Saturday, April 28, 2007


"Nike." That's all the Cuban teenager said as he walked past me on the cobblestoned streets of Trinidad de Cuba, a colonial-era mountain village and UNESCO World Heritage Site near Cuba's south coast. I had fallen behind the other members of my research delegation, staring in awe at the quaint beauty of this pristine village.

I knew he was referring to the grey Nike trail running shoes with bright orange Nike swooshes I had on. Several times while wearing them back in Havana and elsewhere on the island, I noticed young Cuban men casting pensive glances at my feet. Little things like that are constant reminders of a half-century U.S. embargo keeping so many brands and products we take for granted out of bounds for the people of this long, skinny island.

I decided I didn't want this young man to get away so easily, since he was the first to actually say something about my shoes, as opposed to just staring at them. I caught up to him and asked, "Que tipo de zapatos tienes tu?" ["What type of shoes do you have?"] I had to repeat it twice before he understood me. 'Zapatos,' like 'dificil' remains one of the hardest words in Spanish for me to pronounce smoothly.

He said his were jogging shoes. They were some Chinese brand and featured even more bright orange (my favorite color) than mine. The next word out of his mouth was 'cambio,' and before long we were trading our shoes. We lined our left feet up next to each other to ensure a decent fit, then sat on the sidewalk to take off and trade our shoes.

As we walked to where my delegation was meeting for its next tour, I got to to know a little bit about this young man. His name was Miguel Alejandro, seventeen years old, finishing school and training to work as a chef. His favorite sports: snorkelling and track and field, especially long distance running. He said he lived in a small house down the block with his mom and sister (so many young Cubans I met had no fathers at home; many said their fathers were living in the United States; I imagine some fathers were serving time among Cuba's large prison population.)

I asked Miguel Alejandro how he liked life in the small town of Trinidad de Cuba, and in Cuba in general. He told me it was great. Before parting, we exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to keep in touch. Of course, like most Cubans, he didn't have an e-mail address or a computer to access the Internet, but he had a friend with both and said he would reach me that way.

We waved goodbye, and as he rounded the cobblestoned corner to his home, I imagined this young man someday making Cuba proud in a future Olympics or Pan American Games.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Are They Poor?

It's the most common question I'm getting asked by my friends and coworkers about Cuba now that I've returned. Take a look at the picture of a Havana market and the video of a typical busy street on the outskirts of Havana and decide for yourself if Cuba looks like a poverty-ridden country.

My answer is always somewhere along these lines: they have a lower standard of living and make do with less than the average American is used to. But then I always say, "BUT."

BUT I saw no sign, anywhere, in neighborhoods shabby and spiffy, areas rural and urban, of anyone who had "fallen through the cracks." No homeless people sleeping on cardboard boxes like Market Street in San Diego. No mentally ill being dumped on Skid Row by uncaring hospital workers like Los Angeles. No dirty-faced hungry toddlers peddling Chiclets to passersby like Tijuana. No walls being built to keep slum-dwellers away from the well-to-do like Rio de Janeiro. No heartless teens beating a sleeping vagabond to death like Fort Lauderdale.

There were also no homeless shelters or circus tents devoted to the homeless -- because there were no homeless.

So, while communism in Cuba is kind of a drag to live under in some ways, from what I saw it has effectively eliminated some of the things about capitalism that are a total drag.

One World Body's View of the Embargo

In 2006, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 15th consecutive year to end the trade and financial blockade of Cuba by the United States. The vote was 183 to 4.

Cuban Rainforest

Las Terrazas is a rainforest ecological preserve in Cuba's westernmost province of Pinar del Rio, west of Havana. We visited it to see how Cuba is developing eco-tourism as one element of its tourist industry and planning transportation infrastructure to get tourists to sites like these. Las Terrazas used to be filled with coffee plantations, which destroyed the natural landscape. Here's more from the Global Exchange Web site:
"Las Terrazas is a 12,000-acre preserve that was completely deforested half a century ago. In 1968 reforestation began, along with an experimental town that was intended to coexist in harmony with nature. Six million trees were planted with 27 species of hardwood, the hillsides were terraced, and the town of Las Terrazas was founded.
From the mountain mahoe trees that are harvested on a limited basis, Cubans make baseball bats. And in the shade of carob trees grow small amounts of coffee.

In 1985 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the area Cuba's first biosphere reserve. In 1991, the 26-room Hotel Moka was built in order to attract eco-tourists for bird-watching and hiking."

The day we visited, a true tropical rain poured down for the entire afternoon. After lunch, a local family offered us shelter in their humble home. Our tour guide for the day, in the green shirt, was Rodolfo.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

'Totalitarian Police Sate'

For those Americans who dare to visit Cuba, this is what the United States Department of State tells them about the country:

COUNTRY DESCRIPTION: Cuba is a totalitarian police state, which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods, including intense physical and electronic surveillance of Cubans, are also extended to foreign travelers. Americans visiting Cuba should be aware that any encounter with a Cuban could be subject to surreptitious scrutiny by the Castro regime's secret police, the General Directorate for State Security (DGSE). Also, any interactions with average Cubans, regardless how well intentioned the American is, can subject that Cuban to harassment and/or detention, amongst other forms of repressive actions, by state security elements. The regime is strongly anti-American yet desperate for U.S. dollars to prop itself up.

Scary truth? Scare tactic? Some of both? You decide.

Some Favorite Havana Pictures

Below is Havana's main Catholic cathedral. One night I walked by it and heard beautiful choral music coming from inside. I stepped inside and enjoyed a touching concert of religious songs performed by terminally ill children visiting from Venezuela. Only about a third of the pews in the enormous church were filled with concert-watchers.

These flags stand in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which passes for our embassy absent full diplomatic ties. Behind the flags is an electronic sign placed on the side of the building by the U.S. government that conveys pro-American, anti-Castro messages periodically. Considering this propoganda, the Cuban government responded by placing a barrage of flags to block the sign.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Crime in Cuba

I can only think of one country in all my travels where I possibly felt as safe, and seen as little crime, as I did during my ten days in Cuba -- and that would be Denmark, where I lived as an exchange student in 1985-86.

In my ten days in Cuba, I visited a dozen or so cities and towns, five of the country's 14 provinces, and several busy transportation facilities, including the main airport, train stations and bus depots. I walked through working-class housing projects. And, on my own and often late at night (one of the few times I could break free from my delegation), I visited shabby Havana neighborhoods that would have looked at home in some of America's worst inner-city gang territories.

Through it all, I never felt threatened or in danger, never saw a single crime or fight, never heard a major argument (unless it was about baseball). All I saw were Cubans going about their business, chatting in small groups of friends, sitting on park benches, playing chess and dominoes, dressed nice heading out to a night on the town, riding bikes, and, near tourist areas, a few hustling foreigners with offers of cigars.

I also saw police officers, lots of police offers. They stood on nearly every third or fourth street corner, in every other park or plaza, singly or in pairs. They would stand quietly on guard, saunter casually along, pull over speeding pedi-cab drivers, question overly drunk passersby and offer directions to lost tourists. They insisted to see ID cards from all Cubans they questioned and often wrote citations for what looked to me to be minor offenses. They were a constant presence and proved hard to get used to for this San Diegan, grown accustomed to living in one of the most under-policed large cities in America.

I walked some of Havana's darkest, dingiest alleys, almost to dare, challenge and test the surreal sense of safety and security I felt in this foreign country. Nothing bad ever happened to me, night after night.

I was told by several Cuban parents that, although their country's socialist system has some room for improvement, they cherish the fact that their young children can go out and play in the streets, even at night, without parental supervision . . . and come home again safe and sound.

It made me wonder how many parents in some of the worst parts of Tijuana, Chicago or Caracas -- or most other large cities in the United States and throughout most of the the rest of Latin America -- could say the the same thing?

In my opinion, Cuba's unbelievable lack of crime may be attributed to a few factors, including the heavy police presence, fear of imprisonment, less racial conflict, absence of sharp class differences, and a sense of national pride and community solidarity that usurps individual priorities.

I grew up and live in a country where TV news broadcasts feed us stories of murder, mayhem, crime and cruelty on a daily basis. I live in a neighborhood where muggings are on the rise, theft occurs regularly and the best the police can do is tell us to 'be on guard.' I have close friends who struggle to escape pasts scarred by gang violence. I live in a nation where emotional issues related to crime and punishment shape national dialogue, win and lose political elections, raise great walls around well-to-do neighborhoods, erect bars over the windows and doors of less well-to-do neighborhoods, and inject lifelong paranoia into the American psyche.

I had no idea that, in Communist Cuba, there existed a society and a system that had found a way to largely eliminate the kind of crime we hear about every day, and sometimes are victims of, in the wealthiest nation on Earth. It's a bright spot in Cuban society, one I never learned about in my own country, and a factor that the Cubans I met cherish greatly.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cuba Cars

Last Day in Havana: The Pictures

Last Day in Havana: The Story

An absolutely perfect final day of a trip to country one is visiting for the first time is something I have only enjoyed a couple times in my life. I had such a day during the final afternoon (Friday, April 13, 2007) of my first trip to Cuba.

The night before I had met some Habaneros (remember, citizens of Havana) on the Malecon. I struck up a long conversation with one of them, Carlos, and we spent a few hours walking the Malecon talking about life in Cuba, etc. The next day he agreed to meet me at my hotel following my delegaton research acitvities for the day. He wanted to show me his favorite spots in Old Havana.

Since you can't use American credit cards in Cuba, I had to bring all the money I thought I'd need to spend with me. I underestimated slightly and was now left with just three Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUCs), or about three dollars U.S. One CUC is worth about a dollar and is equivalent to about 20 normal Cuban pesos. Put another way, a normal Cuban peso is worth about a nickel. Tourists are generally required to use the CUCs, and Cubans use the normal pesos. For example, a bottle of water that costs a tourist two CUCs will cost a Cuban citizen two normal pesos -- two dollars for me and 10 cents for the Cuban citizen.

Well when I met Carlos the next afternoon, we decided to make the most of my three remaining CUCs. He handed them to a street vendor and received 60 normal pesos back. With this, we spent the afternoon eating and visiting sites in the narrow, noisy, crowded, crumbling streets of Old Havana:

-- First stop was at a kiosk where we bought a yummy Cuban confection made from peanut butter.

-- It made us thirsty so we hunted for cold soda. "No frio" was the only answer we got at several storefronts and kiosks. No refrigeration or ice meant the only sodas they had were warm.

-- We made our way to Carlos's favorite lunch place in the area, Cafe Habana. He introduced me to two Cuban dishes I hadn't seen before: "crema de queso" and "papas fritas con huevos" -- a bowl of thick creamy soup of melted cheese, followed by paper-thin french fries served over a fried egg. Both were filling and yummy.

-- Our next destination was "La Casa Natal de Jose Marti" -- the birthplace of Cuba's George Washington, Jose Marti. On the way, we passed a few of Carlos' friends on the streets, accepting a shot of Cuban rum here and there (a typical greeting between friends on the street) and dodging uniformed Cuban schoolchildren heading to class.

-- We toured Jose' Marti's home and learned a lot about the life of this 19th century Cuban who died in battle against Spain fighting for Cuban independence. Inside, a young Cuban military officer was tenderly explaining some of the exhibits to his little daughter. Here is a nation, I thought, ignored, denigrated and demonized by my government for half a century, that has a proud history and rock-solid patriotic tradition all its own.

-- Across the street from the Marti birthplace, we walked to Havana's impressive central train station, designed by an American architect, bustling with Cubans from all walks of life heading to various parts of the island. Next to the train station, we passed a surviving section of the huge Spanish-built wall that once surrounded all of Old Havana. Groups of Cuban teens played impromptu games of baseball, using the wall as their backstop.

-- It started to rain so we moved on and came upon an ice cream stand. We ordered soft-serve strawberry/vanilla twist cones that were so yummy we got two each. A group of four elementary school kids passed by and Carlos sung a bit of a song from a popular Cuban kid's show, which got their attention. Some funny comments I didn't understand were exchanged, and as we left Carlos flipped the kids a couple pesos each.

-- By now it was getting late in the afternoon and we started to head back to my hotel so I could meet my delegation for the farewell briefing and dinner. We passed a bar and Carlos said, "How about some rum?" As we toasted to friendship between the United States and Cuba, I eyed a black-and-white framed photo of Che Gueverra hanging on the wall behind the bar. Turned out this had been one of Che's hangouts.

-- With a few minutes to kill, Carlos and I found a bench and hung out in the park across the street from my hotel. A police officer with a police dog in tow took up position a few feet from us, surveying the park. I took a picture of the pair and thought nothing more of it, until I started to thank Carlos for his hospitality ... "Gracias por todo." He motioned for me to be quiet as he glanced over to the police officer. Perhaps he didn't want my American accent to raise any suspicions. An old man selling newspapers sauntered by, and I bought the day's issue of Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) from him.

-- When the time came to bid Carlos farewell, I thanked him for showing me his city. I told him I hoped he would be careful and safe during the changes that are likely to come to Cuba over the coming months and years. We promised to write each other, not sure how soon our letters would reach each other; Carlos reminded me that letters between him and a half-brother in Los Angeles sometimes take a week, sometimes a month.

-- Carlos reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick wad of Cuban peso bills -- the leftovers of the three CUCs I originally gave him to convert. I couldn't believe we had spent a whole afternoon eating, drinking, museum-visiting, newspaper-buying and throwing coins at kids -- and still had this many pesos left! He handed the money back to me. I was touched by this gesture from someone who must have far less money than I. I told him to please keep it. I felt so cheap, knowing all that money in his hand probably amounted to no more one U.S. dollar. But I knew it would go a lot farther for Carlos.

Carlos showed me kindness emblematic of that exhibited by virtually all the Cubans I met on this trip. But with him, I think I achieved my goal of finally meeting a local Cuban I can truly call 'amigo.'


". . . the majority of Cubans support Castro . . . the only foreseeable means of alienating [this] internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship . . . Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba . . . a line of action which makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government."

-- Declassified April 6, 1960 memo by U.S. State Department's Lester D. Mallory, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American

Canine Carousing in Cuba

Two Cuban street dogs having fun in front of a Havana movie theater, Friday, April 13, 2007. At the end of the video, I tell my Cuban friend Carlos, in Spanish, "They are friends, like you and I," and he answers, "Like you and I."

Canine Cuba

This precious pooch reminded me SO much of a beloved family dog we had for a very long time named Annie:

Dogs are everywhere in Havana and the other cities and towns of Cuba. Some of them homely and skinny, others healthy and happy, most of them on the small side. They walk the sidewalks and lounge on street corners and stoops just like people, usually without any 'owners' in site. People feed them scraps from time to time, and only tourists (like me) seem to take pictures of them.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cuba Caring

This is the Latin American School of Medicine (known by its Spanish acronym ELAM) on the Caribbean coast on Havana's western edge. According to Wikipedia:

"Established in 1999 and operated by the Cuban government, ELAM has been described as possibly being the largest medical school in the world by enrollment, with approx. 12,000 students from 29 countries reported as enrolled in 2006/early 2007. All those enrolled are international students from outside Cuba and mainly come from Latin America and the Caribbean as well as Africa. The school also accepts students from the United States - 91 were reportedly enrolled as of January 2007. Tuition, accommodation and board are free, and a small stipend is provided for students.

I learned that currently many of the school's graduates and students serve time in Haiti, helping the poor in that country with critical health care needs. Haiti is one of numerous countries in the developing world to benefit from the medical expertise of ELAM. Cuban and Cuban-trained doctors have also responded to major natural disasters, such as earthquakes and the Indonesian tsumani.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Cuba offered to send more than 1,500 doctors to help with recovery efforts. You can read a USA Today story about that here. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice thanked other nations but completely ignored Cuba's offer. Cubans told me their doctors, equiped with backpacks full of medical supplies and ready to depart Havana, could have reached New Orleans far more quickly than did significant rescue assistance from Washington D.C.

Whither the People?

I asked many, many Cubans I met, 'How is your life in Cuba?' Answers ranged from those like the ones given by my young friends William and Guillermo ('desperate for change') to expressions of deep love and gratitude for what the Cuban Revolution has brought, to places in between (the system has its problems but it has done good things for Cuba too). I was impressed by the numerous older people, in the cities and the countryside, who told me that the Revolution gave them a better life, lifted them out of poverty, and provided dignity to the country's poor, particularly in the countryside. 'We would never go back to the way it was before 1959' was a common sentiment. More on this topic to come.

Instead of Capitalist Ads Everywhere . . .

Those intimately familiar with my poetry ('The Better Beggar') know I'm not a big fan of the deluge of corporate advertising that surrounds and pervades the life of average Americans on a daily basis. My trip to Cuba has allowed me to experience 10 days in a row with virtually no exposure to corporate billboards, TV or radio advertising, bus-stop ad banners, ad-wrapped buses, or virtually any noticeable type of corporate and 'name-brand' advertising anywhere. Unless, of course, the name brand is socialism and the Cuban revolution. These pictures are just a small sample of what Cubans see all around them. These kinds of messages appear roadside in the cities and countryside, pop up on the sides of buildings seemingly around every corner, and even as grafiti scrawled on the walls of working-class neighborhoods. I don't have time to translate them right now (though will try to add translations later), so if you know Spanish or
have a Spanish/English dictionary . . .

To be explained in a future posting . . .

These are the 'Cuban Five' -- Cubans imprisoned in the United States following what some feel were unfair trials for espionage. Google them.