Sunday, October 23, 1994
5AM. I crawl out of bed and grope my way to the shower. The water is very cold and shows no sign, even after my most fervent prayers, of changing temperature, so I'm soon very much awake. Showering in cold water is one thing, I decide, but shaving would be taking my life in my hands, so I'll go into the mountains scruffy.
We meet in our special room for a quick breakfast and I find eggs, which is a rare treat. Walter, Frank and Earl are full of happy stories about the wonderful time they had last night in town, dancing and singing with the locals. One of them, I think Frank, says he wants to bring a bunch of American teenagers down here and let them see how a group of kids their age can have fun and still be sober and respectful at the same time. Obviously they had a good time. Stephen is rested and ready to go. And so we do.
Outside, there's a bit of a wait as the bus isn't there. Some sort of confusion on the time, so we wait a bit. Not a big deal, except for the fact that the mosquitoes are out in force and all seem to want my blood. Jack is amazed by it and can't keep from laughing as he points out that they're all buzzing around me and leaving him alone.
Finally, the bus takes us down the familiar highway to the town we went through yesterday in Guisa, but this time we stop in the town square and wait for the vehicle that will take us into the mountains. Ivonne says we're going to need a "double-traction mountain bus" to get where we're going. We roam around the little town square for a bit, admire the statue of Jose Marti (in 1868, the revolution against Spain started in Bayamos and went on for ten years before it failed. Jose Marti, who was a Cuban philosopher/poet, left for the U.S., where he studied history and the writings of some Americans, notably Walt Whitman. Returning in 1895, he re-ignited the Cuban revolutionary movement and is considered one of the country's primary heroes, even though he was killed in the first day of the war that finally freed them from Spain).
Fernando tells us that this town, which now has a population of 25,000, had only 3,000 people before the Revolution and no electricity. Full of facts, he also says that after the Triumph of the Revolution (it's always said as though it should be capitalized) agricultural land was 80% State-owned, 12% cooperatives and 8% privately held. As of the changes of one year ago, it's now 90% cooperatives as part of the government's current economic experiment.
The "double-traction mountain bus" shows up. It's a monster. German made, it has a truck cab and a separate bus-style section in the back, big, double-axle wheels and looks like it's been through some rugged use. We climb aboard and head out, along with some men who have been waiting with us and are evidently going along for the ride. This no-frills rig is certainly not as comfortable as the one we traded in, but it's kind of fun.
Before long we come to the end of the paved road and this thing begins to earn its keep. The countryside has gotten more and more rough with every mile and this dirt road begins to climb up into serious mountains, with switch-backs and ever-steeper declines on one side or the other. Over a stream we go, bouncing and tossing, rocking and rolling. Once, twice, three, finally four times we cross the same stream, each time more dramatically. The huts on the hillsides are now almost all thatch-roofed, though some are made of wood and a few still have cement block walls. The remarkable thing about them is how neatly kept they all appear to be. The view is absolutely beautiful as we climb, though the cliffs to the sides are getting more and more hairy. The notion of rolling down one of these cliffs in this mammoth rig isn't comforting and I have to confess it occurs with more and more frequency as the road becomes more steep and less wide. (There are a couple of times that I can see the wheels below me quite literally scrambling for purchase on the edge. Though I can tell myself that it's a double-wheeled rig and there's plenty of surface for traction, it doesn't seem to help and before long I'm thinking seriously about getting out and walking.)
Janet is not having a good time, either. Her lack of appreciation for airplanes seems to extend to double-traction mountain buses on the very edge of oblivion, and I can't say I blame her. Walter is doing a bit of teasing, but I think it's mostly to get his mind off the reality. After one hell of a ride (I'm standing in the front of the passenger space by this time, hanging on to the cross bars, having long ago given up the idea of being able to stay in the seat), the road widens a bit and someone from the cab shouts back that we're almost there. At least that's what I'm telling myself he said. Sure enough, after a little while we see a few houses down what looks like a goat path and someone says that's where the family doctor lives. Good enough. Having spared myself the embarrassment of leaping out and walking along behind through sheer force of will, I'm ready to grab any excuse to get out, and I'm damned sure walking back down the hill. The only thing I can think of that I'd less like to do than take that ride back up the hill again in this rig is to go down in it.
As we pause at the top of the goat track, and I'm expecting to vault out the door, this guy turns and heads down it! I can't believe it. Here we are in the Cuban Alps and this kind fellow won't think of letting us strain ourselves by walking a hundred yards. Talk about killing you with kindness.
Well, sure enough, he gets us down successfully and stops, finally, just up the hill from a little two-story house built in the same manner as that of the Family Doctor's place back in Bayamos. I find myself wondering if it's the requisite model prescribed by the government.
Back on terra firma, I'm ready for anything. First order of business is a round of applause for the driver who brought this lumbering giant successfully up that road.
The view from up here is fabulous and we breathe deeply of the mountain air and shake the kinks (and in my case, jitters) out of our legs as we head over to the doctor's house. Dr. Enrique, as he's introduced, looks to be in his late twenties as he welcomes us to his front porch. A quiet man with a sweet smile. One of the group that accompanied us on the ride up turns out to be the mayor, or something, of the municipality and expands his introduction of Dr. Enrique to explain that this is the area known as Santa Ursula. He tells us further that this house was built in 1988 to house the Family Doctor and that four truck engines were burned out in the process of bringing up the materials necessary to build it. (He says nothing about lives lost in fiery crashes, so I suspect we're not getting the whole story.)
Dr. Enrique tells us that the infant mortality rate here is zero. He says he and a nurse take care of this area with special attention to pregnant women and children under one year of age. There is a seventeen-bed hospital nearby, he says, for those who need it, and there is ambulance service available (that would be a fun ride!). The hospital must be in the community we passed on one of the river crossings below.
Enrique says he will be here for a total of two years. He says in the Family Doctor program you study for 6 years, work in a designated area for 2 years, then go back to study a specialization for 3 more years.
He indicates that there is not much asthma here (perhaps because of the altitude, it is suggested) and hospitalization is rare. Parasites can be a problem, particularly with children who play in the streams or run around in bare feet.
He goes out to see the people in his community on a regular basis. He used to do it on a horse until it fell, broke a leg and had to be destroyed. Now he walks.
Asked how big an area he covers, he says it's "as far as you can hear a rooster crow."
A remarkably sweet and peaceful young man, he invites us in and shows us the small clinic. It's essentially the same as the one we saw in Bayamos, lending credibility to my theory that it's a common design. An interesting touch here is that the patients keep their own records, writing down each visit and what is told them. It's a good way to involve them personally, make it less of a foreign procedure. Frank notices that the children's file is arranged with each name represented by a cartoon animal character.
Asked what the single largest problem is that he faces, Dr. Enrique says "Alcohol." He indicates that people up here drink a lot, in part because it is the custom and in part because of boredom.
Earl asks about the three most pressing needs, and his answer is "A horse or mule" for transportation, medicines and lights. He not only needs bulbs, but has a problem with the fact that the electrical plant that serves the area is off and on because of a lack of fuel.
As is the case elsewhere, he encourages his new mothers to breast feed for at least the first four months.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday are office hours, when people come in for their regular visits. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday he goes out into the community to visit those who are too sick to come, can't get there for some other reason or are avoiding him. Every Monday night he is on duty in the local hospital in Victorino (down the hill).
He too is using herbs in the face of the lack of medicines. He says some of the campesinos (farmers) are teaching him the old ways. For example, he uses dried guava leaves for diarrhea, and something called Cana Santa, as a tea, for high blood pressure.
As some go upstairs to see his living quarters, I step out on the porch and drink in the view and enjoy the incredibly fresh air. Jack is there as well, beaming as he looks out over the Sierra Maestra.
We're invited into the home of the neighbors next door. A handsome young couple with three gorgeous children, they're justifiably proud of their neat house. Wooden walls and floor, tin roof, with walls inside that don't go all the way to the ceiling to separate the two or three rooms off the entrance area. Hanging blankets serve as doors, helping to partition the space. The three kids smile shyly as they stand together wearing their red school uniform smocks. It's an enchanting picture of a simple life - he works on the local coffee cooperative, there are corn stalks and other vegetables in a garden at the side of the house - and again, everything is neatly kept and looks remarkably clean. Mary records it all with her camera.
Some of the group is still upstairs in the doctor's house, others have come out onto his front porch or into the yard of the neighbor's home. The driver of the rig that brought us here decides he's going to go further down the goat track to find a place to turn around (!) and Paul says we'll be ready to go in a while. I tell him I'm going to walk on ahead, back down the road. Janet, Mary and Frank have the same idea, so we head out, figuring the bus will catch up with us on the way down. Somewhere on that hair-raising ride up I heard it said that it was either four kilometers or four miles. Somebody else says eight kilometers. Whatever it is, I figure I can handle it. Gladly.
It's a wonderful walk on a beautiful day in a gorgeous part of the world. The dirt road looks considerably wider from this vantage point, of course, but none of us seems sorry we made the choice. Frank, who says he's 69 years old and is used to swimming three times a week, is glad to have the exercise. He's been an asthma sufferer all his life, so is particularly sensitive to the problems they're dealing with here. Mary is a tennis player and is otherwise very athletic, so it suits her fine. It also gives her a change to take some pictures. Janet and I, I think, are just glad to have our feet on the ground our lives in our own hands.
At one point on the way down, two boys come out of the trees off to the side of the road and pass Frank and I as they go the other way. We say hello and think no more of it. Later, Janet and Mary, who had lagged behind, catch up and are walking with a woman who says she's the boys' mother. As Janet relates it, the woman said that they had come to her after seeing us and asked, "Mama, are those Americans?" When she told them that we were indeed Americans, they asked, "How come they aren't killing us?"
Further down the road before she turned off into the bush, the woman pointed out a small settlement off in the mountains and said there was a school there with four students - who had a full-time teacher.
I'm not sure how long we walked, but we began to wonder what had happened to our companeros and the bus. We passed by a number of small groups of neat, thatched-roof huts and watched a bunch of baby ducks follow their mother at one of the places the stream crossed the road. Later we stood and watched a great group of piglets snorting and cavorting at the roadside.
Standing and talking by another of the stream crossings, two women came by on the road, going in our direction. They were both carrying pretty good loads, but the older of the two looked as though she was struggling a bit with a sack of melons or pumpkins. I asked Janet to see if I could help her with it as we walked along and she responded, "No thanks. He looks as though he's tired enough already."
We passed a larger hut, built in the same fashion as the rest, which had a kind of corral affair beside it. One of the women said it was the local military outpost, but there didn't appear to be anyone around.
Finally, we arrived at the spot where the pavement began again. This was Victorino, where the hospital was located. A number of people were waiting around at this spot for the bus to the center of Guisa, so we stood at the side of the road and chatted with people as they passed by, looked over the countryside and felt warm and happy and good about the walk. Two women with whom Janet struck up a conversation gave us some bananas from their bags. It is awfully hard, from this vantage point, to think of a reasonable explanation for the behavior of our government.
After what seemed like a very long time, the double-traction mountain bus came chugging around the corner. We waved and they waved and laughed and made it appear that they were going to go right on by, but finally stopped. As we climbed aboard they explained that after leaving Santa Ursula they had climbed up an even steeper and narrower path to get to a magnificent view point and that we had truly missed an experience. I'll bet.
The stop at the hospital in Victorino is short because of the fact that we have a plane back to Havana this afternoon. This is a small rural hospital that serves the whole area. A cluster of small buildings, it has a staff of three doctors; a gynecologist, a pediatrician and a generalist; and at least three nurses. That, they indicated, is the way the smaller local hospitals are usually staffed. This visit is less formal than many of the others, probably because of the time crunch, but they are very sweet and hospitable and after they show us around have juice and sandwiches ready.
Again, the place is run-down, ill-equipped and a bit grungy, but the energy and sense of commitment is readily apparent. Doing the best they can with what they have is the order of the day. To deal with the lack of equipment, for example, the local hospitals collect all the needles and syringes they use, as well as gathering those used by the family doctors in their respective areas, and ship them to the provincial center (Guisa, in this instance) to be sterilized in a gas sterilization machine and sent back for re-use. Aside from the prospect of their becoming dull from re-use, this practice is obviously not ideal from the point of view of hygiene.
Back in the bus, we again head for Guisa. Once there, Jack points out how much more modern this little town looks than it did this morning, given where we've been in the meantime. Our companions on this leg of the tour, the mayor and his guys, bid us farewell and thank us for coming and we load into the Havantur bus that has been waiting. The air conditioning and padded seats are much more appreciated now than they were before, it's clear.
Running behind, as usual, we have only a little time at the hotel for a quick lunch, then to grab our bags and head back to the bus. Whenever we approach the dining room, however, the trio is sure to come in and serenade us and this time is no exception. Knowing we're leaving, the leader circles the table with cassette recordings of their music and we all stare at each other guiltily until Mary and Walter turn out to be the softest touches of the group. Downstairs in the dollar store, Jack is arranging for yet another purchase of something for someone. (I know he has literally given the shirt off his back - one he bought in the dollar store - to our driver, for all the extra trips he has made on these shopping excursions.)
Back to the airport and a round of the kind of formal good-byes that are evidently de rigueur here. Again, the men who speak thank us for our interest in and support for their country and their work in a kind of touchingly sweet, almost little-boy way (I'm not being critical, you understand, I'm simply trying to convey the sense of discomfort and almost grade-school formality in the presentation and at the same time recognize the utter simplicity and sincerity with which it's offered.). A round of applause follows each statement, then handshakes all around and then it's onto the same plane, with the same crew. (Though I'm sure they didn't just sit here and wait for us, it has that odd feeling about it.) Jack is happy to see the lady with the same beautiful smile.
The flight back is uneventful. Our party makes up the entire passenger list, so it's fairly casual. In fact, I get to try something I've thought about but never done in an airplane - lie down on the floor and go to sleep.
Touching down, smoothly, thank you, at the strip in Havana, we see a large helicopter and a couple of soldiers. It occurs to me that these are the first soldiers I'm aware of having seen since we've been here, which doesn't prove anything, of course, but provides a very different picture from that of the rigid, Soviet-style Communist garrison state that is implied by the anti-Communist hysterics one tends to hear from whenever Cuba is mentioned.
The helicopter and the soldiers bring to mind the rumor that Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and nominal second-in-command in Cuba, was supposed to be in the Sierra Maestra at the same time as we were. Maybe he's back, too. (Raul, the whispers suggest, is the non-Castro Castro. Someone said Fidel got the physical size, the strength, the deep voice, the powerful speaking ability, the charisma and the intelligence and Raul got what was left. A bit cruel, perhaps, but it makes the point that he is not well regarded in the country and unlikely to be the one to take over when Fidel steps down. That's why speculation has it that Ricardo Alarcon is next in line.)
Jack has been talking about all of us having dinner at the Bodegita del Medio in Old Havana and our schedule is jammed, so Ivonne sets it up for an early dinner tonight. Jack has eaten there before and loved it. It's evidently associated with Hemingway, a favorite watering hole of his, and he says it's not to be missed. Once back at the hotel, those of us who are interested in this little adventure quickly gather in the lobby and head out. Janet is meeting a friend and Paul has business, so it's Walter, Jack, Pauline, Stephen, Mary, Earl, Ivonne and I who set out.
Once we're there and seated, Frank shows up, having been left behind through a misunderstanding, but a cab solved the problem. The Bodegita is a very crowded place with a bar in front (standing room only) and two dining rooms downstairs built around a patio. On the side of the patio is a steep stairway that evidently goes up to other dining areas above.
The walls and tables are literally covered with the scratched, carved or scrawled names and dates of visitors from all over the world and the joint, even though it's early, is jumpin'. A very loud group sitting in the next room (but very close by) is singing at the top of its collective lungs along with the inevitable guitar players (this time only a pair of them), but it soon calms down to a dull roar.
There are various specialties of the house (Red meat and different kinds of fish are very big in the Cuban diet. The fish I understand, but the emphasis on the red meat is a bit of a surprise.), but the thing I'm thrilled to see is the beans and rice. Without meat! You can get beans and rice mixed together or you can get beans and rice separately. What a great restaurant!
The food, when it comes, is great. And plentiful. Jack makes sure the Mojitas are flowing and there are stories and laughter. We even survive an attack by the guitar-playing duo. There is a choice moment when one of those night club photographers comes by and wants to do a group shot for $10. None of us are interested, but Walter decides he wants a memento of this special event, so has the guy shoot a picture. Jack, who doesn't believe in having his picture taken, scoots out of the way and the photographer keeps backing up to try to fit him in. Finally he gets it and Walter gets his picture. Sans Jack. (Jack's unwillingness to be in any of the pictures that are taken during this trip has been a source of consternation to some, a challenge to others. When asked, I've heard him explain that it's due to his belief in casuistry. I've also heard him say it steals the spirit, or one of your lives, or something. I think he's shy.)
After having stuffed ourselves (They not only had plentiful portions of rice and beans but also plantain and fried bananas. Delicious!), we headed out into the night to walk over to the Old Square. It's a beautiful sight, even without many lights. The Old City is great, with narrow, cobbled streets and history emanating from every pore. The only depressing thing about it is to see kids begging, something I'm told was unknown to Cuba before the last few years.
After a bit of a look around, we find the bus and head back to the hotel. Later tonight part of the group is going to the show at the Tropicana, an extravaganza unique to Havana (and Las Vegas, I fear). There's been some question as to whether we should bother and the responses have been careful ones on the order of extolling its uniqueness, its extravagance and its employment of Cuban dancers. It seems no one wants to suggest that it's good, except relative to the situation, or in good taste, but it is thought to be something that you won't see elsewhere and we're here so why not? So, I figure, what the hell?
The show itself is very much Las Vegas (or, perhaps Las Vegas is very much Havana. Indications are that the Mob, when it was thrown out of Havana, chose to pour its money into Vegas as an alternative.). It's done in an outdoor, bowl-shaped amphitheater that was once the botanical garden of a wealthy family. A large stage is thrust into the audience, with raised platforms at each side and stairways connecting them. On the upper levels to the right and left of the stage and at strategic places around the rim, are mini-stages where dancers appear periodically. It is a colossal show, not at all to my taste, with very loud music and lots of singers and dancers holding forth from the different levels in sequins and tights and beaded and feathered head-dresses. The songs are all in either Spanish or French, as I recall, but I don't think one has to be a linguist to appreciate the show. The bodies of the men and women dancers are quite extraordinary, for the most part, but unlike Vegas there is no nudity and over-all the effect is perhaps overwhelming but hardly erotic.
There is a kind of unreality about it all, as I think about it. My understanding is that the government shut this show down after the Revolution, which makes sense. Later, they decided to re-open it to attract the tourist dollar. That's the part that's tough to reconcile. I guess it's a "means and ends" thing, but it seems to me that this kind of show is so totally inconsistent with the notion of the revolutionary ideal that it's a kind of non-sequitur for me. (I don't mean to be too stuffy about it. Perhaps if it was a show more to my tastes I'd have felt differently.)
Back to the hotel to crash.
Monday, October 24, 1994
Since there's too much to cover, we're splitting the group up today. Ivonne takes Stephen, Pauline, Frank and me to the Central Havana Pediatric Hospital and the rest of the gang goes to visit a primary school.
This hospital is one of ten Pediatric Hospitals that serve the fifteen municipalities in the city. This one alone serves three of them. It's a large place near the center of the city and we find our way through the entrance booth (which seems to have no one in it) to the offices of Dr. Sonnia Oliver Lopez. She is a sturdy, competent-seeming woman, probably in her fifties, with dark hair. She tells us that this hospital provides all pediatric services, but mainly does kidney transplants, hemo-dialysis and neuro-surgery (which is difficult for them because of the high cost and intensive care required).
Q. - Do you do heart surgery?
A. - Up until two years ago we did, but no more. Because of the problems (read embargo) they moved those procedures to the main hospital because of the lack of certain medicines. The government assigns medicines. Others come through donations to the Public Health Ministry and are disbursed by them.
Q. - What do you lack?
A. - Cephalosporin (a new penicillin type drug), 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation (which refers to how many strains of bacteria it will impact), Penicillin, Amoxycillin (sp?), Arythromycin, and another "mycin".
Q. - Other kinds of drugs, not antibiotics?
A. - Vitamins, ultra-violet feeding materials.
Q. - What are the worst problems you face?
A. - Sepsis. Encephalitis, pneumonia, asthma (from now to March, asthma problems will grow), meningitis. We have no problems with meningoccocal disease because the Finlay Institute (a pharmaceutical research facility here) has discovered a vaccine for it. Bacterial meningitis we work on with the old medications.
Q. - Are the doctors and nurses infected by (something I can't make out)?
A. - No. There is great emphasis on infection control in the hospital.
Q. - How many doctors are there here? A. - 152.
Q. - How many beds? A. - 320.
Q. - Is there a big outpatient service? A. - Yes.
Q. - Do doctors follow the patients they treat on an outpatient basis? A. - Yes.
Q. - Is there an emergency department here? A. - Yes. The problem is that this is an old, well-known hospital in the center of the city. We have 400 to 500 emergency cases, including surgeries, every day. Many medical residents come here for their training.
Q. - NGOs can send medicines. Would you prefer to have them send medicines directly to your hospital or to the Ministry of Public Health?
A. - To us, because we are the ones who know our needs.
Q. - Would that be unfair to others? A. - No, because we share.
Q. - So this way it avoids bureaucracy and the paperwork? A. - Exactly.
Q. - What is the situation with regard to basic supplies?
A. - We no longer are able to obtain the supplies we used to get, but we have solved most of the problems associated with our shortages. We are short of many things, but use general antiseptics where we can. We lack bandages, and sometimes have to use "disposable needles" more than once, after sterilizing.
(Ivonne interjects that she has a friend in dental school who says they have no brooms, antiseptics or paper.)
Q. - Is your blood supply safe? A. - Yes, it's all screened.
Q. - What is the situation with regard to AIDS?
A. - We have a low rate, .08 per 100,000. There are 1,000 to 1,500 in the country who are HIV Positive. 400 who have full-blown AIDS. We have mandatory testing for immigrants from high-risk areas and pressure is put on homosexuals, prostitutes and other populations at risk to be safe and to test regularly. AIDS/HIV people are taken to a sanitorium and segregated from the population. They have passes to go out and are well cared-for. Now, of course, the sanitoria, as everything else, are suffering from lack of funding. In 1993, 13,500 tests were done, which found 886 to be HIV positive and 161 with fully developed AIDS. 89 people died. In Cuba, so far, AIDS is not a major problem. We're aware of the fact that it could become so with the development of tourism and the resultant rise in prostitution.
Q. - What is the situation with regard to disabled children?
A. - We deal with them on and in- or out-patient basis. We encourage parents to keep them at home, with the family. There are special schools for children with special needs (not including those with mental problems).
Q. - Is there an attempt to integrate them into social life and school life?
A. - We're trying to mainstream. The problem is that we lack certain kinds of equipment. For example, we have no wheelchairs for children, only those for adults.
Pauline identifies herself as a nurse and asks about the nurses here. Dr. Lopez responds by saying "the nurses are the heart of the hospital."
Q. - Have the tensions of the last four years created additional problems?
A. - We're seeing an increase in low birth-rate babies and an increase in infectious diseases.
Q. - Any behavioral changes?
A. - There are some indications of an increase in family violence, but there's no way to know if it's connected to the current social stress. What we are seeing for the first time is the phenomenon of children begging - though so far only in areas largely traveled by tourists.
Frank asks about the ratio of black doctors. She isn't aware of a ratio, but says we'll see for ourselves that there are many in the hospital.
Dr. Lopez then takes us on a tour of the hospital. The halls seem a bit dirty to me. Pauline thinks it's from the lack of light (bulbs are lacking here, too), but I think it's dirt. I'm reminded of Ivonne's mention of the lack of brooms and the general note about needing soap and cleaning supplies. We see a few of the wards, which seem to have been kept clean, so it's probably a question of appropriate use of what supplies they have. We're also shown a blood lab, which seems small and a bit grungy. (Not dirty, but plaster is off the wall, etc. The place needs a general clean-up and paint job. If only they had the materials to do it.) We see the X-ray department, which lacks film, and are shown the ultra-sound and meet the doctor in charge, who is happy to see us and enthusiastic about the hospital, its staff and the work it does.
Frank has leaned a bit on the issue of blacks in places of power/authority and I have the idea Dr. Lopez is a bit put off by either the inference or his persistence in this line. It's hard to know if it's hypersensitivity on our part or hers.
Outside, we're picked up by the bus. The group that went to the elementary school is ecstatic about their experience. They loved the kids, who were evidently very bright and straightforward. e.g. "What are you going to do for us?" and "What kind of uniforms do kids in your schools wear?" They lack paper for copy-books, they lack books, they lack pencils, they are in need of just about all of the essentials, but are full of enthusiasm. Their teachers, who evidently exhibit the same enthusiasm earn a salary that works out to about $3 per month at Black Market rates of exchange.
Our next meeting, to which we are of course late, is with Esteban Lazo, the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Havana. The building is in better shape inside than many we've seen and we head up the stairs to the meeting room, which is dressed with a conference table and a large picture of Che on one wall and large ones of Fidel, Lenin and Raul on another. We all have to have our picture taken as a group (except for Jack, of course) under the pictures of the Big Three.
Lazo comes in, with Fernando and a man named Rigoberto Hidalgo. He is a big man, very black (which gives Frank something to think about), with a sweet smile. He makes me think of the American actor, Yaphet Kotto.
Lazo has been here for a fairly short time, having been brought up from the same position in Santiago de Cuba in the southeast. I would assume this is a significant promotion.
He says the effects of the "special period" are emphasized in the capital. Life is very hard. The decrease in the living standard has already had a noticeable effect on nutrition and health. The main problem here is the food supply. Foods have to be brought in from outside the city, from greater Havana Province. In fact, there was improvement, but they had what is called here "The Storm of the Century" last year which devastated production. That, plus a lack of fuel, fertilizers and pesticides has exacerbated the problem. Also, the loss of animal feed has lessened their ability to continue programs to provide milk to children under seven. They are now focusing on hydroponics, organic farming and development of small plots of land (in the city) for agricultural use. They have to import and develop the production of seeds. Also they want to further develop cattle farming and the production of eggs.
The question is asked, he says, "How is it possible that in such difficulties so many continue to defend the Revolution?" He then says the answer lies in the fact that many generations recognize that the Revolution has brought the country education and health, guarantees of social security, rural electrification and highways.
A serious problem now is the water supply. The lack of pumps and pipes, plus the lack of ability to maintain the machinery, all added to the increase in population, have created big problems.
Housing is a problem. 49% of the houses in the city are in fair or bad shape. The lack of funds and materials worsens the situation. They are now working on low-cost housing ideas. In some provinces, 85% of the homes are built or repaired by materials produced in their own community or area (which explains the hodge-podge look we've seen). The rest will have to wait. In some situations we help with building part of a house or apartment (with the basics) and leave the rest to be finished later.
"We're making an effort in everything, but in everything we have big problems. The lifting of the embargo would be the most humane thing, as anyone who comes here can see."
Q. - Regarding your relationship with other Socialist countries, was it one of substantial assistance to Cuba or was it more of a commercial relationship? If it was the latter, why can't you turn to other countries for trade?
A. - There are many opinions. Both things existed. Trade was on the basis of agreements regarding equality of conditions - for example, our main product, sugar. They paid a price higher than the world market but it was cheaper than producing it themselves.
Q. - Then part of the problem arises from the fact that the special relationship you had is not available in the world today?
A. - Agreed. If it had been just a commercial relationship the fall of the Soviet Union would not have been such a terrible blow. At first we were dependent on the U.S. for anything we couldn't produce ourselves. When that relationship ended, we were able to turn to the U.S.S.R., but it takes time. When that relationship fell apart - we now have to develop the capacity for self-sustenance and develop relationships in new areas. The Torricelli Law makes it difficult in ways we haven't fully comprehended yet. (The effect on other countries and businesses owned or partly owned by the U.S. or impacted in their decisions by their relationships with the U.S.) The blockade itself has cost us $40 billion.
Q. - Are there special programs dealing with problems attendant to race?
A. - Always. From the beginning of the Triumph of the Revolution we've been struggling to eliminate racial and sexual discrimination. For a black to get to a university was a problem. There was effectively racial segregation. There was a racial split between blacks, mulattos and whites. The problems are historic. The colonials were white, the slaves black. Progress has been made, but it must continue. We have tried to institute a system of merit. Also, one has to be mindful of population ratio. In Santiago de Cuba the population is 70% black. Therefore, there are more black doctors and teachers there. Guantanamo (province) is almost all black. Other areas are almost all white. Havana is 37% Mestizo. It is a historical problem we have had to deal with and are struggling with. The same is true with women. If it weren't for the Revolution, where would I have been able to study? Now, the majority of our university students are women.
Q. - Do you see new social problems arising?
A. - Yes. All the difficulties we've discussed bring with them social problems. For example, emigration. It results from the stresses here. Tourism brings with it problems such as prostitution and an increase in common crime. There are discipline problems in society. There are many crimes of passion.
Q. - Is there organized crime? A. - No.
At the end of the session we all gather around and have pictures taken with Lazo under the picture of Che. (Except Jack) He thanks us for coming and takes off to deal with the problems he's been talking about.
Back in the bus, we head to the La Tasca Restaurant in one of the grand old hotels in the center of the city. It's been restored beautifully. We're meeting here, over lunch, with Luis Zuniga, a Chilean who was educated at the University of Chicago and is now the Unicef representative in Havana.
Zuniga, who looks to be in his late thirties or early forties and has a very sweet manner and a soft voice, confirms for us that the story is true. The US State Dept. does reduce its contribution to Unicef dollar for dollar against anything spent in Cuba. Incredible. He says that 3 years ago the Spanish Committee for Unicef sent some money for a project to Unicef in Cuba. Because the check went through the Chase Manhattan Bank, the money was stopped.
Unicef, he says, has only small programs in Cuba and only part of them are in projects (like the water project we saw). Much of it is in "talking, building bridges, working with social change." He works on gender concerns, etc. He is concerned about the lack of copy books, paper and pencils and says Cuba cannot continue to progress without its educational programs, so Unicef is supporting local efforts for back-yard schools and small programs of that sort.
He says school is impacted in many ways. Teachers are not focused because they are concerned about their own needs for simple things like soap, shampoo, etc.
Six to eight years ago, he says, this country was full of books. Now there is a great scarcity. There is visible damage to the society, from his point of view, in the impact on knowledge, the mastery of language, the lack of basic education skills.
He works with them to support breast feeding programs, saying Cuban women have lost their cultural tendency toward breast feeding because of their involvement in political action, work, education and just being generally busy. To go to work and then come home and have to prepare the meals and clean the house leaves little time or inclination for nursing babies. Men have to become more involved in helping in the home, but it's not easy.
He works with "baby friendly hospitals," which fulfill the ten basic steps toward breast feeding - no bottles, intensive training of doctor and health workers, training of locals for support, putting mother and child together immediately, etc. Cuba is #1 in this field. Mexico, for instance, cannot do this. The Family Doctor is the key.
Food and nutrition is a basic concern at this point.
He is optimistic about the economic reforms in Cuba.
He promotes the use of "sentinel sights" in community centers as an early warning system for health concerns.
He is helping distribute the book, "Facts for Life," and some of the messages in it are being converted into television spots by Cuban TV. It teaches things like How to Encourage Emotional Development and How to Talk to Your Child. Every teacher in every school should have a copy. "We would like to have millions of these."
"I am very far from a Communist, but this is the first country in Latin America doing things on behalf of children."
Cuba has signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The US has not.
Cuba has signed on to the Plan of Action from the World Summit for Children and immediately set up a National Program setting out goals and strategies. They set up a National Program of Action and every year they assess goals, successes and failures. It is very seriously pursued by the government.
The World Summit for Children convened in 1990. 77 world leaders (heads of state) met and agreed to goals including education of at least 80% of their children, immunization for all, etc. (Paul says CCF was there, monitoring.)
"The Cuban American National Foundation (Jorge Mas Canosa, etc.) is the first to say there are many problems here. They say Guantanamo Base is an ugly place built for 3,000 military which now has 35,000 refugees, 2,000 of whom are children. But while there are problems here, there are also very real achievements. It's important to teach the outside world to understand what's going on with the people of Cuba, the children, the women, the families - the human dimension, not just the government."
"In general in Latin America, when people talk about Cuba they talk about politics, not about the people. I'll bet it's the same in the U.S."
On gender, "Women here are permanent organizers of chaos - of chaotic situations. If electricity is available at 3AM, that's when they get up to do what must be done that requires electricity. Work, school, cooking, planting, all are their responsibilities."
"In food and nutrition, the situation is similar to many African countries. In their hospitals, they have the buildings and the essential equipment, but they are lacking fundamental supplies.
Q. - Why should the world pay attention here instead of places where the emergency is obvious?
A. - African nations are in states of emergency. The response is to the emergency, with little for institution building. Here, the institutions have been built and are in place, so the appearance suggests the needs aren't so critical. But they are, and if an intelligent response is not forthcoming, what we will see is a collapse of those institutions.
Cuba produces pharmaceuticals, for example, but has problems being certified on the international scene.
Soap is very scarce. Shampoo, make-up, hairdressing, sanitary napkins, detergent. Teenage prostitution is a new problem. Women are not well represented at the higher levels in politics.
"Be patient with the Cuban authorities. Hard liners exist - they are abundant. With the others, who may not have developed the larger perspective, they need to be educated. Insist to them on a recognition of the difference - that children's issues and women's issues exist in a context apart from politics. Split things out by being specific and getting them to discuss the specifics."
Throughout this discourse our lunch was served and eaten, but it was a bit of an ordeal. There was a nervousness and lack of poise about the servers that only became clear when Gail told us this was a training school for waiters and restaurant people. It was disconcerting, to say the least, when every time the young waitress would walk through the door into the private room where we were meeting she'd call out, "Excuse me!" in a voice that suggested she wanted everyone's attention. All she wanted, actually, was to apologize for disturbing us, which she did every time she called out.
We thanked Luis Zuniga for his time and headed for the bus. We were splitting up again, this time Ivonne took Mary, Jack and I to the Education Ministry while the others went to meet with the local head of the Red Cross. (They got the better of it.) The Education Ministry was on the second floor of a building that had bureaucracy written all over it. We couldn't go in the first entrance we tried and had to walk around the block. No big deal, but once in we had to walk back to a room directly above the entrance we couldn't come in. Something about omens.
The Vice Minister of Education was tied up and couldn't meet with us, so we were welcomed by a man named Cecilio who heads the organization that produces educational materials. His counterpart was a woman by the name of Catalina who publishes school materials. A third man was Juan Alberto Ordino, who is the sub-director of the publishing house. I think he said nothing the whole time.
Cecilio tells us that education in Cuba was a massive project. The cutbacks, though the emphasis continues, have affected both materials and distribution. In the past, the USSR printed the books, though part of it was done here. Local efforts were limited to the most urgent needs. Originally there were 30 million schoolbooks, but today there are not enough to go around.
The "special circumstance," the lack of paper and the lack of energy to do the printing makes it impossible to print the replacements here. Mexico, Spain, Italy, Canada and China are providing some of the things needed.
No schools have closed. All teachers have been maintained. It is more deeply affecting the higher grade students because "we have insisted upon keeping the lower grades supplied."
Inevitably, "the level of education will decline."
In the past, there was an exchange. 20,000 Cubans per year studied in the socialist countries and 20-25,000 came here, mostly from Africa. Now, 8-10,000 come here and few go away.
College attendance, which was increasing astronomically, has flattened out because of the lack of materials and the attendant lack of opportunities.
A decision has been made to focus on providing opportunities for younger children in order to protect their opportunity to get into the system at the cost of letting things slide at the higher levels. We have tried to guarantee that all children, kindergarten through 9th grade, will have a classroom and a teacher.
Q. - How has teachers' morale been effected?
A. - It is outstanding. The more difficulties we face, the more the teachers keep up their morale - even though their income is lower in comparison to other professionals.
Though these people were cordial, the feeling was that they were giving rote answers intended to spread the government line. This feeling was supported by the fact that so many of our questions got circular answers that we stopped asking them. Perhaps others had done the same thing, but at least they were more adept at it than these folks. There is no indication that their statistics weren't real, it just felt like we'd have been better off reading it than having it effectively read to us in dialogue form, so we bid them good-bye and headed outside.
The bus found us and we joined the rest of the gang, who evidently had a good meeting with the Red Cross, and headed out to the Finlay Institute, the pharmaceutical lab we had been hearing so much about.
After a funny series of bad turns and confusing directions, we finally arrived at the correct entrance to the Finlay Institute, a very impressively laid out complex of well-kept buildings and grounds. We were warmly welcomed by Catherine Ribas Hermelo, an energetic woman with short red hair, probably in her forties, who spoke English with a New York accent (Brooklyn, The Bronx?). The Director of International Relations for the Institute, Catherine was a very friendly and outgoing woman who made us comfortable in a nicely appointed office and talked with us for a bit before we were joined by the president of the organization, Dr. Concepcion Campa Huergo. Dr. Campa, probably also in her forties, was a very interesting looking woman. She had dark hair and the sort of facial features that one might describe as "plain," but she also had a smile that was electrifying and a sweetness of manner that was totally compelling at the same time as it was disarming. Between Charlotte's exuberance and Dr. Campa's all-encompassing sense of peacefulness, they made a powerful duo.
The Finlay Institute was opened in the late '70s as a result of an outbreak of meningococcal disease. In a situation where a death rate of 4 per 100,000 was considered an epidemic, there were 14 deaths per 100,000 by 1982 and ultimately, among children, reached a level of 162 per 100,000. By 1987 they had developed a vaccine compound for testing purposes.
Outbreaks of the disease occur in places where large groups are concentrated, as it is spread by respiration. By 1989 the vaccine was perfected and they began successfully vaccinating all youth in the country from ? months to 24 years. Brazil then developed an epidemic and asked for help and by 1990/91 they were able to respond with a percentage of the doses required.
The Institute is now working on vaccines for lepisporosis, cholera and pan-hepatitis (because of this work, Cuba is now producing its own recombinant Hepatitis B vaccine) and an AIDS vaccine.
This is clearly an impressive, internationally recognized bacteriological study, development and production facility. It now employs 700 technicians, 400 of them professors.
Q. - What is the difference in terms of success between search for Hepatitis A and B vaccine?
A. - The A vaccine worked. B didn't function as a vaccine because the human system has qualities identical to it in its make-up. (I assume she was saying they canceled each other out.)
Q. - While we know the U.S. is out, do you do business with other countries?
A. - After $37 million in sales to Brazil, we are now #1 in sales in Argentina and growing in Uruguay and other countries in the area. We do business with 20 other countries in the world. Unfortunately, despite reported cases of meningococcal B in the U.S., they will not buy from us. (No one else in the world makes the meningococcal vaccine.)
Q. - Given your situation, is it difficult to exchange information on subjects pertinent to your work?
A. - Very difficult. We have, happily, colleagues in medical conferences around the world and U.S. doctors participate in them, so we can exchange information in those situations. There are medical journals to which we can get access, and we have developed friends in many places, all of whom have been impressed with the results of our work and are trying to find ways to circumvent the embargo.
Q. - The chances of success in the AIDS project?
A. - We would be happy to help the world in this search for a cure. There are many biotech centers working in this area and the directors meet periodically and discuss progress.
Q. - Do you make a live polio vaccine?
A. - No. We use it, but don't produce it. We used to get it from the USSR. We can still get it inexpensively, but aren't considering making it because costs are too high and it requires too large a production run to make it worthwhile to produce.
Q. - What has been the effect of the "special period" on your organization?
A. - It has depressed the economy in every area. We are protected, to some degree, but can't deny an effect. In many ways. On our workers, for example, their families, their ability to access transportation. Many ways. Regarding the needs of the Institute itself; serum, materials, equipment; we are protected. As far as any profit is concerned, we keep what we need to continue and turn the rest over to the government to be used to solve the country's problems.
Q. - There is an intention to develop a pharmaceutical industry?
A. - There has been a very large investment by the government. It has been dealt with in a coherent way, but the "Special Period" came before it was fully on its feet. It was the largest investment made, but it is still not complete. For me, the greatest value is in the training of technical personnel - people trained to work in the industry. There, there has been great success. There are large numbers of very well trained people here.
(An assistant cuts in to offer) "we lack raw materials and materials for packaging. The industry was in the 3rd or 4th stage of development, according to the UN-ITA (when the Special Period hit).
Q. - Where are your people trained?
A. - Everywhere. Mainly England, France and Canada, but everywhere.
Q. - This training is paid for by the Cuban Government?
A. - Yes.
Q. - Trained in Russia?
A. - The industry in the Soviet Union wasn't developed enough to be of use. Hungary, yes.
Q. - You've recently had a neuropathy epidemic and have evidently dealt with it successfully?
A. - Yes. Scientists in Cuban research centers simply expanded their time to longer working hours. They have fallen in love with the work, not with the money it brings them. This is a tradition that has grown in this country. We are very proud of the young men and women whose passion is to do things and do them well. To work hard with high quality.
Q. - Are your products priced competitively?
A. - Yes. Price increases world-wide reflect the fact that very few plants in the world have the commitment and the capacity to produce high quality products.
Q. - Do you carry malpractice insurance?
A. - (She goes into a long story on insurance, the net result of which is that they don't have - perhaps can't get or afford - malpractice insurance. Since they are backed by the government, the question may be off-point. But she does say "of course we cooperate with and fulfill all international requirements.")
As the hour is late and we have yet another meeting, we have to break up. Charlotte (the redhead), it turns out, is from New York and has lived here for 35 years. It was quite a meeting and all came away agreed that Dr. Campa is an extraordinary and charming woman.
We race to the hotel for a quick change and then back into the bus for dinner at the Aljiver Restaurant with Reverend Raul Suarez, a Baptist Minister who is head of the Cuban Ecumenical Council and also a member of Parliament. The Aljiver is a very nice, wide-open place where one dines on covered patios. The host, whose name I never got clear on, is a very sweet, humble man and seems intent on taking good care of us.
Rev. Suarez is a small, quiet man who emanates a sense of peaceful passion, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. Because he cooperated by receiving and distributing a shipment of food and medical supplies sent in defiance of the embargo by a group of American Christian activists known as Pastors for Peace, he was denounced by the U.S. State Department as being "the equivalent of a Colombian drug dealer, for receiving contraband goods."
Paul, in introducing Suarez, says he met him at a time when "we knew the Cuban revolution was only the first of many that had to take place in Latin America."
Paul tells that when he was head of Church World Service he went to Moscow, from there to Hanoi and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail by truck to get to Pnom Penh, Cambodia in the late '70s. At that time, though much help was needed there, the Vietnamese controlling Cambodia wouldn't allow, because of the bitterness of the war, American aid organizations in to help, nor would they allow international organizations to stay if an American was in charge.
He got the idea that a socialist country with the appropriately trained personnel could help, so went to Havana, where he hooked up with Rev. Suarez through the Ecumenical Council. Between them, they worked out an approach to the government and got the approval. Fourteen Cuban doctors and aid specialists were sent immediately and Cuba has had a humanitarian presence in Cambodia ever since.
It was also, it seemed from the tenor of Paul's presentation, the beginnings of a thaw between the Cuban Government and the religious community here.
Rev. Suarez, who heads not only the Ecumenical Council but also the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, has been a constant voice for rapprochement between the secular government and the religious forces. Apparently, he has had considerable success.
As he speaks, Ivonne translates (again with Janet and Gail helping out and/or making corrections from time to time).
- There are 54 Protestant denominations in Cuba and 14 seminaries which are shared among them. As a result of the work of Suarez and others, in 1990 Castro agreed to a dialogue with religious leaders - and agreed that it be televised. This addressed (and began) a reconciliation of the humane values of the Revolution and the Christian values of the church. It showed that those committed to the values of the church were also working for the betterment of the country.
This is not always a simple thing to do, he says, because a significant part of "the theology in our churches was conservative." For example, five months ago he got a FAX asking him to receive a delegation of religious people from the U.S. and Russia. When he asked who the leader of the delegation would be, he was told Jerry Falwell. He turned them down because of his distaste for the link between the religious right and the political right and the "vertical" nature of their religious experience. He distrusts a commitment to certain kinds of religious values without concern for social conditions. "The Bible requires integration of man, woman and spirit. The Revolution brought jobs for men and women and projects that affirmed their dignity." He is now working in concert with the government on projects that serve both of these ends.
Q. - What is the relationship of the religious right sects with the government?
A. - All churches deal with the Minister of Justice. We have separation of church and state, but all religious groups have relations with the government through this office.
Q. - Are there any sects that are not legal? A. - Yes, the Jehovah's Witnesses.
Q. - Is Conscientious Objector status recognized?
A. - Yes, there is an alternative for that, the Young People's Working Army, which works in various areas of the community.
Q. - What is your relationship with the Catholics?
A. - They have never been part of the Ecumenical Council. We have normal relations, but not what we wish we had. We have more solidarity with the Revolution, they have maintained their distance. We recognize that the Revolution has made many mistakes and at the same time we let the leaders know we don't play around with those who want to destroy the Revolution.
Now we have to find ways to make changes. But capitalism where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is not what we want in Cuba. Nor do we want the one in Germany. I don't know if it's possible, but I wish for something else. By my Christian faith, I am a socialist in the best sense of the word. I say no to materialism, to individualism. I believe in social justice. I don't know what "ism" it is, but I hope I find it. When I work in Parliament and in the church, I am in favor of that (an alternative to the destructive systems now extant).
Q. - What is the ratio of Catholics to Protestants? What are the numbers?
A. - Setting aside the Afro-Cuban religion and Catholics who are baptized and then stay away from the church, committed Catholics are fewer in number than committed Protestants. There are 400 local congregations and three seminaries, with 60,000 Baptists in Cuba. Catholics have 660 parishes, with 200+ priests. (I missed the total number of Protestants.) The Afro-Cuban religion is growing.
Q. - How has the role of the National Assembly in Parliament changed?
A. - Cuba has had two election laws during the Revolutionary period. In the first, 50% of the deputies were directly elected, the other 50% were appointed "by the finger." (Chosen by the powers that be.) The new law holds that all deputies are elected by secret ballot, so there is more democracy, but it has to keep improving.
Now, a voter can choose to vote or not, but there is a finite number of names on the ballot. It's not really a choice, as it would be where you choose 5 names out of 20. These five deputies are appointed, and you can vote yes or no on each one, but it's not really democracy. It is an error of the Socialist system when Party and government are confused.
Now we begin with a new law and a new Parliament. Especially with Alarcon, there is more autonomy. I was asked to a meeting of a commission, which was a surprise. Another surprise was the presence there of researchers. There were strong debates, one on making space for non-governmental organizations. A government deputy argued against space for NGOs. We ganged up on him to such an extent that the next meeting will only discuss NGOs. In that debate, Alarcon and Robaina (sp?) agreed with us and said Cuba's foreign policy must be made by the State, the Parliament and the NGOs. That statement was on television. Before, that wouldn't have been on television.
The government has realized that debate is important. "We don't all have to think alike," said Robaina.
There is still much unnecessary talk (praise for Fidel and other leaders), but things are changing. "We tell the state 'no manipulation and no control. We will find solutions, the solutions cannot come from on high.' In that sense I am a Baptist."
"We want to make changes not because the U.S. demands them, but because we need them. We cannot support a policy that is imposed by force or 'conditions;' these strings attached come from the last century. When we fought for independence, the U.S. placed an amendment (the Platt Amendment) in our Constitution which said they could intervene (at will). No more. The U.S. cannot continue imposing its will on other parts of the world. To do so is damaging to the people of the U.S."
Cuba has to work more on human rights, has to change economic policies, has to work more on programs for the people, but because we need it, not because it is imposed.
Q. - You mentioned the Martin Luther King Center. Can you tell us about that?
A. - As the name suggests, it is an organization whose work is based upon the principles of non-violence and constructive social engagement of Dr. Martin Luther King. He is a symbol for many of us of ways in which a Christian commitment means working to resolve society's ills. A "horizontal" religion. My church, you should understand, is named the Ebeneezer Baptist Church (after King's church.).
Q. - Can you say more about the African sects?
A. - We were taught that these sects were Satanistic, but have found that it is a real experience, that it is growing in popularity and involves whites as well as blacks. It is, perhaps, a reaction to the fact that many churches in Cuba have turned white. Our population is made up of 60% blacks and those with black blood. There is a saying in Cuba, "If you don't have the Congo in your blood, you have the Carabalie (sp?)." (You have some part of Africa in you.) Historically, the majority of our churches were sponsored by churches in the U.S. South. Their racism spilled over, and this was a problem we had to deal with. We came to the realization that Santeria, socially speaking, had value. The slaves refused to worship the God of the slave owner. The African was forced by the Catholics to worship white saints, so today each saint in Catholic Cuba has its African counterpart. Colors identified with each of the saints (for example, white for the Virgin), because colors have spiritual significance for Africans, came to stand for the African spiritual counterpart. In my neighborhood 70% of Afro-Cubans were Santeria, so I began to find ways to reach out, to apologize to the African population. Now, the membership in my church is growing. Now, in addition to being called a Communist I'm called a Santero. I'm not, but I am a friend of both, and have been working with the teenagers in my community to help promote their sense of self-esteem and self-value, even within Santero. "The problem is not those who believe differently, the problem is those who believe in nothing."
(His words, uttered with great conviction and utter simplicity, were very impressive. As the meeting was taking place, we were at the same time eating great portions of the best food I had so far eaten in Cuba, served quietly and with immense grace by the owner of the restaurant. It felt to me as though he was thus expressing his appreciation, perhaps reverence, for Rev. Suarez.)
Soon it was time to take our leave, and each of us took a moment to try to express our appreciation to Rev. Suarez for giving us an important insight into the situation in his country. And then it was back into the bus and to the hotel for what was left of the night. Another early morning loomed.
Tuesday, October 25, 1994
In the bus on the way to the seaside neighborhood of Tarara, for our next meeting, I made a point of sitting with Paul to get some clarification on the differences in some of the Christian sects. Rev. Suarez, last night, had identified himself as an "Evangelical" Christian, and with the various movements within the Christian faith, I sometimes get confused. The evangelical movement, or belief, Paul says, comes primarily from the Protestant American South and derives from (I believe) the Letters of Paul, who urged believers to go out and "evangelize." Thus, an "Evangelical" Christian is one who has a requirement to reach out and proselytize by spreading the "Good News" of Christ's story and making new converts. Many in the Protestant mainstream are evangelicals, but that does not make them "Fundamentalists," or, as they sometimes call themselves, "Bible-believing Christians." Fundamentalists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible and often subscribe to the notion that anyone who doesn't agree with them and their interpretation of what it is that the words mean, is condemned to the fires of hell for eternity. Fundamentalists can be evangelicals, but evangelicals are not by any means necessarily fundamentalists. Another group, which grew out of the fundamentalists but now seems to be reaching into some of the more mainstream sects, is the "Charismatic" Christian. Again from Paul's letters (I think), the charismatics believe that when one truly gets the infusion of the holy spirit that is referred to in the writings, its presence is made known through some physical manifestation such as speaking in tongues, shaking, quivering, passing out, writhing on the floor, etc. Charismatics also tend to be a bit exclusive, as I understand it, and often have more in common with other charismatics of a different sect than non-charismatics of their own religion.
Suarez's use of the terms "vertical" and "horizontal" to describe a religious viewpoint is instructive. Vertical Christianity would be that in which the individual is concerned only with his or her relationship to God. An exclusive concern with one's own personal salvation, a vertical Christianity, would then describe the fundamentalist or the charismatic. Horizontal Christianity, such as Rev. Suarez's evangelical faith, would be that which is more concerned with the general social good. (Interesting stuff.)
About 45 minutes East out of Havana we come to the community of Tarara (or Tarana?). A seaside resort community, it was the property of the wealthy classes of Cubans before the Revolution - much of it was owned by or rented to wealthy Americans at that time. After the Revolution, the State used it as a boarding school. The area looks run-down, as is the case in the city, and is made up of a large number of one and two-story houses plus the occasional larger apartment house-style building. Everything is badly overgrown, with the grass a foot high or more on many of the lawns and the bushes and other plant life untended, making it look like a deserted area. It is not, as we see when we step out of the bus and are greeted by members of the medical staff.
It's a hot day and we're taken inside the large office or clinic building to a conference room. The doctor who is our host tells of having himself been a student here when it was a boarding school. Many of the professionals in the country studied here, he says.
In 1975, the facility was opened for use as a Pioneers camp (The Pioneers is the Cuban youth group which is intended to spread the lessons of the Revolution to the younger generation in the hope, I assume, of seeing it continue.) and has since trained thousands of children here. (260,000 per year)
In 1978 a school was started here for diabetic children. They were educated and trained to deal with their special needs in order to allow them to fully integrate into society.
It has now become a rehabilitation center for asthmatic children, the Celia Sanchez Manduley Asthma Treatment Center.
And, in 1990, it became the center for the Children of Chernobyl Program. So far 12,635 child victims of radiation and 2,222 of their adult companions have been brought here from Russia, Belorusse and the Ukraine with the intention that they be given total physical care
The primary concern, the doctor tells us, is the thyroid gland. Hormonal studies and ultra-sound tests are done, as are ontological (oncological?) studies and a general search for illnesses related to radiation. Much testing and research is done looking for infections of the immune system and the endocrine system.
There are 350 beds in the center. They have fairly sophisticated diagnostic equipment here, but when needed can use other facilities like the Hematological Institute or the Endocrinological Institute. The are also studying contamination rates and levels of persistence, etc. Cesium, for example, has a half-life of 70 years. Iodine 131 has a half-life of 9 or 10 days.
A complete dental examination is done and they find much tooth decay in these kids, he says. Also periodontal disease, diseases that have nothing to do with radiation but indicate poor primary health care. (This, however is a point with which Stephen has some disagreement. He feels the jury is still out on whether or not dental and periodontal problems are in fact the results of radiation poisoning.) Here these children are provided a safe place, good care, study and all kinds of help - one of which is their physical removal from possible sources of continued exposure.
They are classified in four groups: 1) children with cancer (3%), 2) children with less serious diseases but who still need hospitalization (17%). Groups 1) and 2) are hospitalized for treatment and more research, either here or in one of the other facilities. Group 3) is made up of children with diseases that qualify them as out-patients (60%) and group 4) are children who are apparently healthy but who are monitored with regular physical exams (20%). Groups 3) and 4) reside here and are attended to by staff and by members of the Family Doctor Program.
Children from groups 3) and 4) stay in the country for 45 days. Groups 1) and 2) stay longer, depending upon need. A few have been here for the entire four years of the program, some because they continue to need treatment and others because their parents don't want to return home.
One child was diagnosed in his home as having three months to live and has survived here for 4 years.
Children over 8 years who are brought to the program are grouped with one adult to every ten kids. Those 8 years and under each bring a parent with them.
90% of these children have a high incidence of tooth decay. Those 12 years of age have an incidence of 5.2, while comparably aged kids in Havana have an incidence of 0.8. (Cuban kids he says, get a fluoride wash every fifteen days. Ugh!)
58% of these kids have endemic goiter. There is little iodine in their diet, so they show "thyroid hyperplasia" (I don't know if that's the same as goiter). A nuclear "incident" such as Chernobyl releases, among other elements, Iodine 131. Since the human system can't distinguish between this and good-for-you iodine, it takes it directly to the thyroid, causing the large incidence of thyroid cancer.
Another finding, one that fascinated Stephen, is that "the lymphoid tissue in the body is growing in volume."
Q. - Is the lymph system responding in the same way? A. - Possibly.
Q. - I haven't heard of this. You can feel the tumors on physical exam?
A. - Yes.
Q. - What percentage of the kids have these lymphoid lumps? A. - About 30%.
Q. - Does this suggest that the immune system is weakened? A. - Possibly. With the introduction of radioactive elements, we suspect so.
Many of these kids have skin disease as well. Alopecia (total loss of body hair), psoriasis, vitiligo (loss of pigmentation). Stephen mentions the "tanning effect" medical observers have noted on the skin of radiation victims, possibly a sign of a kind of radiation burn. He wonders if this vitiligo is a secondary stage of that process. The doctor mentions that they have had some success in applying a specific type of skin lotion - some re-pigmentation.
The patients they now have include 119 leukemia cases (who have not had a recurrence), many tumors, bone marrow transplant cases, birth defects, many psycho-somatic diseases, immune system problems, paralysis, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.
The program for these kids includes trips around the country, sports and a regular program of physical exercise, aside from the medical treatment.
Q. - Is there counseling? Psychological support?
A. - There is a team of psychologists, who speak Russian, who work with the children.
Q. - This is obviously a drain on your country's medical system. Is there any international assistance?
A. - None. A World Health Organization team visited us and promised assistance, but none has been forthcoming.
Q. - How are the children selected to come here?
A. - We have teams who visit the affected areas and find them. In the early years we brought more of those who were the worst cases.
This begins a discussion of why they are now avoiding bringing some of the more serious cases. After a bit of confusion it becomes clear that it is a question of Triage. They know what they can do, but have to be realistic about what they can afford. Again, the embargo.
They have found, the doctor says, that the process of decontamination is measurable over time. This suggest, he notes, the advisability of bringing all children out of a contaminated area for prescribed periods of time.
As we are preparing to leave for the bus one of the staff makes another one of those speeches of appreciation. This one is slightly different, however, in that it is given by a medical man of some sophistication, and one who is obviously very much emotionally involved in working with these children. He speaks movingly of the program, of the children and of how important it is to them that we have come to see them. At the end of it he passes out to each of us a rose from their garden. It is a very lovely moment.
Back in the bus we're driven through the compound. Compound really doesn't describe it fairly - there must be hundreds of houses in this village, all looking a bit seedy and almost all of them with overgrown lawns, but just about the time you're sure it's a deserted area someone will step out of a door or you'll see signs of house-cleaning or laundry. It's a bit surreal.
After driving through the streets a bit, as Ivonne tells us that the government is considering renting out some of the seaside homes here as part of the attempt to build up tourism, we pull up outside a corner house and are invited to get out. Walking up to the door, we're welcomed by a man and woman who are doctors on the staff of the center and work with the youngsters in this particular home.
The interior of the house is the other side of the moon compared to the seedy exterior. Though in no way plush, it is neat and clean and obviously well cared for. The doctors are a bit embarrassed that the children are not here to meet us, but they're out at the beach. As we're talking, however, five of the kids show up (three girls and two boys) and shyly say hello. God, they're gorgeous! With the round faces typical of Slavic ancestry, they could as easily be from parts of Pennsylvania or Ohio as from the Ukraine or Byelorussia. Sweet, shy faces light into warm smiles as Walter breaks out his apparently endless supply of candy and gum.
After a bit we go out into the sunlight to take some pictures of the troupe. More kids come up with two women, mothers or guardians from home, and we struggle to say hello. Some in our group speak a bit of Russian, some of them speak a bit of English. Ivonne, it quickly becomes clear, speaks Russian very well and soon has the kids laughing merrily. (Ivonne tells me she went to school in Moscow. Says she was there with a group of Cuban kids, most of whom chose not to come back. Some of them are now in Miami.)
These kids are really a kind of "Our Gang" group, all sizes and shapes, some in shorts and tee shirts, some in dresses and jeans. A little one who can't be more than four years old wears a pretty dress and a ribbon in her hair. She is so gorgeous and has such a sweet smile it's hard to hold back the tears. Many of these kids have the stark white patches (Vitiligo) that was talked about earlier. Some have angry red puffy lesions on arms, legs, on their faces or in the hair. One of them, who seems to be a favorite of all, is totally bald (Alopecia - not even eyebrows or eyelashes) and appears, at least, to be completely comfortable with all of it. Jack pays particular attention to him. Watching the behavior of those in our group in relation to these kids is quite something. They're obviously tremendously moved and just as obviously unwilling to show it in any way except to be warm and friendly and gracious as they shower attention on these children and the attending adults. Casually, without an indication that it's in any way out of the ordinary, Jack asks someone with a camera to take his picture with the little bald-headed boy to whom he's been talking. Arms around each other, they smile beautifully for the camera. After a moment Jack turns away and spots me watching him, enchanted. He smiles, shrugs and says, "That's a picture I want some people to see. If it costs me a lifetime or two, it's worth it."
With a schedule to keep, the children move away, waving and smiling to us and we gather our wits and climb back into the bus. Our people are quieter than usual after the encounter...
Ivonne moves it right along, pointing out some of the homes closer to the seaside that will be (are now?) rented out to tourists as we head toward a large, institutional-looking cluster of taller buildings on a small hill. Once there, the bus stops and we again disembark and head up the steps into the Celia Sanchez Manduley Asthma Treatment Center.
Welcomed by many of the evidently large staff, we're told the Center was opened in 1985 and has since then treated 1135 children between 7 and 14 years of age, most of whom suffer from severe (what they call "refractive") asthma. Here, they say, they're prepared to deal with all the needs of the severely asthmatic child in need of physical, psychological and/or emotional rehabilitation.
We're shown a classroom of 8 year olds, all in uniform, who sit quietly as we're introduced. The teacher tries to coax a bit of conversation or some questions out of them, but they're pretty shy.
These kids board here, and though everything they need is provided, this facility is suffering from the same shortages as the rest of the country. The program, we're told, includes not only a good education but regular physical training, medical attention and training of the parents in an awareness of the special needs of the asthmatic child. (Asthmatic children who don't perform well physically without the benefit of treatment are sometimes ignored and at other times singled out for scorn or abuse by parents, particularly fathers, who don't understand the situation.)
The kids who are attending now have been here anywhere for from one to six years, our guide tells us. They live here Monday through Friday and go home on the weekends.
We're shown one of the dorm rooms, which reminds me of a military barracks, complete with metal framed bunk beds and foot-lockers. It's very Spartan, with no rugs and not even a single poster on the wall. When we ask why, it's explained that anything that can collect dust, which includes rugs and even posters, is excluded for reasons of health. For the same reason the mattresses are foam pads and not stuffed with feathers. The air conditioning, which operates erratically because of the fuel shortages, has a specially designed filter and is a prized feature.
Obviously every precaution that can be taken to ensure the children's well-being is considered. It seems a shame, especially for kids who want to be active by nature, that it all has to be so regimented.
In another classroom we meet a group of 8th graders who, though initially shy, warm up a bit and eventually respond to the group, which then breaks up into small pockets, each attempting to include one Spanish speaker, and talks to them. I listen in on one conversation with five great looking girls, at least two of whom are going to be stunningly beautiful. One says she intends to be a psychologist, one a lawyer, one an artist, one a stewardess. The fifth isn't sure yet. Wonderful, impressive kids. Poised, bright.
I wander over to a corner where three boys aren't getting any attention and struggle to have a conversation. Between their limited English and my rudimentary Spanish, we manage to talk about how they look forward to going home each weekend, how the school provides a bus to take them to the center of the city where they're picked up by family(or take public buses on from there, in the case of at least one).
Asked about what they like to do here, one of the kids warms up and starts talking about how much he loves basketball. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are big heroes. Asked what position he likes to play he indicates he's not all that good. Pressed, he says he's not tall enough. I tell him not to forget Spud Webb, but it's not a name he seems familiar with so we talk for a while, all in pidgin-Spanish, better English and sign language, about building leg muscles and learning to soar like Michael. Nice kids.
Heading through the halls and thinking about Walter's apparent facility with Spanish, his ability to communicate well with the Chernobyl kids in Russian and his stories of the other places he's traveled to and written about, I ask him how many languages he speaks. He says he's better at some than others, but "I can get along in about eight." (!)
We're next taken to a meeting room where much of the staff seems to have assembled and cookies and juice are laid out. Like the hospitals we've seen, this whole place is fairly clean and neatly kept, but the neatness is weirdly juxtaposed to the crumbling facade, cracked plaster and generally run-down appearance. What's clear is that they do their best with what they have.
This is, we're told, the only center of its kind in Cuba - that is, the only one which combines a medical and an educational regime.
Asthma is a growing problem in the country. The kids here have the worst kind of asthma. 40% of them are on cortico-steroids - some for so long that they've developed negative side effects. A frustration here is that they don't have some of the alternative medications they need (especially for those cases) and don't have the equipment necessary to do certain tests, so have to end up sending some of the kids to the hospital in Havana.
There have been no deaths here. There was a recent cardiac arrest, but she overcame it in the hospital.
Asked about the long grasses and the possibility of pollens aggravating these conditions, we're told that they are the result of the rainy season and are cut monthly.
They ask our impressions - all are appreciative and upbeat. Steve offers that he sees "so many advantages to taking the child out of the (home) environment." He has worked with asthmatic kids and says "we used to joke about an operation called a 'parent-dectomy,' the taking of the child out of the environment and away from parents who can't understand the problems and can't deal with them." Says he thinks this is a terrific program and will do what he can to support it.
Again it's time to head out, so we say our good-byes and get back on the bus. Before heading back to the city, Gail wants to show us one of the "Farmer's Markets" that have cropped up with this new economic opening. Set in a community of modern apartment-style houses (this is where she lives, in fact), this market is similar to what one might find on the side of the highway in the States. Inside a wire fence enclosure, covered by what appear to be tarps, a number of people are sifting through bins of corn, avocados, squash and other kinds of vegetables. Some are plentiful, others not so. Off to one side, Earl and I walk over to a popular area and find a kind of fly-ridden open-air butcher's stall. Small blackboards advertise the prices and give us a vivid example of the chaotic economy. A single avocado goes for 7 pesos. Ivonne's entire salary for a month is 246 pesos.
Heading back toward the hotel, we have a chance to try to sort out what we've seen as we rest our eyes on the beautiful ocean to our right. Ivonne points out that they regularly (during the season) have storms at sea that cause the surf to breach the sea-wall, so the areas closest to the wall are subject to flooding. During the "Storm of the Century" mentioned earlier, water was up to a meter (39") high in some of the areas through which we're passing.
Because some of us are leaving tomorrow instead of on the regular weekly charter Thursday, Ivonne has set aside some time this afternoon for shopping for those so inclined. Jack has been after her to take him to the cigar factory. He says he wants to give a box of Cuban cigars to a producer friend who is very close to Bill Clinton. His idea is to have the friend smoke them with Clinton and possibly use them as an entree to a conversation about the craziness of this embargo. Cigar diplomacy.
Because the aforementioned charter is the only legitimate way in and out of Cuba and it only goes once a week, those of us who are leaving a day early (Paul, Mary, Janet, Stephen and I) had to get a special dispensation from Washington to be able to fly Cubana Airlines to Nassau so we could connect there for Miami and from there on to our destinations (mine is Louisville, Kentucky, where I'll be picked up for my speech the next morning in Indiana. Paul is speaking in Cleveland or somewhere that same evening. Janet is simply dying to get back to her Olivia, Mary has twin boys, school, a home to deal with and a foundation to run and Stephen, given what we've come to know about him, is either heading off to some other medically needy place or going to re-introduce himself to his family.). On the assumption that flights coming in from Nassau won't be as closely inspected by Customs as the one from Havana, Jack decided I could take the cigars out for him. "And if I get arrested for you," I told him, "you'll have to get me a damned good job to pay me back!"
The shop for the cigar factory is an interesting place, one that reeks not only of tobacco but also of a kind of history (and romance, in a funny way). The man behind the counter, in response to a number of questions from Jack, takes us into an incredibly well-stocked and furnished back room and shows us a number of different types and grades of cigar as well as humidors, lighters, cigar cutters, etc. Here is evidence of a whole cigar culture about which I know absolutely nothing.
Jack buys a number of very expensive beautiful wooden boxes of the best cigars in the place and I can't resist and decide to buy a small packet for a friend. Real honest-to-God Cuban cigars! It's kind of a hoot.
From there we go to another marketplace, this one clearly designed for the tourist trade, so we can pick up some things for spouses and children. Browsing through a bookstore there I find a book written by Gail Reed, the journalist who is acting as our host/liaison here. It's a report on one of the major political developments here, a Communist Conference of some sort. Between Gail, Janet, probably Walter and possibly Earl, I'm in a company of authors. For all I know, Stephen has probably written THE book on exotic medical problems. It's enough to give one an illiteracy complex. And I can't even find the damned book on the assassination of JFK that Fernando mentioned to me.
Once finished at the marketplace we all head back to the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation for a last meeting with (debriefing by?) Vice Minister Raul Taladrid. He's as pleasant as ever and is interested in our reactions to what we've seen and what our report is likely to indicate as far as future efforts are concerned.
Paul has asked that a couple of people respond for the group -
- Stephen talks about how impressed he is with the health program we've seen, calls it "near perfect" in design and function, but says it is now, using the metaphor of a tree, "losing its leaves." He says he wants to find a way to be involved in the repair of the system. Sort of a rave review.
- Earl gives a very thoughtful analysis of the programs we've seen. He is respectful of what they've done and mindful of the problems they face with or without opposition from the U.S. In a reference to the mindlessness of the kind of international antagonism in which the U.S./Cuba relationship is currently trapped, he cites an anthropologist who spoke at a conference he recently attended who said that science now knows that no human being in any society on earth is more distant from any other than that of a relationship of 50th cousin.
- Janet says its her 5th time here and speaks of her work with the Arca Foundation, of trying to find ways to bridge the gaps in understanding between the two societies. She tells the story of her mother coming here years ago as a tourist and returning home filled with admiration for what she had seen. Her father, she said, reacted by saying, "I sent you there as a tourist and you came back as 'cadre'." She then says how pleased she has been to find no sign of the anti-Americanism one might expect here due to the conditions resulting from the embargo.
- Paul (who has been here 17 times) then describes the nature of the process of evaluating the legality and effectiveness of the projects that are being considered by this delegation. He says that it appears they will be able to move forward with these programs but it will likely not be with the Christian Children's Fund; rather it will be under the aegis of a new and separate NGO, likely to be called Children First. He is hoping, he says, to be able to bring another delegation, probably in January '95, which will include some members of Congress.
- Gail takes a moment to express her appreciation of the experience of working with the members of the delegation and of what it means to her hopes for the future. She refers to the hopeful signs that she sees of "space" in this country for movement which suggests real possibility, with the proper response from the U.S., for the "building of bridges."
- Taladrid expresses his gratitude for our having come to his country. Keying off Gail's "bridges" theme, he says it's important that we all do what we can to make for better relations because, like it or not, we're neighbors. He offers his unconditional support for the furtherance of the efforts of "Children First," but asks Paul to consider putting off the January visit to February because he and many of the government leaders will be in New York in January for meetings at the United Nations. Paul asks if there is the possibility of meeting while he's there. Taladrid says it will have to be worked out because he is limited in what he can do by State Department restrictions on travel. They have to allow him to come to New York for the UN meetings, but they aren't always willing to allow him to travel beyond a certain designated area around the UN complex. (This all sounds so juvenile!)
Finally we take our leave and head for the hotel. We're scheduled to have dinner this evening with Abel Prieto, President of the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers. Gail says he's "extraordinarily open" in what he says, so it should be interesting.
Once back at the hotel I get a call from Fernando Garcia, who says he has found the book he mentioned to me and would like to bring it by. Unfortunately I'm not in a position to invite him to dinner, so have to say I'm about to head out. He agrees to bring it by in the morning and perhaps to have breakfast with me before we leave for the airport.
Paul mentions quietly that there is a possibility of a late-night meeting tonight, which means the chance exists that we'll be able to meet with Castro after all. It's been talked about, mostly in hushed tones, but so far hasn't developed. Paul knows him well, evidently (or at least has met with him a number of times), and has been in touch with people throughout the trip who have been trying to arrange a meeting. The complicating factor - other than that the man has a country to run - is the current negotiations that are going on with the U.S. about the status of the refugees in Guantanamo. My sense is it's iffy, but it would be an exciting thing.
Waiting in the lobby for the others to gather and board the bus I have a chance to talk to Earl, whose calm, quiet presence has been one of the consistent strengths about the delegation. A reflective man, he asks good questions and invariably offers thoughtful comments. There is a depth of
character about him that is comforting.
The restaurant, about a half-hour away to the East, is another of Hemingway's hangouts. This one is either owned by or uses the name of the man who was the captain of Hemingway's yacht. As a matter of fact, the very fellow is sitting by the door as we come in; a very old, grizzled man with big, callused hands and a weather-beaten face. He has a cane by his side, one of those serious, four-pronged walking aids that suggest a stroke or crippling arthritis or the like.
We're situated in a back room beside open windows that look out over a beautiful lagoon. Pictures of Hemingway, the captain and his yacht cover the walls in the room, showing them hard at work torturing game fish. The old man and the sea lives. Can't imagine why anyone would want to kill one of those glorious creatures.
Our guest doesn't turn up. It's unclear whether he's involved in one of the U.S./Cuba meetings we've been hearing about or if it's something else, but whatever the case, he can't get here. So we have a chance to have our own quiet de-briefing. Jokes are told and reflections are offered, though the long table doesn't allow for the kind of all-inclusive conversation that might be wanted. The food, at least for this diner, leaves much to be desired. The specialty here, it turns out, is lobster. If one doesn't want lobster there are plenty of other kinds of fish. If one doesn't want fish, there is, finally, meat. When it's made clear that all I want is vegetables, preferably something simple like rice and beans, the waiter goes off to see what he can do. After a while he returns with an oval plate with a pile of rice on each end and what look to be boiled potatoes in the middle. Not too thrilling, but with a little ketchup I can make do. It turns out, however, they aren't potatoes. They are evidently a kind of tuber, or root vegetable, that Earl recognizes from Africa. Manioc, or something. Very nutritious, Earl assures me. Unfortunately, they taste like paste. Add ketchup and presto, they taste like paste with ketchup. So I'm happy for the rice. And for the bread.
It's a nice evening in a nice spot. And it's good to have a chance to slow down a bit. Mary and I get a chance to catch up on her impressions of the trip, on the issue of human rights, on life in general. A nice woman. Smart. Frank and Walter are having a kind of undeclared contest as to which one is funnier. Walter wins, but Frank is game in the attempt.
Back to the hotel and a kind of end-of-the-journey fatigue has begun to set in. No word yet on the possible meeting with Castro, but if it comes about we'll get a call (he's evidently a specialist on middle of the night meetings). If the call comes in, I think, as my head hits the pillow, I'm sure I can get it together, but I can't say I'm completely disappointed to awaken and find out it's morning.
Paul is disappointed and a bit apologetic about the lack of opportunity for us to meet Fidel. While it certainly would have been a special event, I assure him, as do the others, that he has nothing to apologize for. This has been a full and powerful experience as it is and in spite of the sense of an opportunity missed that would have been significant, there's nothing about the trip that is any less impressive and/or authentic for the lack of that occurrence.
Fernando shows up and we breakfast together. He's very kind to have found and brought the book, but I have to confess to a level of skepticism that has me wondering what's next. He is, after all, an official in the Foreign Relations Ministry of the government and did at one point volunteer for one of their Fast-Reaction Battalions. And doesn't everyone have an agenda these days? The conversation is pleasant, though, and seems to be without ulterior motive. The one curious piece of information that comes out of it is that he knows, somehow, of the work I've done over the years with Cesar Chavez and the UFW. Somehow it's always surprising to me when people who live in other countries have knowledge of what seem to me to be rather esoteric or arcane details about our own.
Then it's time to get the bags and head for the bus one last time. Earl is there to see us off, as are Walter and Pauline. They're off tomorrow for their respective homes. Thanks and good wishes all around. I catch up to Jack by the pool. He's ready for a leisurely day and home tomorrow. Frank is off with an old friend who he feared might have been at Guantanamo, but who turned up OK.
Off again through the ever more familiar streets to the airport. Ivonne takes us through the necessary procedures and bids farewell. She'll be OK, that one.
I keep trying to figure out what I'm going to say to the US Customs guys about all these damned cigars. It's the story with the money all over again. I'm certainly not going to declare this stuff. They'll grab it in a hot minute. Oh, well, I'll deal with it when I have to.
In the departure lounge an American says hello. A boxing coach, he's been here working with the Cuban team. A very soft-spoken, peaceful type, he's been trying to figure out how to help ease the tensions (seems to be the primary concern of about anyone who comes here and gets a feel for the situation) and has an idea he wants to know if I'll help with. He says there's a famous Cuban boxer, Teofilio Stevenson (I think), who is or was considered the world's greatest amateur fighter when Muhammad Ali was champion. He says the dream match-up that never took place was for the two of them to fight. What he says he'd like to do now is to bring them together in a ring to discuss the world's situation and particularly that of the U.S. and Cuba. He figures it would get enormous TV coverage and could be a dialogue that might really start something since these two would have an appeal that's beyond the norm. How, I ask, do you get beyond the problem of Ali's inability to articulate? This fellow says that his understanding is that Ali's capacity to think is still fine, that it's just his speech that's a problem and that this discussion could be sub-titled, if need be. Well, I think the whole thing is a bit out in the stratosphere, frankly, but this man is so earnest in his desire to do something helpful and in his willingness to work it out himself that I say, of course, I'll help if I can.
The flight on Cubana Airlines is uneventful, except for the smoker who insisted on ignoring the no-smoking sign. The plane was full and, though it got off late, only took an hour to get us to Nassau. Coming into the neat and bright-looking airport building one has the feeling of flying for an hour and traveling through years from some impoverished past to the bright and shiny present.
As I'm busy conniving, I suggest to Mary, who is first in line at passport control here, that if they don't stamp our passports as we come into the country there's no way of US Customs in Miami knowing we were ever in Cuba. We can say, or let them think, that we've been here in Nassau the whole time. That being the case, I suggest, it's likely we'll breeze through Customs and I won't have to spend years in jail for trying to smuggle in Jack's goddam cigars! (Not that I'm obsessing about it or anything.)
Well, saints be praised, the sweet, kind, decent, good-natured, beautiful, rich and obviously intelligent woman behind the counter at Nassau Passport Control wishes us a good day and sends us off to pick up our baggage without stamping the passports! Grabbing our bags we head for the American Airlines counter to check in for the flight to Miami where we're processed through without a problem and told we'll go through U.S. Customs here. (One of those extended U.S. Customs availabilities set up to allow tourists to avoid the Customs jam-up at the port of entry - in this case, Miami! What a good idea!) Due to another time change (we're now back on East Coast time), there are some schedule screw-ups - Paul's flight has already left and Janet and Stephen's flight has been canceled, but they get sorted out. Then we walk through Customs without so much as a wayward glance and its back to the U.S. of A.
Reflecting on the way home on the impact of a trip such as this I'm mindful of the confusion that is sown in our lives by those who fashion policies on the basis of ideological fixation rather than simple human understanding. For 35 years we've lived with the notion of this horrific beast, this terrifying force, this threat to our existence that lurks there in the Caribbean, 90 miles from our Southern shore. In fact, it's simply a collection of people attempting to order their lives in a manner somewhat different from the one we've chosen and who, whether we like it or not, will continue to do so to the best of their abilities. There are some things I'd like to see changed in Cuba, but what's clear from the trip is that there are a great many in the country who will see to it that the necessary changes, from their perspective, will take place in time - are in fact, some would say, in process now (and perhaps have been from the beginning). And the best, smartest, and most effective way for us to facilitate the positive developments we'd like to see in that country is to get out of their way, to end this moronic embargo, to establish the same kinds of relationships with them that we have with every other country - politics notwithstanding - and are today pursuing vigorously with the remaining Communist giant of the world, China.
The alternative, of course, is to continue our present relationship in the vain (some would say racist, colonialist, imperialist) hope that this government that is not to our liking will fall and those who want to see a return to the old ways will be able to go back and take over. Not only will this not occur, but every day we spend continuing to be the primary force attempting to bring it about through economic strangulation means another day that children will suffer without necessary medicines, hospitals and businesses will labor in darkened halls with Rube Goldberg contraptions attempting to replace their lost technologies, school kids will lack paper and pencils, the social fabric will continue to decay and the people we say we're trying to help will continue to go hungry.
Shame on us.