Cuba, 2016

75th Portrait

My whole Cuban trip has been chaotic.

A year ago I conceived of going there with my Austrian friend Leo Gabriel, a well-known diplomatic figure in Latin America. Leo arranged an invitation for us both to speak at a conference in Havana at the end of January 2016. It was called Con Todos y Para el Bien de Todos, “with all and for the well being of all”. This, as I learned, is the real spirit of socialism.

The very idea of going to a “communist” country made me revert to default behaviors learned in the 60s and 70s as I traveled through the countries behind the Iron Curtain to check out how Marxism was faring in practice. One basic rule: never go into such a country without proper papers and a valid visa. But the manana Caribbean is different. I should have been issued a visa as guest of the conference organizers, but despite much activity between Cuban consulates in Austria and America, the official visa never came. Leo kept assuring me that in Latin America, things are always chaotic until the last minute when it all comes together.

Waiting at home in California, I did not know from one day to the next if I would be able to go. Only two nail-biting days before departure was I told I would have permission to enter. To this day, I am not clear as to who enforced the visa business: whether the US government didn’t want its citizens going there, or whether Cuba wanted to keep Americans out. Somehow I was able to slip through the crack between these two, by what turned out to be a very historical event: I entered Cuba on what was in effect the first tourist visa issued to an American .

From the onset of this daily upset, chaos enveloped the trip. The whole project was contrary to the way I have come to live in 75 years, everything planned out and ordered. In fact the most useful advice came from an Arica friend who advised one thought: Embrace chaos. It worked. From that point on I remained above it all, maintaining a vestige of serenity and following the chaotic flow.

All my attention had been focused on permission to enter the country. Once I got there, apart from the conference, I had no plans, no agenda. I left it up to Leo and continued my embrace of chaos: be open to whatever presents itself and improvise. Just see where things are going and go that way. It has been a lesson in faith, an object lesson in following the Dao, or God’s will as the case may be. The result has been magical.

The most remarkable aspect of this was the appearance of angels who carried me forward at every juncture.

The archangel Gabriel was Leo, who has been a beloved friend since we were enfants terrible — junior fellows together — at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Montecito California. Since then he has become well-known and much loved by the intellectual Left of Latin America. Over the years he has resolutely encroached upon my inveterate privilege by awakening me to the injustices in Latin America to which he has devoted much passion in his life. A few years ago, when I made a long cruise around South America, he assigned me an extraordinary account, equally scholarly and poetic, of the history of South American exploitation. It is called The Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano. By the end of the trip, when debarking from my floating luxury hotel into the last port of call in Mexico, I could hardly bear the sight of brown people behind barriers desperately trying to sell me their trinkets. Since then the archangel has been trying to get me south of the border once again.

Leo watched over me the entire trip, and we had a great adventure together, a landmark in our long and colorful friendship.

Other angels appeared the first day. With so many irregularities regarding my visa I thought I may not even make it into Cuba. When the consulate in DC issued a tourist visa, I was instructed to show my letter of introduction and change the visa at the border. I would never have entered a communist country in Europe under these circumstances. At 4 am in Miami, in the line for the flight to Havana after a sleepless red-eye from California, I was trembling at my iffy situation, when the first angel appeared just in front of me. Mayra is a retired cop/detective with a golden heart, gradually moving back to Cuba and traveling there with her Cuban Mother. Their luggage, like that of all returning Cubans, was heaped with US goodies to set up her household. She reassured me at every stage of the whole iffy process: visa, check in, security. Finally, at Immigration in Havana airport, with Mayra at my side, I wassteeling my case to negotiate a different visa. But then they just waved me through. You’re through! Mayra exclaimed. More angst at customs, but finally she releases me into Leo’s hands at the airport.

The next day the US government announced that tourist visas are now to be issued. Probably I have been the accidental first. Apres moi la deluge.  That deluge of American tourism will change everything. This was actually the reason I wanted to come to Cuba now.

A second angel was Josefina. Leo and I were guests in her apartmen, though she was staying elsewhere. She seems the heart of the revolution. tJoyous, loud and always wearing all red, she is clearly beloved by all the honchos. Her idea of solidarity is to kiss everyone you encounter, including your taxi driver. By the second day I was already having tummy problems. She had the pills.

A third angel was Rudy, a dropout German philosophy prof from Strasbourg. Leo and I met him the first day in the registration line. He lives in Havana and has many profound and interesting reflections to impart. He basically takes care of us, to the point of washing my clothes for me, by then somewhat solid from perspiration. (Laundries don’t exist),

 

When Leo met me, I was in a wired daze. As we drove from the airport in an ancient Lada taxi (forget shock absorbers), it seemed like a parallel reality, a near ruin. All was incredibly funky.  Leo explained that this is a direct result of the American blockade on any trade. No products in or out of Cuba. This was the stranglehold of American policy. Over time, my amazement at how primitive it all is gave way to wonder that they have survived at all.

The conference consisted of major socialist thinkers honoring the “Apostle of the Revolution”, Jose Marti, a nineteenth century Cuban thinker who dreamed the idea of independence.  Amazing people were there, many Christian thinkers.

For three days the conference went on with much emotion. It was exhausting to try to understand talks in Spanish, though some were translated. Most stimulating was to hear the other side of the story of Cuba. How blessed I am to get this perspective. I feel very grateful to Leo.

One night there was an exquisite classical concert for our benefit. In addition to medicine, great energy goes into the performing arts in Cuba. The performance level was as high as I have seen anywhere. (This was pretty much the case in all communist countries I have visited.)

On the birthday of Jose Marti there was a torchlight march through Havana. Over a million people, mostly students, gathered at the university steps where the march began. Way too many people for me, approaching a mob. I retreated back to the apartment where I found Leo and we watched it on the wobbly tv screen. With arms linked Raul and many of the stars in the conference led the march ending at the Malecon, the landmark wall bordering the sea where there was a great fiesta.

In the meantime, my talk was coming up. I kept engaging with Leo to adjust to the spirit of the conference. Finally I delivered it to a sketchy audience, the beginning and end punctuated by hurried visits to the toilet. It has to do with personal responsibility for buen vivir, living well (one of the themes of the conference), and the culture of the human potential movement in California. Leo opined that in comparison to the collective orientation of the conference, my talk came from another planet. I believe it hit home to some very interesting participants, and it will go up on the official website. It was my loving message to the socialist movement and will be carried by the winds wherever it needs to go.

The conference itself has been remarkable. Such purity of heart and intention.  The quality of political knowledge is unique. There are many priests and theologians who see “socialism as the manifest form of love.” For all have to be cared for and none left behind. Friend Rudy enthusiastically opines that they are creating a new political alphabet.

At the closing dinner, there was Cuban music that got me going with the latinas. I was in great spirits. Afterwards we attended a drinks party at the hotel pool. I picked up on this older guy who had a great long beard. I told him about Mr Natural, whom he resembled. With Josefina plying us with mai tais, we had a great old time. After it was over Leo told me that this party was all the honcho party insiders, and that my new friend is Raul Castro’s brother-in-law!

 

Meanwhile there was life in Cuba.

In raw physical terms the conference and its venue was a good transition, a midpoint between American standards and Cuba, a luxury hotel with no toilet seats and byo toilet paper. In my world-travelling youth I found this sort of thing exotic, but at my age, it is simply too rough. In a few years I would not want to put up with it. This is one reason I wanted to come to Cuba now. Already I was quietly looking forward to leaving.

I had done some serious boning up on my Spanish, but to my chagrin I found it almost impossible to understand the very brash and loud Cuban argot. This was especially true of our driver who resembled Shakespeare’s Caliban more than any human I have ever encountered. I was so repelled by him that it was hard to be near him. Everyone I was with spoke fluent Spanish, most German, so I communicated in that language.

Josefina’s flat was near the university where the inspiration of the revolution percolated for years. Also nearby was the famous Havana Libre Hotel, a fifties extravaganza completed just before Havana was “liberated”, when it became a rallying place for the Revolution.  Air-conditioned, with reasonable internet service and reliable money exchange, it became a rallying point for us.

Restaurants catering to tourists are starting to grow up in this area, and we were grateful for them. A restaurant on the ground floor of our apt was the first privately owned, but Josefina requested that we not eat there, as she considers the owners “anti-revolutionary”.

The apartment itself was pretty funky, like India but quite sweet and colorful with tile floors. The first night no hot water, no towels, no internet. When Leo asks Josefina how long we can stay, she says it would be all right to stay until April!

For three days I went without breakfast, because there are no grocery stores, no place to buy supplies. Someone made Cuban coffee in the apt, but only on the third day did a breakfast appear, squishy white flour buns with ham on them, which I couldn’t eat.

I found the people very dear in general. No danger from them on the streets, even after dark, so in that regard it was safe, but you could always fall into a pothole or trip over an upended curb.

The American cars are like zombies from the forties and fifties, apparently living on the outside, but on the inside completely jerrybuilt…over and over. The Cubans have developed a genius for this. During my stay, I rode in the red ford our family drove in the 40s and the blue Chevy in the early 50s, the Oldsmobile in which I made out for the first time, and the finned Desoto my dad bought me used in ‘63.

The best of the lot, the convertibles (replicas of the ones that belonged to my high school girlfriends) are maintained bright and shiny. They carry tourists around Havana – waving and hair blowing – for $30 an hour. A cool business!

One striking thing is the absence of any commercial hype. No advertisement of any kind, except for a few funky signs with revolutionary slogans. I realize how sick I am of being bombarded by commercialism blaring wherever I turn. Most of us just tune it out, but as was pointed out in the conference, the endless hype robs us of our human dignity. When you turn on the radio here you get useful info, BBC type programming, or good music, including classical.

We visited Rudy in his penthouse on the 9th floor overlooking the whole bay of Havana. The rickety elevator does not work properly and we have to pay the operator whenever we use it. Then it arrives about a foot below the floor, so we have to climb up out of it. We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon on Rudy’s terrace discussing grave philosophical matters and surveying the city.

As we walked into Old Havana, it looked like India, a post-colonial ruin. Had to take the arm of one of my friends and use a flashlight. Even then it seemed perilous.

Finally we emerged into the lovely belle-epoch center. We had a drink at the old Inglarerra Hotel, enjoying the Cuban music. Afterwards we came to the theater where in a few minutes a performance of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba was starting. Another miracle. The one thing I knew I wanted to see was modern Cuban Dance. It was really exquisite, expressing in three acts the spirit of the collective burning like a flame of bodies. The company was brilliantly synchronized, moving as a unit even when their movements were disparate.

 

Leo and I took a taxi on a side trip to the southern town of Trinidad, originally the capitol of the French settlement. We traveled down with a flamenco dancer from Malaga and a sculptress from Madrid. On the way we stopped in Santa Clara at the Che Guevara monument and tomb, where many of his wonderfully articulate writings are inscribed.

We spent the night in a very pink hotel, and went out to dine and hear great music, but were too tired to stay out very late, as did our Spanish friends. We visited the beach, soaked in the warm waters, and toured around the old town in a bicycle rickshaw before returning to Havana.

 

On our return we visited the revolutionary museum in the building that housed the government of Batista. He is much vilified in the Revolution as a puppet of the imperialist US Government, also bribed handsomely by the gambling mafia. As Kennedy remarked, before the revolution, Havana was America’s bordel. (I was interested personally by Batista, as, through his daughter, his blood now runs in the royal families of Europe. She married the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and is presently Grand Duchess. I have seen her in patriotic celebrations with her family waving from the palace balcony in the main square. Last Autumn I had a brief run-in with her at the modern museum of art, a short rather rotund Cuban woman.)

At the museum I enjoyed a special corner devoted to the “true movers of the revolution”, the ones who most energized revolutionary resolve: Batista, for perpetrating the cause and Reagan, Bush Sr and Bush Junior, all of whose efforts to destroy Cuba through isolation and embargos just strengthened their determination. Somehow, among all the revolutionary memorabilia on display, I was most fascinated by this, as it represents a major point about American conservatives, an insight arising out of my own study of Laotse and the Daodeching: the harder you push in one direction the greater the push back from its opposite direction. I liked that the museum honored this principle.

Pro-revolutionaries insist that Cuba is the way it is mostly because the US has blocked trade with any of its allies. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was on its own. If Cubans can’t make it themselves, they don’t have it. We tried to break them by enforcing this, but they prevailed. As Obama said. Our policy has failed. Time to reboot.

On the other hand, this is a tropical country, and I never saw that basic joy of all the tropics, good fresh fruit! What there was was canned. Who is responsible for that?!

 

Our last hours in Havana were devoted to a visit to the old port that will soon receive the great cruise ships disgorging American tourists, a walk through the tourist market of souvenirs, where I examined the burgeoning artistic movement and bought a Che hat. One could sense the moment before the rush of the oncoming dollar.

Afterwards we rode in a bicycle ricksaw propelled by a hefty Cubana once again through the old city and back to our apartment. There we were met by angel Mayra, and Leo and I went our separate ways.

Mayra took me back to her home in Muriel, a nearby town. There I enjoyed a welcome transition back into America: a freezing air conditioned room and hot water shower. Her mother prepared a lovely dinner for us. The next day we strolled through the little town, where I could get a sense of local life. Mayra told me stories about the least fortunate in Cuba and their wretched lives. She is constantly helping out such people.

Mayra accompanied me to the airport and once again stood by in case I should have any problems. Then from the other side of immigration, I waved back at her and made my way into the departure lounge, where I spent four hours waiting for a delayed departure.

I was relieved to set foot on the other side of American immigration. In fact the whole process of entering and returning from Cuba went without hitch or hiccup. To my chagrin, I had to admit that most of the angst and chaos was the product of my own mind, ever rebelling against good sense.

 

Socialism always confronts me with my own contradictions. In Cuba it grated away at my subconscious until I realize my own abject indisposition to abandon any of my personal privilege for anyone’s betterment, much less for the more abstract “common good”. This, I think, is key to the failure of the whole communist project. Observe in Cuba or any other communist country the inequality in circumstances of the least and the most privileged. Though I grew used to it in my travels in Communist Europe, I was somewhat shocked, as, beyond the idealism evinced at the conference, I grew aware of the extent of this breach in Cuba.

The idealism of solidarity overlooks the resolute self-interest in human nature, an innate selfishness that on one hand always tends to widen the gap between those who have most and those who have least, but at the same time drives initiative. Initiative drives economies.

No revolutionary wants to face the stubborn fact of individual greed. In fact, communisms often resorted to mass killings in their effort to stamp this out. But they never succeed. Individual greed is the shadow of solidarity. You can’t stamp out or execute a shadow, you can only bring it to light and incorporate it.       This I think is the pragmatic direction of all surviving communist countries, as little by little they open the capitalist gates. In Cuba, as restrictions on capitalism ease and American tourist dollars flood in, we will see a resurgence of Cuban greed.

Economies atrophy without initiative, and capitalism is the expression of initiative, in eternal struggle with the ideals of Socialism, which are essentially Christian –yes, all should be cared for. Christ vs greed is an old story in the West, but it is universal.

On the other hand, when one enjoys an excess of privilege, as do most Americans, there comes a point when the difference between oneself and the dispossessed of the world becomes unutterably painful. Fidel was no proletarian envying the rich, rather a scion of one of the most powerful families in Cuba. He was in line to own Cuba. Also Che, the great martyr of the revolution was an upper middle class Argentine, who traveled on a motorcycle on a lark through South America, but was horrified to witness the abysmal difference between himself and the disentitled and oppressed people of the continent. Leo is on this track, and I had my own awakening on my cruise all around South America. On Che’s monument, I read his description of how at a certain moment he had to choose between being a doctor or a revolutionary, but in all conscience, given what he had seen, there was simply no choice.

I have been programmed by American propaganda for so long, this point of view has been seen only through a glass darkly. So many things learned in this very precious experience of the spirit and reality of Cuba. It has left me with greatest compassion for their struggle.

Perhaps it is best summed up in a sign Josefina has put up next to the door to her apartment. “It is easy to talk about me, but very difficult to be me.”