Cuba in February (1)

Feb 15th. To Cuba.

NB: I have made wonderful friends in Cuba. Their real names do not appear in what follows. Perhaps I’m being ridiculously paranoid, but… better they be safe from criticism and me not sorry.

I land in Havana from MexCity at 7:30 pm. Customs takes longer than anywhere I’ve been in recent years, and there is a mass of French tourists just off the plane from Paris. We form files, and approach the Customs officers, who function at glacial speed.

Since Cuba has attracted a massive amount of propaganda from all sides of the political spectrum, and since there are so many false things said about it, I will begin with a few spoilers.

First, it is true that Cubans live in a controlled, centralized economy whose bureaucracy is in strong evidence in some sectors (transportation, immigration, policing, and domestic regulation, for example). The bureaucracy is inefficient, absurdly slow, and self-buttressed against change. Nothing moves quickly here; customs, money-changing, banking, and other official functions are ridiculously inefficient, with the officials having no incentive to make them less so. Simply buying a bus ticket is a nonsensically time-consuming, frustrating act, with one single ticket seller dealing with hundreds of people wanting to buy a ticket, and making very overt signals about not being forced.

Second, the Cubans do not sense themselves as not being free citizens, in the sense that daily life is not lived in any state of fear. If anything, Cubans are impatient, bored, with governmental restrictions, and like people everywhere, they cynically seek ways around them. They make money however they can, and the CUC (the tourist dollar, worth some 20 times the local currency) is in high demand.   Jobs in the service industry net much more than jobs in the socialized economy. A waiter at a hotel earns more than a doctor. Cubans do not confuse the economic inefficiency of their country with a living in a dictatorship. It is clear to them that a dysfunctional economy is exactly that: a dysfunctional economy. That is not to say that Cuba is a free society, in the terms Canadians, Europeans, or citizens of the USA understand. The lack of freedom is felt in two most pressing ways: the difficulty of leaving the island, and the restrictions on information, powerully represented by the extreme restrictions on internet communication and government monopoly over radio and television.

Third, change is coming. The cell phone and the rising use of the internet are undermining revolutionary culture no less than they are undermining culture everywhere I have been, including in my own country. The quaint notion of a politicized classless society in which everyone is prepared to pull for The Commandant’s vision is only kept alive in posters and slogans on walls. Pure collective action on behalf of everyone’s neighbour is no more viable here than it is wherever humans compete for resources (that is to say, everywhere).

Fourth, the tourist here, whether Canadian, French, Italian, or Russian is a mere resource to be mined, in most people’s mind. Unless you have the very good fortune to have made friends before coming to Cuba, do not come expecting quick friendships; the combination of a xenophobic state education system and a public amazed by vast material wealth of foreigners combine to make the tourist tolerated rather than loved. And the tourists themselves, with their low-grade desires, proudly boasting that they only need three words of Spanish (“dos otros cervasas!”) do themselves no credit. In Veradero, overfed Canadians, meandering down the boulevards and drinking beer at all hours of the day must make a strange and off-putting sight to the Cubans, whose underpaid labours in the underclass make a lie of the revolutionary mythos as told by Che and company.

Feb 16th in Veradero

It is a grinding irony here in Veradero that the two most saleable images are those of 1950s cars and of Che Guevarra. For Canucks of a certain age, there is an undeniable charm in being passed by, ferried around in, and surrounded by these charming old juggernauts, their wheezing old engines kept inefficiently alive by some alchemy of mechanical necessity. They chuff down the streets spewing vast quantities of carbon compounds behind them, and yet one cannot look at them without an aching nostalgia for a decade when everything was working in Canada’s favour. Four kids to a household (six if you were Catholic), God safely confined in our bland Churches, most of them United, good men and true running things, the tolerant absence of racism (save for that reserved for the natives, and because of the absence of other races), the stalwart functionality of all things within a duty-bound stolidity. And here are these old chunks of metal, glass, rubber and Bakelite, reminding us that some part of that near-forgotten world still exists.

What irony then, that the nostalgic image second in importance is that of Che. Che, whose radical brand of revolutionism was too violent to put under the yoke of practical socialism that Castro needed to govern with, is now available in a hundred variations of the T-shirt, hat, or poster. Now a vaguely naughty pleasure of those middle aged tourists who perhaps (although not likely) spent guilty hours as undergrads reading On Guerilla Warfare, and wondering to themselves if they would have the courage to make war.

I meet up with my friends Roger and Audrey, who are staying at one of the local all-inclusives, and with Carlos, whose connection with Roger goes back years. Carlos is anxious to see us settled comfortably, to help however he can.   He is very grateful for the musical gifts Roger has so thoughtfully collected from his excellent Vancouver musical connections. (As Roger ages, I’m more and more impressed with his resourcefulness and his true generosity of spirit.) Roger and I want to play some music. Carlos seems to interpret this as a need to play publicly; we just want to jam, but space is at a premium—the all-inclusive hotel is not open to those not sporting a yellow wrist-band, and Carlos and I are both camped in tiny digs. This doesn’t prevent him from guesting us onstage at his rock gig, where our more pure blues offerings don’t go over with the tourist crowd nearly as well as 80’s screamer rock.

Feb 19. Day four in Cuba. A bit of poor luck with the weather. After two days of ideal vacationers’ sun, the front that had been threatening for a day arrived, and yesterday was a day of rain and wind-not unpleasant, but hardly beach weather. Today, the North wind blows over the island, and the surf crashes onto the beach in short vicious waves which hit the beach so frequently that one wouldn’t have the time to stand up between blows.

Varadero is on a peninsula of land; the south-east side is protected, but there is no beach as such, so no swimming for me. The town itself is a narrow series of avenues running parallel to the main road, and is daily paraded by tourists—most of whom are staying at the all-inclusive resorts—and by townspeople going about their business. They gawk at each other, curiosity on each side, some envy on one, a defensive guilt on the other. For the most part, a balance has been struck, and there are islands of real good will and whiffs of animosity on each side. The Canadians and the Europeans have a tendency to drink too much beer. Young men, and women too, stroll down the morning avenue clutching cans of “Crystal”. These hockey-loving yobs can be found in every settlement from Cancun to Yellowknife. Nevertheless, we are more polite, at least when sober, than many. I know I’m among Canadians when people apologize when we collide.

The dialect of Spanish spoken in Cuba has taken me back to Square One. Words are formed further back in the mouth near the soft palate, giving the accent a mumbling quality that is surprisingly foreign, almost as though there were still traces of North African influence. Cubans have indeed explained to me that their accent is closer to purer Spanish than that of Mexicans… closer to it Iberian roots.

Roger’s friend Carlos is an odd duck—he is both intelligent and slow-moving, both sincere and ironic, with a surprisingly quick thrust of wit. He wants to know all about the blues, but it takes us several days to finally sit down and play together. One constantly feels that there is a subtext underlying one’s relationship with Cubans.   They may like you, but they remain guarded. This reticence is more clearly explained when I go to Cienfuego.

Feb 21: Fantastic jam at Tom and his wife’s place.  Tom is a Calgarian, who winters in Cuba, and knows the scene here. He and Judy have a rented apartment in the Southern end of town and they have agreed to host a jam. We arrive at 11 a.m. carrying instruments, and the Calgary contingent has invited friends and laid out snacks and beer. Carlos has invited his whole band, including W, who although he’s a high-skill, high-speed player (the Cubans love power guitar playing) shows up willing to learn some blues and share some of their own music. Finally I get to hear some CUBAN music, and play for hours on various guitars. My music is graciously accepted by all. Roger and I have a great time, and Roger is in great form, loose, happy, pounding drumsticks on chairs in time to the Cubano rhythm.

Feb 23 in Cienfuegos.

My friend Roderigo meets the bus as it pulls into the station, and we greet with a hug. He grabs one of my bags (all my Cuban friends insist on carrying whatever is heaviest) and we walk down the calle to the home of two of his close friends, Juan and Anita.   They greet me so graciously that I immediately know I’m in the right place.

Roderigo. came over his morning as I was enjoying an excellent breakfast laid out by my hosts and asked would I like to go the bank and change some money. So we strolled down to the bank where they informed me that I could access my Mastercard account, have the money changed into American Dollars, whence changed to CUCs (Cuban Univeral Currency) at the rate of .82 to the dollar, meaning I’d lose some 40 per cent getting a dollar CND to mean something in foldable currency here.

Down the street, from vendors who scatter when the code word “agua” is heard if the cops get nosy, it is possible to exchange American dollars almost at par.

On the way back, we passed the Cienfuegos Dramatic Society, a very beaten up old house that is home to the theatre group, one of the oldest in Cuba, R assures me. We met the actress who’s starring as the Virgin Mary in the next play (on Wednesday, and I get to see it!) which is about three women in a boat who are trying to float to the USA, and are almost dead when the Virgin appears to them. The actress who was to play the role of the Virgin in question was a sexy 30-something. She liked my joke about being qualified for the role.

She told us about a wonderful-sounding play by a local star writer about beef; to wit: a committed communist is married to a very practical woman. Occasionally when the train comes through town, it runs over a cow, and the townspeople rush out and cut some meat off the corpse. This occurs one day, and the wife, whose daughter is pregnant and needs protein, insists that her husband go out and illegally harvest a little of the beef. He is caught by the police, who take him to prison, where, shamed by this fall from grace, he kills himself. In the ultimate scene, the family and wellwishers are at the funeral when a train comes by and kills a cow. Everyone runs out to grab a slice of the meat.

I loved the story; it was as though Dario Fo had breathed his spirit into the soul of Cuba. I would like very much to get a hold of this writer and see his plays translated into English for possible production.

February 23rd In my 24 hours here in Cienfuego, I’ve had a more authentic visit to Cuba, thanks to my excellent hosts, than in the week I spent in the tourist town of Veradero. Here, I am getting a view of how the Cuban economy actually functions.

Cubans buy things using the Cuban peso, worth a fraction of its value in pre-revolutionary days. Essentially, this currency is not negotiable outside of Cuba. Tourists cannot use the peso; they exchange their money at the airport for the CUC, which is a currency not recognized by the rest of the world’s banks, or anyone outside of Cuba. It is essentially a kind of scrip, used for the sole purpose of aquiring of hard currency by the government, and it is illegal for Cubans to make the transactions themselves.

The restaurants, for example, collect, by government policy, double from the tourists what they collect from the locals, and collect it in that falsely valued currency which, by exchanging for it, has already cost the tourist a portion his or her money’s value. This Byzantine cross-exchange of currency leaves a European tourist, or a Canadian, tourist like me paying a premium for visiting the country, especially as, ironically, the Cubans insist that the hard currency they are going to value is the American dollar.

(NB:) I have learned that, since my stay in Cuba, the Cuban government has decided to scrap the CUC in favour of a re-valued peso, and deal only in that currency. This liberalization will mean, I suspect, that Cubans will deal directly in informal situations, in offshore currency, which is precisely what the old policy aimed to prevent. This is a significant crack in the old wall which I suspect is a bargain made with the USA, part of the Obama administration’s stated policy to bring down the embargo.

That Castro long ago abandoned the older industries of Cuba in favour of tourism I can well believe. According to a Cuban friend, the Cuban sugar industry was abandoned in favour of tourism, and the workers who had technical jobs in the factories wept as the machinery was destroyed and taken off to be sold for scrap. The result is that the world’s oldest sugar industry, along with the knowledge developed over the centuries, has been irretrievably lost, and the island’s sugar is now imported. Other stories of economic dysfunction about the island’s beef industry, about the failure to develop any salt-producing capability, about the fishing industry, abound.   El Comandante was right to open the island to tourists like me; he has provided a steady source of foreign currency, but the heavy hand of the bureaucracy lies on the shoulder of the industry. I presume that once Americans begin to come here and insist on better service, shorter waiting times, and more smiling agents, that more of the island will look like Veradero, where the false bonhomie of the service industry, and the desperation for money is so strongly felt.

Here in Cienfuegos, the atmosphere of cynicism pervades. People seem not to acknowledge that the new face of Cuba is going to be the service industry. Certainly my host’s and hostess’s graciousness is unfeigned; but the fact that two highly trained professionals can make more money running a B&B than they can practicing their professions is tragically wasteful. My brother Gerry, a reborn economic Conservative, would blame it directly on the demand economy, and he is no doubt partly right. The market has been subverted, and the consequences are, literally, absurd. “Absurd” is an adjective that I have heard here many times. “Our life here is absurd; the situation is absurd; this economy is absurd.” It was very interesting that when the actress (whose name could not catch) described to me the play that I’m to see tomorrow, in which three women, hoping for the great dream of life in Miami, nearly starve to death at sea and are visited by the Virgin Mary, I automatically assumed that it was an absurd comedy. No, she assured me, the play is a drama. I’m very interested to see what the result is. Is it Dario Fo, or “Lifeboat?” I can’t wait to see the audience’s reaction. Juan taught me a new expression yesterday: “Al mal tiempo, Buena cara.” (In bad times…a happy face.)

The architecture of Cienfuegos is stunning, both for its antiquity and its decay. In the nearly destroyed interior of the small theatre we visited, two piles, one of sand and one of rock, dominated the small audience area, waiting for the day they can be used in some building project. This makes me suggest to the aforementioned actress that they mount a production of Happy Days.   She had never heard of Happy Days, or of Samuel Beckett, and insisted that their mandate must be “to tell our own stories.” I admire the sentiment but found it curious that theatre people anywhere in the world had not heard of Beckett.

In the Colonial-era public buildings and private homes, there was real attention to beauty. The big civic theatre (the Terry Theatre, after its founder) is like the Monument National in Montreal, with its huge raked stage, and triple-tiered balconies, its painting of the muses on the ceiling and beautiful iron-work. Everywhere, things go to rust. The muses are crumbling, the edges of stone and plaster are crenelated, garbage accumulates. The countryside is literally covered in discarded plastic, the 20th century’s most ugly, most ubiquitous legacy. It is enough to make a sane person weep to see how much cast-away crap there is that accumulates in the fields as jetsam; it is as though Cuba had decided to stop doing the wash, to stop sweeping up, to put away the paint brushes and the mason’s tools, and wait out the decades. Bus stations are filled with lineups of people looking bored; no one knows when the next thing is happening. Yesterday we passed by a crowd in the streets, perhaps sixty people waiting listlessly. My companion asked one of them what they were waiting for: yogurt.

Those who have bureaucratic jobs, who dispense money, tickets, information, have a shocking ability to ignore you, turn away from you indifferently, to answer with a tone of cynicism or indifference that would get them fired from any decently-run organization. I have actually found myself fantacizing about some American corporate Sergeant coming in and bawling people out about their abominable public service. “Wake up people, if you don’t start taking some pride in your job RIGHT NOW, you’re OUTA HERE!!”

Where does The Noble Idea that is The Revolution devolve into this torpid indifference to the public good? What ideology would replace productivity and expertise in the sugar industry with the false friendliness of the tourist industry? (Was it the association of slavery? Surely there is some way to grow and harvest sugar cane that is less degrading than grinding slave labour?)

I want to know the good that Cuba has done. It is not Angola, nor the other socialist failures where my Cuban friends remind me that Cubans have spilt a lot of blood. What have these people gained since Batista? We are told that the educational system and the health care system are better, that literacy rates are among the highest in Latin America. I’m prepared to believe that. For one thing, I have seen at first hand how the campesinos of Mexico live (quite simply on the narrow margin of survival, with child labour, ubiquitous begging and hustling of anyone who looks like they might have more than you do.) This is also not a society that tolerates violence. The police do not carry the big weapons we see in Mexico, and although their authority is feared (cynically, of course), it is not by physical intimidation. The cartel and the military-style policing are absent here, although the informer and the snitch are not, and when people speak of illicit things (even to give the Canadiense a break in restaurant prices), they do so in low conspiratorially softened voices.

Feb 25th. R informed me via my Calgary friend (who had come to Cienfuego by coincidence) that I was playing at the Terry Theatre tonight. He sprung this on me as we were hanging out having afternoon beverages at a beautiful old café on the main square, and was highly amused by my discomfiture. (“Just think of your guitar as a beautiful woman!” he says… I decline to tell him that people who think of their guitars as tools for making music don’t find this advice helpful.) Anyhow, my discomfiture is largely put on; I’m delighted to be asked to play, and if they like what I do, so much the better. We march over to a place on the Parada, a hair-dressing salon, and R asks to be let in to where the band is practicing. We go into the tiny back-room studio, which is filled with old gear and young musicians, and R introduces me and tells them that he’s set it up with the manager of the theatre’s coffee house that I’m to go onstage with them. I can see the skepticism in their eyes: who is this old white guy they’ve been saddled with? But I suggest a few tunes, we talk about the structure, and before long, we are all jamming away happily.

That night, R and his whole family, along with my hosts, show up for my Cienfuegos debut. I get up after the band’s first set and join them for three tunes, which the audience likes, and I retire from the stage to kind commentary by band and warm applause. After the second set, the band members pack up their gear and each makes a big point of coming over and thanking me. I feel equally grateful, and tell them so. I also get a chance to donate my last set of Mexican-bought strings to their guitar player, and his real pleasure is more than obvious. They tell me that the singer and guitar player in their band are playing Friday with their big band. I might get to play, but, as they point out, it’s not up to them. I assure them I’ll be there, but to listen, not to elbow my way into stage time.

After the concert, about one a.m., we spill out onto the streets, finishing the bottle of inexpensive rum that one purchases whole from the bar (inexpensive beer is also available, along with expensive cola). We are a two-generation party, with R’s wife and two of his children. We have a very typical Cuban experience. A group of young men is hanging out on the street corner. I wonder if they represent a threat (a group of young men hanging out on the streets of Edmonton well might, if they’d be doing the wrong drugs, or had too much booze). As we approach, one of their number throws his arms open and everyone embraces. These kids are friends of the family. People don’t fear violence in this city the way they do in other places. We pour them the last of the rum, and I reflect that it is exactly these kinds of experiences that I came here for. Cubans don’t believe in the Workers’ Paradise, they believe in human kindness.

These people that I have been adopted by are VERY GOOD PEOPLE. They are generous with what they have, they love to hear music and tell stories and share meals; they like to hang out with one another. They greet one another joyfully and affectionately, they make sure that they connect with their neighbours, and they love their children.

My friend’s soulfully beautiful, intelligent daughter speaks with clarity and some bitterness about her condition. Her hard-won degree in Design needs to be engaged; she longs to be giving, to be useful to the world, to earn enough money to relieve her mother’s suffering (her mother suffers from an obscure medical condition where he own body’s defenses are attacking her joints).   This girl would tear up some Canadian office in the field of art and design, she would disarm with her latin beauty, conquer with her honest glare, and succeed with her obvious talent where your average young Canadian would stumble over his or her own sense of entitlement. I showed her Jeunet and Caro’s film Delicatessen, and she ate up both the imagery and the content like a hungry person, getting all the humour and feeling all the horror. It was a pleasure to watch, sidelong, as she watched the film, headphones on, while the older people talked. This is exactly the kind of student that I loved to have in my classes, that every prof dreams of. I imagine the kind of conversation that she would have with my daughter Keltie about life and art; how wonderful it would be to have them meet.   Tragically, she doesn’t have the dual citizenship that her father and her brothers have been blessed with. Her father can travel abroad on his non-Cuban passport; she cannot. At the age of 26, she is already turning cynical and my assurance that “change is coming; the technology of information that powers change everywhere cannot be held out of Cuba forever” is met with a patient irony.

Feb 25. You don’t know Cuba until the day when your host is informed that your ancient MacBook is not charging. He has expertise in electrical matters, so he grabs the machine and the charger, and begins prodding them with his meter. When he discovers that the charger is the culprit, he says, “I must take this to a friend of mine—has all the tools.” I follow along, and we march through the early morning streets of Cienfuegos (I amuse him by singing, to the tune of the ballad “Streets of Laredo”: “As I walked down… the streets of Cienfuegos…”) We arrive at a fairly beat-up apartment building where his friends live. A front-end loader is digging dirt up from the ongoing construction project that is the building’s foundation. As it backs up, one of the workers gets stuck behind the machine, and there is alarm as work halts and the man is rescued by every other man on the worksite. Much relief as we all learn he is all right, just shaken up.  This brings the work project for a halt. Then we climb the four floors to the friend’s domicile; a narrow railcar of a dwelling at the front door of which his wife greets us as she stuffs laundry in a portable washing machine which sits on the balcony. The electronic whiz in question is in the back room, which serves as workshop and bedroom by the clever placement of his bed overhead, an arrangement the bisects the room horizontally. At his desk, two computers, their guts exposed, are running some old version of windows. His multimeter and an oscilloscope are on the small table along with his modest assortment of old tools.

When he learns that his friend’s guest has a problem, he drops whatever he was doing and sets to the task of prying the charger apart. Being an Apple product, it I designed not to be fixed, but replaced with another expensive Apple product. “Damn Apple,” I mutter, and my host says “Apple no match for Cuban people. You see.” He’s right. Using a mixture of technique and muscle, the friend pries the offending part into pieces and pounces on it with his multimeter, finding the problem in about ten minutes’ time. After some monkeying, soldering, testing, the part is back together again (well, as much as the “don’t touch this part” engineering permits), the part is plugged into the computer where there is satisfaction all around at the fact that it’s functioning, and the friend smiles for a photograph and denies any need to be paid, despite the great good that a 20-CU note would obviously do him and his family. He makes a joke that amounts to “damn the embargo!” and we all laugh.

I coin a phrase for the occasion “La Resistancia esta inutile!” They both smile and we shake hands and leave. It’s good to see the real Cuba.

Every morning Juan and Anita serve a fruit plate that contains a medlar fruit. A medlar is some kind of relative of an apple, small and brown. When they cut it lengthways, I’m reminded of a line from Romeo and Juliet:

“…that fruit/that maids call medlars when they do talk alone.” Mercutio is making an off-colour joke, and seeing the fruit laid bare this way, it’s not hard to tell what “fruit” he refers to. How did Shakespeare know about medlars? Were they common in Elizabeth’s reign?

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