"I have met the enemy, and he is us."
Almost forty years ago, when I was in Marine Corps basic training, the tantalizing specter held up by our instructor was whether or not we'd have to go down to Cuba and fight the Commies who were, as we spoke (or rather, as he ranted and we listened), threatening to establish a beachhead in our hemisphere. Even at that point a small but committed group of revolutionaries in an island country 90 miles off the Florida coast were giving fits and starts to the powers that be.
Nothing has changed here. Much has changed there.
In the ensuing decades, as we have invaded, inveighed, inveigled, threatened, boycotted, manipulated, attempted to assassinate and nearly triggered a nuclear war in our need to rid the world of the threat of Fidel Castro and his Revolución, the Cuban Government has gone its sometimes-not-so-merry way, and, in spite of the best efforts of the world's greatest power to squelch it, persevered in its effort to do what it deems best for its people.
Though I've traveled to many points of the globe, I had never been to Cuba, feeling somehow a bit confused by the conflicting reports I had heard, even from those I respected, as to what was going on there. On the one hand were the tales of Ché, the romantic revolutionary martyr to the cause, and of the charismatic if long-winded Fidel, who with his dashing wit and flaming oratory charmed the socks off groups of American liberals as he touted the fruits of the Triumph of the Revolution. On the other hand there were the reports of high-handed strong-arm tactics, repression of dissent, suppression of religious freedom and numerous other human rights violations.
So, wanting to be neither a Solidarity groupie to whom Fidel could do no wrong, nor an agent of right-wing critics to whom he was the devil incarnate, I adopted an "I don't know, I've never been there" posture. Concerned about the reports of human rights violations and suspicious of the apparently closed nature of the political system, I was at the same time strongly opposed to the belligerent posture of the U.S., firm in the belief that the violently anti-Castro Cuban exiles (primarily in Miami) are dangerous proto-Fascists, and fundamentally in the camp of those who feel that an end to the embargo and other such signs of hostility on our part would do more to alleviate the problems within that society than any of the crazy macho exploits we've been associated with in the past could possibly bring about.
Then I got a call from Paul McCleary, executive director of the Christian Children's Fund, asking me if I would agree to be part of a delegation he was putting together to go to Cuba. His intention was to examine the feasibility of setting up some humanitarian efforts to help alleviate certain problems in the country that had been created by the current economic crunch, which was in turn brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the continuing (and heightened) U.S. embargo.
Sure, I figured. Why not? I might learn something. Besides, I'd get to spend more time with Paul.
Paul McCleary is something. Not a tall man (I think of him as a little giant), he is quiet, calm, unimposing in the best sense of the word, and, in his own understated way, fiercely committed to acting upon the Christian principles that are his mainstay. A Methodist minister, he has headed the Christian Children's Fund for a number of years, before which he ran the Save The Children Federation. Prior to that he was head of Church World Service, which is, I believe, connected with the National Council of Churches. To say that his history in the area of non-governmental humanitarian relief work is impressive and effective is to understate by a significant degree, a fact I learned when he originally called me a few years ago to go with him on a trip to the Middle East. Not knowing his name and frankly a bit suspicious at the idea of being associated with something known as the Christian Children's Fund on a trip into primarily Muslim territory (some "humanitarian" organizations with religious connections are really more interested in proselytizing and raising money than doing the work), I called a few friends to ask if they knew his name. The response was unanimously positive - in a couple of cases it approached awe. So I went. But that's another story.
Once the dates were cleared and I had worked out the time with my long-suffering and extraordinarily patient partner (my mother called the office a few weeks ago when I was at a press conference in Watts and Marvin said "He's out saving the world again."), I called my agent, Jack Fields, to tell him that I'd be unavailable for a while because I was going to Cuba. His response was, "Cuba! Can I go with you?"(Jack is an old Lefty and proud of it. He first visited Cuba during WWII, has been back a couple of times in the last few years and is an unabashed fan of Castro and the benefits the Revolution has brought to the country.) After ascertaining that he was serious, I said I'd ask Paul, who then had to check out a few things. Before long, it was all set and Jack began working on some friends of his for donations of some hard-to-get medicines that we could take in with us.
Wednesday, October 19, 1994 -
After a couple of busy weeks, with everything else put off, squeezed in, manipulated or overlooked, I took off for Miami. Routed through Atlanta, for some reason, I got in late, dragged my bags (I was carrying extra clothing because a speaking engagement in Indiana the day I returned meant I would have to go straight there) out to the curb and asked if there was a bus to the Miami International Airport Hotel. The man looked at me as if I was from another planet and pointed back inside. The hotel entrance is in the airport lobby. Oh.
By the time I found the desk it was nearly 11PM Miami time and I knew we had an early morning, so it was nice to see Paul there, watching for me. He had already arranged for a check-in, said he had eaten dinner with Jack, who he liked, and said we had a 10:30AM flight, but because we had to check in four hours early, to be in the lobby at 6:15. Ah. He then introduced me to another of our traveling partners, Frank Kiehne.
Frank is his sixties and with full face, white hair and suit, looks like a businessman. (It turned out he's more of an imp in curmudgeon's clothing.) Frank ran the International Committee of the YMCA for many years, was Director of the Immigration and Refugee Program for Church World Service and headed the precursor organization to InterAction, which coordinates and oversees all relief, refugee and development organizations in the U.S. Having traveled all over the world in these pursuits, he now serves as Foreign Affairs Advisor to Congressman Don Payne of New Jersey, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Off to the room and get ready to turn in. A 5:30AM wake-up call is going to sound like a 2:30AM call to my West Coast ears. Before I can get into bed, Jack calls to make sure I'm here safely. He had a direct flight, so had gotten in earlier and was excited about the fact that he was able to arrange for $40,000 worth of medicines to be sent here. (An amazing feat, and I suspect he has personally paid for at least a portion of it, though he won't say so.) Six boxes weighing in at about 200 pounds! Now our job is to get them allowed on the plane as part of our luggage (or broken up and stashed in our bags).
The embargo of goods to Cuba has run hot and cold over the years of its existence, and at some points it has been easier to get things into and out of the country than at others. Currently, thanks to the malevolent view of Congressman Bob Torricelli of New Jersey, as expressed in his so-called Cuban Democracy Act (passed in '92, I think), restrictions are tougher than they've ever been. One can take only a limited amount of American dollars into Cuba and one needs some because U.S. credit cards and U.S. traveler's checks can't be used there (by U.S., not Cuban dictate). Our government is trying to strangle the country and has put rigid limitations on the freedom of its own citizens toward that end. It's outrageous, infuriating, and, I would suspect, unconstitutional, but it's the law - at least for now.
So Jack's medicines are a big question mark at this point. Medicine is embargoed, along with all other goods, if they are going to be used by, or be of benefit to, the government. Since it is a Socialist state and the medical system is run by the government (health care is considered a right in Cuba), we're worried.
Thursday, October 20, 1994 -
After a very short night I get myself together and head downstairs. Jack is there, hale, hearty and excited, and proudly shows me the substantial pile of boxes. Paul and Frank are there as well, and we're joined by two new members of the group, Earl Kellogg and Stephen Ayres.
Earl is pleasant-looking man in his late forties or early fifties, I'd guess, who is vice president of Winrock International, an Arkansas foundation started by Winthrop Rockefeller that works with problems of hunger and poverty through teaching sustainable agriculture, rural development and management of natural resources. A PhD., Earl was a specialist in agricultural economics on the faculty of the University of Illinois for years and has worked all over the world through the good offices of many governmental and non-governmental programs. He's on the Advisory Council of the Christian Children's Fund.
Also on the CCR Advisory Council, Stephen Ayres is an MD who was, among other things, Dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College. He has a shock of white hair and a young face, so it's hard to tell his age, but I'd guess mid-to-late fifties. He has also traveled, taught and worked all over the world and is a specialist in Public Health. He just returned, Paul says, from Byelorussia, where he was working with child victims of the Chernobyl disaster.
Fast company, I'm thinking. What the hell am I doing here?
The six of us hustle our baggage through the airport lobby to the desk where we check in. It's a charter airline that does the round trip only once a week. (No other U.S. or U.S. owned airlines may fly in or out of Cuba.) There is a large crowd gathered, not surprisingly most of them Hispanic. As we gather with the rest of our group and pile up our bags, the travel guy Paul has arranged for gives us a bunch of documents to fill out. Before dealing with them we're introduced to our last three fellow travelers, which allows me to say hello to an old friend.
Janet Shenk is director of the Arca Foundation in Washington (she took over when Margie Tabankin came out West to run the HWPC) and we were on delegations together to El Salvador and Nicaragua in the early '80s and to the Middle East in '88. Probably in her late '30s, Janet's flashing dark eyes and youthful manner disguise the fact that she knows more about U.S. relationships with Latin America than any three people in Washington. She speaks Spanish like a native, has written at least one book (on El Salvador), is hugely respected and has zero tolerance for the patronizing nonsense that comes out of most Washington policy makers. She's also a new mom and is going through separation anxiety about being away from her Olivia.
Mary Estrin is another Californian. An attractive blonde, probably in her early forties, she is vice president of the General Service Foundation, which works on peace and human rights issues in Central America and the Caribbean. We've met at a couple of times at Human Rights Watch and Hollywood Women's Political Committee events and once at a dinner for Vassar College, where my daughter now goes and Mary was a student.
Walter Russell Mead is a political economist whose writing I have enjoyed. A surprisingly young, or young-looking, man (looks to be in his thirties), he is Senior Policy Advisor at the World Policy Institute in New York and is a contributing editor at Harper's and the Los Angeles Times. He has traveled all over the world and is a much-sought-after writer and speaker.
Introductions over, we try to figure out what to do. The fellow from the travel agency is very nice but not particularly helpful in that he indicates the problems with the Customs people seem to be a matter of whim and thus can't be predicted. Sometimes they search you, sometimes they don't. Last week, he says, they were doing strip searches. (There's an exciting thought.) It's a question of their mood. Great! One of the forms we're asked to fill out wants to know how much money each of us is taking into the country. The gentleman says they will only allow us each to take in $100 cash for every day we're to be in country (for hotel and meals), and an additional $100 to spend above that. "You mean an additional $100 per day?" I ask. Nope. $100 a day for hotel and meals (if you can do it for that) and a total of $100 for spending money. Whoop de doo! Obviously, they don't want to take any chance of our personally bailing out the Cuban economy. Janet is already pissed.
So what do we do? Jack has a lot of cash that he wants to spend (for the very reason the US Government doesn't want us to have it), Paul has a good deal of money to cover expenses, like an internal flight we're scheduled to take, and to cover the tour arrangements, translators, etc. I certainly intend to take more than a total of $800. In fact, I have $2500 on me, just in case. Do we put down the amount we're actually carrying and make the argument if they put up a fuss, do we give what we have over the allowed limit to our man from the travel agency and ask him to hold it for us, do we send it home, do we lie and hide the cash on us and hope they don't search us? What? Frank has a diplomatic passport, maybe they won't search him. Should we give it all to him? (Frank grows a little pale at the thought of the headline, "Congressional Aide Arrested Smuggling Thousands of $$ into Communist Cuba!!")
As we're each wrestling with our decisions and figuring out the forms (I decide that, confusing as it is, I'm going to declare $800. If they search me and find the rest - or if I fall apart under the pressure and turn myself in - I'll say that I only put down what I intended to spend and the rest is just in the event of an emergency - and by the way, have you ever seen the TV series MASH?), we're also trying to work out the puzzle of the luggage and our boxes of medicine. It is decided that we won't open the boxes and stash the contents in our bags, but will just put it all up there and act like we do it every day. So we form a line and pass up bags and boxes and stack things up and watch warily as the woman behind the counter weighs and tags everything. Without so much as the blink of an eye, she puts it all over onto the conveyor belt and off it goes. Well, so much for that drama. Of course, the possibility exists that we'll never see it again. Or worse, we'll be confronted with it when we're all hanging in irons from the walls of the secret torture chamber down the hall.
We move through the rest of the process (each person has to pay an "airport tax" of $41) and then decide to have a bite of breakfast before confronting the lions in their den. After a snack, a rest and some nervous small talk we make our collective way to the gate. Nobody there but the crowd of passengers and a couple of harmless looking ticket agents. Maybe we're going to skate through without a problem after all! Maybe it was all hype. Do you think?
Well, since no one is going anywhere at this point anyway, we wait. Sure enough, after a half hour or so, down the way come four guys who look like a Swat Team. Very military looking, complete with muscles and tee shirts that say "CUSTOMS" on them and black pants and black suspenders and guns and things, they pass by and head over to the gate area. Oh, my.
After a bit, names are called. None of ours for quite a while, then a voice over the loudspeaker says, "WALTER RUSSELL MEAD." (In fact, it sounded just like that. All in capital letters.) Walter makes a joke and heads over to the gate and out of sight and we all look at each other and wait some more.
After what seems like 20 minutes, but probably isn't, Walter reappears, looking very harried, decidedly unhappy and surrounded by the Swat Team. They all go over to a corner of the room and a phone appears. A call is made. No one knows what to do, so I decide to amble over in that direction, wondering if the Swats are going to object, but they don't. Walter breaks away, apparently not under arrest (I note, cleverly), and comes over to me. Since I don't yet know him well and he appears to be a pleasant, soft-spoken Southern gentleman it's hard to tell for sure, but I think he's fit to be tied. He says, "They want to take my $300." After we go over it a few times for the group, which has now gathered around, it seems that he decided to tell the truth ("I'm not going to lie," he declares firmly.) and declare on the form that he was carrying $1100. They said he could only take $800, so they were going to confiscate the difference. (This, of course, does not bode well for the rest of us.) He told them, in apparently no uncertain terms, that he was an American citizen, that they had no right to take his money or tell him what he could or could not do with it. He believed it reasonable, he said, to have a cushion in case of an emergency. Further, he offered to sign a statement, if they so desired, that he would spend no more than the prescribed limit, barring emergencies, and he offered to produce the $300 upon his return. But they could not take his money. They, in turn, said they could indeed take his money if he wanted to get on the plane, and said further that if he had a return ticket he had no reason to be concerned about an emergency ("What if I'm robbed?" he had asked in response.). So it was a stand-off. He said he had asked them how he would get his money back in the event they did take it and they had responded that he could "petition" for it; an idea, he told them sarcastically, that filled him with confidence. The phone call, it turned out, was at Walter's request (demand, actually), and it was to their superiors in Washington. No help however, was forthcoming.
As we were considering our various options (a choice between giving our extra money to the young man from the travel agency to hold until we returned or storming the plane and defecting), Janet went over to talk to the Customs Agents. Before long she was back with an embarrassed grin saying "I cried" and indicating that she might be making progress. She had talked about her daughter and said that she wasn't going to go anywhere without enough cash to get home in the event of an emergency and, she said, she had the feeling that at least one of these guys seemed to be human.
She returned to the corner where the Swat Team had situated themselves, for further discussions. Soon Paul and Mary joined them and the discussion was going hot and heavy. The rest of us stood by hopefully, counting the number of times the phone was used and trying to figure the odds. Was it too late to hide the extra money in our shoes, isn't that the first place they'd look, and if they do, how do you explain? ("Gee, how did that get in there?")
As we waited, another drama erupted. A woman with an infant in arms began wailing and crying in obvious distress and went to one of the pay phones on a wall behind us. One of the Swat Team joined her for a moment, then left her to her own devices. (It turned out, Janet told us later, she had completed all the necessary legal documentation to make the trip in - they make it just as complicated as they can in order to discourage travel - only to get here and be told that she can't go because she hasn't done all the documentation and gotten all the necessary clearances for the baby!)
After a hell of a session, Janet comes back and says, "Listen carefully" and explains that she feels the head customs guy is trying to be reasonable, but there is another, very military looking guy there who seems to be the final authority. (He's from a different government branch, one known to be particularly hard-nosed on Cuba.) The one guy had admitted to her that he hated all this, that he understood it was purely political, but he had no choice. He further said that he understands (and Janet got confirmation on this from Washington) that the law allows us to buy art and educational materials over the imposed spending limit, but that there seems to be a gray area about how much you can take into Cuba in order to do that and his neck was on the chopping block. What was clear to him was that they were saying $100 was the limit. Janet's read of it all was that she thought he was saying that if we didn't rub his nose in it, he wouldn't look too hard. Further, if anyone was caught with extra dollars they should clearly state that it was for the purchase of art or educational materials. If we were cool, she said, she had the feeling there wouldn't be a problem.
Somehow all the qualifiers made it not that comforting, but suddenly our names were being called and we had to grab our bags and get moving. As we headed toward the gate and the phalanx of Swat-types I began to sweat that I had out-smarted myself. The amount on my declaration didn't jive with what I had in my pocket and, I felt, they could use that as a pretext to give me a lot of grief. I called out to Janet, who was just ahead, and asked what she thought, knowing that a quick change on the amount of the declaration would certainly call unwanted attention. Her advice, given on the run, was "Don't worry about it." Hmm. Well, I'm an actor. Maybe I can just act like I'm not worried about it.
And suddenly there we were, bunched up in the little corridor before the door to the loading ramp. All of a sudden it seemed as though there were seventy people in CUSTOMS-Swat-Team attire asking for passports and declarations and Janet and Paul were handing documents around and saying "Yes, this is all the same group" and we were being stopped, had our heads counted, then moved on through as the Swat guys were hassling some unfortunate man who wasn't one of us. As Walter, who was right ahead of me, passed the fellow who seemed to be in charge, I saw the guy look up and apparently say something. I couldn't hear what it was, but it looked as though he said, "Say a prayer for me."
Taking our seats aboard the plane we all make eye contact and breathe a collective sigh of relief, not yet sure if we're still liable to be approached by someone with a German accent and a monocle, saying, "Come vis me." All this and we're not even out of the country yet.
Doors closed, smiles all around and off we go!
The flight is short and uneventful. The only other obvious American in our compartment is a woman with a kind of sour expression. It turns out she's from the U.S. State Department and is assigned to the Cuban Interests Section in Havana. It's a shame how some people fit the stereotype.
Approaching the Havana Airport we're told to set our watches back. Cuba is already on Daylight Savings Time, so is an hour earlier than Miami. First impressions from the air are of a very green, tropical-looking country which appears to be surprisingly well developed.
The pilot brings us in very fast with the nose up and we hit the strip with a hell of a bang. Scared the devil out of me. Welcome to Cuba! Coming down the ladder it's bright, not too hot and only a bit muggy. As we get in line for passport check Mary has to run back to the plane, having left her camera on the seat. The processing goes smoothly, with the control officer stamping our visas instead of the passports (as in the Middle East, having the stamp of one country of your passport can cause you trouble in another - only here a Cuba stamp can cause one grief at the US border). Jack, true to form, requests that the man make a point of stamping his passport.
Luggage collection is a bit of a zoo. People are all over the place and those who have come seem to have brought everything but the kitchen sink. In fact, many of those on our flight were wearing two or three hats and more than one set of clothing. A woman in front of me had on an obviously too-large pair of man's shoes. The shortages here are critical and, whether for family use or for sale on the black market, these people are trying to do something about it. A curious aspect of the situation that comes to my attention as we wait for our bags and (hopefully) Jack's boxes, is the number of pieces of luggage that come along the conveyor belt wrapped in plastic, looking as though they've been shrink-wrapped. A curiosity. I never did get clear whether that was done for protection by the person who checked it in or if it was an indication of particular attention on the part of the U.S. authorities.
After quite a wait, our luggage comes through. There are two belts operating simultaneously, so it's hard to keep an eye on everything. If something gets by and to the end of the process, some men take it off and place it on the floor, so growing numbers of bags are stacked haphazardly around the place. One has to keep checking these piles as well as the two belts and the whole process is complicated by the large number of people doing the same thing. Finally, Jack, Paul and I are able to collect all of the boxes of medicine, which are apparently unmolested (!), get our bags and head for Customs.
At customs, we're introduced to Gail Reed, an American journalist who has lived here for 15 years. Paul has arranged for her to be the liaison for the Christian Children's Fund in terms of this feasibility study and she has both prepared the materials we've received prior to coming and arranged our meetings and set up the itinerary. Probably in her forties, Gail was once married to a Cuban diplomat and has a son here who is, I think, a teenager. She's got a big smile and helps us cruise through Customs without a hitch.
Outside, we get into a bus from Havanatur, which is to be ours for the duration, and meet our guide, Ivonne, who is also to be with us right through. For those of you who have been to the Soviet Union (when it was there), the system seems to have been modeled after their Intourist set-up. Ivonne is a sturdily-built, pretty young woman, I'd guess in her twenties, who speaks good English (and, we find out later, Russian as well). Also with us is Lola, a quiet, attractive woman with a lovely smile and what looks to be prematurely graying hair. She's evidently connected with the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation.
Driving into and through the streets of Havana, one notices a number of things. The area we see, at least, is very well developed and neatly kept. This in spite of the fact that everything looks a bit shabby and is badly in need of paint and a cosmetic touch-up. Jack says he's heard that France offered to send in a shipment of paint but that the U.S. quashed it. (Later, Janet says she thinks it's more a function of economic priorities than embargoed materials.) Whatever the case, there is clearly a sense that certain amenities are lacking. Aside from the need for a coat of paint, automobiles, for example, are not the constant presence that one experiences in most major cities in the world. The reason, we're told, is a shortage of gasoline. The government supplies a limited amount to each person (2 liters, or something like that) per month, and buying more, when possible, is evidently quite expensive - at least on the average Cuban's budget. The result is that there are bicycles everywhere on the streets, which is actually quite a pretty sight, though I suppose the pedalers might have less of an appreciation of the esthetics of it. There are also a large number of motorbikes and motorcycles (more motorcycles with side-cars than I've ever seen in one place).
The design of many of the buildings we're passing seems a bit unusual, at least as compared to those I've seen in Central America. A lot of square block construction with a quaintly ornate block design over the doors and around many of the windows, it strikes me as a kind of cross between Latin style and Soviet utilitarianism. In response to a question, Lola says they are all of Cuban design and Cuban construction, and all post-Revolution. (Later, looking at pre-Revolutionary buildings, I find that she's right. They're the same.)
We arrive at the Copacabana Hotel, which Ivonne says is not named after the famous one in Rio de Janeiro, but is named after a large, cup-shaped (copa) monument on 5th Avenue, the main street we came down. And, she says, cabana stands for Havana. Or rhymes with it. Or something.
This Copacabana is a modern hotel (about the level of quality of a big motel) right on the ocean. If you could see far enough straight out (north) you'd see the Florida Keys. Beautiful blue-green water rises and falls just beyond a sea-wall off the deck, upon which there is a large swimming pool. The lobby is a fairly large, open, tiled affair, and we go through the usual check-in drill with passport numbers and are assigned rooms.
Having arrived late (due to our duel with the American Government forces in Miami), we only have a few minutes to drop our stuff in our rooms and wash up before a quick briefing and then we have to head out for our first meeting.
The room is pretty straight-forward. Certainly not plush, but clean and containing all the necessaries. My room overlooks the ocean, which is a real
plus. God, the water is beautiful!
At the briefing Gail welcomes us officially, gives us a few changes in the schedule and apologizes for the pace at which we'll be going. It's not new, of course, and one assumes we've all come to learn what we can in the time allotted so won't expect to be in a leisure mode, but it's kind of her to make apologetic noises about it all the same. Paul takes over to pose the basic question, "This is not the Third World." (As opposed to what many of us have seen in other parts of the world, this is a developed country with sophisticated systems and a working social/government arrangement.) "Is it appropriate for non-governmental organizations such as ours to get involved here, and, if so, how?" After batting this around for a bit everyone expresses their pleasure at the successful arrival of the medicines and their appreciation to Jack for having made it possible. In his uniquely shy manner, Jack shrugs off the praise and blusters a bit to change the subject.
Next, we're treated to a cocktail by the hotel management on the deck by the sea-wall. Musicians (we come to find it's usually a trio, with guitars and some sort of percussion, and always nice voices) serenade us and the hotel representatives make a gracious welcoming statement. Then, we're off.
Back in the bus, we head for our first meeting. This is with Raul Taladrid, Vice Minister of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation. The Ministry is in a rather dilapidated building not far from the center of Old Havana, and getting there entails driving east down 5th Avenue, the main drag, through a tunnel and along the coast for a while. It is a gorgeous city in serious need of a face-lift. Again, many people, many bicycles, many motorcycles, few cars.
The steps into the Ministry building are badly chipped and the building itself looks to be pretty seedy. The interior is dark, due to what we come to discover is a serious shortage of light bulbs in the country. The elevator, which is said to be cranky and a bit erratic (not a pleasant thought by my lights) is out of order this day, so we climb the three flights to Taladrid's office. Negotiating the narrow stairway is a bit tricky in the relative darkness, but we make it without casualties and are ushered into a conference room and take seats around the table.
This room is air conditioned, though the windows remain open so it's more of an air cooler effect than true air conditioning, but as the temperature and humidity aren't overwhelming so far, it's not a problem. After a few minutes, Taladrid enters, along with a Senor Roqueta, who seems to be a subordinate. Raul Taladrid is a nice looking man, probably in his fifties, with gray hair, a pleasant, open face and a winning smile. Wearing a guayabara, the open-collared shirt that serves as formal wear in many Latin American countries, he speaks excellent English as he welcomes us, indicates he knows Paul and Gail, and explains that he is responsible for all international cooperation granted by Cuba. Sr. Roqueta is identified as being in charge of relationships with all developed countries.
Paul suggests that for our host's benefit we go around the room and have each of our group introduce him-or-herself, so we take a few minutes to do so. I'm reminded , in listening, that it's a pretty impressive group he's put together. (Not at all sure what I bring to the mix, I make a point of mentioning my focus on human rights so that it's a factor in the discussion.)
Taladrid then begins with a long overview, saying "The last year of normality in Cuba was 1989" from the economic point of view, and adds, "our problems are mainly economic." Cuba, he tells us, is highly dependent on trade relationships. It is "not a self-sufficient country." In 1989, the Socialist Bloc, "our main partners," disappeared. At that point, Cuba's combined yearly budget, including trade and domestic production, was $8.9 billion. By 1993, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the tightening of the economic screws by the U.S. embargo, it was reduced to $1.7 billion. (!) This era, the period since the end of the Soviet Union, is referred to here as the "Special Period," which is, I guess, a euphemism for crisis.
This "Special Period" has required cut-backs. Cuba has no oil, for example, and was sustained in its need for fuel by regular shipments from the USSR, which are no longer forthcoming. New arrangements, at less friendly prices, have had to be made and the result has been the cancellation or postponement of all programs of social development. The Public Health and Education programs, which have been the gems of the Revolution, have been seriously impacted. They have had to cancel or postpone most programs of economic development and have chosen to concentrate on development of two areas that, they feel, are promising: tourism and biotechnology.
Tourism is important because Cuba's natural resources are plentiful and exploitable and the expansion of this industry will bring in hard currency, which is in short supply.
Biotechnology is relatively inexpensive to get into and is primarily dependent on people and training, which are plentiful here, and less dependent on the expenditure of fuel, for example, to operate.
The country, since the Revolution, has made great strides in the area of education. At the time of the Triumph of the Revolution (a point in time that is referred to in that way so often during our time here that it almost takes on the form of a mantra) there was a 47% illiteracy rate in the country. Today almost everyone is literate. The average Cuban's level of educational attainment is the 10th grade, while in the rest of Latin America the average is the 5th grade. Cuba comprises only 2% of the population of Latin America and now makes up 9% of its specialists.
An early study (pre-Revolution) done in the US indicated that there was no education on the research level being done in Cuba. The Revolution and its attendant changes in the area of education have been responsible for large strides for its people which now make possible this focus on tourism and biotechnology.
In the 1950s, 56% of the homes in the country had electricity. Now, over 90%. That, of course, brings with it a requirement for more oil.
Cuba is not a member of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank because of antagonism on the part of the United States, so they are currently using other means of outreach to seek foreign investment. Today, for example, there are over 150 joint ventures in place with foreign governments and/or entities to further develop the country's economy, but still, because of the small amount of dollars available to them, all other areas of investment have had to be temporarily curtailed.
In order for the government to gain access to the foreign currency that does come into the economy - through tips, for example, or through the other ways in which foreigners use their own currency - Cuba has legalized ownership of foreign currency and opened foreign currency stores (dollar stores), where one does not have to trade in Cuban pesos.
The dilemma presented the government by the increasing numbers of dollars in the hands of the population was that there were not, because of the embargo, sufficient goods and services to sell to them. The economy was thus suffering from the rise of a second (black market) economy. (For example, the exchange rate published at the hotel was 1 Cuban peso for $1. On the street, you can exchange dollars for pesos at a rate that has fluctuated, Gail tells us, up to as high as 100 pesos to $1. The current rate, she says, is about 50 to $1.) In order to gain control of this economy, and to get hold of some dollars, the government has had to resort to taxation, which was heretofore unknown (since the Revolution), and is also having to begin to charge for some services which have been free to the people since the Triumph, such as meals in school cafeterias and sporting events. They are now even being forced to consider the possibility of charging for some medical services. (All medical services to all Cubans have been free of charge since the T of the R. Tell that to the U.S. Congress!)
Before the revolution, Cuba's was primarily an agricultural economy, but there was about 30% unemployment, which increased to 40% during non-harvest periods. The economy continues to be based upon agriculture, but since the Triumph, free services (schooling, etc.) have pulled many people away from the fields, which created a problem. This was solved by the mechanization of the agricultural industry, which worked brilliantly for a time, but that solution has been undermined today by the lack of fuel and parts for the machines. The result is a diminished ability to successfully harvest the crops, which, of course, redoubles the problem.
The frustration associated with all of this is evident in listening to Taladrid. He is proud of the fact that "we have developed human resources like no other country in the developing world" with programs that are "very costly, very long term," but during this "Special Period" they are fighting to keep all their prized results from unraveling.
One way they have tried to deal with the crisis is to find ways to lure people, people who have been trained as professionals in some cases, back to the fields. They have collectivized some of the publicly held lands and have opened "free market" availabilities for the small farmer/producer. But it is a struggle.
It's aggravating, obviously, to see these problems result from the government's commitment to the principle that "we won't let any Cuban citizen be abandoned to himself." He admits, upon reflection, that "in the '60s, we overdid it." It's one thing, he says, to nationalize big companies, but "nationalizing snow cone salesmen went too far."
In some cases, they're doing OK. Generally speaking, he says, "sports are self financing." (Cubans are passionate athletes. Some say they are the world's best baseball players. Paul is involved in an effort to promote a baseball game, or series of games, between North American professionals and the Cuban national team.)
In another area of concern, Taladrid says that with the free market experiments and with the special opportunities given certain segments of the population during this "Special Period," "some express concern that we are creating privilege" (anathema in an avowedly egalitarian society). Shrugging a bit, he says, "We have no choice."
As far as the question of people's continued loyalty to the regime is concerned, he says, "we vote every day. If I wake up and there's no electricity or water and I go on, I'm voting." And, "Every step we are taking has to be agreed upon by the people. That happens through (the paying of) taxes." "Meetings were held," he says, where all these decisions were discussed and debated.
He says the decision to raise money for the treasury through the imposition of taxes was not met with joy, but it was supported by the people in the meetings. They opposed (as an example of the power of the popular will) a tax on salary, which the government wanted. Since the opposition was so strong, it was not levied.
The issue of privilege, which has been raised by some, has to be balanced by "equity." They are banking, he says, on the good will of the citizenry that has been generated over the years as a result of the early attention that was paid to providing the kinds of services that have been so valuable to the people
A discussion of human rights ensues, in which he dismisses the notion of repression as a "superficial concern." He insists that people are free to express their views, to agree or disagree with government opinions, in the various discussions in the workplace that were referred to earlier. He also goes into an approach I've heard before, which is the argument that the right to an education and the right to health care are also human rights and his country is far ahead of many, ours included, on those fronts. (While I think the positive argument, for the inclusion of those rights, is an important one to make, I don't think it's persuasive if it's being used as a deflection from discussion of other areas where basic rights are not honored, as seems to me to be the way it's being used here.)
On another subject, one of his responsibilities is to provide entertainment to the people - and since he has no access to product or opportunity to enter into the marketplace for television and film, he records things (probably off satellite) and arranges for them to be broadcast. He says, with a grin, "I don't like to think of myself as a pirate..." (unable to resist, I offer, "Blackbeard didn't like to think of himself as a pirate either." Fortunately, he has the grace to laugh.)
Taladrid brings the session to a close with a gracious expression of appreciation for our visit, for our interest, and for the intentions of the Christian Children's Fund and like organizations.
As we're walking out, he comments on my being an actor and says my face is familiar. I ask if he knows of MASH, which he doesn't, so then I suggest he may have seen my face on one of the films he's pirated. We share a laugh.
The bus takes us back to the hotel, where we have a little while to rest and/or freshen up before going out to dinner. The dinner scheduled tonight with the President of the National Assembly has been put off until tomorrow, so we're being taken out to a historic spot for dinner.
Into the bus and back down toward the city center, then into a tunnel which takes us under the entrance to Havana harbor and out onto the other side. There is a famous Spanish fort guarding the mouth of the harbor here, but I didn't get its name.
Going through the city after dark has a certain poignancy because what becomes clear is that significant sections of this beautiful city haven't enough fuel to power the lights - that or it's the shortage of light bulbs. Whatever the case, there is a curiously sad aspect to it, this beautiful, historic city with the appearance of "nobody home."
The restaurant is an historic building, as well. La Divina Pastora restaurant is in a terrific old Spanish building - sort of the perfect example of the two sides of the Cuban experience: a lovely place with a religious name and half a dozen ancient cannons in the front yard pointed toward the bay. We seem to be the only customers and are shown out onto a porch overlooking the harbor to have a drink before dinner. Again, what is striking is the lonely and deserted feeling that comes from the lack of traffic and the dearth of lights.
Dinner, once we're seated at a long table on the front patio, is slow in coming and not particularly impressive. Lack of refrigeration, and a simple lack of food, makes itself apparent. The drink I always associate with the country, of course, is the Cuba Libre, but the one that is most often - and almost automatically - served to our crew is the Mojita (MO-HE-TA). In spite of the confusion as to who ordered what and/or what the fish actually is, the group is patient and congenial and seems willing to relax and have a good time. The lone vegetarian, I figure I'm in good shape here as I love rice and beans, which one might assume would be a staple. Wrong. Or, if it is, it isn't what they serve to Norteamericano visitors in this restaurant. Cubans are big meat eaters, it seems. And fish. So vegetables and salads seem to be their way of coping with my strange dietary habits. I'm a bit leery of the salads, being of the school that when in the Third World you don't eat anything uncooked unless you can peel it, but no one else seems concerned. It's the question of where this country fits in the chart, I guess. A lot of bread seems to me to be the answer. Along with dinner, we're serenaded by three guitar-playing men with nice voices. It's Janet, I think, who later observes that it must be a law that all Cubans are born with beautiful singing voices.
A nice evening, then back into the bus and on to the Copacabana. We're to leave by 8:30AM for our first meeting.
During the night another body is added to the group. Pauline Loney is a Canadian, President of the Christian Children's Fund of Canada. Born in Angola, the daughter of missionaries, Pauline is a pleasant, straightforward woman, probably in her forties, who brings a slightly different perspective to the delegation because her country has been dealing with Cuba for some time in spite of U.S. pressure to the contrary.
Friday, October 22, 1994
After a fair night's sleep (the "new bed" syndrome) I go down and look over the breakfast buffet, trusting that at last I'll find my trusty rice and beans. No luck. No beans, either. Rice there is, but it's all cheesed up. So it's more bread for the kid.
Back in the bus and off to our first meeting of the day, this with Mario Coyula, head of a non-governmental advisory group of architects and city planners who are "dealing with the problems of a city of 2.2 million." Housed in a set of offices in a single-story building that looks to have been part of another, larger organization, Coyula, a good-looking man in is forties or fifties, with an athletic build and thick black hair, takes us back to see "the map."
"The map" is an impressive sight. A scale model of the city (or a large part of it) built on a 1/1000 ratio, it's mounted on wood flats standing on saw-horses and is carefully constructed in three dimensions to represent every structure currently in existence and demonstrate their relationships to one another. It's a great bird's eye view of Havana and would be a model-builders dream. Probably 25' by 25' or so, it is not only topographically correct and laid out in scale, but is color coded, we come to find out, to demonstrate the different periods of development of the city.
The organization's purpose, Coyula tells us, as translated by Ivonne, is to "train people to gain control of their own environment."
Their have been problems, he says, in black Afro-Cuban neighborhoods (which he points out in the city center area) which were overlooked in the early days of the Revolutionary Government because the primary focus at that time was to bring the countryside and its poor into more social and economic alignment. Those who were overlooked felt even more alienated as the new programs did little for them.
Then, in the late '60s, the temptation was to go heavily into urban renewal, condemning older areas and developing condos and high rises. This added to the problems by creating dislocation. "Fortunately," he says, "we stopped and reassessed." He now considers himself a "preservationist."
Clearly relishing his task, Coyula tells us that Havana was founded in 1619. Because of its placement directly between North and South America and in the center of the Caribbean - and also because of its natural harbor - it was the perfect center for trade and travel and soon became the world's largest exporter of sugar.
Because of a need to protect its inhabitants from the glaring sun, the old city was designed with many arcades and covered sidewalks, most of which are still in existence. The architectural supports for all the arcades caused Havana to become known as "The City of the Columns." And because Spanish control lasted here until nearly 1900 there is more European influence evident in the architecture than is the case in most other Latin American cities.
The color scheme of the map demonstrates the way development flowed outward from the harbor to the west and south-west, and because of the fact that there was no major demolition, much of the original flavor is maintained. "The city moved without destroying itself."
Once he explains it, the color scheme tells a very clear story. Sweeping outward from the harbor are buildings colored a dark brownish-red, which were built between 1600 and 1900. Then come the yellow buildings, which represent the growth during the Republican period (when Cuba separated from Spain and was an independent republic) of 1900 to 1958.
From Coyula's point of view, the "most valuable" thing about Havana is the large mass of the city which was built in many different periods and architectural styles by and for a large middle class. In his view this makes it very different from most Latin American cities which are essentially large slum areas with a few small areas for the very wealthy.
The black areas began as settlements for former slaves and have persevered for a number of reasons (one cited above). After the Revolution, a 50% cut in rents was granted to anyone who wanted to stay in the homes they lived in. One of the unintended consequences of this was to maintain a kind of racial separation.
After the Triumph of the Revolution (that phrase again) the wealthy fled the country, leaving their houses empty. The government saw that the poor were given those homes, which made for a racial mix in what had been white wealthy areas. "Bourgeois culture" was replaced, in many cases, by "marginal" culture - people who had different habits - throwing garbage on the streets, for example - and this created some tensions. It made for some separation as those who were criticized felt as though they were looked down upon by their critics. "Now, we are trying to instill a sense of history and culture into these areas to help build a sense of neighborhood participation and pride."
Attempts (on the part of his organization) to deal with these problems through ideas of design were met with a shrug. The people, it was found, could care less about design. They first wanted basic repairs. They wanted the plumbing fixed, the leaks in their roofs repaired. Now, he says, they are trying to establish workshops where bricks and tiles can be manufactured (though it's made complicated now by the lack of fuel), which will at the same time provide materials for use in doing basic repairs to the people's homes and give some of them jobs in the process.
Most of the homes in the city are owned by the people who live in them, due to the Urban Reform Law of 1960. However, people cannot own more than one house at a time.
Q. - Can they sell?
A. - You can sell a house only if you inherit another. If you want to sell your house to someone who is not a relative, the State has the first option to buy at a very low rate (a kind of right of eminent domain).
Coyula says they are trying to develop an urban gardens program. He wants to plant thousands of fruit trees in treeless areas, both for shade and for food. Vines and trellises, in dense urban areas, can be beneficial as well.
In his "preservationist" mode, he has to find ways to deal with traditional problems. For example, politicians like new construction, he says, because they can appear at a ceremony inaugurating a new building and get the social benefits attached. He's trying to encourage a system wherein they can get the same benefit by appearing at the inauguration of a rehab project or the subdivision of existing homes.
"Things are changing," he says. The problem is "how to keep the good things from the Revolution and at the same time make the current situation viable." There are problems of overcrowding, of industrial downsizing. One government program, for example, is encouraging people to go back to the country by guaranteeing them they will be paid 60% of their former wage once there, even if it's to do nothing. He hopes they can be put to work in their new neighborhoods.
It's a massive problem, that much is clear. It's interesting to see this perspective, that of the city planner and architect who clearly has such great love for the city itself. On the way out, he takes us into a garage where we see stacked on huge racks a half-dozen more of the maps which, put together with the one we've been looking at, represent the whole city and surrounding area. (I wonder what area the maps themselves would take up if laid side by side? It would probably cover an area the size of a tennis court)
Outside, we find Jack soaking up the sun. The subject got to be too much for him, so he's been out here talking to people and enjoying the day. Jack is his own man; probably ten years older than the next oldest member of the delegation, full of energy, unapologetic in his admiration for what the government is trying to do here, high-spirited, full of jokes and quickly bored when the dialogue becomes too weighty or goes on too long. He's already gaining the notice of the others in the group because of his guilelessness and zest for life.
Coyula joins us on the bus to point out some of the life-size versions of what he's been showing us on the map. After a tour that would be an architecture student's dream, he brings us to the central cemetery which is very ornately laid out and reminiscent of those in New Orleans, with the crypts, or tombs, largely above ground. As he points out, the money that was spent on these monuments to the dead is a striking example of disordered priorities in a country which had, at the time most of them were built, a large, hungry and unemployed peasant population.
Coyula's knowledge of the times and his ability to tell stories of family rivalries and historic events through the dating of the various structures is impressive. The tombs themselves are largely off-putting because of the obviously squandered wealth (not to mention the bad taste of many). Some, of course, are beautiful, and a couple of stories stand out in memory:
• A man so loved his wife, whose beauty was legendary, that when she died he had her embalmed and laid out in the crypt under glass in a such a way that she was visible to him when he visited her every day. In addition, he had erected a spire above her with windows that had roses engraved in them and positioned in such a way that the sun shone through them and onto her face. It was actually quite a beautiful structure, and the unabashed romanticism of the story was kind of touching.
• A woman died in childbirth and the child died as well. A statue was erected over her tomb depicting a Madonna-like figure holding an infant and the beauty of the statue and the tragedy of the story had so entranced people that to this day mothers, pregnant women and women who want to be pregnant (we saw a number of them lined up) come here and go through a kind of ceremonial ritual of knocking on the tomb (to announce themselves), leaving flowers and money, and touching the statue (usually the infant, whose bottom, Coyula points out, has been polished by the caress of loving hands).
Coyula then takes us to an area of the cemetery which has special significance for him. This is an open area which serves as a memorial to those who died in the assault on Batista's Presidential Palace in 1957, at the beginning of the Revolution. The area is laid out, he shows us, in the form of a leaf of the Yagruma tree, which is native to this country, (a number of them line the northern rim of the memorial), the spine of which is surrounded by grass-covered hillocks beneath which are buried the remains of the fallen (the "martyrs," as I believe they refer to them). Some are named on markers and some markers are blank, allowing for the inclusion of those who didn't die in the attack but who took part in it and choose to be buried here at a later time. The southern rim of the area is bordered by artistic representations of flags on poles and are set in such a way that on the anniversary of the assault, the shadows of the flags fall on a designated spot in the monument. It's clearly a very meaningful memorial, very artfully done. It turns out he and his partner had entered this design in a contest run by the government to commemorate these fallen combatants and had won, so this was his. Further, we learn, he was one who had fought in that battle, thus making this memorial, his passion for the city and his investment in it take on another dimension.
Much to think about on the way back to the hotel.
At lunch, Janet has brought in two old friends of hers, Julio and Pedro, who are economists associated with an independent kind of "think-tank" not connected with the government. Each has spent time in the U.S., both studying and teaching, but because of restrictions imposed by the embargo, can only do so for short periods of time. Asked why that is so, Janet explains that the embargo makes illegal their receiving "a service of value" because they are citizens of Cuba. (!) One of the men speaks English. Though Janet insists the other does as well, he's more comfortable in Spanish, so she interprets.
"Economic change will bring in its wake political change."
Q. - What is the necessity of economic change?
A. - The economic crisis is extensive and has been intense since 1990. The GNP is down 40% and imports are down 85%. The government has responded in two ways, 1) to ration everything and 2) to choose to not close enterprises. Government controlled businesses have stayed open so workers can still receive their salaries, even though they aren't producing. Demand continued to rise as supply plummeted. The negative consequences of these factors have been the creation of a black market, the deterioration of labor discipline and the concept of "salary" has lost economic meaning.
By 1993 the country was in crisis. If it continued there was no possibility of the government continuing to stand. In December of '93 there were discussions in Parliament as to how to restructure - how to reduce the excess of dollars in the economy. Possibilities were to impose taxes, to raise prices or to reduce production. The decision was made to take the questions to the people and in January of '94, discussions were organized in work centers and other places around the country. The discussions resulted in decisions to raise prices on certain products, to charge for services that were heretofore free (such as dance classes, school lunches, school uniforms, karate classes) and to impose certain taxes. An income tax (tax on salary) was rejected.
Then there was a debate about replacing the old currency with a new one. No decision was reached.
In May of '94, the new Parliament adopted by consensus a policy of price hikes, the elimination of certain free services and the imposition of select taxes (but not on salary). Thus, the economy began absorbing the excess money supply.
These decisions were politically the easiest, but not economically the wisest, per our two guys, because today, two months later, "we have exhausted the ability of these measures to absorb the excess money." "Our preference" would have been the immediate issuance of new currency. It would have had better results in less time (because this excess of $ is concentrated in certain sectors of the population - that 1% or 2% of the people who operate on the black market most successfully).
Another point debated is that it is not sufficient simply to reduce the $ supply, but is necessary to "turn off the faucet" of the dollar supply. That (new currency) would have made big economic changes - would have changed the effect of the subsidies, would have changed how production is organized. But this choice was not considered by the government.
Q. - How do you operate?
A. - We publish reports and send them to the government and the press (often foreign press), but the government traditionally ignores us.
A parallel to the economic crisis is the food shortage. The reasons for it are 1) the embargo, 2) the attendant lack of ability to import and 3) the drastic drop in sugar production. The reasons for the drop in sugar production are lack of fuel for machinery, lack of money for spare parts, lack of fertilizers, pesticides, lack of labor discipline and poor management. For example, in '92, sugar production was 7.2 million tons, in '93, 4.2 million tons and in '94, possibly 4 million, with a resultant loss to the Cuban economy in excess of $1 billion.
In early times, sugar provided 80% of the gross domestic product dollar as we were in both sugar production and sugar processing. With the Soviet subsidy, sugar production became highly mechanized so that people could leave the fields. The failure of the USSR not only cost us the ability to keep the machines running and the crops fertilized, etc., but it also required the reintroduction of large numbers of people into the fields to do the work the machines could no longer do. Many of them are not interested. So many years removed from it, many are not trained for this kind of work.
Mechanization was the result of the Cuban government's interest in advancing the lot of the Cuban people, to bring them into the modern age, to give people a chance to raise the level of their lives through education and the arts, etc. In 1959, for example, 400,000 people harvested sugar. In 1988, 60,000 did it. The others had moved to the urban centers that had been built up to service the industry.
Continuing food shortages had led to changes in the way food was produced, particularly from State to cooperative farms. Now (within the last 15 days) free farmer's markets have been introduced. This is due to the government's recognition that it had to deal with the food crisis. But despite the fact that these reforms are moving things in the right direction, the problem today is that there isn't a coherent plan of economic reform. Ad hoc measures, not interconnected, deal with each crisis as it arises. There is no new economic model.
Though there is still a high level of political stability, even in the face of the gravity of this crisis, the political stability is weakening and the government has no plan to deal with it.
Q. - What would you do?
A. - A master plan of economic reform, rapid and determined, would have a positive effect politically and address people's growing concerns. You have to, in a specific manner, discuss these things with the people and engage them and their support.
When this crisis hit, the government made minimal changes based upon their belief that the problem was "imported." All of the things that were done were to avoid basic changes in the Cuban economic system.
Today, for example, the emphasis on pharmaceuticals is a mistake. Cuba has the ability to produce them, but no ability to market them.
Increasingly, the development of the export capacity of the economy has begun to look more like a capitalist system. Then other aspects of "capitalist" style experiments began to appear. At the same time, in order to maintain the "Revolutionary Model," the government cracked down on some who were going too far. The result is confusion.
Two factors, the failure of the sugar harvest and the contraction in the economy, have forced the government to continue the liberalization of the economy.
Q. - Aren't you, by saying that, supporting the rationalization behind the embargo?
A. - If this "tightening" had practical results, perhaps so. But the Cuban government is distanced from the outside world. Sugar, citrus, tobacco and nickel are 90% of Cuba's economy. Add tourism and foreign investment (Canada, Mexico and now Great Britain are coming in) and that is the economy. What else can the US do? Force an uprising?
The question of why the US is maintaining the embargo brings to light some confusing possibilities:
- one is the question of economic rivalry between Cuba and Florida (sugar, citrus fruit and tourism, so important to the capitalist interests in Florida may be more meaningful than Cuban émigrés who oppose lifting the embargo for political reasons). Given that analysis, issues of democracy and human rights are raised, but if addressed will turn out to have been a smoke screen.
- also, Cubans in Florida know that their only hope of returning to the country on their terms is after a disaster in Cuba.
In being asked why the US position on Cuba is so hard-line as opposed to its position with regard to China or North Korea, for example, a US State Department spokesperson (Rick Nuccio) said, "The United States' greatest commitment to democracy is in the Western Hemisphere." (!!)
Whatever the case, in the view of these two men, "more space is open for dialogue on economic terms today." Because, in their view, economics is the basis for everything, this will lead to openness in politics - possibly to the formation of new political groups.
Back in the bus on our way to the next meeting we drive once again along 5th Avenue, the main drag of the western side of the city where we're located. The stately homes Coyula told us about, many quite large, some in fact baronial, line both sides of the street. Again, most need a coat of paint but still are quite impressive. All are of the same square-block-style of design and construction. These structures, once the homes of the wealthy elite (who now reside for the most part in Miami) are now co-ops or are occupied by embassies and/or religious or educational groups of one sort or another. The ocean front, as we come onto it, is very impressive. A sea wall on the north side of the road provides space for a walkway overlooking the Caribbean/Atlantic. This is a city of many wide streets. Quite often the lawns are overgrown, but things appear to be neat and clean otherwise.
Our 3:30PM meeting is in the Ministry of Public Health and we are welcomed by a panel of physicians from the National Asthma Program, the Family Doctor Program and specialists in maternal and child health. This building, as the others, is a fairly dilapidated place with questionable elevators. Everything wants plastering, a coat of paint or a thorough scrubbing, but the people are unfailingly polite and thoughtful, always offering coffee, water and sometimes cookies or the like.
After introductions around, they begin. A few of the doctors speak English (though invariably with an apology for how poorly they do so) and whenever one doesn't, the ever-ready Ivonne is there to interpret.
Childhood asthma, we're told, is a serious problem in the country. Humidity and climatic changes seem to be the aggravating factors, as far as is known, in the creation of the problem. Cuba is 2nd in the world in prevalence of child asthma, which affects 14% of the children in the country. (The US has an incidence of 13%, Australia and New Zealand have 10%. Highest in the world is in the Carolina Islands, which has an incidence of 34%.)
In 1959, they tell us, the country's health situation was very bad. The hospitals were poor and mostly tended to the wealthy, doctors were difficult to find and the economy was not in good shape. At that point they had an infant mortality rate of 70/1000 at birth.
There were 6,000 doctors in the country at the beginning of the Revolution, and half of them left at the Triumph. The population then was 6 million.
Today, there are 52,000 doctors for 11 million people and there are more medical students graduating per year than the total number of doctors here in 1961.
The Family Doctor Program now brings health care (free of charge) to all in the society.
Hospitals are being built all over the country. Today, however, the available money goes to living needs and is creating a difficult situation for medicine.
The doctor who is speaking specializes in the Asthma Program and says "It is difficult to find one family in Cuba without a child with asthma. In my own family, all three children have it."
Q. - Why is there so much asthma in Cuba?
A. - Bronchial asthma is very prevalent in islands. In the US it is mostly found on the coasts. Here, out of an 11 million population, we have 900,000 asthmatics, of which 350,000 are children. In determining the severity of asthma, it is broken down that 5 attacks or fewer per year qualify as Grade 1; 6 to 9 attacks per year, Grade 2; and ten or above, Grade 3. 18% of Cuban child asthmatics, or 60,000, are Grade 3. The largest so-far insoluble medical problems (in the world?) are #1 psychiatric, #2 AIDS and #3 asthma.
Q. - Is it fair to say that the causes are a mixture of genetic and environmental factors?
A. - Indeed. Inbreeding and weather. The only solution is to attack it as soon as possible - before birth. Pediatricians generally wait until age 5. Too late. Perhaps prenatal diet control and medication. Certainly 100% breast feeding. "There is no such thing as benign asthma."
Studies now show that the mainly effective steps are 1) health education, 2) environmental control of risk factors, 3) continuous medication, 4) rehabilitation and 5) immunotherapy. If one can bring a child safely to the age of 7, his or her hormonal secretions will often take over.
An asthmatic patient, well-treated, should improve unless there is:
2) continued exposure to the risk
3) inter-current infection
4) psychological tension
5) bad diagnosis
6) food allergy
The primary danger in Cuba today with regard to the continuing treatment of these afflicted children is that we are running out of drugs. The medicine for asthmatic mothers, chromo-glycate, which is taken during the last three months of pregnancy, is very expensive. We (meaning, I think, the world) need to find ways to lower the cost of anti-asthmatic drugs.
We always try to produce in country all the medicines we can. The difference in cost (to importing them) is on the order of 1 to 8. Some of the new products, we find, are inflated in cost by the producer in order to gain back development expenses. But we can't produce certain medications. We don't have the materials and can't get the formulations. We can't afford to buy them even when they're available.
Q. - What is the effect of the Torricelli Bill (the Cuban Democracy Act)?
A. - In public health, many examples. Cuba's main supplier used to be the U.S. Now it is Europe. The advantages to Cuba of trading with the U.S. as opposed to Europe are obvious; proximity and expense, primarily. There used to be two ferries a day running between Florida and Havana. Ten short airplane flights a day. Europe is farther away, harder to get things from and more expensive. In addition, for example, for many years we've bought our medical supplies and technology from Germany. All pace-makers here are from Siemans, in Germany. Since they have been taken over by a U.S. corporation, they can't sell to us any more because of Torricelli.
Q. - (Most of these questions were asked by Stephen Ayres, himself a public health physician.) With all the shortages in hospital supplies and medications, how do you explain the fact that Cuba has been able to maintain its low infant mortality rate and even continue to reduce it? And what are the danger signals as far as that changing?
A. - We worked very hard in the first 30 years after the Revolution. Now, fewer X-rays and less technology available means that the doctor has to make better use of his knowledge.
Infant mortality was 9.4/1000 last year, almost the same as the U.S. Child asthma rate was worse last year than the year before. The problems with supply of food, quality of water, the environment, sanitation, etc., all of which are worsening, will affect the child mortality rate.
Q. - The basic steps of a medical exam are 1) history, 2) physical exam, 3) simple tests, 4) further examination and 5) expensive tests. In the U.S., because little money is made in the early steps, doctors often start with step #5. Perhaps we should send US doctors here to learn the basics.
A. - The difficulty in getting access to modern medicines and technologies has made us better doctors. The old saying is, "The doctor cures one out of ten. Nature takes care of the other nine."
Our problem at the moment is the increase in the number of low birth-weight babies, which may mean problems in the future. Infant mortality in the first year is 14 times higher if the baby is born at less than 2500 grams. Before, babies born with low birth weight were 7.3% of live births. Now it is 9%.
Q. - The U.S. has that problem too, in poor communities. In most of the world the problem is poor physicians. Your problem should be simple to solve, it's only money.
Paul, who it turns out speaks very good Spanish himself, points out that this is the dilemma for the NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Usually they work in areas where trained people don't exist. Here, because of the expertise and training available, it would be more of an authentic partnership.
Q. - Tell us about the Family Doctor Program?
A. - (Holds up book.) Read the book. (Laughter) There is no tuition fee charged for medical school, so doctors go, after graduation, where they are assigned. The National Public Health system is a plan designed by doctors, families and nurses, which guarantees a doctor and a nurse for each 600 people (120 to 140 families) in rural areas, and for every 800 people in urban areas.
There are 121,000 family doctors in the countryside. Some of them are in medical and educational centers. The aim is to improve the general health level of the population through prevention of disease, promotion of health, early diagnosis and rehabilitative treatment post disease.
The birth of this plan in Cuba was due to the fact that the epidemiological reality of Cuba was different in the '80s from what it was in the '50s. Also, there was the political will to retain the high degree of health that we had achieved. The Family Doctor plan began in 1984 with 10 doctors and 10 nurses. It had great results and grew.
Late again, we thank our hosts and rush back downstairs and onto the bus. We're supposed to be back at the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation (where we met Raul Taladrid yesterday - was it only yesterday?) for a "welcome cocktail."
Again I abjure the elevators and walk up the dark stairway. Much safer in my mind. We are introduced around to a bunch of people, all associated with the Ministry. Taladrid is not there, but Senor Roqueta welcomes us warmly. The even is very informal, thank God, because we're pretty casually dressed. All of the Cubans are in their Guayabaras which, given the weather, are a terrific idea.
Drinks are available and wait-people pass through with hors d'oeuvres. It gets embarrassing to keep saying 'no thanks' to everything, because I don't want to offend anyone, but there's nothing I can eat so I just smile a lot.
One guy, whose name I didn't get, has a kind of aggressive intelligence about him (it's easy to picture him as one of the "orthodox Marxists" our lunch partners talked about) and singles me out for conversation. We talk a bit about our trip through the city and what impressions are so far. Frank (who has a special focus on racism at least in part because his boss [Congressman Payne] is a member of the Black Caucus) is also part of this conversation and somehow the subject turns to the Afro-Cuban population and whether or not there has been a conscious effort on the part of the government to raise their status.
Karl Marx says there has not been. He says they were of course descended from slaves, and this explains why they are primarily on the lower rungs of society, but the attempt has been to raise the status of all, without singling out any ethnic group. In fact, he points out, there is little awareness of any difference in ethnicity in Cuban society. We discuss for a while the special sensitivity many in our society have because of the very same background for African-Americans, and the need that is felt to find ways to address the gap in social status that has resulted. Not so here, he insists.
Then it's time to say our good-byes to our hosts and head for the bus. We have to get back to the hotel and clean up before dinner with the President of the Cuban Parliament, so we beg our leave and take off.
On the bus back to the hotel, Frank is unconvinced. His boss, he says, has taken a position against the embargo and has gotten heavy flak for it. He would like to arrange a tour of Cuba for a delegation of Black Caucus members, but, according to Frank, if they hear someone say there is no discrimination in this society and Afro-Cubans are mostly among the poor because they started as slaves but there's nothing special we can or need to do about it, they'll go berserk. The question he will have to answer, he says, is with everything this society has going for it, why should Black Caucus members make it a priority over under-developed nations in Africa?
On the streets through which we pass, I'm struck by the tempo of life here. For a country suffering the shortages we're hearing about, the people look remarkably good. To the casual observer, the average Cuban on the street would appear to be young, vital, healthy and neatly, if not expensively, dressed. The sense of impoverishment doesn't extend itself in an obvious way, at least to the streets we see. There is a legendary grace and rhythm to Cuban life that is evident around us, and it seems there is an unusual number of attractive people of both sexes.
Pulling into the hotel driveway, Gail is queried about the appropriate dress for meeting the President of the Parliament tonight and assures us that things are pretty casual in Cuba. The most dressy occasion, she says, is satisfied by wearing the Guayabara, so something comparable will be fine. I ask if an open-collared shirt is a problem and she assures me it's not.
So after a quick freshen-up, quick because the water never gets beyond luke-warm, I head down to the lobby in slacks, a white shirt and a tie. (The only sport coat I brought is a wool tweed one for the speaking engagement in Indiana on the way home - a bit heavy for this weather.) One by one, my companeros appear, all the men in suits and ties, all the women snappy looking as well. I wonder if I've made a colossal error. But thank God for Jack (we show biz types are expected to be somewhat eccentric), who, though looking spiffy in black slacks and a black shirt, is at least without a coat. I'm worried. But into the bus and off we go, with Gail reassuring me that I won't insult anybody.
After driving East and into a different part of the city we pull into a curved drive at a rather imposing home - or what looks like a home. Disembarking, I almost fall over when I see two men in tuxedos at the front door! (I wanna go home.) Reluctantly, I fall into line with the rest and move through the open doors to be greeted by women in maid's uniforms and more men in tuxedos. Yet another tuxedoed man arrives and welcomes us and proceeds to show us around (all I can think of is Hugh Griffith in "Start the Revolution Without Me" wandering into a fancy dress ball in the castle dressed as a chicken, saying over and over, "I thought it was a costume party"). Finally it begins to dawn on me that this splendid home used to be a splendid home but is now a splendid restaurant. And these formally dressed people aren't our hosts... well, they are our hosts, but they're not the people we're meeting for dinner.
After being shown about a bit (the place is actually very nice - one can eat outdoors either under the covered patio or in the garden, or in one of the nicely done rooms inside) we're ushered into a private room in the rear of the building (where, doubtless, some filthy rich person used to sleep) and made comfortable around a large table. Seating is always an interesting problem with a group as large as ours when we're dining and meeting at the same time. There is an attempt made to get the primary speaker into a central place and then to be sensitive to the position of those within the delegation who might have the most direct interest in the subject at hand. Janet and Gail are both fluent in Spanish and at times have to correct or clarify some of Ivonne's translation, so it's important to have them close at all times. And we don't want to leave anyone out. Jack is fun to watch in this regard. He has a bad ear, so places himself appropriately, but whenever the talk drones on too long or he loses interest I see him turning away a bit and I smile to myself, knowing that he's tuned out and is off in a zone somewhere, meditating.
Shortly after we're situated, two men come in (in Guayabaras) and are introduced around. They are Jose Antonio Arbesu, head of the Americas Department, Central Committee of the Communist Party and Fernando Garcia Bielsa, of the Department of International Relations (I believe he's also a member of the Central Committee). Our main guest, Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban National Assembly (the Parliament), isn't with them, we're told, but will be along when he's free from a meeting. (There are many meetings, I'm sure, because we are here directly in the aftermath of the exodus of the "rafters," thousands of whom are still encamped at Guantanamo Bay, and negotiations on the subject have been continuing between Cuba and the U.S. Alarcon, who is reputed to be next in line for the leadership of the country when Fidel steps down, led the Cuban delegation to the U.S. and is expecting an American delegation in a couple of days to follow up. The buzz around is full of speculation as to whether or not these initial talks will result in a lessening of the tension and perhaps be the beginning of a new relationship. Janet, for one, is disappointed at the make-up of the U.S. delegation that was announced because the relative low level of the leadership sends a signal that isn't hopeful in that regard.)
Drinks are ordered and conversation is casual. Arbesu is a powerful looking man, probably in his late forties or early fifties, with a slightly menacing look (perhaps enhanced by the fact that I think he is or was involved with State Security). Fernando Garcia is younger, very thin, and has a warmer manner (though I hear later he is thought of as a hard-liner). Arbesu sits to Janet's left and she is to mine, so I can hear pretty well. He says of his government and its relationship with the Party that it is based on the Bulgarian model - the Party does not control government ministries.
Q. - Are Party members elected to the Political Bureau?
A. - Elected? (Pause) There is a Party Congress. Delegates are selected from different area. They convene and elect members of the Central Committee.
Q. - Is Cuba part of GATT? What do you envision the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba to be after the embargo?
A. - Cuba is a member of GATT. We were in the World Bank, but were forced out by the U.S. What we look for post-embargo is regular, legal trade, as with any other country. On an equal basis. Start from zero. What is most important is not what we can buy or sell, but that we not be blocked in trade relationships with others.
Q. - If the U.S. Government said it would end the embargo, does Cuba have a position on paper with which to begin negotiations?
Arbesu makes a joke - I think it's about the lack of paper - and there is laughter.
Q. - When was the last time a high-ranking labor delegation was here from the U.S.?
A. - In the late '70s.
Fernando Garcia, further down the table, makes a point about the democratic inroads that Alarcon is making. He refers to something called, I think, the National Assembly of the People's Power, which is made up of people elected from the neighborhoods. He said it is 500 strong and he may have said it is the Parliament (maybe he said it was a body like a parliament).
Paul asks/offers that redistribution of power and bottom-up participation seem to be dual evolutionary processes. Agreed?
Arbesu says he agrees in part. He says originally "we were not forced by circumstance to make changes." (They did them because that was the purpose of the Revolution.) But now they are being forced because of the economic constraints. As to the other part, he says they always tried to have a redistribution of power - from the beginning. There are 600,000 Party members and 600,000 members of the Youth Communist League. Non-party members can be elected to Parliament - and are. Also, he says, there is no requirement that a Minister of Government be a Party member.
Q. - Are there any?
A. - No.
Ricardo Alarcon comes in. He is probably in his forties, a thin man with brown hair, passionate dark eyes and a ready smile. When he sits down he seems smaller, somehow, but never lacking for energy.
We go around the table again with introductions for his benefit, and when I mention being an actor something is said about my having played a doctor in MASH, which he knows from having spent time in the U.S. Using that as a spring-board, I quickly tell about being shanghaied into assisting with the surgery on Commandante Nidia Diaz in El Salvador in '85. They know of Nidia and it provides a light moment.
He says the meeting next week with the Cuba desk officer (from the State Dept.) who is coming here to discuss implementation of the agreement on refugees is instructive. The low level of the head of the delegation is being seen as a signal that the Administration is not anxious to show - or make - progress (at least before the election). He says the pressure on the Administration coming from Miami is readily apparent.
Frank mentions a memo he saw in Congress that indicates that 2,000 of those at Guantanamo would be sent to the U.S. Is that a violation of the agreement?
Alarcon says he would have agreed to the number. That is not a problem. They are accepting children, the chronically ill and people over 70 years of age. What is a problem, he says, is that by doing so they are indirectly encouraging older people to leave and that is a mistake.
Q. - Has the agreement then been abused?
A. - From Cuba's point of view, the U.S. is doing things which they have said they would not do. We are in a strong position, nonetheless, because they cannot go back to the old policy.
(All during the Cold War years, and even up to just before this recent "rafter" crisis, the U.S. automatically took in anyone who came from Cuba as one fleeing from Communist repression and therefore deserving of immediate acceptance and special status. (Someone said automatic citizenship. I'm not sure of that.) This double standard became impossibly embarrassing, especially with the flood of Haitians who were being turned back. The fact that the U.S. reacted to the rafters differently, returned them to Cuba [albeit Guantanamo], negotiated with Cuba on ways to contain them and didn't welcome them automatically, represents a major change.)
**(Because the ability to leave one's country is considered a basic human right, Cuba has always been criticized for not allowing people to freely emigrate if they chose to do so. Now, having allowed these people to leave, they are being pressured by the U.S. to stop others from doing so, thus putting the U.S. essentially in the position of pressuring the Cuban government to do what we've always criticized them for doing, thus violating the rights of its citizens. Human Rights Watch has written a critical letter to President Clinton on this point.)
Alarcon continues, the U.S. has not given an answer to Cuba's request for a list of the names of those at Guantanamo. It has also not responded to a request for information on children who "were taken against the will of one of the parents."
Q. - How are your relationships with other Central American countries?
A. - We have had good relationships with all Latin American countries and continue to have. We have diplomatic missions in all of them except Guatemala and El Salvador. There have been changes in some of the relationships, sometimes, because of their relationships with the U.S.
Q. - Does the fact that the upcoming Latin American Summit is being held in Miami reflect the power of the Cuban exile community?
A. - There is no agenda so far established for the Summit. Indications are it will be meaningless in the long term. We are not invited, but we will be very much there. Because of our absence, we will be the subject of every discussion - especially post-summit.
Q. - Would you like more support in Washington from other Latin American countries?
A. - We get some support. It would be nice to get more, but their independence is limited.
On the political change by the U.S., he says that anger exists today in Miami because of the Cubans detained in "safe havens" (Guantanamo). That will not go away. We will see demonstrations of emotion on the part of the Cuban exiles against Clinton. All of this feeds the requirement that the Cuban issue be seriously addressed.
Q. - Assuming no change in the embargo, what is the future of Cuban diplomacy?
A. - The permanent objective is the achievement of Cuban independence. The lifting of the embargo will be a step toward financial/economic independence. After the embargo our goal will be the same; how to adjust to a changing world.
Q. - Human rights and democracy are issues often raised - used against Cuba. How far has Cuba gone in meeting the issues raised in those complaints?
A. - Those issues are important, but subject to manipulation. There are issues of "selective interpretation." It can be said we are subject to special scrutiny as a result of U.S. pressure. There are reports of torture, murder and disappearances in other countries, but even the human rights reports that do criticize Cuba don't accuse us of that. Nor do they mention the seven heavily armed men who came into our country last month and were dropped off a boat on our northern coast. These are men who were trained in Florida, who came here to kill our people and did in fact kill one young man, a harmless fisherman who they happened upon, before being captured.
We don't say that in Cuba there are no violations of human rights. Things happen. The point is if there is impunity or not. There is no impunity, nor is there promotion of those who violate human rights by violating the personal integrity of an individual.
(He then goes on to talk at length about the fact that the U.S. manipulated the member nations of the U.N. to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cuba in 1988 even after there had been a report indicating serious progress was being made in the country on the issue. He said Cuba would not accept the Special Rapporteur [He has to be allowed in the nation by the government in power and they said no.] because it was being used against them politically and they felt it wasn't warranted.)
(I respond by suggesting that because of the fact that it is their position that the human rights issue is being unfairly used against them, it might be of value to them to consider inviting in a delegation from a widely respected non-governmental human rights organization to study the situation and issue a report. Such a report could be of great benefit, it would seem, in responding to unfair and inappropriate charges against them.)
(Later, as we both headed for the rest room, Alarcon and I had a chance to talk in the hall and I re-addressed my suggestion, telling him that I was associated with Human Rights Watch. I mentioned HRW's report on the human rights violations in the Miami Cuban exile community, of which he was aware, and he spoke of their letter criticizing the current policy of the Clinton Administration, which he appreciated.)
Back in the room the discussion is about to pick up again when we are invaded by a group of musicians who want to serenade us. They quickly get it that the discussion is much too serious for that and beat a hasty exit.
Q. - Has the government given special consideration to programs aimed at improving the lot of blacks?
A. - Some. There is more discrimination against women than against blacks. There is a tradition of male chauvinism. Attention must be paid to eliminating the social conditions which have created these situations. The lack of blacks in upper levels is obvious and true, but progress is being made. Now the majority of our scientists are women, the majority of our professionals are women. In political leadership, most are whites, but there is (sounded like Armeda). The leader of the Party in Havana now is a black man (Lazo), who was moved here from Santiago de Cuba. It is difficult to say how much success we're having, but it is also illegal to say. All discrimination is illegal. All references to differences in race are illegal. We set out to eliminate all social sources, all legal sources and all cultural sources of racism.
Frank makes the suggestion that Jorge Mas Canosa (the leader of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami and reportedly one of the most violent, powerful and feared right-wing Cuban émigrés in the U.S.) may have taken the position he did against the rafters because some of them were blacks.
Alarcon says "Many of those in U.S. prisons, without charge, since the Mariel boat-lift, are black." Also, he says, Jorge Mas and his followers have stated publicly that one of the things they object to is the idea of black people and their kids now living in their old houses in Cuba.
(The issue of the political influence of the Cuban exile community in Miami is a hot one. Many don't understand why the Clinton Administration hasn't been more progressive on what is clearly an out-dated, Cold-War related, right-wing policy. Information is that Hillary Clinton's brother, Hugh - currently the Democratic candidate for the Senate from Florida - is married to a Cuban exile who is a constant source of anti-Castro, right-wing propaganda. One anecdote has it that a Cuban-American named Lillian Pubillones, a brilliant scholar, was tapped for a job at the State Dept. She was told, however, that she'd have to be interviewed by President Clinton's sister-in-law. She went on the interview, with the woman, was asked her position on the embargo, which she said she opposed, and was vetoed.)
It's late. We say our good-byes and head for the bus. Another full evening with much to think about. Home through the darkened streets - and on a Friday night - we're again reminded of the lack of fuel and other of what Americans think of as life's necessities. Few automobiles, many buildings without lights.
Saturday, October 22, 1994
5AM comes awfully early, but we have to get to the airport for a 6 o'clock flight. We're going to Granma Province in the southeastern part of Cuba. (Granma is named after the boat on which Fidel and his revolutionaries came from Mexico to Cuba in 1957 to start their war of liberation. It was purchased from a Scandinavian, or so the story goes, who had literally named it for his grandmother.) We only need a small bag with a change of clothes, as we'll be coming back tomorrow night and they have arranged for us to keep our rooms at the hotel, so things can be left there.
On the bus ride to the airport I talk a little with Stephen, who just returned from Belorussia in time to take this trip with us. He was working there with teams of physicians (an international effort, I believe) attempting to deal with the health problems of child victims of the radiation fall-out from Chernobyl, nine years ago. He says they have found thyroid cancer to have increased by a factor of 100. Leukemia is up by 22% and they find a general lowering of the level of the effectiveness of the immune system. 25% of the gross domestic product of the area is spent in dealing with the on-going effects of the radiation. He says the psychological damage alone is monumental and the continuing cover-up on the part of the government is scandalous. (He refers me to a book by Gregor Medvedev, called "The Truth about Chernobyl.") He says 25% of the population in Belorusse has been contaminated and probably the same in the Ukraine; 2.5 million in each area. He says they use T-cell count to measure contamination (as with AIDS) and B-cells as well. He says children who get a 180 day period of rest and good nutrition out of the area of contamination show a significant improvement. (One problem is the lack of iodine in their diets. Iodine-deprived thyroids take it from where they can get it, and one of the radioactive elements in the atmosphere there is Iodine 131, or something like that. Anyway it goes straight to the thyroid gland.) He also says that once they are cleaned up and the stuff is out of their systems, returning them to the contaminated area can possibly re-infect them, so alongside whatever efforts at clean-up that are going on are these international efforts to get groups of kids out of there and treated. Some are here in Cuba and we'll see them next week.
At the airport, evidently a local field, the only plane visible must be ours. It's a small jet liner with the entry ramp in the rear. We go through the perfunctory passport check (so perfunctory that one of our party who left his passport back at the hotel is passed through anyway), through an electronic scanner and into a little waiting room, where it looks as though we're the only passengers to Granma. Our little party has grown by a couple, though. Fernando, the Party man from the Dept. of International Relations who we met at dinner last night is going with us, as is the Public Health doctor who spoke to us at the Ministry yesterday. Lola, the Ministry assistant who has been with us on and off, is with us as well.
Pretty soon we're loading up. I'm almost right. There is one other passenger; a little old woman who sits by herself and doesn't say much to anyone, as far as I can see. Walter indulges in a little gentle chiding of Janet, who doesn't like flying (and was not particularly happy with the hard landing when we came into the country - not that any of us were) who in turn reminds me of a daredevil flight we took together in one of King Hussein's helicopters in Jordan a few years ago. Finally we settle in and take off. On the way up Ivonne reassures us that this "is one of the best Russian planes," which causes some to note a possible contradiction in terms.
We're up quickly and the green, flat, cultivated land stretches out below us. Shortly the land changes a bit and a few small hills and lakes take shape as we fly eastward. Suddenly I can see both the northern and the southern coasts, one on each side. This really is an island, and not a particularly large one, particularly when one considers the giant presence it's been in our lives for so long.
Moving around the plane gives a chance to catch up with some of the others.
- Jack is engrossed in a large map of Cuba, checking out where we're going. The city where we'll be staying, Bayamos, is the largest city in Granma Province and gives us access, among other things, to the Sierra Maestra Mountains, the famous area where Fidel and Che and their army held forth during the revolution. Jack, with quite an eye for the ladies, is also enchanted by the stewardess on the flight, a lovely young woman with, as he notes "a beautiful smile."
- Frank is talking to Jack and Fernando about the problems created for Members of Congress like his boss who are willing to speak out against the embargo. He shows us a newspaper article about two New York area Congressmen who had personal visits from Jorge Mas Canosa who expressed his unhappiness in no uncertain terms. One of them said Canosa threatened him, though perhaps obliquely.
On the subject of the violence of the Miami exiles, I ask Fernando what he thinks of the speculation involving some of them in the assassination of JFK. He mentions a book that was written fairly recently in which a Cuban general made available some information from Cuba's intelligence files on that subject. I would love to get a copy of that for my son, I tell him, who has inherited an interest in the subject. He says he'll see if he can find out the name of it. We then talk a bit further about the human rights frictions. He tells of an America's Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Americas) visit here years ago in which Juan Mendez and Patt Derian took part. As best I can get it, he seems to feel that their report was going to be less critical of the situation here, but then was either put aside or superseded or overwhelmed by another report, this one featuring some ugly (and, he suggests, untrue) charges by a Cuban émigré. He also talks about his own past, about leaving the university at which he was a student to join the military during the years ('64 - '67) when there was a "Contra" (counter-revolutionary) force active in the mountains, and about rising in the Party, eventually to return as a "professor" at the university from which he had not graduated. He says he then did complete his studies. (The idea is a strange one to me, but Paul tells me later that it's not unusual. When he was a missionary in Bolivia years ago, the practice was that one was able to teach up to one grade level below that which he or she had achieved. He said he knew a man who had studied at a school where the teacher had only completed the fourth grade level, so could only teach up to the level of grade three. This man, he said, took the grade three level courses for four years in a row, "so he could be sure he'd gotten everything the teacher knew.")
In today's Cuba a teacher without a degree gets a salary of 203 pesos per month - with a degree, 230 pesos per month. (Black Market equivalent of $4 to $4.75 per month)
Coming down now toward the airstrip at Bayamos we can see the Sierra Maestra off to the south. The one thing I've noted as we've flown over the major portion of the island is that fact that virtually every habitable patch has been cultivated. In the mountains to the south, of course, except for the tillable areas they've been able to carve out of the mountainside, it's more wild.
As we come in to land, Paul points out that the airport is named for Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a wealthy landowner who freed his slaves in 1868 and armed them with machetes so that they could join the fight for freedom from Spain, thus initiating the war for Cuban independence. Legend has it that the Cuban National Anthem was first sung in this area.
A good landing and we unload, carrying our bags. It's a typical, outlying airfield without much in the way of amenities. No security of any kind is visible and we are met by a young woman who is Ivonne's counterpart here (though Ivonne is still with us) who takes us to yet another bus. (Like the other, this is fairly new, comfortable and equipped with air conditioning, which is appreciated because it's noticeably hotter here.) We load our bags and some of the boxes of Jack's medicine, which will be given to a pediatric hospital here. (The decision as to who gets what has been worked out by the Public Health Ministry in conversation through Ivonne with Paul and Jack.)
The road into the city is typical of my experience in the Latin American countryside (more so than had been the case in Havana). The foliage is more tropical, more dense, and the dwellings we see by the road are more prone to wood with tin or thatched roofs, the poverty more visible. As we approach the city we see large cement-block structures, obviously, like the "projects" in our own cities, housing for those in need. These have a more Eastern European, Socialist-Bloc look to them.
The city itself is very old, with a kind of rabbit-warren look of different kinds of structures and materials mixed together, bordering the narrow streets. The houses themselves appear to have been repaired, maintained, and in some cases enlarged, with the use of whatever material was available and with the work done mostly by the resident. The result is a kind of organized disorder, a chaos that becomes routine through repetition. There is an energy to the city, and a kind of charm. Horse-drawn carts, for which the area is noted, appear regularly.
The Sierra Maestra Hotel is a fairly large (5 story), modern-looking structure with a big, open, tiled lobby. The inevitable trio of Cuban musicians welcomes us and we go through the routine of being assigned rooms and head upstairs. There's some question about the elevator, which is enough to convince me to not even try, so we wend our way up to the fourth floor and our rooms. Decidedly more spare than the hotel room in Havana, this one has a loud air conditioner going, for which I'm very grateful, tile floors, two soft, narrow beds and a funky lighting system. But it's home. In the bathroom there is a stall shower (well, more a shower area, separated by a sheet of hanging plastic) with a permanently open wooden louvered window above it which makes me wonder about the effectiveness of the air conditioning, and a toilet without a seat that promises an interesting exercise in balance. But at least there's a toilet.
In the lobby, we're once again treated to a welcome cocktail. Mojitas all around. I assume this is part of the program to encourage tourism. If so, it's very effective. Everyone is extremely pleasant.
Into the bus and through the narrow streets, past the beautiful old town square we go. The horse-drawn buggies are quaint and the buildings continue to be a crazy quilt of styles, some older brick, some wooden shacks, some square cement block. There is a lot of decorative wrought iron work visible, many balconies without railings of any kind, and bicycles everywhere.
At the Pediatric Hospital we're welcomed by the staff which is lined up outside as we arrive. There's a lovely, kind of festive atmosphere to the occasion, as though they don't often get visitors (which is probably the case). The unfailingly pleasant manner of these people is impressive - and kind of infectious. The unloading of the boxes of medicine is done quickly, without fanfare, but with such an obvious air of appreciation that it's very touching.
Inside, we're welcomed by the physician in charge who introduces a number of his staff as Ivonne interprets. Paul, in fluent Spanish, makes a short statement about who we are and why we're here and then we're led on a tour of the hospital, accompanied by a happy throng of nurses, attendants, parents and kids who are probably patients.
The 174 bed hospital has a clinic, a four-bed intensive care unit, a tiny admissions office and a small, fairly primitive lab. Everything looks a bit dingy and run-down, and I'm sure the sense of dinginess is emphasized by the lack of lighting. The shortage of light bulbs requires that they be used sparingly and only where needed.
We're shown a ward where the patients are children under one year with respiratory problems. An attempt has been made to seal off this room in a way, so that air conditioning can be used to advantage. Things again have a kind of soiled look, though the children are well cared for. It is a practice here that the mother or father stays with the child, which I like. Earl, who has had a fair amount of experience in dealing with need in the Third World, asks what the primary needs are here. ("What are your three basic needs?" becomes his mantra.) The doctor says that medicine is the most difficult thing for them to get, particularly certain kinds of anti-biotics. Next, he says, would be paper. They don't have paper to write medical histories, they don't have paper to cover examining tables, they don't have paper to wrap patients in. He says that next would be X-ray film. They have enough doctors and nurses, but they don't have the basic equipment with which to treat the patients. They have, for example, advanced microscopes and other instruments of high technology, but don't have spare light bulbs for them or other parts, so once in need of repair or simple replacement of a part they are useless.
Earl says the situation is "upside down." In his experience in the Third World, he says, there is often, in emergency situations, a surplus of medicines and supplies that have been sent in, but what is lacking is trained people to put them to use. Here, there is this extraordinary supply of trained and willing people ready to do what they can, but who find themselves without the basics with which to do the work.
In a ward for infants up to three months of age, again with a working air conditioner - "What are your three basic needs?" Clothing, sheets, towels, paper, anti-biotics.
Here, the doctor says, a government plan is being used to encourage mothers to do breast-feeding only - at least for the first four months. He says the Family Doctor program helps to ease the burden on the hospital. For example, by law, a Family Doctor who doesn't sign up a pregnant woman by her 10th week is sanctioned by the Public Health Ministry.
In the halls, and inevitably in wards as well, flies are a problem. The moist tropical heat and the lack of soap and other antiseptics create a dangerous combination, it would seem. The doctor explains that they have two generators for their air conditioners, but sometimes they break down and sometimes there is not enough fuel to run them.
Outside, we see that their ambulance is up on blocks, useless because they don't have tires for it.
Passing into another ward, this one for an assortment of sick kids, it all becomes nearly overwhelming. Kids on IV set-ups, some with tubes in their noses, all sweet, smiling when they can, patient with us as we work our way through. Many parents are in these wards, also gracious. Walter has been producing candy and gum out of a backpack he's carrying, bribing and charming some of the kids. He and Janet have to explain to one of the children what the gum is. The plastic wrapper has him completely buffaloed. Mary is taking it all in. Formerly a professional photographer, she's stealing shots where she can. Frank's camera is busy as well. Stephen, Earl and Pauline, who is a nurse, are quizzing the physician in charge and I spot Jack casually lagging behind, unobtrusively handing out $1 bills to each of the kids as he passes by them.
Finally we say our good-byes and head for the bus, once again behind schedule. It's hard to leave this place, in a way. In another way it's hard to keep from running out screaming. Smiling, friendly, grateful faces wave us off onto the streets of Bayamos.
Back at the hotel for lunch, we're given some choices that include spaghetti, so I grab that. My much-sought beans and rice are available here, but they're already mixed with meat, so it's spaghetti for me. Spaghetti and bread. Doughy, but filling. The service here is slow and a bit confused, but we come to the conclusion that it's a function of not having much in the kitchen and making do as best they can. Our group is proving to be very congenial and many laughs and stories are shared.
Next stop is at the home/clinic of one of the fabled family doctors. This woman, one of 1,514 in the province, lives on the second floor of a small two-story house and has the rooms on the first floor divided into office, examining and treatment rooms. A pretty, charming, dark-haired, regal-looking woman in her forties, I'd guess, she seems impervious to the heat and the flies. Everything about her suggests grace and intelligence. She welcomes us and, through Ivonne, tells us that she is open at all times, treats a constituency of 600 people and divides her time between health promotion and disease prevention, teaching and rehabilitation. She is a General Medicine specialist and has been here for 5 years. Because of the current crisis she has been working in areas of "green" medicine, by which I come to understand that she's referring to the use of herbs. She is teaching the use of herbs for self-medication as well as using them in her practice when regular medications are not available. In addition, she teaches nutrition and is also focusing on trying to bring down teen pregnancy through sex education and information about contraception.
Q. - What are the most common conditions with which you deal?
A. - Viral upper respiratory problems, bronchial asthma, high blood pressure, diarrhea and vaccinations.
Q. - Why, in your estimation, does the program work?
A. - It is the intention of the government to provide health care to all on a local level. The idea is to have the doctor involved in the community and to see people on a regular basis, as needed.
Q. - What are your three basic needs?
A. - Light bulbs, antiseptics and cleansers, and medicines.
Our schedule pressing, we're offered a short tour of the four-room facility and then encouraged to get back into the bus for the next stop. The last ones aboard say that she had invited them up to her living quarters and when they got up there, saw that she had laid out fruit and bread for all of us. We're awash in guilt about having to rush away, knowing that the expense to which she had gone can't have been easy on her budget. (These doctors are paid about 3 - 400 pesos per month, the black market equivalent of $6 to $7.) Last on the bus is Jack, who I see peel off a number of $20 bills and ask Ivonne to take them to the doctor.)
Our next stop is a maternity home run by the government for young pregnant women who have anemia or other medical conditions which aren't severe enough to require hospitalization but might create complications during pregnancy or in delivery. It's also for women who live out in the country too far from the hospital to get there safely for the delivery. A small house, no different from the others on the street, its main room is hot, full of flies and jammed with young, pregnant women. Some there, we learn, are on an out-patient basis, living at home but using the facility for medical treatment, nutritional counseling, other kinds of care and education (including, we're told, some beauty services) all at government expense.
Q. - Who decides who gets to use this facility?
A. - Teams of doctors who interview pregnant women in the area. The program is aimed at reducing the rising rate of low birth-weight babies (about which we've been hearing).
Q. - Do they live in? A. - Yes.
Q. - What is the size of the area this facility services?
A. - There are 60,000 people in this municipality. This is the only facility. We are setting another up now. We need five.
This program started in 1960 when only 20% of babies were delivered in hospital. Now over 90% are. Because of the embargo this program is being emphasized now. There is no charge to anyone. The only requirement is that those who are out-patients eat their meals here. (Experience indicates that if they are allowed to take the food home it will be given to their other children.)
Q. - If these women have other children, who cares for them while they are here?
A. - Usually the rest of the family.
Q. - What is the Cesarean rate in the country?
A. - 15%, which is too high. (To which Stephen disagrees. He says the rate in the U.S. is 25%, in Russia 6%.)
Q. - What about natural childbirth?
A. - It is encouraged. As is breast-feeding.
Q. - How long is the average hospital stay after birth?
A. - Locals are encouraged to leave as soon as possible. Three days if the mother lives out of the area. Five days for Cesarean deliveries.
Q. - Is ultra-sound used?
A. - Yes. On all pregnant women. (One woman in the group, due today and looking like it, says it made her feel safer.) (Stephen comments that this indicates a "very advanced system.")
Q. - What are your three most urgent needs?
A. - Sheets, clothing, nutrition aids and medicines.
Q. - Are women required to come here? What if someone leaves?
A. - We do everything we can to persuade them to come back. There is much social pressure to take advantage of the program. The family doctor also encourages it.
Q - What is the average stay? A. - 25 days.
Q. - (Earl asks of the women themselves) What are your three main problems?
A. - Lack of soap, food is a big problem, baby clothes. Another adds, lack of kitchen utensils, lack of clothing, lack of ingredients for food "so we can cook with our hearts."
A very heartfelt expression follows from some of the women as they thank us for coming. (I note there is a tendency here to make speeches, speeches of introduction, speeches of gratitude, almost as if it's been taught as a social form. It's a curious thing because there is often a lack of ease with it, as a grade-school student standing in front of the class might show discomfort, but the content, if you let it in, is almost always moving. Sincere and very touching.) Gail, who has been interpreting, is moved and embraces the woman who has been speaking.
And away on the bus. What an odd experience to drop in and out of people's lives like this.
Away into the countryside we go, toward the province of Guisa in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. Here are more houses with thatched roofs and wooden sides. Fernando points out the wires and says that now 90% of the homes in the country have electricity. Again the dense, lush foliage encroaches except where it has been swept away for purposes of cultivating the land. Into the mountains the road curves between orchards, cornfields, farms and well-tended croplands. Soon we near a town and are greeted by a stand of "projects," the soviet-style cement-block apartment houses that provide housing for so many. And again into the countryside. Livestock on the side of the road near some of the small huts. Two interesting things come to mind. One is the neatness of even the poorest looking homes, the other is the absolute lack of any sign of a military presence. I don't think I've seen a soldier since I got to the country.
We stop and unload at a small house by the side of the road. This is the Ortega Settlement in the Province of Guisa and is an example of the progress that is being made in the area. A Unicef grant has made possible a water project here, where campesinos in the past had to walk long distances for water. This is one of four that have been built in the countryside to the benefit of many families. It is a gravity-run aqueduct system that provides potable water to 200 families 24 hours per day through pipes run from a spring up in the mountains and has made a giant difference in these people's lives. The Unicef grant was matched by money from the Cuban government. This unit cost $7,000.
We are escorted through the house of Pancho, who is a teacher who also raises livestock and grows coffee. The small, wooden, two or three room house is rustic and very clean. In the back it looks as though a motion picture production designer has made up the perfect farmyard. Chickens cluck around, stabbing at the dirt, a cat wanders through, the water runs through the pipe, at request, into a barrel where it is saved. A small, obviously hand-made shed on the other side of the yard provides an area for coffee beans to dry and where hay is neatly stacked. With the clear blue sky above and the earnest, lined faces of the campesinos gathered around so terribly proud of their accomplishment it's enough to bring a catch to the throat. A gray-haired woman, probably in her sixties, says she carried water the four kilometers from the source many times a day for years. "This is better."
One of the men gives his presentation about the creation of the water system and it's again as if he's giving a report at school. But to watch his face and hear the pride in his words even before they're translated is to be witness to something of great beauty: the dignity of man made manifest.
After breathing in our fill of this rural outpost we board up again and drive off to gracious waves from our hosts and head up the four kilometers to see the reservoir that makes all this possible. After seeing the result and hearing of the differences it's made in their lives, the reservoir itself is a bit of a disappointment. A hollow cement square with an inflow pipe on the uphill side, a few smaller ones on the downhill side and a trap door to put in the chlorine, it seems no great feat of engineering. But I guess that's the point. It is simple and inexpensive to build and makes an enormous difference in the lives of so many, so why was it never done before and why do we brand the government that has finally achieved it as being so loathsome?
We've been told that an example of the depths to which the U.S. Government will sink to express its distaste for this regime is the fact that the State Department deducts from its contribution to Unicef, on a dollar for dollar basis, an amount equal to any moneys that organization has spent on programs in Cuba.
Into the bus and back toward the Sierra Maestra Hotel we go. It's been a long day and the brains have absorbed a lot, so a kind of goofiness sets in. Walter, who is a very bright guy and a wonderful writer, starts running off a series of jokes that keep us all either laughing or groaning the whole way back. One of them is a very complex and well-told kind of shaggy-dog pun that ends so badly, with an arcane reference to a slogan from a breakfast cereal commercial, that no one could believe he had gone to the trouble. There was serious consideration given to leaving him on the side of the road.
Back at the hotel everyone goes in different directions. I wait with Paul, fighting off drowsiness, because someone has told him they'll locate the man with the key to the dollar store in the lobby. (The dollar store, as the name implies, is a store that has items for sale only for dollars. It's one of the government's attempts to get hold of some of the dollars in the economy.) It might be fun to find something to take home to Shelley and the kids, I think, though it turns out there isn't much of interest except a couple of bottles of water that I take to brush my teeth with.
Jack, it turns out, has taken off with Ivonne and the bus driver, and, using a Canadian credit card he has, buys a load of light bulbs, a bunch of clothing for little kids at the hospital and arranges for five tires ("Well, they've got to have
a spare.") for their ambulance. Quite a guy.
Dinner at the hotel is a mass of confusion. Everyone is as nice as they can be, but it's hard to get what you want, even after they tell you what they have. We seem to have the same private dining room set aside for us, and a very enthusiastic trio that plays and sings (this one has added an accordion) with abandon. I still haven't been able to come up with rice and beans (without meat) to save my life. What I manage to arrange for this time is more doughy spaghetti plus rice and potatoes, which, along with the bread, means I'll be able to starch my shirts from the inside out tomorrow.
Walter, apparently indefatigable, has been busily organizing an outing tonight to take in the town and sample the local cuisine, so when he shows up at dinner it's a surprise. But, he insists, he's going to give the night life a try even after being told there aren't any restaurants in town. Frank is going to go with him. And I think Earl is as well.
Stephen doesn't show up for dinner at all, which is a source of concern, but someone says he was simply worn out and was going to go to bed.
Begging off the trip into town I head up the dark stairs to bed. It's been a long day and tomorrow is another early one. We're heading into the mountains.