Two Views in Havana
Yesterday we received two different views of Havana. Please be sure to read the whole post, not just the first part. I am trying to present facts only, although this is difficult.
Our first stop today was ICAP, the Cuban agency for managing foreign visitors. ICAP was started in about 1960 (after most governments broke off relations with Cuba) in order to encourage non-governmental organizations to send people as “international brigades” to help Cuba. American unions included. For example they helped the reforestation I mentioned yesterda. Today ICAP receives People to People tours such as ours. The People to People tours were instituted during Clinton, then suspended under Bush, then very recently resumed. Everything is in cooperation with the Cuban government.
The ICAP is housed in one of the extremely opulent colonial homes whose owners left after the Revolution. Will post photos later. (Note: People who did stay in Cuba, even very rich, got to keep their Cuban homes; for example the poet Loynaz.) The ICAP representative showed us an hour documentary film about the Revolution. In this film, Castro is a hero leading the uprisings, reforming education, etc. from the beginning up to recently. One of the more recent scenes shows Castro learning to use a computer from what appears to be a teen-age boy. Throughout the film, many scenes appear of the US doing bad things to Cuba, from Plaza Giron invasion (Bay of Pigs) to repressive legislation under Clinton. The film does not mention Clinton’s executive actions to reform, and barely mentions Soviet Union (which supported Cuba then betrayed them in 1993). Nevertheless, the list of US actions is quite a list. Early on, most other countries also repressed Cuba, including taking away all dollar accounts in European banks.
After the film the representative received questions. I asked whether Cuban citizens may read books by authors such as Daina Chaviano and Wendy Guerra, who write novels about non-political subjects. (Chaviano in Miami, Guerra in Havana) She said, sure, these books are published. Then there was some back and forth with our guide. The representative appeared to have some linguistic difficulties understanding my question, about Cuban citizens.
Afterwards, we toured an “urban garden” just outside the city. The “garden” is an “organoponic” farm (organic and hydroponic) for vegetables of all kinds. It was started during the Special Period, when the USSR withdrew and Cuba lost 85% of its food supply. Every person in Cuba remembers this period, when they basically starved for a year. They had depended on cash crops and made none of their own food. So now they started farming their own food, using the most inexpensive methods–which today we call “sustainable farming.” There are no insecticides, and monoculture is avoided (as many different plants as possible are farmed). We walked through many rows of tomatoes, corn, mangoes, lettuces. All are watered by irrigation through tubes from a well. The soil is iron-rich red. The plants are all the healthiest we have seen. No weeds are seen. It is hard to imagine how, although my impression is that many people are employed for weeding.
I noticed a sign about “mycorrhizae” which I know is a form of fungi used for symbiosis with plant roots to improve production. The director of the program explained that they use and produce mycorrhizae for other farms too. There is also manure being composted. The director puts in a hand and pulls up many earthworms. Everything in the farm smells wonderful, and looks well organized. A lunch is provided for us, with the freshest potatoes, chicken and pork that we can imagine.
In the evening Judy and I visited an “independent blogger” from Voces Cubanas, with whom I corresponded on the internet. This friend, “R.,” regularly writes independent material about the Cuban situation, and her husband is a distinguished poet. “R.” served us coffee in her home in Vedado, and was joined by her son “C.” Her son speaks excellent English, which he learned entirely from TV programs such as Gray’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives. The son has graduated from high school, and now must serve a year in the civil defense force, defending Cuba from US invasion. He indicates that this activity is less thrilling than it sounds.
I showed them the picture of my parents’ house in New York with the old fallout shelter from 1962. Everyone shared a good laugh about the situation today. Back then of course it was less amusing.
I asked R. how her blogging works. She said she uses the internet in European embassies, because at other places the price is exorbitant for ordinary Cubans. Most Cubans never see Voces Cubanas because they cannot afford internet. R. said she has never read the works of Daina Chaviano because they are banned; she knows Wendy Guerra, whose works are also banned. Her husband does not publish in Cuba, only outside. Judy offers to translate his works into English.
Meanwhile C. is leafing through my book A Door into Ocean. He asks, are all the characters using telepathy? Their speech is in quotation marks, unlike a Spanish book where speech has a dash. C. has never seen an American novel.
R. brings out hot cocoa with milk. C. mentions that he vividly remembers his seventh birthday because that was the day he stopped receiving milk from the ration book. All Cuban children get milk on the book, until their seventh birthday. Thereafter they only get soy yogurt. (An adult also gets ten eggs per month.) The milk R. served us in the hot chocolate was obtained on black market.
R. also said that she has gone two months without her thyroid medicine because it is unavailable. Also, someone broke a leg and plaster was unavailable for a cast. The doctors do not say why medicines are unavailable. Sometimes money “under the table” will provide the medicines.
What does C. want to do in the future? He wants to play professional chess and to study history. He worries that he cannot decide yet. I assure him that most of our “liberal arts” students take a while to decide. I ask him what does he think Cuba will look like a hundred years from now? He says he hopes there will be love and peace all over the world. However he feels discouraged that none of his friends his age have the initiative to work for change. R. says that results of working for change are hard to find. We discuss the concept of “learned helplessness.”
We realize that four hours have gone by, it is late and we need to find a cab back to the hotel. The cab driver (like most other people we meet) has a relative in the US, who he once visited. I try to find the right bills for him, despite the darkness because there are no street lights.