalitarianism; Marx made it quite clear that socialism should reward both higher capacity and harder work, but should give the same avenues for advancement and wellbeing to all citizens, regardless of class. Even if Cubans are poor, they all have the right to free health care, free education, basic food, a roof over their heads and a job. As I've heard Fidel claim several times, even the child of a poor farmer can become a doctor, an engineer. And yes, ensuring jobs and food may breed laziness in some, especially when salaries provide few incentives. But I'm still willing to imagine a world filled with well-fed children who all have shoes, and who have a right to an education and the health care they need. Maybe Fidel uses health care and education as a political tactic to cover up other, more questionable choices, but I still support the achievements made in these arenas. This kind of work is being done in other parts of the world, too, and the benefits of socialist thinking are already visible globally--and in countries the world is far less willing to criticize than Cuba, too. You just don't see the distended bellies of famine, naked, shoeless children, nor ignorance and illiteracy in socialist countries. No matter how much Cuba needs to improve economics, freedom of expression and their use of the democratic system, 98% of Cubans are literate and 90% of Cubans graduate high school. And life expectancy has gone up 18 years in the half century since the Revolution triumphed.

Sometimes I even try to imagine a world without the violence that springs from the right to bear arms. Certainly violent crimes are committed the world over, but another truth is universal as well: the moment we put guns in the hands of humans, the sense of justice and the intelligence of those carrying the guns becomes the rule of law. Again, maybe a benevolent dictator is capable of saving humans from our own worst instincts, maybe not. But I know that violent crimes are highest where stupid humans are able to be all the more dangerously stupid thanks to the arms they carry. There are no guns floating freely in Cuban society, and frankly it's a myth that you can be shot in the street by the police or military for saying what you think. Not only do we have guns all over American society, but we sell them to the world. The meek will inherit the earth?! Yeah right--he who has the most guns wins every time. Might makes right the world over, and the U.S. government thinks it has the right to decide who to give that power to.

Terrorists are people who try to force others to accept their way of thinking, and personally, I think Bush Jr. is the world's worst terrorist today. And maybe I'm being a hypocrite to suggest that Fidel and Raul Castro have the right to impose anything on their people, given that last claim, but I stand by my belief that some rights matter more than others. Cubans think a little differently about rights, and some of their choices have been good ones. According to Fidel in his recent biography, 80% of the human rights measures approved by the United Nations' Commission on Human Rights in Geneva are proposed by Cuba. Even if he's exaggerating, which he tends to do, it's true that Cuba has consistently championed justiceand human wellbeing, no matter how much isn't working in Cuban society still. A friend put it beautifully today when he told me that a Cuban doesn't just give away what he doesn't need; if a Cuban only has half a loaf of bread, he'll split the half loaf with his neighbor, and if they both go hungry, at least they'll go hungry together.

It seems right to me that we try to create a world where every human has the right to live well, regardless of which side of the world she was born into or which side of the fence she happens to live on. The United States has the capacity to help the world, not hurt it; if we were to adopt a politics of humanism instead of war, we could do a lot to change what's wrong through more productive, constructive means. Perhaps if we can start by imagining it, we can begin to create the conditions necessary to create more global justice and wellbeing peacefully. Maybe we could even help Cuba to fix its errors along the way, but with solidarity, not with force.

Piracy and Human Ingenuity: Life Outside the System

Anyone who thinks there's no free enterprise in Cuba has obviously never been here, or has never figured out how much of the movement of business is actually outside the laws and the system. There is an entire world of illegal business here, and Cuba is living testimony that humans will always find a way to live better, regardless of how tightly any system tries to control them. Just ask yourself how 1950s Chevys could still be running under an embargo that has kept out all replacement parts for almost 50 years, and it becomes clear that Cubans are imaginative, resourceful people. No system on earth can crush that; as an old friend in Costa Rica used to tell me, necessity breeds extraordinary levels of creativity.

Every Cuban wants and needs divisa, the currency most markets run on now. With state salaries in Cuban pesos and with an average salary of 350 c.p. per month in most fields ($14), making money outside of official jobs becomes a necessity, not a luxury. Certainly some Cubans are more fortunate, receiving part of their salaries in divisa or having significantly higher salaries over all, and those who receive help from family abroad do significantly better. But most Cubans simply can't provide for themselves or their families within the system, much less enjoy an evening out or travel within their own country for pleasure. For example, my friend Consuelo made quite a decent salary as a 9th grade teacher, and after 40 years that salary reached 850 c.p. monthly ($34). Combined with her husband's salary as a university professor, they did pretty well. But after her husband died four years ago and the state demanded that teachers teach across all disciplines through 9th grade, she retired to a pension of 230 c.p. (just over $9). When I asked why she didn't take private students, she began by citing the laws against it--and then admitted that the real problem was having too big a heart to charge students who are just as poor as she is.

But most Cubans have little difficulty finding ways to make money outside their official salaries without hurting anyone but the state itself. A lot of people take second and third illegal jobs; an electrician might work for the state during the week but spend his weekends repairing wiring in private homes for money under the table. Farmers sell some of their produce to the state, but sell the rest illegally along the highways. Illegal paladares, homes where Cubans cook and sell meals to tourists, became so common in the economic devastation of the 1990s that the state ended up taking them over; now, any Cuban who serves food to a foreigner in her kitchen has to pay the state for the right to do so. But many paladares remain outside the system--and believe me, some of the best meals I've had here have been in illegal kitchens.

Other Cubans turn their front rooms into stores and cafeterias; all it takes is a small sign outside the door, taken down the moment food or merchandise runs out. I have one friend who sells pizza makings to a state restaurant. The makings are stolen out of the state factories by workers desperate to make extra money, and those who run the restaurants are glad to buy illegally because they can make far more money if they have ingredients beyond what the state provides. One of my favorite memories from Matanzas was seeing a Cuban man showing furniture for sale on a street corner--he had a photo album marked with prices and a pile of home-made business cards, and he was surrounded by a crowd of Cubans anxious to get decent furniture at a far better price than they'd find in state stores.

And this really is the key--not only do the thieves and vendors of contraband goods benefit, but they save other Cubans money as well and help to elevate the standard of living for nearly everyone here. I first became aware of the way the black market benefits Cubans across a vast network when a friend took me inside the workings of the illegal tobacco industry in La Habana. In a small, dirty kitchen in a tiny cement-block apartment, three men cut and rolled cigars with the skill and speed of those trained inside the great factories of Cuba. They are all ex-employees, now supplied by old friends still holding their official jobs. Everything they work with has been stolen from the state, from the tobacco itself, piled all over the floor of their kitchen, to the press pieces, brand rings to identify the types, official state certifications and even boxes to sell them in (the boxes, they told me, are stolen by several managers at the factories--the theft is seriously widespread). Everyone makes something, even the Cuban who's able to enjoy a cigar once in a while at a black market price that's under one tenth of the market value. The same thing happens in coffee factories--it happens in every sector of society. When one Cuban has access to cable television because of his job or social position, he splices the line himself and sells cable to his neighbors. And everyone benefits--everyone but the state itself.

I finally asked how all this could be allowed to happen; it started to sound too much like an easy version of Robin Hood without an effective villian, and it seemed too good to be true. One friend said he didn't think the state honestly COULD control it more than they were doing currently because they had so many social issues to stay on top of. Another friend said the state has effectively crushed a LOT of behavior in Cubans--just look at the extremely low rates of drug use, violence and prostitution, and it's clear they can control whatever they want to. This friend believes the state puts up with a fair amount of black market industry because a significant majority of Cubans live better because of it, and crushing these networks would completely strangle Cubans, perhaps even lead to an uprising. More likely, in my opinion, is that inspectors and other officials who catch people in the act are easily bribed into not giving fines or shutting down illegal businesses--so they have something to gain from its continuation, too.

Tonight we ate a delicious pasta dinner in my family's home. The pasta itself came from the state as part of Ana's rations, but the cheese was bought from a neighbor who makes it herself, and the tomato sauce, ham and sausage were stolen from a pizza factory for resale. We ate well tonight in Cuba because outside the system lives another system, filled with the ingenuity which springs from human need. Perhaps there is human greed involved as well; after all, Cubans enjoy trinkets and tvs and other small luxuries like anyone does. And maybe Caridad is right that humans don't need everything they want, but it may also be true that humans deserve to have a few things they don't need for mere survival. Humans enjoy spending on small pleasures wherever they have the capacity to do so, and in Cuba they all live a little better because illegal activity provides higher income and lower prices. And maybe Micha's French professor was right, too, when he said that enjoying a cold beer, taking your girlfriend out dancing once in a while or being able to explore your own country is a human right, not a priviledge.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

La Doble Moral: The Problem of Truth in Cuba

¨We don't tell the people to believe; we tell them to read.¨ Fidel

Using the phone in the neighborhood office of the CDR, the Committee in Defense of the Revolution, I am surprised to see a photo of my own neice staring up from among photos of local kids, birthday parties and Revolutionary quotations written on scraps of paper. I'm so surprised it takes me a second to recognize her. It makes me mildly uneasy to see her there, only because I know Ana, who is a secretary here, also put the quotations under the fiberglass desktop, and I happen to know firsthand she believes very few of them. Don't believe, read?! Yeah, right. She puts these quotations in because that's what Cubans are supposed to do: demonstrate support of the Revolution. And they do it terribly well.

The CDR, first designed to ferret out couter revolutionaries plotting violence against the state, is the organization that has caused people to claim that the walls have ears for almost 50 years. In actuality, the CDR does a lot of good in many neighborhoods in Cuba; when someone's out of work, they help find work. When someone's refridgerator reaches a state of no repair and she has no resources to replace it, they step in to help. They give summer classes to keep local kids busy, and they provide an avenue for local complaints and demands, a forum for local discussions. But they also convince Cubans to rat each other out; perhaps the intention remains protection of the state and the neighborhood, but the effect hurts every community's solidarity and creates a climate of constant fear. And this makes it more or less impossible to know what Cubans really think. About anything.

Cubans have a name for the problem of truth: they call it ¨la doble moral -- the double moral.¨ What they mean is that what a Cuban claims as his opinion will depend entirely on his audience, not on what he really thinks. He will give one truth to a friend, and another, more officially accepted truth to those not in confidence. On a formal level, this means there are serious limitations to freedom of the press because the press will print few criticisms--and even the most critical printed go after social problems and issues in daily life, not after the system or government itself. The press has to watch its back, obviously, but the press itself is state-run, and as one journalist pointed out to me, the press manipulates the news to the advantage of those in power the world over. She said the Cuban press doesn't lie--it just omits (and she seemed markedly proud of that distinction). But on a more informal and personal level, Cubans write few truly polemic articles to begin with. Fear of repercussions makes Cubans censor themselves, which is even more damaging, both individually and collectively. Clearly, Fidel's claim that they aren't forcing thought but encouraging exploration of ideas is untrue even if Cuba does have the highest literacy rate in the world.

Cubans have grown up without a culture of debate and discourse; especially those born just before or during the Revolution have little sense of the shades of grey to every issue, little capacity for pluralism. Everything is painted in black and white here. There is one ¨Round Table¨ program on TV, but most Cubans change the channel or go to the bathroom during it--and again, it only debates social problems, not the system. Classroom teachers and textbooks tell Cubans what to think and do not encourage critical thinking. The heroes of the Revolution are painted as perfect, flawless individuals, when any human has his flaws. The Revolution is presented as a perfect approach and socialism as an ideal system--yet as one professor of French pointed out to me, the fall of the Soviet Union makes it quite clear that socialism has defects that need to be analyzed. Similarly, young people in Cuba think the world outside Cuba is perfect, that one arrives in Miami and manna falls from heaven. It's not all that different from what my own great grandparents thought, true. But Cubans haven't been taught to listen and consider alternate perspectives, and according to this French professor, the country will only improve once Cubans are able to analyze socialism's flaws directly and honestly instead of blaming everything wrong on the U.S. embargo, an easy scapegoat. A friend told me yesterday that Cubans will even blame bad weather on the Embargo--and no system can improve if people are unable to look at it for what it is instead of blaming an easy culprit.

For me, this double moral is an endless frustration. I've met only one dissident willing to talk at all, and I've only managed to film a VERY small number of interviews because people are scared to death they'll end up in trouble with the state, even in jail. How often that really happens, no one seems to know, but the fear that it could happen is intense. I was thrilled when Caridad said she could be honest on film because if she was being honest, she'd defend her perspective to the end. But that's a lot easier for her to say as an 81-year-old woman who generally supports the Revolution--people who don't are in a very different situation. A transvestite friend said she didn't feel comfortable being interviewed this trip because she'd recently been included in a documentary on social problems in Cuba, which was aired by a Spanish-language network in the U.S. She wasn't the center of the program, but she's had nothing but problems with the state since, and the fact that she has illegal breast implants and now can't hide herself at all means she sleeps all day, only going out at night anymore. Even a very pro-Revolutionary university professor I've known for seven years refused to be filmed--and when I asked why, he skirted the question, saying that this was ¨a very delicate time¨ in Cuba's relationship with the world. Cubans are terrified to say what they think, and I've had dozens of people refuse interviews until their associations or unions give them permission. Others will talk, but get nervous the minute I ask for names and birthdates, begging me not to include any personal details in my work.

All of this has to mean that people don't agree with the system, or they'd be openly pro-Revolution, which is totally safe. But that means I can't even tell if Revolutionaries are really Revolutionaries--they could easily be saying they support the system and love Fidel and Raul because they know they're supposed to. One man told me that what Cubans do best is applaud--they're taken in trucks to rallies where they applaud on command and shout ¨Patria o muerte, venceremos -- Country or death, we'll overcome¨ as they're taught to do in kindergarten (yes, I've seen five-year-olds claim they'd die for their country--there's obviously something wrong there).

The French professor, who I'm not naming for obvious reasons, told me he doesn't want to see socialism traded for capitalism, saying no Cuban wants to change one collar for another. But he also said that the system needs to improve significantly, that Cubans need to learn from what went wrong in the former Soviet Union so the same doesn't happen here. Without the financial muscle Venezuela has, Cuba needs to find an economic middle ground that encourages and rewards hard work. Marx's idea that each should earn according to his capacity and work hasn't been followed here, and Raul Castro even recongnized this in his speech to the country on July 26th, 2007. Key liberties like freedom of speech and freedom of the press also need to be developed so that critical dialogue can begin. But these freedoms will be even harder to achieve after 50 years of debateless education, and real relativism could take decades to develop again.

I feel terribly lucky today to live where I do, to have the right to recognize and express what I consider unjust. Ana and I add two more pictures of Ella to the collage on the CDR reception desk, one with me in it, and I think about the education she'll receive, filled with all of the paradoxes, contradictions and flaws of real human experience across the world. Sometimes it saddens me that she'll have to confront the truth about the ugly underbelly of human nature, the real grit of those who only live to survive, but at least she'll know the truth when she sees it, and she'll be allowed to criticize it. Ana points to a Che quotation, laughing--¨This one I believe,¨ she tells me, and I know it's a real truth: ¨Behind every extremist is an opportunist.¨

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Trembling with Indignation

In a letter to a woman in Spain who shared his last name, 1964: "I don't think you and I are very closely related, but if you are capable of trembling with indignation each time an injustice is committed in the world, we are comrades, which is more important."
--Ernesto "Che" Guevara

For days now, I've been searching for words, the words I need to capture a feeling so ugly it comes out wordless, rising like bile and lingering in my head as though it's trapped there. In an attempt to show a new friend the "real" Cuba, I came up against the kind of contrast that makes my heart ache: the difference between the way Cuba is presented for tourists, and the way it really is. Most tourists think that by staying in "casas particulares," or private homes, they see the real Cuba; I've heard it said too many times by too many travelers. But any Cuba with a big enough house to rent even one room is already ahead of most--add to that an income in "divisa," the convertible peso tourists use, and these Cubans have FAR more luxuries even with the huge fees they pay the state for the right to rent (and complain about constantly). My friend was immediately able to see the difference, the HUGE economic and social gap which exists between Cubans still.

Entering Ana's home, everything is different: the fan that only works at one angle and has no face, the blender missing most of its buttons, the shower curtain that rips slightly every time I move it--almost nothing in her house is newer than 20 years old. Cubans fix everything; her refrigerator has to be 40 years old, and I've even seen professional mattress stuffers come into homes here to open up and mend the bumps, covering broken springs with wood chips. I pointed to Ana's walls,
painted three years ago because of money I sent, at the relatively new tile work in the bathroom completed with money I sent--without my foreign income, this home would be in even worse disrepair. My friend sat at Ana's table on a chair barely held together, which I pulled apart by pulling it back to sit just this morning. Now imagine the Cuban who has no foreign friends or family sending money from abroad, and who really has no right to spend time among tourists.

These class disparities come from an economic system that simply doesn't work. Cubans are paid in Cuban pesos, which have a value of about 25 to $1 U.S. dollar. "Divisa," or convertible pesos, are about comparable to a dollar--though American dollars themselves are heavily tariffed on exchange to discourage their use. In its original intention, the idea was fine: charge Cubans in national currency and tourists in one with far more value, and tourist money will keep the economy alive. When we went dancing the other night, for example, my friend and I spend $5 divisa each to enter, while Ana and Micha each spent 20 Cuban pesos. It seemed fair, and in certain respects the system seemed to work. In the 1970s and '80s, Cubans bought subsidized goods with their Cuban pesos, and everything else was provided via ration cards. Rent and utilities barely cost Cubans anything. But with the fall of the former Soviet Union, imported goods disappeared from state rations and suddenly cost much more; as a result, most stores had to switch over to divisa prices. Today, this means that a Cuban who makes 300 Cuban pesos a month can still pay his gas, electricity and water bills, as well as any rent he might owe the state, for around 25 pesos a month (yes, that's a dollar), but will pay a minimum of $20 divisa for the cheapest electric fan he can find (that's 500 Cuban pesos, almost twice his whole month's salary).

All of this means that anyone in tourism who can earn at least part of his salary in divisa is FAR better off than those who can't. And the system is further divided to keep Cubans and tourists apart, to keep those who don't already work in tourism away from foreigners. The laws governing this were enacted largely to protect tourists after several were killed in counter-revolutionary acts, but the effect is that a Cuban can't even enter a hotel in his own country if he doesn't work there or enter with a foreign friend. This takes the problem beyond economics and into psychology; Cubans begin to feel they have no right to be among foreigners, yet are desperate for the kind of income we represent and even carry on us every day. As Micha pointed out, most Cubans feel they have to ask permission to enter any place that deals with tourists, which suggests that they have internalized the laws and more or less believe they have no right to be there.

To show my friend all these contrasts, Micha and I took him into the Hotel Nacional. I knew before going in that Micha would be watched because I've seen it before (Ana walks into these places with me defiantly, chin in the air, so we've seen it a million times). The doormen opened the door politely for me and my friend, but scowled at Micha like he didn't belong there at all. The five-star hotel glittered and gleamed, all glass and chandeliers and perfect, smooth surfaces, trying to recreate a different time in Cuban history, from the "golden era" of casinos and Hollywood stars honeymooning on its beaches. But that era wasn't golden at all for most Cubans, and the hotel recreates this uglier part of Cuba's past, too. Cuban workers at the Hotel Nacional were dressed up in sharp starched uniforms which made them look all the more like peons to imperialist money, like an image out of the American South during slavery, with the black man dressed up like a butler in oversized shoes and an outfit that didn't hang right on him. Tourists of all ages and colors cavorted on the perfectly-trimmed lawns, completely oblivious to the legal slavery going on around them or the life being lived by Cubans just blocks away from their fantasy land.

In the "Room of Fame," the walls were covered with faces of the most famous people to stay in the hotel, from Fred Astaire to Winston Churchill, from the heads of the Italian Mafia to Johnny Depp. Micha stopped before a poster covered in photos of "Cuban Centenarios," Cubans who'd lived to be 100 or older. At the top, a slogan read "Cuba: A Place to Live." Beneath were photos of housewives, farmers and laborers; the oldest was a farmer who had lived to be 124. Micha stood there a long time, eventually pulling me over to ask me what I thought the slogan meant. "That people live a long time here," I said hopefully, "but obviously it's not all that nice to live 100 years as a factory laborer in a crushing economy." Micha nodded. "Ask the 124-year-old farmer if he'd like to leave Cuba, and he'd say yes immediately," Micha told me.

We left the hotel feeling uncomfortable, my friend and I, and Micha looked truly pissed. He kept saying that Cuba is painted as this paradise of equality and solidarity, "a place to live," yet Cubans themselves CAN'T live decently unless they throw themselves at the feet of those with divisa to spend. They end up trying to wrangle money out of tourists and even take constant advantage of each other; Micha has endless stories about jobs in which he was promised one salary initially but was paid far less at the end of the job. The response to his complaints, from Cubans who live under the system just as he does? Go find a better salary somewhere else, then. Yes, I've seen moments of total generosity among Cubans, have seen people step in to help a sick neighbor or help an old woman up the stairs, but what kind of solidarity does a Cuban doorman demonstrate when he eyes Micha like he's a jinetero, a cheat or a scam artist to be walking among foreigners?

Sometimes it hurts too much to be here. I feel blessed to be invited into reality, lucky to see the country from the inside as it really is, the dirty, ugly life boiling beneath the cheerful, colorful surface offered to outsiders, but that reality is painful. Even the old 1950s Chevys the tourists love to see are used as common taxis, usually stuffed with as many Cubans as they can hold because of the transportation crunch here. The cars are bare and dirty inside, kept up on the outside for appearance's sake. And they may look lovely, but any Cuban would take a newer car in their place, a car that runs well and doesn't burn straight through gas as its doors fall off the hinges. The contradictions pull the air out of my lungs, fill me with guilt for the life I'll return to so soon, and the paradoxes and contrasts leave me wordless, voiceless. My language comes out haltingly, as thought the ugliness has thickened my tongue and muddled the Spanish in my brain. Micha tells me that it makes the bones ache to live here with no way out, and I feel guilty that the accident of birth worked in my favor. And I stumble, mumble incomprehensibly, and my hands won't stop trembling with indignation.