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CUBA: Back to Havana

After an extensive 9 day overview around the western half of Cuba, it’s time to head back to Havana. We cross broad flat farmlands along the Autopista Nacional, with a plume of smoke in the distance that is probably where someone is burning off debris from the sugar harvest. There are billboards extolling the commercial benefits of local port services. And we share the highway with a variety of other vehicles, besides all those classic 1950s cars.

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 RH5We stop for a lunch break at a perky little roadside cafe, in a setting of verdant orchards, that would not look out of place in many other countries. We order a round of delicious Cubanos, of course, and do our best carnivore act. We can finish off with a fine Cuban cigar, although none of us succumb to the urge.

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There’s also a well-loved 1970s-80s Moskvitch-AZLK 2140 4-door parked near our table. Its fine detailing and proud red color bring a smile to the gear-heads among us.

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Soon we’re back in the bus for the last leg of our trip, passing a few ‘Don’t drink and drive’ signs, and a toll booth, on our way to the picture-worthy outskirts of Havana. We’ll be afoot in the city once more, and sorry to bid a fond goodbye to Willie, our affable and dependable bus driver.

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The modest and comfortable La Hostal ‘Gárgola’ will be our rest-up for the night. It’s been a good long day and most of us are ready for a kick-back before a final night on the town. A scroll on the wall tells the legend of the gargola, and assures us we´ll be safe here 

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And the big final event of the Tour will be an evening at Legendarios del Guajirito, a showroom featuring the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Tropicana, along with some current members of the famous Buena Vista Social Club.

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It’s likely that many non-Cubanos had never heard of the Buena Vista Social Club before Ry Cooder brought this trove of Cuban talent to the world stage with his 1997 Grammy Award winning music CD. And the 1999 Academy Award-nominated documentary film directed by Wim Wenders gave these forgotten artists an even bigger audience. Ry Cooder was later fined by the US government $25,000 for his ‘crimes.’ He had violated several spiteful laws, and made history in the process.

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The Cuban trade embargo, dating from the Eisenhower Administration, is the longest such embargo in modern history. It began in 1958 as a ban on the sale of arms to the repressive Batista regime. It was reinstated as a trade embargo after Fidel Castro nationalized the US-owned oil refineries without compensation, and it has long been criticized by a wide range of political factions. 

“The embargo has been a failure by every measure. It has not changed the course or nature of the Cuban government. It has not liberated a single Cuban citizen. In fact, the embargo has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit more free. At the same time, it has deprived Americans of their freedom to travel and has cost US farmers and other producers billions of dollars of potential exports.”
– Daniel Griswold, The Cato Institute

“We seem to think it's safe to open the door to a billion communists in China but for some reason, we're scared to death of the Cubans.”
– George McGovern

In 2005, even former US Secretary of State George P Shultz, called the embargo “insane.”

As for me, I’m still trying to understand a US foreign policy that would lavishly support murderous regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries – to the tune of billions of dollars annually – while Cuba somehow remains a pariah. The hypocrisy is outrageous.

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 RH24And so, for our final big event in Havana we clamber up a winding stairway to the current location of the famous Buena Vista Social Club and settle in for an excellent evening of dinner, ample mojitos, and a rousing show. Such past stars as Compay Segundo, Rubén Gonzales, and Ibrahim Ferrer (“Los Superabuelos”) who were made world-famous by that 1999 movie, are no longer with us. Yet the evening still features some of the best musicians and cultural treasures on the contemporary Cuban scene and the ever-evolving Buena Vista Social Club.  

Following a 2007 performance in London, Howard Male, a reviewer at The Independent, described the ensemble as "something of an anomaly in music business terms, due to their changing line-up and the fact that they've never really had one defining front person", adding, "It's hard to know what to expect from what is more of a brand than a band." (Wikipedia)

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 RH32So drinks and dinner are served
– and one of our members finds her way onto the stage as the show begins. We’re not at the original 1930s location because, as shown in the Buena Vista Social Club film, local people and musicians could not agree as to where it actually was. And the Club changed locations several times over the years, as such clubs often do to f
ollow changing tastes in the musical world. But we still got to experience some of the best talent that today’s Cuba has to offer.

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Some of the show members find their way into the audience, while gorgeous young ladies in leather hats make sure we have ample beverages.

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And then most of us somehow end up on the stage, happily doing some kind of gringo quasi-rhumba back to the main floor.

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The show continues into the night, with even more All-Stars on the stage, and finally ends with a final stage-load of talent to help us clamber our way to the exit. Soon we’re back down the stairs and heading for a late bedtime, after an epic last celebration of Cuban culture.

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 RH51On our departure day the morning seems to come earlier than usual and La Gárgula sets out an ample desayuno to see us off. Then we gather our bags and wait for taxis to the airport to catch our flights onwards. Our flight, back to Mexico, is later than the others and we can just hang out with the interesting folk who run the hostel. It’s a rainy day outside, we still have many questions, and time to deepen our understanding of Cuba.

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But Havana still beckons as the heaviest clouds move past the city. People are back in the streets below, including a man carrying his young daughter through the puddles and a bread seller with a large bag of bolillos. 

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 RH58We get about two blocks from the hostel and find our noses buried in the stacks at an interesting small bookstore named “Bohemia Habana.” There’s art on the walls, books (new and used) available in a variety of languages, and plenty of good liquor to encourage long literary conversations. There’s a stairway leading up to the family’s living quarters and the affable owner’s daughter is doing her homework in the corner.

We have way too many books at home – and always need more. I ask for a copy of the poetry of José Martí and he has it, of course. He has an extensive selection and I could have bought several more bags of books, but for the weight limit on our plane.

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It’s still a few hours until our taxi arrives and Havana deserves another walk-around to collect a few last impressions – of ancient buildings, a bit of graffiti, bells in the plaza, a classic Peugeot, another talented street musician, and a soggy cat. 

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We make time for a brief cafecito on a rainy day at the renovated Hotel Ambos Mundos, another of the many local Hemingway hangouts, and we are alone on a quiet Sunday morning. 

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There’s something interesting around every corner in the streets of Havana. So we find a good lunch spot out of the recurring rain, where we can share a good sandwich before heading back to the hostel.

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 RH80But now it really is time to leave and we’re soon off through rainy streets to Havana’s José Martí airport to catch our flight to Monterey, MX. There was a very long wait to board the plane, which was several flights after the one to Moscow (carrying Cuban recruits to fight in Ukraine?) and three to Miami.

 

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 RH88I had packed my walking stick in my big check-on bag so I had nothing to lean on during the wait. Then my gimpy right knee collapsed and I ended up on the floor, so they hoisted me into a wheelchair and put me at the front of the line (on an Aeromexico plane with a notice in Hungarian on the seat back!). At least it happened just as we were leaving, and we made our way back to CIMA hospital in Hermosillo for expert care.

 

But that’s no way to end the tale, with some grumpy oldish guy heading from Havana to the hospital for a meniscus repair. Far better to recall the gorgeous landscape, the outrageous art, the warm people, the infectious music, and a few fine Cuban cigars.

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For another nice ending to our stay here’s a YouTube video of Havana scenes to the tune of “Chan Chan,” perhaps the most famous song from the Buena Vista Social Club CD: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGbRZ73NvlY

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Carolyn's Corner

My experience of Cuba was (as are probably most of my experiences of the world I explore) profoundly emotional. I tend to go in with eyes searching and senses in high gear. I’m less intellectual and certainly far less informed than Perry, who reads voraciously before he visits a place, then stores information like a computer hard drive. I feel. He thinks. I envy and respect his ability to synthesize all this and be rational. But I also cherish the feelings of a place, and here I share some of my feelings from this time in Cuba.

IMG_0687First of all, let me say that I think I could live in Cuba. It would be hard, given the economic difficulties being experienced now. But I grew up rather poor. My parents were subsistence farmers. My father worked a factory job at the same time he ran a small farm, because he loved the land; but it couldn’t quite feed the family. I was my father’s “boy,” and I worked in the fields from an early age. There is something so basic and satisfying about planting and nurturing and reaping that which will sustain you. The rural lushness of Cuba and the tenaciousness of the people who work its soil appeal to me. There is something very honest about it, including all the difficulties.

Examples of ingenuity in the face of adversity abound. At Las Terrazas, a small cooperative rural tourist community, we visited workshops where artists and artisans were creating products to sell in their shop using sustainable practices and recycled materials. I purchased this pad—made by breaking down old paper products of all kinds and recasting them into beautiful handmade paper. The cover art is by the young man who created it all.  

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One concern, though, that tugged at me throughout the trip had to do with what happens to certain kinds of human creativity when there are limits placed on expression and dissent. And I did perceive that such limits exist. You can sense the costs of protecting the ideal, the vision, the dream. For example, our visit to the Korimacao art center in Matanzas was delightful, with talented young people sharing their music, performance, and visual arts.

IMG_0723  The art exhibited was proficient, but there was a certain lack of depth and complexity, and I thought what fun it would be to work with the artists to stimulate their creativity and interpretation of their experience. But when I asked if they ever had visiting artists come in from other places to do workshops or residencies, the quick answer was, “Oh, no.” I was left to think about why.

I also kept looking for recent publications by contemporary Cuban writers — novels, poetry, commentary. In all the places we stopped and shopped, I saw the same books abut Fidel, Che, and the heroes of the revolution. I bought some of those and appreciate them. But what about the writers of today? And when I asked where I might find some recently published works, my question was mostly brushed aside. Finally one young man told me that there isn’t much of that sort of writing happening because before anything can possibly be published it must go through extensive reviews and redaction and evaluation…and it is very unlikely that it ever will make its way into print. In my heart of hearts, though, I am sure there are people writing and that someday their secret manuscripts will be discovered under floorboards, locked inside old trunks, or hidden in the walls.

So, as we began the trip and then moved through a far too brief experience of Cuba, I kept a little haiku journal. I humbly share it here.

 

CUBA TRIP WITH INTREPID TRAVEL

January 24 (Hermosillo)
Stress of last details
What should be simple isn’t
Breathe and stay centered

25 (Hermosillo to CDMX)
Long day of waiting
Uncertain circumstances
Travel to nowhere

26 (CDMX to Havana)
Almost on the ground
Cuba! So long I’ve wanted
Now the chance to learn

27 (Havana)
Day of transition
We walk we see we begin
Now we are a group

28 (Havana)
Reality tour
Socialismo forever
Yet there is wealth

I ask who lives here
In lushly landscaped mansions?
Is there privilege?

While just blocks away
Unpainted windowless gape
Teaming with poor

29 (Havana)
I do not sleep well
Music plays in my head
Gaunt shapes dance

30 (Vinales)
Resourceful Cubans
Doctors drive taxis rent rooms
Smile wide for dollars

31 (Vinales)
Tourism rules with
Well healed and generous
Guilt ridden tipsters

Young Cubans dreaming
Escape to the plenteous north
Seductive culprit 

February 1 (Cienfuegos)
Something missing here 
Rushing through experience
Superficial view

Not built for touring
Ravenous to dig deeper
I could bolt and stay

2 (Trinidad)
I ask about books
About poets and authors 
Where do we find them?

No answer proffered
Beyond “in the libraries”
Where do they gather?

Are there probing minds
Reflecting on the present
Interpreting now?

3 (to Havana)
Back to Havana
Mountainous twist through jungle
Thick green timelessness

Scratch the surface of
This deep resounding story
Still writing writing

Hoy visitamos
La memoria de Che
Satura el país

En todas partes 
Fotos de Che y Fidel
Sabidurías 

Aún enseñando
Los héroes de ayer
Permanecen hoy

Values / Valores
Revolution’s legacy
Written on the walls

I carry with me
Some deep yearning in my heart
For hope realized

But for the dreamers
The idealists, the brave
How could we go on?

—CJK

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“It's good to have an end to journey to; but in the end it's the journey that matters.”
—Ernest Hemingway

And thank you for joining us on our brief but eye-opening journey through western Cuba.

PRW & CJK

 

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More Cuba Thoughts, etc.

Are we being prurient when visiting other cultures? In Cuba, are we peeking into a sort of Zoo of local people, watching their daily activities? And does that also apply to European cultures, like watching people dance in lederhosen to an oompah band in a German beer hall? Or are Europeans somehow exempt? There’s a saying that, “A native family consists of a mother, a father, two children, and an anthropologist taking notes.”

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So what is Cuba today? Is it yet another failed Utopian experiment – as most have been throughout human history? Humans have probably always yearned for some sort of utopia, whether it’s the tribes that first came out of Africa looking for a better place (all of us, really), those searching for a mythical Eden (Genesis 2-3), the works of Plato and Homer, those aspiring to Thomas More’s paradise somewhere in Brazil, the impractical 1820s ideas behind the founding of New Haven, Indiana, or any number of 1960s hippy communes. Given the inherent difficult nature of humans, the endless search for Arcadia, for Camelot, for Shangri-La… will probably always be a noble, if futile, quest.

And many of us have delusional ideas of what a ‘utopia’ actually might consist of, and who it might actually benefit. Working together has never been easy – or as Jean Paul Sartre observed, “Hell is other people.”

Americans pride themselves on being capitalists, but can we imagine the outcry if anyone seriously tried to end all the ’socialist’ programs that actually hold that rickety ship together? Besides Social Security, Welfare, and a few similar political targets, those would also include vast numbers of massive public subsidies that are given to – nay, lavished upon – privileged sections of the business community, and the wealthy. The fact is that capitalism had many tragic convulsions throughout history before it failed spectacularly in 1929 and did massive damage to so many common people. And that’s when the current US economic system became a bandaged-together project of capitalistic-socialism. Or call it socialist-capitalism. Your choice. But it’s certainly not anything like pure capitalism – and we all should be thankful it’s not. Try to imagine all the starving old people groveling for spare change on street corners, as they did in past eras, if they ever got rid of Social Security – to cite one obvious example in that tangled mess we call the United States.

“I live in New York because I couldn’t stand to live anywhere else and because I’m in awe of the puzzle: It doesn’t work well…but how does it work as well as it does?…..A recent report found that half of working-age New Yorkers, almost 3 million people, can’t afford to live here. Yet they do live here.”
– Kaitlyn Tiffany, The Atlantic

At the present time, the Cuban experiment appears to be evolving in a direction where individual ideas are given rein to craft a variety of solutions to portions of the endless problem of humans living and striving together to achieve a sort of workable society. It’s likely that no society in history has ever solved the messy problem of getting humans to agree on a group vision, and that may be the grand challenge that faces Cuba today as they work to create a new tradition.

“To create you have to be conscious of the traditions, but to maintain the traditions you have to create something new.”
– Carlos Fuentes

So Cuba, as always, will certainly continue to occupy a larger-than-warranted space in the US political sphere. And critics will continue to charge the island’s supposedly-failing economic system for the troubles they are having. But I have to wonder just how many other Caribbean islands are economically successful on their own – without massive outside subsidies from distant former colonial powers. Are there any? And I don’t think any of Cuba’s severest critics will be touting the disastrous economics of nearby Puerto Rico, which has received decades of large US subsidies. So for those Cuba-watchers, the coming years will be an interesting experience, to say the least. And meanwhile, it’s an engaging experience to visit the island.

“All of Cuba seems waiting for something — for whatever it is that happens next.” 
—Anthony Bourdain

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More about actually living in Cuba from Hege Jacobsen. Her colorful descriptions of life in Havana imply that you’ll either love it or hate it, depending on your good humor and tolerance for the ‘unexpected,’ such as power outages, food shortages, and the like. And apparently, you’ll need to ‘expect the unexpected’ when living in Cuba: https://www.findawayabroad.com/post/living-in-havana

As for living in Cuba, Mercer’s Cost of Living Survey 2023 rates Havana as #225 out of 227 locations for affordability, making it one of the cheapest cities in the world. If you have an outside source of income.

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For more news, opinions, diaries, and other writing about Cuba, and Latin America in general, check out The Havana Times. It contains a variety of articles and has been published daily since the Fall of 2008... www.havanatimes.org and www.havanatimesenespanol.org 


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