BRIEF UPDATE, September 2015 Next week I’ll be returning to Cuba. This has been my longest time away since 1999 when I began regular visits. It’s been a year and a half. So much has changed since then! The Five are free and home. Diplomatic relations, broken by Washington in 1961, have been restored, and the process Cubans call “updating their economic model” has been continuing, as Raul Castro described it, “sin prisa, pero sin pausa”, which means “without rushing, but without stopping”. There’s so much to be learned and said about the process, which even the most attentive observer from abroad can barely begin to grasp. So now I’m looking forward with great anticipation to being able to catch up with friends and colleagues there, and to share with readers what I can see, hear and begin to try to understand. Below a link to my first extended commentary on Cuba, written after my second visit, fifteen years ago. Some remains valid, some has long since been resolved. Well, enough for now.
Los Angeles, California
September 8, 2015.
TWO MONTHS IN CUBA
Notes of a visiting Cuba solidarity activist
by Walter Lippmann
These are some notes on my visit to Cuba from November, 2000 to January, 2001. Some things in Cuba are very similar to the US, but many others are very, very different.
This essay doesn’t pretend to be a full-scale analysis of Cuba. That would be beyond its scope. These are my own observations, reflections and comments on things I myself personally saw, heard and did. Before and after visiting Cuba, I spent some time visiting Mexico, to get some perspective and to make a few comparisons. I hope you’ll find it useful.
On the final page of this essay, you’ll see links to some other pictures I took, and a page of references for useful English-language sources on Cuba so you can research Cuba further on your own.
WHY CUBA? WHY ME?
My interest in Cuba has deep family roots. My father and his parents lived there from 1939 to 1942. As Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, they were unable to enter either Great Britain or the United States, despite having close relatives in each. The Roosevelt administration strictly enforced a restrictive quota on Jewish immigration. My father and his parents had to wait in Cuba until 1943 before obtaining permission to enter the US. I was born in New York City in 1944. (A good history of the Jewish experience in Cuba is Robert M. Levine’s 1993 Tropical Diaspora (ISBN:0-8130-1218-X). There’s also a novel which eloquently evokes the time when my father lived in Cuba, Passing Through Havana, by Felicia Rosshandler (ISBN: 0-312-59779-7).
My father took me to Cuba in August, 1956. We visited his old residence and met some of his old friends. I don’t remember much about it except that Cuba was a very hot and sticky place. (I was only 12 at the time.) We stayed briefly at the Hotel Nacional, and after that we moved to a smaller hotel. We traveled to Pinar del Rio with one old friend, John Gundrum, also a German immigrant, but one who’d never left Cuba.
In November, 2000 I made my second visit to Cuba as an adult. I’d spent three weeks there in late 1999, on a delegation of yoga teachers and students meeting and practicing with our Cuban counterparts. I knew more than most in the US about this Caribbean nation. I’ve read a lot of Cuban history, and followed Cuban affairs closely. Now I wanted to take a much closer look.
How do Cubans actually live, day-to-day? I wanted to get a sense of how they work, their likes, dislikes and so on. It’s one thing to hear and read about a place, in the media (Cuba is terrible place! People are dying to leave!) or, on the other hand, uncritically favorable accounts among the few left media sympathetic to Cuba.
My Spanish is limited, so I often had to depend on bilingual friends and acquaintances for answers and directions. During my 31-year career as a social worker for Los Angeles County, I learned some simple “street Spanish,” but not enough to carry on a complex conversation. I met many who speak, and wanted to practice, English, so I was able to get answers to my many questions.
In Havana I stayed with a Cuban family I’d met in 1999. One family member had recently quit the public sector job he’d had for 13 years, and entered self-employment. He translates Cuban TV scripts from Spanish into English as an independent contractor. Cuba hopes to sell these to providers like the Discovery Channel. He also translates for visiting journalists and filmmakers. Weeks before my arrival he’d worked with Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, filming the Washington, D.C. ballet’s visit to the country. His mother is an engineer working for a government ministry. She belongs to the Cuban Communist Party. I didn’t pay rent, but bought the food and other items for the family. I often shopped and sometimes cooked for the family. I don’t think they’ve eaten so much garlic in their lives! (Fortunately, they like garlic…)
CUBA’S HISTORIC GOALS:
INDEPENDENCE AND A JUST SOCIETY
Essential to understanding today’s Cuba is the bitter history of US-Cuban relations. The two nations have had a long, close and tense connection. Nineteenth century US politicians discussed annexing the island. They tried to derail its independence, or thwart its efforts to forge a just society where the interests of Cubans was put first. Even now, most US politicians still act and speak as if they have the right to tell Cubans how to run Cuba. The revolution led by Fidel Castro and his compañeros is the most successful of Cuba’s efforts.
Backers of the overthrown Batista dictatorship were welcomed to the US. Washington opposed Cuban efforts to take control over national resources from foreign (mostly US) companies. It has opposed, and tried to turn back, the revolution at every turn. Washington and its supporters call this policy “the embargo.” Cuba calls it “the blockade.” This is because Washington relentlessly tries to bulldoze all other countries into supporting its anti-Cuban activities.
SINCE THE COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET UNION
During Cuba’s alliance with the USSR and the states of Eastern Europe, the island received long-term contracts for its commodities at stable, and sometimes well-above world market prices. This provided the economic and military foundation for Cuba to survive Washington’s decades-long effort to starve it out. Washington had to think twice about military intervention. The island’s politics and economics were heavily influenced by the Soviet model.
Every home I visited has a system of elevated water storage. These are large tanks (think: oil barrels). Water is pumped once or twice a day, from 6 to 8 PM where I stayed, and Saturday and Sunday mornings. Each home or apartment only has a finite supply of water. Of course, this is in Havana., and from what people told me, the situation is different in rural areas and in other cities. Plumbing problems became much worse during the special period because of lack of parts to deal with age-related deterioration of the infrastructure in this cosmopolitan large city. Imagine New York City or Los Angles after a similar ten-year cutoff of maintenance. Duhhh…. post-nuclear war movies give a sense of what it would be like.
While I never experienced a cutoff of water, it did happen to some homes around the city. Large tanker trucks quickly came out and residents collected water in pails and hauled them home. Many people boil or chemically treat the water before drinking. Purification drops were considered sufficient where I stayed. Some travelers I spoke with used iodine, but many staying at hotels didn’t think this was necessary. The most cautious Habaneros continue to boil their water.
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