Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Cuban Interlude II

As a follow-on to chatting with Castro, here follows my journal entries for my first trip to Cuba in 1983.  I was the INR analyst for Cuba, Brazil and Nicaragua.  I'll have some photos in my next blog.

Aug 24: Trip no problem. I found the gate and the flight was brief and pleasant. Jose Marti airport, except for the broken conveyer, also was no problem. Havana Libre [our hotel] was about at the level of the Campo Grande [the place I stayed in Campo Grande, Brazil]. No corner bars or stores. The houses like phantoms of the pre‑Revolution days. Held up by a different vision now. Went to the Interest Section and had a good talk with Ferch [head of the US Interest Section]. He feels a bit out on a limb. Early morn now and just back from a pleasant evening at [the Deputy's] place. Saw a couple from the FMLN on the elevator.

Aug 25: I ran at 7am. Down 23rd around to the Malecon. Had a Granola bar before discovering I could get regular ­breakfast early without waiting. Will do so tomorrow. Three hour meeting with Ferch and group at the Interest Section. Tasty lunch at the hotel. (No problems yet from drinking the water.) Tour during afternoon. Kids after my jeans and sneakers. One said "the Revolution is horrible.” Isabel ‑- trapped history of art teacher. Evening, Floridita (Daiquiri and Bodeguita).

Aug 26: Backwards. I'm sitting here in Santiago de Cuba listening to a volley ball game between the US and Cuba. Its coming in over a Soviet‑made TV that sounds like a machine (does it have moving parts?). Flew here on an IL‑18 too. On the plane, spoke to a historian/journalist of Cuban history going to Santiago for a story and study. He explained that "Yanki" used as shorthand for North American. Cubans don't hate the American people and some of its government. He liked Kennedy. Also said would not appreciate Cuba if I compared it with the US/developed world. It should be seen as underdeveloped. Seen thus, it has no poverty, children without food or clothes, or beggars. Things have changed since the Revolution, no illiteracy now.

We were met by car and driver. Went to El Moro Castle (built 1640). Very good shape. Also, Moncada Barracks, a museum to the post-Revolution housed in the cuartel Castro first attacked and lost. Heady. Also Cemetery where Jose Marti looks into his own grave. Morose. “Death is the recompense for Life” Back to El Moro for sunset. Had to talk our way past FAR guards of coastal radar post to get pictures after closing time. Dinner was more pork, rice and beans (by choice, more or less). Nice hotel.

Earlier in the day: Took a ride to Mariel. Saw a Monument to dead Russian soldiers killed 61‑64 next to a road runway. Also saw tank repair facility, military practicing, etc. Plane ride out after drive back to Havana was hot and sweaty. But I'm a 3rd World’d Man. (No worse than Brazil.) Finally: they do have corner barzinhos here.

Aug 27: I couldn't run today with my colleague. Told him to “go away” at 7am. After breakfast we took a ride into downtown Santiago. Old houses (one over 400 years). The poor seemed to have the minimum, and the better off not much more. (Saw 2 air conditioners in a complex of around 100 “sitas.”) Stores offer the minimum at reasonable price ($3.40 for basic tennis shoes) and little else. Stores for the military offer more at reasonable prices. Stole a soul. Went to Castro's hideaway and San Juan Hill before leaving Santiago.

We hit the road for Holguin about 2pm. A few beers accompanied us, driver wouldn't have one. This part Of Cuba, lush green and farmed ‑‑ mostly sugar cane but also bananas and other things. Once again, even rural poor had basics. Sunny weather and green fields, it struck me that Castro won't gamble this away.

After checking in at hotel, toured Jose Marti School for primary and secondary select body of 4500 (600 to a room barrack style) in huge complex. No pictures allowed, but very Platonic. Other like Camaguey, Santiago and Havana. Went looking for beer‑drinking burro. [Our driver] didn't believe us. We found the place, but no burro (he retires after 4). But had drinks and dinner and talked. [Driver] (39) has 2 children by each of two wives (one ex‑). He repeated that Cubans don't hate Americans, people to people. Cuba is underdeveloped and has to go to others for economic exchange and support because others won't sell or buy. Also, [gays] are tolerated as long as they don't do things in pubic and cause scandal ... where families can see them. Many went to Mariel.

Aug 28: Tired. The drive from Holguin to Cienfuegos was 9 hours (including stop in Camaguey). The countryside is lush and tropical. Very green. The soil near Cienfuegos is dark black and rich. More cluster‑apartments and near Cienfuegos a few high‑rises. Slightly more well off looking closer to the city.

No extremes of poverty or riches. Apparent co‑ops, chicken farms, sugar cane, corn, bananas, mangos and small, small private (?) houses and plots. Castro evened things out and is holding Cuba up in the air. Socialism, while available way of dealing with underdevelopment, may not be able to lead to development. Also, what happens if the plug is pulled by Soviets? At best, progress will be very slow.

Aug 29: One place a day is the perfect place. Things are going better than I was ready for. I didn't run with my travel partner today (did in Holguin and Havana). Had a good breakfast and took the Harbor trip. The harbor of Cienfuegos is remarkable: narrow mouth and very large interior. Saw Soviet ships, etc. They watched our picture taking. We took a short foot tour gave a few boys tic‑tacs. They wanted Chiclets. Some mostly empty stores, old barely kept‑up houses. Still no favalas. Some people in Trinidad (and the boys) took us for Russo. Not always pleasant vibes behind "tovarich" and a few worse. [Our driver] asked me to explain the Martin Luther King march of last Saturday. Asked me why we have poor in the US. I played a bit in answering. He said there are no poor in Cuba, but some do have more possibilities than others. Anyone can think or say what he wants against the government as long as he takes no "material actions" against it. Could 40000 march against the government here? He said he couldn't predict.

Decent beach, which we hit upon arriving./Bicycling on two crumbly USSR bikes./At dinner, food was modest, flies out‑numbered people. Not at all glamorous.

Aug 30: A really nice day. We started with a trip to the beach.  No bikes this time but the car. Our driver found trunks his wife packed without his knowing it. (Made me think of the C.) He also went for a swim. We lay on the beach (actually in the water, where was a bit cooler). We then went to Trinidad (about 12pm) for 2 hours. Visited a museum of old‑style living. The man who oversaw the reconstruction happened to be there and showed us around (heard a sonic blast?). Then a museum of natural history, with the scientific theory of creation given top billing. While walking around, 4 touring Cubans from Cienfuegos (construction workers on the nuclear ­program) called for me to take their picture. They were drinking rum (the only liquid around) and invited us over. One did not believe we were not Russians. He didn’t like Russians -- finger across the throat ‑‑ the others said they did. Another noted I used some Portuguese. He spoke it too after serving in Angola. He had returned 2 1/2 years before after serving three one‑year tours in Angola. He had fought against UNITA and South Africa. He was held prisoner by South Africa (black troops) for two days and escaped. Said serving in Angola was difficult, friends by day were enemies by night. Except in Luanda, where the people know that Cuba is free and trying to help Angola stay free. In the interior, they think the Cubans will stay like the Portuguese. UNITA is an experienced guerrilla force. FAPLA won't fight. Many of his fellow Cubans died. But returning home as an "internationalist” was good for him. (About 30?) He pinned us down as to who we were. Had to take passports out to prove we were Americans.

Took the mountain road to Santa Clara. Beautiful countryside, cooler and misty rains. Coffee growing higher up, tobacco a bit lower. The driver bought ice cream and me and him cigars. Ate it and smoked. While he changed tires, I spoke with two young boys. They shared mangos with us. Santa Clara was very busy when we arrived about 5 pm. Nicer looking women. Everyone looked well dressed and busy. Hotel is done cabana style.

Aug 31: We got off to an inauspicious start. Our driver overslept and the car wouldn't start. But we finally got underway for the long drive to Havana. On the way, he picked some guavas and we all ate some. We stopped by the Interest Section to do some errands. About 2 pm, we took the scenic route along north coast to Pinar Del Rio. We had to stop at every harbor. But the bays are beautiful and big. We toured a bakery. Well received and ate a lot of fresh baked crackers. Worked our way up trough the mountains. Rainy and misty. Very beautiful country ‑‑ sugar cane, tobacco and some rice. Well dressed, well-fed people. Vernales is very beautiful. Our hotel overlooked the valley. We caught a sunset and an outstanding rainbow. We talked about Cuba and things over three Mojitos. After, we saw the Milky Way overhead and lightning in the northern sky.

Sep 1: Tonight the air-conditioning is working! Last night was a restless night of warmth. Wasn’t at peak energy today. We first off went to a cigar cooperative. The director gave us a personal tour. (He may do all of them, but today we were only two.) First he explained the history of the house, cigar making before the Revolution, the co‑op's founding and its record of meeting its tasks (as cigar makers and revolutionaries), how they wanted peace but were prepared to defend themselves (all were members of the Territorial Militia). The actual cigar making room had several rows of three on each side of a central aisle. A reader reads newspapers, magazines and books the co‑op chooses. Leaves are rolled with scraps and pressed into molds. Covering leaves are then wrapped and glued with vegetable glue. We saw leave sorters, de‑veiners, quality controllers, banders and packers. Bought and smoked one in nearby park. (After drinking guarope.) We then went to Cuevas, neat limestone caves and cave‑river tour. From there to Pto Esperanza and finally the Mural. It began to rain and at 3:30 or so we headed back. A drink, dinner and now cool sleep. Lightning outside.

Sep 2: We are really tiring. Its a good thing tomorrow is our last busy day. We’ll give it our last big push.

Started out today enjoying breakfast and our last look at Vernales Valley. The sun was up. As we left, however, the rains came. It was an interesting drive to Havana. No big surprises, but more evidence there are no Third World poor. Flower gardens were less well kept, but soil may be poorer. An unplanned detour took us off the main road (a two‑laner). Only change was some thatched roof houses and no TV. Percent with electricity in rural areas? (Race? -- we note no overt racism in the countryside.)

A two hour wait for the plane to the Isle of Youth, not as bad as I feared. A driver waiting for us. Here, citrus fields, cattle, pig farms and a decent pool (the first we tried) and a so‑so beach.

The driver and I talked of life and politics [before saying goodbye]. He stays out of latter in effort to improve former. (Wants better conditions for los ninos.)

Heard about the Korean plane yesterday, and Scoop and Begin today, on ultra-right south Florida radio station. Weird to hear talk of taking Cuba out in retaliation while driving through the reality of Cuba.

Sep 3: Sitting in my bed, watching twilight come to Habana. It is a real capital. I’ve seen almost all of the “interior”, and this is the one real city. For that reason, it may by discriminated against, or maybe it simply challenges the capacities of the system a bit more…. A flash of lightning. The rainy season is here.

Well, we started the day trying to arrange tours of international schools. There are 17 such out of 77 (around 10,000 students out of a total of 100,000): Angola-4, Namibia-2, Congo-1, Mozambique-4, Ethiopia-2, South Yemen-1, SDR (Sahara)-1, Nicaragua-2. Roughly 500-600 per school in secondary and pre-high. Work and study. Former included orange picking. Toured a small ceramic factory, an old prison, Coppelia, etc. A bit of a disappointment with the schools. Couldn’t get in though we talked to some disgruntled students anyway. Passed on the scuba diving. Saw some Russians leaving at the airport. I said hello. One grunted back “Russian.” I said that was okay, I could still say hello. He said: “Have your ‘hello’ then.”

Tonight, a little party.

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