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Literacy, Transgender, and the Playstation

March 16, 2012

On my last day, I stopped for ice cream at Coppelia, where they had filmed Strawberry and Chocolate; and I went into a children’s playground. The playground, with giant balloon-bouncing rides, was the one place where my tourist currency (CUC) was not accepted; only Cuban pesos worth 1/25 of a CUC. Without my asking, a young mother paid the one peso so I could go in. I knew there would be only Cubans there, so it was worth photographs. The children climbed all over a giant rooster balloon. The rooster is the symbol of the farmer; Cuba wants more children to be farmers. However, they see Miami TV and don’t want to farm.

Now I’m sure you’re all wondering about the fate of the Playstation that got me in trouble at the Havana airport. The backstory is that my Kenyon colleague Peter asked me to take “a gift” to his friend S., a tour guide in Havana. After I agreed, the tour guide emailed me to ask if I could bring a Playstation for his son, which he would pay for? (Tour guides make good money.) So I got the Playstation. But then, the tour guide got a job in Santiago, so he had to email me about another of his family members to meet with me. To make a long story short, the grandfather and two little boys showed up. The grandfather could barely understand my Spanish; but the boys knew some English. I tried to explain what the Playstation was about; that they would have to download games to play on the console. Also, I warned the grandfather that the games were “not patriotic;” that is, they all feature US Navy Seals or else US/British forces invading other countries. The grandfather did not  get it, but the little boy said, “Not patriotic, OK.”

Children in Cuba have a long history of patriotism, as we learned at the Literacy Museum. The literacy campaign was conducted by young people and children as young as nine years old. In 1961 (if my notes are correct) Castro announced the campaign in a 4-hour speech at the UN. Children and youth volunteered to go out into the country and teach the basic alphabet and writing to completely illiterate people, of all ages even over 100 years. They were trained in Veradero near Matanzas, and as some of them left for the mountains, the Bay of Pigs invasion was starting. Nevertheless they went. They used an ingenious system that equates letters with numbers, and emphasizes phonetics. Since then, the most recent revised system in 2003 is used for literacy campaigns all over the world, including Canada.

To be literate, it’s good to have something to read. Thursday we visited the Matanzas Edicion Vigia where people make hand-bound books including paper cutouts. The people making the books were cutting out images and pasting pieces, working together at long tables, rather similar to the Downs Syndrome students we saw before; only these books were much more sophisticated.

The main book featured was written by the head of the Cuban writers union. This book features a trans-gendered or cross-dressing hustler, and the cover features an image of a woman on translucent paper that cleverly comes up to show a man. Sexual diversity has long been a theme of Cuban tourism; outside in a shop there were “ranitas kamasutras” for sale, little frog couples doing you know what.  But now, the Cuban government is also promoting Cuban rights of LGTB people, and even does transsexual operations. So it’s quite interesting that the head of the writers union published such a book. I wonder if it’s available for sale in Havana for Cuban pesos, instead of the handmade version which costs $40 CUC.

Before the Buena Vista concert, we strolled around outside the National Hotel. We found a big black cannon, with a plaque about how it was used for defense during the Spanish-Cuban-American war. A young man approached us to say, in perfect English, that he hoped we understood what a bad thing the USA did to Cuba during that war. I assured him yes I remembered the US ambassador did some treacherous things, although I don’t recall exactly what from the guidebook. Then I asked, what does the young man do? He said he works for the Cuban government TV station, producing Cuban soap operas. He promotes the Cuban system, outstanding health care etc.

I asked him whether he had read Wendy Guerra, who lives in Havana but whose famous books are not published here? He said he had heard of her, but not her books. He asked me, have I read Reinaldo Arenas?

Reinaldo Arenas is perhaps the most extremely critical writer about the Castro system. His memoir Before Night Falls tells how he was persecuted and imprisoned for his writing until he got out in the Mariel Boatlift. To get out, he had to “prove” to the officer that he was gay, one of the categories allowed to leave. At the time, the Miami mayor said, “Castro is flushing his toilet.” But Arenas’ work is now published all over the world. BTW Arenas hated machismo Miami so he moved to New York, where he enjoyed a few good years.

I said to the young TV producer, yes, I have read Arenas’ work, have you? He said “no,” but he knew the gist of it. He asked if I could send him computer files of some of my own books, and others. He could not give me an email because he would lose his job, but “a friend of a friend” would be in touch. Cubans share book files by thumb drive, a form of “PC samizdat.”

Someone mentioned “change,” and I asked him what are young people doing to change Cuba?

He asked, “How do you change things?”

With five minutes left till the concert, all I could think of to say was that a young Kenyon alumnus ran for Congress and won; and that young people had worked to elect our president. I don’t know if he comprehended any of this.

Reinaldo Arenas made a famous statement that, The only difference between a Communist system and a Capitalist system is that under capitalism, you are free to scream. I hope those of us who are free to scream will do so, when appropriate. I hope we will also do some other things–like get that bumper sticker onto your car. 🙂

The plane leaves very early tomorrow morning. I hear that the Cuban outbound airport actually accepts water bottles through security. We will find out, because we sure need to drink a lot of water here.

P. S. Yes, they let us carry huge jugs of water through. The magnetic detector looked like it might not be working.
Meanwhile, AP reports that the day after we left several of the Ladies in White were detained during their march through Miramar,  a neighborhood we had toured. And a major cathedral was being occupied by dissidents.

It is interesting to compare what things different societies consider dangerous.

  1. March 16, 2012 8:39 pm

    Free to scream, ha!

  2. paws4thot permalink
    March 19, 2012 8:58 am

    Well, comments have been a little thin on the ground, but let me at least hang another thank you for the entire highly informative travelogue series on here.

  3. March 27, 2012 9:49 pm

    In Cuba today a protester was hauled off during the Pope’s address. This is deplorable. But it seems to me this happens also at Republican campaign events.

    The Cuban government argues that “any kind of political opening would be used by Cuban exile groups in Miami as a way to control the island.” While it’s a bad excuse, it also happens to be true. In Cuba you never know who is a “true” dissident, who is paid by Miami, and who is paid by Castro. It is distressing, and I feel for the everyday citizens who are trying to dig their way out to freedom without falling down another hole.

    Thanks to readers for hanging in!

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