Thursday, May 29, 2014

Chicken for Fish

(Havana, Cuba) If you want to find a countries soul ask about its comedy. I asked famed film Documentarian Gloria Rolando about what is funny in Cuba. Rolando has won the equivalent of the Cuban Academy Award for Documentaries. She has befriended young rappers, poets, and social commentators. They are drawn to her. In her Cuban/English/Spanish she tells us about last night (Monday). A TV show called Vivir DeCuento – roughly translated “The Stories We Tell…it is the most popular show on TV and all of Cuba watches it,” she says. We noticed a number of restaurant workers gathered around the TV while we were eating dinner the night before but, didn’t know what they were watching. According to the filmmaker its following has been steadily growing.

The show has a number of skits but, this week one of the skits hit very close to home. It was about Cuba’s dreaded rationing card. There are a lot of ironies about the card, and the native population is more than willing to tell you about them. When it was first introduced it use to have 40 items now it’s down to seven. The state under the Cuban Communist system wants to make sure people can afford the essential items. Unlike a capitalist society they aren’t at the mercy of the free market system. The removals of some items have allowed some Cubans to grow their own vegetables and sell them to willing buyers. The items include rice, beans, cooking oil, flour, milk and meat (normally chicken or fish if you have dietary restrictions).

In an ironic twist, an island nation surrounded by water, fish at a market is not plentiful. In fact I watched a group of fishermen trying their hand along the famed street which stretches the entire Bahia De La Habana. Once again an ironic twist, they were using artificial lures. Why, because to use bait (squid or shrimp) would be the equivalent of using food to fish.

Now back to that skit. There is an old man who is a central figure in the television show. His skit begins with a question, “Should he buy chicken or should he buy fish?” The problem is there is no fish, and the seller asks if he wants chicken? The old man says, "No, fish!" After about three times of asking for fish he acquiesces and agrees to chicken. The seller says, "See Chicken for Fish." This is a running a joke in Cuban society. “Cheekin for Fish.” But there is no fish and the audience gets it immediately.

That same day we talk to a number of people and they have all seen the skit. Each person begins to laugh and repeats the joke, “Cheekin for Fish.”

Alicia Centelles, our translator puts it in perspective. “The humor can crush the balls of the pure thinking…maybe you can find a comedian who is talking about a subject that in the paper or the radio you cannot see or listen to but the comedian says it…people will say the comedian is very brave…but everybody laughs…we know he is telling the truth…he or she is right”.

I have written about U.S. comedy and its cutting edge, here in Cuba it is no different, funny is funny.

We’ve asked our friends in Cuba to see if they can get us a clip, here’s hoping it’s the Chicken for Fish skit because even in English it’s funny.


Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Facts versus Reality in Cuba

(5/24/14) I wanted to wait and publish this but, I think its important you get a since of what I was experiencing in Cuba.

 Fact: While Fidel Castro and Raul Castro are the leaders of this nation their influence today I believe is one marked by a historical footnote by the average Cuban. 

Reality: On the ground their power is what they gave to people in an hour of need while industrialist and elites found the country a playground and said, damn the masses.

The Cubans have seen very little of Fidel except for the occasional appearance with a world leader (he hasn't been seen in nine months). I don’t know how many times people have predicted his demise. He will likely succumb to a natural death of old age. What comes after him may be radically altered, socialism which may include some form of capitalism?

 Fact: Going into Cuba I knew the influence of Che Guevera. His writings and willingness to go to war over these ideas is legendary. His iconic image is everywhere.

Reality: Che was born in Argentina. He embraced communism as the bulwark against western imperialism. The former medical student came to Cuba to fight with Raul and Fidel against Batista. After the overthrow he tried to do the same in the Congo but, failed. The irony is he died in Bolivia fighting a guerrilla war and his side lost. Today his image is sold on t-shirts and hats in shops where people make a profit. Isn’t that capitalism?

Fact: The United States would have you to believe, if only there were free elections, and people were free to immigrate, Cuba could join western nations. This narrative paints a picture of things being in dire straits and on the ground things are really bad in this nation.

Reality: Having spent a week in Cuba I have discovered the exact opposite.  While Cuba may have a one party state, the U.S, has a defacto two party state (Hmmm?).

I spoke with intellectuals, workers, and people on the street. None of them turn to me and said, “Help me get out of here.” What they did say, “We wish for a better life (Isn’t that an American trait?).”

Like any large American cities there is a crush of people from the working class, government officials, entrepreneurs, and yes, those who are desperate/at the margins.  It was not uncommon to encounter people asking for spare change near hotels in the tourist district. I also saw resorts that rival Cancun, Mexico and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. This country has many problems but, to put into perspective it’s like that Public Enemy song “Don’t Believe the Hype.”

Fact: There is a concerted effort to block certain cable television networks and the internet is monitored. Certain sites are blocked to keep information away from people.

Reality: In the hotel room, where I stayed, I was able to see not only American television networks (CNN, Discovery, HBO, ESPN, the BBC), Venezuela TV, and Mexican Football. The average Cuban doesn’t get all these networks but, they are very much aware of them.

There is a lot of frustration with the inability to utilize the full range of the internet in Cuba. Among the young the penetration of Smart phones (not Apple products) is massive. At Havana University I visited a classroom, students were equipped with desktop computers which rivaled any major college in the US. In talking with college level students they get around problems with slow internet by sharing information off of flash/smart drives.

Fact: Cuban Journalists are paid by the government to keep/tow a party line.

Reality:  Yes, journalists are paid by the government but, so is the janitor, the school teacher, the police, the department store worker, etc… While I am personally uneasy with this relationship, there are independent journalists in Cuba. They work for NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and are paid by them. There are also publications owned by labor unions.

Fact: The Cuban government touts the fact there is no racism. There is a very unique conversation about Afro-Cubans and their role in society.

Reality: The Cuban government is embarking on a unique survey to ascertain the influence of the Afro-Cuban population in all aspects of the country. We met with one of the authors of the study, a University of Havana professor. Hearings are being carried live on television. We were told the first three years of the Revolution there was a near utopian society where race was replaced by being Cuban. On the ground however, it was and is still difficult for dark skin Cubans to get choice jobs. It will be interesting to see this process unfold.

Fact: Cuba is a police state.

Reality: I know going into Cuba I expected to see guards with AK-47’s the moment I stepped off the plane. Instead what I found was a typical experience you get when landing in any Caribbean country. There were federal officials who were “a matter of fact” when dealing with you. On the streets of Havana the police were dressed in light blue shirts, dark blue pants or skirts and a bret. They also were “a matter of fact.”

We watched an officer signal swimmers out of the water with his hands and they did so quickly.

We were also told not photograph them, the army, nor military bases. Yes, we complied. Lastly, I did not personally witness this but, one of my colleagues did.  An officer carrying AK-47 was following a man into a building. It just happens to be a bank.He was providing security.

On the streets I traveled alone to get a vibe of what things were like on the ground. I am very cautious when things don’t seem right, and I know as tourist you get hit on for souvenirs, restaurants, and that oldest world profession. I did not feel threaten, nor was I uncomfortable. I often knew to keep one of these officers within visual site.   

Fact: Russia’s influence on Cuba is waning and the emergence of Venezuela and that of South America and Mexico is growing.

Reality: The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1982 sent Cuba into a recession. They still haven’t recovered financially but, the country has replaced Russian oil with Venezuelan oil. We were told that two tankers per day bring more than a billion gallons per year of raw petroleum product.

Russia traded oil for sugar, bananas, and rum; what the Venezuelan gets from Cuba are medical doctors and tourism. In the world of trade I would call this fair.

A recent discovery of oil deposits off the Cuban coast has a number of people excited, but cheap Venezuelan oil will keep the taps flowing. There is some caution by environmentalist in Cuba as to what it might do for reefs around the country.  Today a UK Newspaper questioned whether the same collapse which we saw with the Soviet Union is possible in Cuba.

The US embargo on prohibiting companies from doing business with Cuba hasn’t dampened some countries willingness to do business. Building materials are coming from Mexico to assist with the ongoing renovations in the capital in Havana. From Brazil technology; Columbia banking and the list goes on. 

The US can be punishing however, it recently fined IMG (You know, the company the US taxpayers bailed out.) a record fine from underwriting insurance to companies doing business in Cuba.

The irony, there are number of foreign companies prepared to step in.

Fact: The United States Chamber of Commerce is in Cuba. Will they see dollars signs everywhere? Can this staunchly conservative group convince a reluctant congress to ease restrictions on doing business in this nation?

Reality: This isn’t the first time the Chamber has come to Cuba. The South Florida lobby which fled Cuba romanticizes about returning and taking over their former property and businesses. Let’s be clear, “this ain’t gonna happen.”

The President, by Executive Order, could change 50 plus years of status quo policy. It will be weighed politically and that’s a calculation I would make. Immigration has proved a windfall for Democrats; is a Cuban policy change far behind? I will watch.

Fact: It is difficult for Americans to get to Cuba to see for themselves what I experienced.

Reality: Yes, making a decision to go means a lot of planning. You can fly from Canada directly to Cuba, and I met a number of Canucks. The other is to go via Cultural Exchange. Several colleges and universities are sending students abroad to study in Cuban universities (specifically the University of Havana).

Several people have done these exchanges in education, music and art. Mine was a Journalistic cultural exchange. We received special permission to fly from Tampa into Cuba on a charter.

I have never been myopic in my thinking and this trip has broadened and reaffirmed my need and desire to see more of the world.  When I was born my family lived in Section 8 Housing. That child, now a man has discovered a world I could not have imagined nor experienced firsthand.


Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, May 26, 2014

Cuba Calling

(5/26/14) For the last week I have been on a journey of a lifetime, I traveled to Havana, Cuba. It was part of a Journalism Fellowship Tour. In the next couple of installments you'll get to experience what I saw, meet some of the people I talked with about Cuba, and here in their own words why this United States neighbor to the south is more than the Bay of Pigs Invasion, an aging Dictator, and where America sees itself and Cubans see themselves. Some of the post will be serious, some will be anecdotal, and others will be impressions. As always I welcome feedback. Now the simple disclaimer, I do not speak or write in Spanish, if there is a name or two misspelled charge it to my head and not my heart. Now join me on this journey.

Cuba Calling

(Havana, Cuba) The idea of going to Cuba percolated in my mind some 5 years ago when DeWayne Wickham called me to consider joining him in this Caribbean Country. In many ways Cuba has been Wickham’s backyard. He has visited over 18 times bring back interesting and surprising details of a Caribbean nation that some have seen as a pariah and others see as an economic dream.

I heard him tell tales and now I was going to see for myself. Cuba is not an easy country to get into. I’m reminded when the opportunity came several years ago he asked me to spend a night in Cancun, Mexico in order to fly to Cuba. I decided not to go.

These day’s restrictions aren’t as stringent but, when you go as a journalist you get scrutiny. Special visas have to be made in order to get into the country and to practice what is my “craft.” Special permission is given through the Cuban Embassy in the U.S.

So why am I here? I am here to learn, I am here to understand, and most importantly I am here to listen.

Getting out of the States

Even with our group of seven it took nearly 2 and half hours just to clear customs and get on a 45 minute plane ride out of Tampa. We went via a charter on ITT. Our group is made up three instructors(Jackie Jones, Dr. Buriti Kopano, Pam Newkirk) and the Dean from Morgan State University(DeWayne Wickham), a producer/host at Baltimore's WEAA-FM station (Carla Wills), a Public Relations Specialist ( Rosa Grillo whose family is from Cuba/and our official translator),  and myself.

Each of us has different expectations and goals. Mine is simple to find stories that might not be on the beaten path from cultural, the environment and education.

Arriving at Jose Marti Airport it took be back to St. Lucia and Jamaica, lots of water and then an Island. The waters have notorious currents which have taken the life of many a Cuban trying to make it to shores of the United States. The waters were choppy and parts of the city’s famed Carlos Manuel DeCespedes Avenue closed last week because of high winds.

Customs in any Caribbean county is a mixture of natives and tourist. Our group sticks out, because we don't blend into the population. By the time we are cleared all there is left for us to do is pick up our luggage. While waiting a uniform attended asks if we’re part of a group. We respond and our leader is questioned.  Then a second female uniform officer asks for me by name and inquires if I’m a Reporter.  Then she proceeds to ask, “Why are you here?” I explain we will be visiting the University talking to professors and students. That’s when Dean says show her your visa. She looks at it and says okay. Our translator explains in Cuban-Spanish why we are here. All is okay. Let’s just put it this way, being a Reporter in a foreign country, you take your life in your hands; best to be on the right side of the law.


Our guide is Abel Contreras. He is affable and seems know his way around Havana and the myriad of questions we pose as we make our way into city. Like many third world countries there is a certain rhythm when you enter into a foreign land. Here there is no distinct between rich and poor. There is a working class that seems to beat to a different vibe.

The time warp for Cuba seems to center around the 1959 Revolution. Foreign capital is hard to come by but, they have made it work. Our guide reminds us that “Cubans like Americans in the 50’s wanted a Cadillac if you had money; if you had a little bit of money you owned a Buick, and then a Ford.” He tells us by the 80’s Havana was being flooded with cheap Asian and Soviet Union cars (you’ll know them as nondescript).

We past a section of town he calls “The Forest.” This community is dotted with highrise apartments with large wire murals of Che Guevara and Jose Marti. Entering the area known as the Old City, our guide puts a lot of things in perspective. “Most of our buildings were built in the 30’s…our infrastructure needs a lot of help…if there was a question of repair the buildings or feeding the people, we choose feed the people.” It’s a different mindset.

As we pull along DeCespedes Avenue which runs along the Bahia of La Habana I ask about one of the areas I’m interested in during my stay, environmental stability. I see a couple of men with fishing rods. “Fishing, not so good, it comes in spurts,” he says,” a month ago there was the migration of the red fish but, not much now.”

We pass several high rise buildings that were once hotels and office complexes, a part of the western establishment, now occupied by renters.  Memories of these iconic symbols have been replaced with names harking to that glorious time of the Revolution. The buildings are right out of the 50’s. They are reminiscent of a time period when Havana was the playground of the rich and the American mob could keep Cuban rum flowing and the roulette wheels spinning. 

This is also where we find monuments to Cuba's glorious past. Our guide tells us their names as if it were a monopoly board game.  The generals are from the early 17th Century and 18th Century. This section is commonly referred to as Old Havana.

This is an urban district with small bodegas, eateries, and some graffiti. One of the reasons why Cuba has been able to hold on for so long from an American embargo is its friends. In the early days it was its patronage from the Soviet Union/Russia, these days it’s the Venezuelans. Trade with the Caracas increased when Hugo Chavez ruled. We notice him in a billboard with Fidel Castro as we left the airport.  Petro/gasoline is selling at 1.70 Cuban pesos’ a liter (diesel just under a one Cuban peso).

We arrive at the National Hotel famed for its visitors and Mojitos poured with Havana Club Rum(this is the Cuban drink of choice). As we wait at a seaside bar we are treated to a room where photos of famed visitors grace the room. Many of them performed live dating back to the 1920’s. This was the playground for the rich and those who wanted to be seen. It was formally a casino. There is a life like statue of Nat King Cole who played the Hotel but, wasn’t allowed to stay because its American owners were from the south and practiced “Jim Crow.” What an irony. When the Revolution came they honored him by placing a statue to honor his work.

The people talk about the Revolution often and there are a number of reminders from Fidel Castro images to others who challenge authority. Books, posters, and photos are often displayed at these sites. We have our first meal at an outdoor restaurant family style. The staff monitors a whole pig being roasted over an open pit, turning ever so often to get the right texture. The sumptuous meal consists of beans and rice, chicken, and pork. One in our party dines on grilled fish. By the time we finish we head to our hotel the Hotel Parque Central in the middle of old Havana. As we whine our way through streets it’s obvious this is in a neighborhood that is in the central part of a bustling urban area.

“Now let me tell you some things I think you already know, drink only bottled water because you may not be used to our municipal waters. Be aware of your surroundings. Lastly, make sure you put your passport, travel papers, and extra cash in the hotel safe. You do not need to have your passport with you at all times in Cuba,” says Abell.

I then ask sarcastically, “How much Havana Club should we drink?” He responds, “That depends.”

We arrive at the hotel and check in. We are given a cocktail of champagne and fruit juices. We’re told about internet services and other items. We get instructions for the next day and I grab a night cap at the bar with our translator Rosa who is being flirted with and she just enjoys the playfulness of the staff. “That’s just the way Cuban’s are” as we listen to an all female band regaling us with Cuban favorites.

There are English and European tourist in the room and they must find this setting exotic. It might not be Casablanca but, it already has the feel and ambiance of a little naughtiness mixed with possibilities.

I on the other hand have had a full day and decide to pack it in. I can't wait for tomorrow when the journey really begins.


Labels: , , , , , , , , ,