(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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: Afro-Cubans, Che Guevera, Cuba, Fidel Castro, IMG, Raul Castro, Russia, South Florida Cubans, US Chamber of Commerce, Venezuela