Beautiful, Baffling Cuba-Part II

Note: This is a continuation of the post from Part I--please read that first if you landed on this page.

As a professor of Entertainment Technology, I wanted to see the state of the production art in Cuba, and everyone said that the historic Tropicana show was the thing to see. The show was non-stop, super high energy and very, very well done by even Las Vegas standards. And this is all the more remarkable considering the tools they had to work with. 

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I couldn't get this guy’s name, but we spoke the universal live sound engineer’s language of gear and pointing. He did a fantastic job with his system, which was probably built in the mid 1990's, and has been working in this outdoor theater-year after year-since. There wasn't a buzz or a bit of distortion in the system, and his mix was fantastic.

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I kept waking up way too early, so the next morning I once again headed out to the Malecon. These buildings often look deserted, but then you see signs of life:

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This building is a few hundred meters in from the sea, and I can't imagine how it fares during a hurricane.

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This was the morning we visited the lighthouse I wrote of in Part I; this is the view back to the area of our hotel. The beige building to the right is the “American Interests Section”, which is there instead of an embassy.

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I found out after I got home that all those flagpoles in front of the building were there to block a large news ticker that used to beam messages from the upper floors of the building. 

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We stopped to look at the outside of the Museum of the Revolution:

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We certainly saw lots of police throughout the trip (but no more than in NYC, and there were more in front of the US Interests section than anywhere else), but this was the most overt military-style display we saw, with lots of artifacts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, etc.

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We visited the beautiful Hemmingway house, and then met these lovely people when I saw a market from the bus and asked the driver to stop.

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She was running an ancient version of Photoshop on that old computer, working on a birthday invitation. Earlier, I had asked our tour guide if she had a computer at home, and she said yes. Her children use it to study school topics using CD’s and DVD’s, the way we did in the states probably 10 years ago. She has internet, but it’s so expensive that they have to use it very sparingly and carefully; the same with cell phones. 

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This was not in a touristy neighborhood, and while we definitely stood out, most people were very friendly.

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You have to pay for bags:

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This is pork, out in the sun, flies and all. I guess they cook the hell out of this before eating it.

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Health and safety regulations are a bit different here:

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That’s our bus across the street:

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The next morning we checked out of our Havana Hotel and headed out to the Vinales valley, stopping along the way to see an old coffee plantation. We had several excellent local tour guides on this (and other) sections of the trip, and these are educated, well spoken experts who--like everyone else--survives on tips.  

We stopped in picturesque Las Terrazas:

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The community movie theater actually had surround sound and an ancient 16mm projector (I assume no longer used--there was a video projector too), and was hosting a dance recital, so I asked if we could go in.

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This artist makes paper and then ink-jet prints the cover:

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This worker's T shirt is from a BBQ joint in northern Illinois.

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From our bus:

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Many people do have cell phones, but it’s like here in the US in the early days, where they are only used for emergencies:

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The Hotel Jazmines, although really needing renovation, is in a beautiful spot in the valley.

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After dinner we played dominos and drank rum with our Cuban friends until late into the night. Since we missed the sunset, I arranged for a taxi for the next morning for a few of us to get out and catch the sunrise. It was well worth it:

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This guy lived in the house behind him, and his wife was calling out for us to come in and have some coffee. Unfortunately, our taxi driver had another fare and we had to go.

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We headed back to Havana and spent a bit more time in the touristy areas:

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Travel is important because it makes one understand his or her own culture better; I know that after this trip I'm more grateful than ever to be an American, and I continue to try not to take our freedoms for granted. I never write about politics on this blog, but I don’t think you can go to Cuba without forming an opinion on our embargo. Before I went, I didn't think the embargo was a great idea; now I’m convinced that it’s outlived its usefulness, and is hurting not the Castro regime, but the Cuban people. 

The history of US-Cuban relations is incredibly complex. But keep in mind that our embargo was put in place not because of the revolution, but several years later in response to a trade dispute and the Castro regime's alignment with our old cold-war enemies. Kennedy’s 1962 proclamation on the embargo reads, in part, “... resolved that the present Government of Cuba is incompatible with the principles and objectives of the Inter-American system; and, in light of the subversive offensive of Sino-Soviet Communism with which the Government of Cuba is publicly aligned, urged the member states to take those steps that they may consider appropriate for their individual and collective self-defense; Whereas the Congress of the United States . . . has authorized the President to establish and maintain an embargo upon all trade between the United States and Cuba…” With the utter collapse and failure of Sino-Soviet Communism, is this embargo really relevant any more? 

In the meantime, the Cubans are trading as best they can, with or without us:

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What about human rights? There is no question that the Cuban government has a deplorable human rights record; the Miami Herald has a great Cuba blog that detailed detentions and harassment that took place even while we were in the country. As bad as Cuba is, though, it doesn't even come close to the horrors inflicted by our “friends” like Pakistan (#5 human rights abuser on the 2013 Human Rights Risk Index) or Saudi Arabia (in the “Worst of the Worst” top list for political rights or civil liberties). And what about Japan, which actually attacked us, or Germany, or Viet Nam, or even Iraq, for that matter. We don’t embargo any of those countries.

We didn't talk to Cubans much about Fidel Castro, since he’s increasingly irrelevant, they are stuck with him, and there’s not much the average person--who is just trying to support his or her family--can do to change things from that level. But the many Cubans we spoke to felt free to speak their minds, and they have taken the small freedoms they've been given a long way. We saw all over the country the roots of capitalist enterprises--people selling things in markets, working for tips, starting their own businesses. As one person told us, "everything's in place" under Raul Castro, "we just need money". Ending the embargo could mean a flood of money from Cuban families in the US, trade of all varieties, and US tourism and investment that would dramatically improve the Cuban people’s lives. And with increasing visits by foreigners like us and the inevitable spread of the internet, the irreversible cracks in the information dam have been made; getting money to the people so they could buy better internet access would undercut any power the regime has to withhold or suppress information.

On our trip, We had a fascinating presentation by a Cuban economist who laid out the history of the situation from their perspective. He wrapped up his presentation by saying that today, Cubans don’t want the socialism of China, or Russia, or North Korea--they want the socialism of Sweden, or the Netherlands. Obviously, getting there would not be easy, and there are complicated property rights issues involved with the land that was taken during the revolution. But I learned talking to friends in south Florida on my way home that there is a whole army of south Florida lawyers ready and waiting to go after it.

In the end, the embargo seems to exist only because of US--and especially Florida--politics, although the situation seems to be changing: a Cuban professor of tourism told me that 52% of Florida voters are for lifting the embargo. But Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, whose parents left Cuba before the revolution, and has never spoken to a Cuban in Cuba, since he's never been to the country, except to visit the US base in Guantánamo, said in a Reuters article about the type of legal trip that I did, "This is not about promoting democracy and freedom in Cuba. This is nothing more than tourism ... a source of millions of dollars in the hands of the Castro government that they use to oppress the Cuban people." One new Cuban friend told me (through the amazing Debbie's translation) that he prays every night for the US Congress to end the embargo. God can't lift the embargo, so I wish Mr. Rubio would listen this man's prayers.

Many more photos here and here and here and here.

 

Update 2/3/2014: A friend sent me this fascinating article in the Washington Post about a Cuban exile sugar magnate who is negotiating to return to the country.