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Havana on My Mind
by David McReynolds
hen I thought of Havana, I thought of cigars, Fidel, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis—Cuba, the revolution just 90 miles from our shores. I didn’t think of a tropical island, huge trees with showers of roots hanging down to the sidewalk, or ancient cars and collapsing colonial houses. Those were, in April of this year, only black-and-white photos in my mind.
My life has taken me to Vietnam, East Berlin behind the Wall, Iraq, Libya and the Soviet Union, but not to Cuba. What about this “already existing socialism” so close to us? In retirement, I thought to make up for lost time. I got an announcement from the Committees of Correspondence for Socialism and Democracy (of which I’m a nominal member—my main political allegiance is to the Socialist Party). It said “Celebrate May Day in Havana.” I thought, “What the hell, why not go now, before Fidel dies or I do.”
So on April 27 I took off from New York’s JFK airport on TACA Airlines with CCSD Co-Chair Leslie Cagan, her mother and several other CCSD members. (Study groups—the CCSD group had academic credentials—can fly direct from the United States to Havana.)
My only previous trip to the Caribbean had been a few years ago, visiting an old friend in Costa Rica. It was a marvelous trip, but I had a sense of a high crime rate and lots of guns. My experiences with “already existing socialism” had ranged from drab Moscow and grey East Berlin at the height of the Cold War, where soldiers walked in pairs, guns at the ready, to Hanoi in the midst of a war that had gone on for a generation, to beautiful Prague, where Soviet tanks rolled by my hotel that August of 1968. (I do not mean to be overly critical of the Soviet Bloc. Those countries had medical care, education, food, housing. Now, after “free enterprise” has devastated Eastern Europe and Russia, their citizens look back and often long for what they have lost.) I didn’t know what Cuban Communism would look like, but—although I brought with me lots of ideological baggage—I was determined to try to look with open eyes, listen with open ears and see what my impressions were in a single short week.
Anyone who thinks they can tell you what Cuba is like after spending seven days there, most of it in Havana, should be dismissed. I don’t know what Cuba is like. These are only notes on a week and reflections on revolution. I urge folks to travel to Cuba and see for themselves. (The whole world seems to be going to Cuba. Tens of thousands of Americans visit each year, most of them—the non-study group, non-journalist, genuine tourists—flying through Canada or Mexico.)
It was a little unnerving to be in a Communist country and find a staff all in proper hotel uniform. Sure, there were a few problems with the hotel—my toilet wouldn’t flush at one point, and when I sent one shirt to the laundry I got two back. But I’d happily stay there again. (Yes, the hotel was air-conditioned.) There was a little bar in the lobby where you could get espresso. We had a fabulous buffet breakfast with an unlimited choice of sausages, bread, butter, fresh fruit, juice, coffee, potatoes and, if we wanted, omelets cooked to order. Lunch and dinner we had on our own, though the outdoor bar at the hotel served good and reasonable fried chicken. We could go to restaurants—one in Old Havana had a fine meal for $20, with live Cuban music—or we could visit the paladars, family-owned and -run restaurants that varied in quality.
In the Soviet Union, even as late as 1987, tourists could not count on buying a new toothbrush if they lost the one they came with, could not be sure hotel rooms would have toilet paper or plugs for bathtubs. So it was a surprise to find an abundance of those things, at reasonable rates—if you had dollars. The stores were filled with CDs, clothes, film.
Safety: I walked around during the day and at night carrying my faithful camera. I felt safe, even though I got lost. I’m told by a friend who was there a few months earlier that crime is a problem. But comparing my week in Havana with my week in Costa Rica, Cuba felt a lot safer.
Beggars: Yes, there were a few, not as many as in Manhattan. Lots of folks eager to sell us black market cigars.
Medical care: I didn’t need any, but one of our party was taken ill and was immediately taken care of by a doctor and nurse who came to her hotel room for a minimal fee. We visited a medical clinic in the country and were impressed. Medical care in Cuba is considered very good. (The rate of death in childbirth is, if my information is right, not only the lowest in Central and Latin America, but lower than in the United States.)
Housing: There is a housing shortage, so the old housing stock, which had been allowed to run down, is now being rehabilitated. Havana had been ignored after the revolution, in order to get electricity and other basics out to the provinces. But now, with tourism a major source of income, the housing stock is being upgraded, and new housing being built. The images of Havana as an “elegant slum” no longer fit.
Cars and Roads: There are some seriously elderly cars, some almost as old as I am. Cuba has small factories that make needed parts to keep them running. I also saw some new cars. There are funny little taxis that look like bright yellow bugs, and, for the masses, huge lumbering buses that pack in a lot of people The roads were good. We didn’t travel all over the island—we just made a one-night excursion to see one of the towns in the countryside. But our tour bus never broke down and the roads never turned into rocks. For that matter, the power never failed.
AIDS “concentration camps”: When AIDS first hit, the Cuban government put all those who had it into hospitals. Two things should be understood. First, Cuba had little medicine, and it had no answer to the AIDS crisis. The only way it could think of stopping the spread of AIDS was to quarantine the victims. (This policy, I’m told, has been sharply modified, with most patients being permitted home visits and with some returning to their neighborhoods). Second, until well into the last century, U.S. policy toward tuberculosis patients was to do exactly the same thing—quarantine them. Beware of Yankee self-righteousness.)
the Big Ones
After the collapse of the Soviet Union there were extremely hard times in Cuba. One friend, guiding me through the streets of Old Havana, noted the pigeons and said, “Ah, the pigeons are coming back—during the ‘special period’ they were being eaten.” (The “special period” was the time when Soviet aid had ended and there were severe shortages of everything, including food and medicine.)
To deal with this, the Cuban Communist Party now encourages tourism. The only “iron curtain” obscuring Cuba is the idiotic (and harmful) U.S. policy of sanctions and travel restrictions ignored by all the world and a great many people from the United States. (The can of Coke you can buy for a dollar is imported from Mexico.)
But the tourist trade has meant a dual economy. Times are still hard for Cubans. Many work two jobs to survive (sound a little like this country?). If you are paid in pesos, there is much you can’t afford. If you can get dollars—either from relatives in Miami or from work in the tourist economy—then you can buy pretty much whatever a tourist can buy. It is inevitable that, while taxi drivers are supposed to report their tips, not all their tips will be reported. It is inevitable that a few young men and women will enter the sex trade for dollars. A government doctor in the provinces is paid a barely living wage, if that. But those who have access to dollars can make it. (One tour guide admitted that he sent his daughters to the Catholic Church for breakfast, saying they could eat better there than at home). What kind of socialism is it when, if you have access to dollars you are rich, and if you don’t, you are economically marginal?
After Fidel: Fidel looked fine on May Day, as he strode to the outdoor podium, with minimal visible security, and made a brief, effective speech. But he’s getting old. I saw him on television (the hotels get several Western stations, including CNN, along with Cuban stations), and he looked healthy but genuinely elderly. Someone I talked with said, “I worry that he has begun to ramble when he talks.”
Recently, after a fainting spell, he indicated that he had chosen his not-much-younger brother, Raul, to succeed him. That decision should not be Fidel’s—it belongs at least to the Communist Party, and more properly to the Cuban people. And of course, the Communist Party, tropical as it may be, does still have a monopoly on power. There are other voices in Cuba and they are not easily heard. They have no press. They have no legal organization. The Communist Party is like the 900-pound gorilla in your living room—even if it doesn’t actually repress you, you can’t quite ignore it.
So I repeat—go see for yourself. The ritzy hotels (which ours wasn’t) can compete with any in the world. Go with your own list of questions. (One good hard question to ask is why Cuba still has capital punishment. It’s bad enough that we have it, but for a Communist state to have it is intolerable.) Contact Common Ground, the travel agency that took care of my trip: 55 Norfolk St., Cambridge, MA 02139; firstname.lastname@example.org. For a political background, if you have a computer, download two articles on Cuba from www.lehman.cuny.edu/depts/latinampuertorican/latinoweb/Cuba/twoviews.htm. One is by an American Trotskyist who is Cuban and lives in the United States, the other by a British socialist. They are differing views, and good. And I suggest renting the movie Strawberry and Chocolate, about a gay Cuban artist who falls in love with a square young Cuban Communist. It will give you a very good idea of what Havana looks like.
As for me, I’d love to go to Havana again and see all the things I missed, ask all the questions I should have. Perhaps in January or February … I’m brushing up on my Spanish.
David McReynolds, who ran for the presidency on the Socialist Party ticket in the 2000 election, was on the staff of the War Resisters League from 1960 through 1999.
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