This Other America: Part II, Oriente

Part I

Our journey to Cuba was going to be a subtle mix of work and leisure. My husband was recently involved in a collaborative scientific academic work that required his presence there to see the local Cuban facilities used by his collaborators and introduce them to some techniques. Since we came to Canada 15 years ago we never traveled to Cuban beaches, very popular among Canadians. First, because a beach vacation is never our way of relaxing from work and second, because we are old fashioned travelers, we don't travel for our pleasure only but we travel to increase our knowledge of the world we live in.

We started to prepare the Cuban journey with private Spanish lessons in October in order to be able to speak and make ourselves understandable. Athough most Academics in Havana speak English or French, it is not he case among others across the country where the only foreign language they know, when they know one, is Russian. I felt lucky seizing this opportunity to discover the Castillan language, the fourth I will be speaking and hopefully writing some time in the future. Another interest I had in this trip was related to my father's family history. My Grand' parents having settled in Cuba for about 14 years, the fourteen years it took my father to grow up from a 2 year old to a young man when Cuba was under American influence between the 1920s and the 1930s, the country was always in my mind as the homeland of my father's youth. My childhood is full of memories of stories and songs from this imaginary country, told and sang around my childhood bed by my father with much admiration, affection and always a tear in his eyes.

At the end of the 19th century, the ottoman empire was rapidly declining, unable to adapt to the new political, social, technological and economic changes that started to take over the established social orders in many European and western societies. This wave of change was felt in all the corners of the empire including Lebanon where well informed and educated Lebanese, and some less informed but driven by emulation, were willing to leave their country, villages, family and land to settle in 'America'. I discovered that one of Lebanese-French author Amin Maalouf's family members had emigrated to Cuba during this period and that Maalouf wrote a book (Origins) in which this member was a central character. Maalouf is a wonderful storyteller and I promised myself that I will make this journey with his book by my side. Also, two of my husband's Cuban professional collaborators had ties to Lebanon; one was a third generation Cuban 'Lebanese' and the other was married to another third generation Cuban 'Lebanese' and they both kept the Lebanese family names unchanged.

For the first part of the travel my husband was going to be in company of a Canadian colleague who has been doing this kind of collaborative work for more than ten years now. I knew that we were going to meet all these people in a social context. I wrote my husband's colleague an email one week before leaving asking him if he would recommend bringing some gifts and what are the gifts that will be appreciated given that this is a rationed country and that items that are not subsidised can be very expansive to buy. His answer came quickly: ''These people (the people he was talking about were professionals, doctors, university professors, etc...) are very poor. Please don't bring with you maple syrup or any other Canadian extravaganza. Soaps, pencils, pens, balls for Basket and Baseball, CDs, Musique CDs, notebooks, biscuits, etc...'' These professionals have the highest paid salaries by the government, the equivalent of 25 euros per month...Items subsidised by the government can be bought at very low prices but they are rationed and they are few because the government buys at very high prices on the international market so it subsidises only the most basic elementary needs of its population. Cuba, I will discover later during my travel, is obstinate socialism in an ocean of hostility and embargos which grew to warlike proportions in their consequences after the fall of the main support for this socialism, the Soviet Union.

We were going to spend the first week in Santiago de Cuba, an eastern city on the Caribbean, starting point for the Cuban revolution, close to the Sierra Maestra, and the second week in Havana. On the day of our arrival we were invited to a dinner preceded by a guided tour of the city by one of the hostess's daughters. As soon as we arrived I looked for an internet connection at the hotel (run by a Spanish hotel chain) to keep in touch daily with my two grown up children who stayed in Canada. At the hotel business center open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. five old slow computers were available for internet or any other computer interface at the rate of 6 Convertible Cuban Pesos (1 CCU= 1 Euro) per hour. Internet is not easily accessible in Cuba. The country and its people do not have the finanical means for a wide network at the national level serving the whole country and one has to remember that internet is in the guardianship of the US, Cuba's worst neighbour and ennemy. Cuban universities for example have very few connections for their professorsbut not one for their students. Cubans cannot open a private internet connection at home. Our hostess for our first day in Cuba had a computer with a flat screen bought for her daughter during one of her travels outside Cuba but she had no internet connection, something unthinkable of right now.

Sunday, Santiago de Cuba

We had left Canada the day before and transited by Havana for one night because there are no direct flights from Canada to Santiago. There was a delay at Havana airport on the day we flew to Santiago because of the presence of Haiti's president in the airport. Security measures are normal in Cuban airports and there was no humiliating hand search. However, this is the first country I visit where a wall and closed doors separate the international section of the airport from the rest.

The natural setting of Santiago is beautiful, between the Caribbean and the Sierra Maestra. One hour after our arrival, one of my husband's Cuban colleagues, M., sends us her two daughters and the boyfriend of one of them to guide us in a discovery tour of the old city. It is decided that my husband and his three Canadian colleagues will ride in a taxi to the starting point of the tour and that I would ride with the Cubans. Normally Cubans are not allowed to let strangers in their cars and I will understand later that this is the only way the government, who owns or have a share in all taxi companies , can prevent private drivers from working illegally as taxis without paying the daily 60 euros tax to the government. One has to understand that there are no taxis for Cubans living on the island because they cannot afford a taxi, fares being as high as those practised in our countries while salaries are ridiculously low. But this does not seem to prevent some, we will learn later, from trying to earn money with their old private car and they seem to access the market with the connivence and the benediction of official taxi drivers who can cash on a referred client while driving offcially another one. It is risky to ride in a private car in Cuba and I did so for about ten minutes. The three young people in the car, contrary to their parents, spoke a little English and I spoke my recently learned Spanish and we were able to make a decent conversation. The driver was a mechanical engineer driving a 50 year old Lada, his girlfriend, a history teacher, is specialised in Cuban history and her sister is a computer scientist working on a prospective Ph.D. The historian and her friend disappeared after driving us and reminding us that we should be home for dinner around 8 p.m. We started our discovery of old Santiago from a park near the sea and went up the hill to a renovated yellow mansion called 'Casa Amarilla' that is now the museo of la lucha clandestina (museum of clandestine struggle). In the park, children were playing. When they saw us they approached asking for dineros. The buildings in this part of the city were in decay. However, there was an effort to maintain the park clean. As we climbed the hill in the direction of 'Casa Amarilla', Santiago is called 'The city of stairs', we glanced at houses; nearly empty except for some chairs and a TV set. Many houses had pictures of El Che along with pictures of the virgin Mary. El Che is very much loved in Cuba. One can see ten times more pictures of El Che than of Fidel. There is no personality cult toward Fidel here. Later we would realise that, except posters wishing him a happy 80th birthday, there were no streets, places or statues for Fidel in Cuba. After reaching la 'Casa Amarilla' it started to rain. We took refuge under a porsh of a renovated building in Tivoli, the French quarter of Santiago. French expelled from Haiti after the independance came to Santiago, which is at 150 kms by sea from Haiti. Haiti was the first free black republic in history but is not so free from neocolonialism today. The French who came to Santiago imported with them the savoir faire for coffee plantations, a major economic resource for the whole area. The recently renovated houses in this historic quartier made the rest of the city look more depressing. It was night when we walked to the balcony of Velasquez (Diego Velasquez de Cuellar), the first governor of Cuba, to contemplate the city from the top of the hill. From there we went to plaza de la catedral, the city real center, to drink a refresco at a hotel bar. We walked near a school building which is still relatively well maintained and were told that it was the high school of young Fidel and Raoul, who are from Santiago. We walked the dark and tight streets now animated by little motorcycles, young people and even children, passing by the house of Jose Maria Heredia, plaza de Martes and the many traditional music houses that were bracing for a night of singing and dancing. Private houses were also diffusing their own music at very high volumes into the streets.
Earlier, at Plaza de la catedral, we wanted, my husband and I, to buy a memory card for our digital camera from a photo shop that was recommended by the hotel. We had a full card but we usually keep our memory cards when they are full even when photos are transferred to the computer. In a shop more than half empty there was our brand of memory card offered at five times its regular price in Canada, the equivalent of a six month salary of a doctor in Cuba. I wondered, and still wonder up to now, who can afford to buy this overpriced card. We decided that we were going to use our old one.

At M.'s house, we were expected. It is a decaying three storey house for a four generations family of highly educated professionals. On the first floor lives the grand'mother, C., I will meet her later and in another circumstance. On the second lives the oldest grand'daughter of C. with her four year old son, a beautiful woman and a doctor whose doctor husband is serving a two year assigned work in Venezuela for the Cuban government in exchange for cheap oil sent by Chavez to Cuba at quarter the regular price. Our guide, the computer scientist, lives with her sister for the time being. We had to cross the house on the second floor in order to be able to reach the third and last one which had a terrace overlooking the street and houses the only daughter of C., a university professor and head of her department with her husband, a plastic surgeon and their youngest daughter, the historian. Every floor had the equivalent in space of three small rooms. M. Had prepared a tasty dinner made of white rice, black beans, fried Yukas and Plantains as well as a cabbage salad, picadillo and camarones (very small shrimps). The meat for the picadillo (which is ground beef meat cooked with onions) and the camarones were bought on the black market by the family and my husband's Canadian colleague had compensated for the price. We had brought some wine with us and the grand'mother had prepared a coconut desert. We sat with the only male member of the family, the others busying and eating while standing around the tiny table. I told them I was familiar with the Picadillo because it used to be the only meal my father knew how to prepare without my mother's help. After dinner we went to sit on the terrace to chat with the father who traveled a lot as a doctor, working on assignments for the Cuban government as far as Lybia, and who was able to make a conversation with me in Arabic by using some of the words learned during his two years stay in Lybia.
In this one house, two doctors would have served a total of six years away from their families in faraway countries for the regime to pay back countries who help Cuba financially but need its human resources and scientific savoir faire. We will realise later that the people who are most frustrated with the regime are young professionals. They know that their work's monetary value in other countries is sometimes 200 or even 500 times higher for doctors and they know they they cannot leave because they would not find easily a decent work in other countries. A university graduate in law, acquaintance of the family, was working as a secretary in Miami. The regime knows this state of things and allows professionals and Academics many subsidised travels to foreign countries which allow them to breathe, make some additional money and let the steam out a little bit. We learned also that candidates for immigration are allowed by the regime to leave relatively easily.
The neighbours music becoming loud, the young started to dance and we all followed. In Cuba, one is obliged to listen to the music of his or her neighbours and never to her own music and vice versa because as soon as the neighbour's music stops you raise the volume of your own music if you want your music to be listened to after all.

Tuesday, Santiago de Cuba
Yesterday I was not able to connect to my mailbox. The Internet was slow and I lost one hour trying to connect unsuccessfully. It is hot and humide here. I feel tired and may have started a sinusitis because of the air conditioning at the hotel. Yesterday also we visited Castillo del Morro, a fortification guarding the entry of the Santiago bay in the Caribbean and built by the Spanish in the 17th century to repel pirates attacks on the city. From the castle walls, the city of Santiago seemed more beautiful and prosperous. The castle offered an exclusive view of the city and its surroundings. I wished that my dear son, who was studying for his exams for the first session at college, could have come with us to realise that the much dreaded pirates did not exist only in his imagination of a little boy and that great empires like Spain had to build fortresses to guard their cities from their attacks. At the site of Castle del Morro, two female guardians followed us asking for soap, medication, perfume and many other things. I explained that I did not have those things with me but they seemed not to understand and left us only after their boss came after them with an admonishing face.
After visiting Castle del Morro we asked the taxi to drive us to the city center near the cathedral. We wanted, my husband and I, to make the same tour we did on the first day but this time in plain daylight. The historical buildings we had seen the day before in the evening seemed uglier under daylight. One feels dispossession and poverty in this part of the city despite the recent renovations. I never visited bidonvilles but this part of Santiago can easily pass for one of them. During our wanderings, we were approached by a young man who heard us speaking in French. He spoke a clear and concise French learned at the French mission in Santiago. He offered help for a tour in the area. He insisted he was not going to be annoying or ask for money. As we explored non touristic areas around the center I started to become a little worried. But my worries disappeared as soon as I was able to see through the motivations of the young man for following us: he just wanted to speak French and probably wanted to gain a little money but this was not his chief aim. His father, he told us, a renowned local musician, left the family for a French woman who was visiting Santiago as a tourist and later followed her to Lyon. He does not send any money to his family in Santiago. Alfredo was now 25, a father of a 4 year old and the brother of two younger than him. The women, his mother and his wife, work and earn a small living and he is studying the mechanics of bicycles on half day courses and has nothing to do for the rest of the day. He made us discover more of the French Tivoli quarter and even guided us near a typical grocery store where Cubans buy their subsidised food . The store was empty. A cat that gave birth to kittens who were around her was guarding the entrance. We asked Alfredo some questions about the rationed allowance and he answered: 5 pounds of white rice, one pound of black beans, one pound on oil, one soap, on pound of sugar, milk for families who have children younger than six or elderly or breast-feeding mothers. These amounts are per person and can be bought at cheap prices in stores subsidised by the government. Anything more or different must be bought by individuals with very low earnings at prices set by the international market, which is out of reach of the low salaries of most Cubans except those who work in the tourism industry and receive tips from tourists. Despite all this I have not seen thin people, most Cubans are rather a bit overweight, when not obese. There are no skinny anorexic women. They also don't complain and if it wasn't Alfredo we would not have learned these details about food from our hosts.
When the streets became really dark, I asked Alfredo to take us to the nearest taxi and gave him a tip and thanked him for the tour. He was grateful. He wanted to suggest a private taxi owned by one of his friends and I made it clear that I could not accept such a thing and endanger myself and my husband, giving that private taxis are illegal...

At the hotel that night we dined surrounded by a horde of fat and obese tourists visiting Santiago from nearby touristic locations mainly beach resorts for a one day tour. Typically, these tourists stay one night in Santiago. White European and Canadian tourist males would go to the hotel bar and ask the barman for a female company which the barman would find instantly, having his own network of Cuban girls. I saw many middle aged white men walking around the pool area in the hotel, hand by hand with local beauties.

The day after, I was a bit lost and ill. I sent my children a very emotional letter. At thousand kilometers from me and many seas between us, they were the recipiendaries of my thoughts, emotions and hasty judgements. On this day, four days after touching the Cuban soil, I wrote them:

''Frankly, I don't like the food here that is being served to tourists, what I like most is what Cubans hate most because they can only have this to eat; rice and beans. It appears to me that the revolutionnary regime has made many interesting and admirable achievements in the fields of education and health but it stayed confined in an ideology that is hurting the economy and the people. We should never stay prisoners to one ideology', we should always stay free'

But this was a reaction based on a sample of Cuban life limited in space and time. My attempt to understand the country will be guided by the next logical question: Do Cubans have the means to choose their governance ideology and do they have the means to really be free ? What real freedom is ? Are we, in hte Western free market society free ? More nuances will enrich my first impressions much later...The first nuance is obvious: people speak freely their mind here. We are not watched as tourists when we speak to Cubans. There is no apparent oppression or secret police presence among civilians. I have traveled for example in Syria and I can tell the difference. Forced personality cult for the head of state was evident in Syria while here we merely see a mention of Fidel. And at the government owned hotel in Damascus everytime we would open the door, there was a woman, always the same, just walking the hall near our room as by accident. I did not feel and would not feel such a controlling presence anywhere in Cuba...

And in all this uncertainty I wanted something to rely on close to me. What else can be more close than an engaging book and an engaging story activating the connection between part of my identity and the country I was visiting ? This is when I started reading Maalouf's 'Origins'.
P.S. Read here the latest post from Cosmic about western bigotry toward the Cuban revolution...


Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Beautiful descriptions.

Now we know where that pugnacious progressivism and that thirdworldist maestria come from: the Sierra Maestra


Your Levantine jeddô lived in Havana when it was the playground of the Americas: I would have loved to know the Cuba of the roaring années folles, the Mecca of tropical Jazz and mellow mulatas- and vice versa!

Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

PS Check out this blog:


The boy has guts

God bless him

Since March 29th 2006