Friday, August 31, 2018

60 Years of a Revolution

“We don’t have much, but we have security here” said my taxi driver Julio, as we sped down the Malecon, with the brilliant blue Atlantic on one side and the ornate imposing dilapidated buildings on the other. Even in an authoritarian nation there is something to be said about this sentiment. Coming from a land where violence has been and has become a way of life, where the murder of children in schools is shrugged off as just another dreadful day, it was a jarring and refreshing pronouncement to hear.

Walking through its narrow lanes at all hours of the night, I felt safe in La Habana. People congregating on corners and rickshaw pullers accosting you in polite Spanish seemed least bit threatening.

While people took respite from the heat in their quaint balconies and doorways, men without shirts and women fanning themselves in spare clothing, everyone seemed curious and eager to help. They would endearingly start an inquisitive conversation, which would often end with a smile and a welcome. When I bought a Cuban Fedora from a souvenir shop and later realized from the tag it was made in China, she took it back, no questions asked.

Like any big city, I was told there are neighborhoods you would not want to venture into at night. But poverty for some reason had not driven people to begging and crime at the level you would expect. For the largest city in Cuba, at two million strong, crime is said to be a rarity in Havana.

Next July, it will be 60 years since Fidel Castro Ruz along with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos over threw the corrupt US supported Fulgencio Batista government. Every where you travel across this land, banners, stencils on walls and murals remind you of that day and the anniversary coming up.

The communist regime that was setup after Fidel Castro assumed power is still intact and in control. The faces of Fidel, Che and Camilo are ubiquitous, reminding you at every turn, of their heroism and sacrifice. Not a day goes by on state sanctioned television where the accomplishments of the revolution are not eulogized. There are bookshops in every corner of the country dedicated to the revolution; where one can find the charismatic cigar puffing iconic images of Che and Fidel in all sizes. In the 60s the black and white images of the young valiant revolutionaries captivated the world. It was a master PR campaign, staged and planned by Fidel and his photographer Alberto Korda.

Every school has a little alcove at the entrance where some of these iconic photographs are displayed with slogans of national pride and the flag. School children in Cuba begin their day with the pledge “We will be like Che”.

Che’s face is emblazoned on T-shirts, buttons, bandanas, wallets, restaurant signs and on the walls of the remotest pueblos (villages) of this land. The commodification of his image and myth is so pervasive, that Fidel upon his death insisted, that he should not be immortalized and sold in this way. It is rare to find his likeness anywhere close to Che, but he does show up on TV and in museums as a larger than life figure.

Cuba’s defiance of America, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion the continuing embargo and the numerous plots to overthrow the regime are celebrated as the greatest accomplishment of the revolution. There is a whole museum in Havana dedicated to the revolution called the Museo De La Revolucion. It tells the story of the struggle in massive displays of faded photographs and artifacts. It also spins a narrative of how the CIA plotted to subjugate its people by poisoning their livestock, infecting their tobacco fields, murdering Che, downing one of their airplanes in 1976 and plotting to assassinate Fidel Castro 600 times.

There is no doubt that successive American governments since Castro took power have tried to dislodge him and failed time after time. Therefore the Cuban people do feel a sense of pride in standing tall, even though deep down many know, that the reason for some of their misery is not America alone.

As you would expect, the museum conveniently omits that which does not serve the myth that bolsters the regime.

It is quite otherworldly to imagine that a three-hour flight from New York can land you in a place so alien. Florida is just 103 miles of the coast of Cuba, but the only thing you will find American here are some TV shows and the cars from the 1950s, which have become emblematic of this city and country. They are the Gondolas of Havana and are used as taxis for the public and pleasure rides for the tourists. Some have Russian Lada and Toyota engines in them and others original parts, gushing clouds of black smoke as they cruise down the boulevard. You also see newer Chinese and Russian cars and buses, capitalizing on the absence of American made.

Cubans love their old cars. It is common to see them tinkering with them for hours with their heads under the hood and shining their beautiful curves. It is quite an anachronistic sight to see them in large numbers all spruced up and driving around even in remote parts of the country on empty highways.

While Cubans have resigned to a meager existence with grace, humility and a smile, there is a beaten down sadness you cannot touch but see from a distance. With a determination on their face and music in their soul, Cubans go around their business of living with little protest. Waiting for hours at bus stops, getting in line early morning outside banks, going to a public park to access internet, shopping at scarce markets, unreliable cellphone networks and trying to find cover from the afternoon sun and thundershowers when umbrellas are a thing of luxury, are just a few discomforts Cubans contend with.

La Habana has rich history, restaurants, art-galleries, museums, music, plazas, architecture everything a great tourist city needs to be successful. As mammoth cruise ships dock and luxurious hotels are built, increasing tourism will no doubt offer employment to scores and improve the lives of many, if the regime allows. But at what cost, is anyone’s guess. Already bottled water is a reality and the transportation infrastructure is badly in need of an upgrade and repair. While the public beaches here are exquisite, they are littered with plastic and soda cans, a symptom of progress and a lack of services, resources and education. It is hard not to compare old Havana to Venice as they both have a similar vibe of being architecturally unique. While tourists are overrunning Venice, and there is an outcry to control their flow, Havana is just opening up to welcome the hoards to boost its economy.

For all its beauty and vitality, Cuba is not a free society in any stretch of the imagination. People are free spirited here no doubt. They smile, dance and play drums like nowhere else in the world; their culture is an exquisite amalgamation of European and African influences and their history is older than that of North America as Columbus landed here first.

At the nightclubs people party late into the night, but Cubans are not free to speak their mind. Politics is something they are not allowed to engage in and therefore is a subject that is taboo. Dissidents are jailed and there are limits to what you can and cannot say. There is no free press. The state controls every aspect of one’s life. While some private ownership has been allowed in the recent past, the regime’s hold on everything is as firm as ever. The Internet is regulated by the state by allowing access an hour at a time via scratch cards that allow Wifi access only at hotspots in public parks, upscale hotels and some houses. The eight channels of commercial free TV, only show what the regime wants you to see. As to be expected, the extreme state control has spawned a black market for everything.

Centro Habana, is where the poor live and where the homes are crumbling. Here I visited Demaris, a musician I got to know through a friend in New York. She invited us to her home with warmth and grace. Her posture and perfume was immaculate, as she welcomed my family with a hug and a kiss.

As I stepped inside, I could not tell if this was her house or a ruin left behind by a bombing raid. There were Yoruba shrines in the verandah and congas, bongos and other instruments dominated the front rooms. The back room had a plain bed and a small gangway to the side was her kitchen and bathroom. A pedestal fan with naked blades whirled providing some relief from the heat.

Her home was severely damaged by Hurricane Irma a year ago and the high roof seemed like it could give in any minute. The wooden beams were sagging, shredded and barely holding at the edges. She had inherited this derelict from her father, who was awarded the property for his contribution to the revolution.

Demaris’ home was a ruin, but clean and welcoming. While she had a phone and an old TV, her existence was clearly meager. She had no means of repairing her home. She barely made enough to feed and clothe herself. Building materials and labor are prohibitively expensive in Cuba. The government has no subsidies or assistance to offer. I later found out that her situation was not unique. Many in Centro Habana, had gotten used to living in dilapidated homes.

Watching Venezuela, a close economic and political ally of Cuba descend into chaos and mass social upheaval, I wondered if that could happen here some day. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was in free fall, as it was completely reliant on Russia for its entire economy. Fidel Castro declared that Cuba was entering a “Special period in the time of peace” or known as Periodo Especial. Drastic austerity measures were put into place. It is said people lost a third of their body weight during this time, which lasted four years. Julio did not want to be reminded of this time. Cuba prevailed.

Soon after the Periodo Especial to stem a parallel economy in US dollars and inflation the Cuban government introduced a currency called the CUC or Cuban Convertibles. This currency pegged to the dollar has a one to one exchange rate to the US dollar, but a 10% penalty is imposed if you were to convert within the country, a surcharge for the embargo. Euros, Pounds and Canadian dollars are not subject to this penalty.

The locals use a currency called CUP or Cuban Pesos, which converts to 25CUP to 1CUC. This causes a huge confusion while transacting business within the country.

The government employees are paid in CUP and almost all employees are severely underpaid. Julio, my taxi driver, used to be a radiologist in a cancer hospital. He was paid 30CUC a month. Despite having no rent or mortgage to pay, a subsidized ration of food supplies provided by the government via under stocked outlets, free health care and education for his children, he could not make ends meet. A round trip from my apartment to downtown Havana costed about 30CUC. He said he missed working at the hospital.

On the last day of my trip, Julio drove us to Plaza De La Revolucion (Revolution Plaza). An imposing grand tower stood on one side of an open paved field. On the other side were two buildings with the giant faces of Che and Comilo sculpted on to the fa├žades This is where Fidel made his annual animated speeches glorifying the revolution while thousands cheered.

When I asked Julio what people make of the daily dose of nationalist propaganda, especially the younger generation, he replied, “No one cares. Everyone just survives here. We live under the boot of the regime. They decide when to press hard or when to release”. When I asked what his young adult boys felt, he responded, “Given a chance they would leave Cuba”. He followed that sentiment by saying that “but things are going to change very soon. They have to. And the young people will have many opportunities, if only they could see it coming, rather than give up.”

As a tourist most places seem more romantic than they are. As the struggle of daily life is not your concern, you only focus on that which is quaint and beautiful. Meeting people, you barely scratch the surface of what daily life is truly like. But you do get a sense of the possibilities and an understanding of that which is alive and that which has been lost. Being in Havana at a time when it is beginning to open up to the world, it is possible to forecast where it will be and what it can become.

Much like his many friends Julio probably had a chance to leave Cuba, but decided to stay. I could not tell if he regretted that decision, but he never expressed any deep resentment, just a resignation that is all too familiar here.

It is what it is.

1 comment :

  1. Thanks for taking me to Cuba -not only the place but also getting me to know whole lot about the country and people. Wonderful content writing.
    Keep it up. let more places come under your feet .