Feb 182016
 

I recently read an article about Americans that don’t use the internet, and it was essentially what you would expect, primarily rural and older people. I wonder if Americans ever give any thought to people that simply can’t use the internet, because it doesn’t exist.

There is a misconception about Cuba and the internet amongst many people I meet. If a Cuban is fortunate enough to have money they have a cell phone and some are lucky enough to have a tablet, but that is not the norm.
The real point is that these devices are used for nothing more than phone calls, photo storage and game playing, since, for all intents and purposes there is no internet in Cuba.
Yes there is an intranet, Cubans can Skype with each other, but they can not look up information on Google or order items from Amazon.

Universities have limited internet, and the “ politically well connected” have access, but censorship is very strong, and service is intentionally kept ridiculously slow.
While one can spend hours discussing how that limits freedom of information, to me it presents completely different considerations.

Corporations, governments and people expect you to be connected. So many items today simply can no longer be accomplished without an internet connection.

I took a Notebook to my family in Cuba because they are cheap and and could hold a program I wanted for their education. However, notebooks are cheap because everything is held in the cloud, but what if the cloud doesn’t exist?
There are so many companies in the US that no longer have humans to deal with simple items like customer service. It is the norm to handle all your problems via a device, and yet, what if you don’t have a device?
I am one of the most connected people I know, and yet I wonder how we came to this point where human contact is abhored by corporations and when you attempt to solve a problem you are given a website address with the assumption that that solves the problem.

All of this is brought home to me when I head back to Cuba and try to explain to people that I truly, truly am disconnected from the moment the plane leaves Miami to the moment I return.

While in Cuba I carry an old fashioned notepad and a pen to write down everything that I need to remember.
I hold all my shopping lists, family members wish lists and all of the items I need for my stories in this little pink notepad that is as much a trademark of mine in Cuba as my Italian laced Spanish or my ever present Buddhist prayer beads.

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I watch in fascination as the world, and especially my home town of San Francisco is so wired that even their front doors and lights are controlled by wi-fi or bluetooth without a thought to the fact that in other parts of the world they have no concept of these items.

When Cuba opens and American corporations begin to move into the business world of Cuba, how are they going to cope?

Aug 122015
 

April 2015

Every since I began writing about Cuba I have been asked some darn good questions.  Before getting into reading about the country here are some simple statistics.  So I don’t lose you here, I have interspersed other great information throughout, but here goes the easy stuff.

Map of CubaThe Republic of Cuba consists of one large island and several small ones situated on the northern rim of the Caribbean Sea, about 100 miles south of Florida.  This means the flight is about 45 minutes to a little over one hour, depending on destination and tail winds.

Flying to Cuba

Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, accounting for more than one-half of West Indian land area.

Courtesy of OverlapMaps.com

Pennsylvania and Cuba – Courtesy of OverlapMaps.com

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The area occupied by Cuba is slightly smaller than the state of Pennsylvania.

Map of CubaIt is separated from Florida by the Straits of Florida, from the Bahamas and Jamaica by various channels, from Haiti by the Windward Passage, and from Mexico by the Yucatán Channel and the Gulf of Mexico.

Beaches of CubaCuba’s total coastline is 2,316 miles. While many people come to Cuba just to get a tan not all the beaches are sandy.

Everyone in this photo is Cuban, with the exception of the South African lady in the front.

Everyone in this photo is Cuban, with the exception of the South African lady in the front.

Cuba is a highly ethnically diverse country. In the latest 2012 census 64.1% of Cubans listed themselves as white while minorities include mulatto and mestizo (26.6%) and black (9.3%).

Canadian FlagWhile Americans are hankering to go to Cuba, the rest of the world has been visiting for sometime.  Here is a breakdown of tourism from those countries in 2010

Canada         945,248
UK                 174,343
Italy               112,298
Spain             104,948
Germany        93,136
France            80,470
Mexico           66,650
US                   63,046 (This number is expected to be 200,000 in 2015)
Argentina      58,612
Russia            56,245

Cuban Children

Yes Cubans are having babies, but their birth rate is very low.  This could cause problems in the future, as is occurring in  Italy, Greece and Japan, but as their economic system is so vitally different than the rest of the worlds only time will tell how it will affect the country.

World Birth Rates

World Birth Rates

Cuban Birth Rates

Cuban Birth Rates

The 2012 census showed the population of Cuba as just over 11 million people, around the population of the state of Ohio.

Cuba sits in a seismic zone.

The Cayman Trough is the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea.

The Cayman Trough is the deepest part of the Caribbean Sea.

The eastern edge of the Cayman Trough is called the Gonâve microplate.

Map of Cuba showing the Pico TurquinoPico Turquino (6467 feet) is the highest point in Cuba. It is located in the southeast part of the island, in the Sierra Maestra mountain range in Santiago de Cuba Province.

 

Here are books about Cuba in my library, I hesitate to recommend any particular one, as everyone’s interests are different, but I have provided a link to Amazon on each for you to explore further.

Back Channel to Cuba
Listen Yankee: Why Cuba Matters
Havana Real
Waiting for Snow in Havana
Bay of Pigs
Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba
The Other Side of Paradise
Dancing With Cuba
Castro’s Daughter

A very good website, written by the woman that wrote Havana Real is

GeneracionY

Another worth exploring is

Sin(without)Evasion

The hard thing about these websites is that the authors write the articles and then email them to friends in other countries for translation.  Please keep that in mind when the sentences sometimes just require a re-read to get the gist.

Aug 112015
 

January 2015

If you are traveling on a tour to Cuba you may see this statement on the top of your itinerary: “You are traveling on a government issued people-to-people license therefore free time to explore independently is not allowed.”

To further elucidate that statement, there are places you will be required to go and another requirement is that you spend a minimum of 6 (six) hours per day on a people-to-people interchange.

MONEY

In 2004 the Cuban government started penalizing the use of the US dollar so the CUC was created.

The exchange rate for the CUC (pronounced cook) also called the Chevito, is 87 to $100 and you will receive that rate no matter where in all of Cuba you exchange your money.

It is easy to determine the CUC vs. the Cuban Peso as the pesos have important people on the face of the bills and the CUCs have monuments on the faces of the bills.

Cuban Convertible Peso

SHOPPIING, NOT FOR YOU BUT FOR THE CUBANS

SHOPPING IN CUBA

This is yogurt, yes, nothing but yogurt.  This is typical of what you will see and it is caused by several things.  First, Cuba has a distribution problem, so this store got all the yogurt for miles and miles around.  Second, Cubans must purchase in Pesos not CUCs so it is often difficult for them to purchase items that are in stores that only take CUCs, thus, there is a shortage problem.  While it may be on the shelf, it is essentially not available for purchase.  It boggles the mind.

FOOD

Cuban food, a fusion of Spanish and Caribbean. is not spicy. There are really only three ingredients used for seasoning, garlic, pepper and onions, also lots and lots of salt. Some Cubans also use oregano and cumin, but on the whole Cuban food is mild.

Meals are traditionally served family style and always consist of black beans and rice. Forty years of food rationing has made meat items scarce for the average Cuban, but it usually consists of shredded pork or beef cooked slowly with a sauce.

Historically Cuba has always depended on food imports in order to meet its needs. A large reason for this is that nearly 30% of Cuba’s arable land is dedicated to growing sugar cane.

The fall of the Soviet Union caused a major food shortage in Cuba and in the 1990s the City of Havana authorized the used of vacant state property to produce food, creating “people’s plots” that occupy more than 2000 hectares.

Black Beans and Rice

Black Beans and Rice or “Moros y Cristianos” (Moors and Christians)

SAFETY

Cuba is an extremely safe country, in fact the Police are required to leave their guns in the police station prior to heading home.

There is some crime, due to the classic fallout of poverty, but that happens around the world.

DEATH

The Colon Cemetery or the Cemeterio de Cristóbal Colón was founded in 1876; it covers 140 acres and has over 500 major mausoleums, chapels and family vaults. It holds 800,000 graves and 1 million internments. Since space is at a premium the bodies are buried for two years and then removed, boxed and placed in a storage building.

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CHE GUEVARA

You can read all about the life and history of Che many places. The question is why do you see his face everywhere and not Castros. There is a true personality cult regarding Che in Cuba, but it is still considered wrong to encourage this concept. This is why you find almost no photos of either Fidel or Raul, it is okay to pay homage to the dead, but not the living.

Cuban Trinkets

MARRIAGE

While it is considered a Roman Catholic country, most Cubans live together, have children and never get married.

There is a saying in Cuba – Once you get married, it is all over. You will meet many people with wedding rings on, or maybe just the engagement ring, but they have never actually gone through the ceremony.

THE FLAG

The flag, known as the “Lone Star Flag”, was adopted April 11, 1869.  The three blue stripes represent the three departments in which the island was divided at the time, the two white stripes signify the strength of the independence ideal.  The red triangle is a symbol of equality among men and the blood that has been shed for freedom. The five pointed star is a sign of absolute liberty and independence.

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RELIGION

Cuba is officially secular, however with religious freedom increasing since the 1980s the government amended the constitution in 1992 to drop their atheistic characterization.

There are two primary religions in Cuba, Catholicism (approximately 59%) and an African root religion, Santería. The only real way to know if one is of the Santeria faith is that they wear all white, although this is really only required in the first year of conversion. There is a very, very small population of Jews, Muslims and Bahá’í as well.

One of many abandoned churches in Cuba

One of many abandoned churches in Cuba

The Catholic Church in Cuba was originally for the very, very wealthy. The church supported Batista, so when the over throw occurred, the church, with its Spanish NOT Cuban fathers was persona non gratis. The prohibition was not so much against the church as against the Spanish institution that existed in the form of the church at the time.

This was the beginning of the Cuban people turning away from the church. While there are practicing Catholics in Cuba they are not as pious as they might have once been.

Since Argentinian Pope Francisco has been so active in the back room workings of bringing the United States and Cuba to the negotiation table, he is truly well liked in Cuba, but not nearly as much as Argentinian soccer stars.

A woman of the Santeria faith.

A woman of the Santeria faith.

 ETC.

Some interesting odd considerations;  Everyone that enters Cuba must have purchased medical insurance before entering.  Water in Cuba is unsafe so always drink bottled water.  You must hold back $25 CUC for an exit tax. (this is changing, however)  MasterCard was reputed to be arriving in Cuba for Americans in March of 2015. (This still has not happened as of December 2015)

Aug 102015
 

Good items to bring to Cuba

I am often asked what to take to the Cuban people.  Please tread carefully here.  Like so many countries around the world, the Cubans are no different in lacking of the essentials, but the other side of that coin is setting up a community that expects handouts from foreigners.

If you are staying in hotels, know that the staff is already better off than most of their fellow citizens, they are tipped, and more importantly tipped in CUC’s, so they have the privilege of shopping at the CUC stores.

If you are staying in Casa Particulars,  you are paying them in CUC’s as well, but their pockets aren’t lined as well as those that receive tips in major hotels, so here, yes, a little something is appreciated.

Cuban soaps and shampoos are horrible, so while they are appreciated, they are not necessarily the best thing to leave.  If you are on your last day, by all means leave behind what you brought, but there are other things far more difficult to obtain in Cuba.

Toothpaste and toothbrushes are not only horrible, but very, very expensive.  This will become evident the more you see the missing teeth in the smiling Cuban faces.

Aspirin, also almost impossible to find and very, very expensive.

Bring School supplies to CubaIf you are visiting a school, usually a requirement for tour groups, bring, paper, pencils and Spanish language books appropriate for small children.  This will be one of your most appreciated gifts, and don’t worry, a box of Number 2 pencils, while a simple concept to you, will be manna from heaven in Cuba.

Toilet paper is a luxury in Cuba, no you won’t be deprived, but the Cuban’s are.  The government newspaper Granma is the most common form of TP in Cuba, appropriately since nothing written in it is worth reading.  I suggest you bring at least a roll for your private use, just in case, and leave it behind when you have no more use.

Washcloths, also do not exist in Cuba.  If you are a person that needs a cloth, I suggest you bring them with you, and again, leave them behind as you see fit.

Aug 092015
 

2015

School Children in Cuba

I often hear people say that one of the advantages of Cuba’s socialist system is the free education.  My answer is, you get what you pay for.

My “Cuban family” has two smaller children, seven and nine, and I am appalled at their education. It is fair in math and science, but history is the Castro Revolution, Geography consists of communist and socialist countries, and social education is the party line.

Teachers in Cuba are fleeing the country and their profession. Several years ago, as a response, the government placed television sets and videos into classrooms to function as teachers. This is obviously not ideal as there was no ability for interaction, but parents indignant over a poor education was not what did the program in.

Cuban Classroom

It was simple technology. The ability of the government to make videos and show them was thwarted by their incompatibility with today’s plasma TVs. It was also difficult to teach this way in the mountains where there is not even electricity to run the televisions.

The result of this was a drift towards larger class rooms, the Cuban schools are now only allowed 15 students per classroom.

photo courtesy of Translating Cuba

photo courtesy of Translating Cuba

The present solution is to give interested adults a crash course in teaching, (most teachers in Cuba only possess a High School education) and then send them into the schools as “auxiliary teachers.”  To fill the teacher void there is also now an incentive to get freshly graduated High School students to be a teacher for two years before pursuing higher education or another career.

Even with all of this effort to continue to attempt to teach the children of Cuba it is difficult. There is a complete lack of paper and pencils, new technology is completely unheard of, and there is not a book in Cuba to be read that isn’t either the life of Che or the history of the Revolution.

Then there is food and water.  The children are given a snack, which I am told is basically a piece of bread.  So if you are one of the luckier families and have the ability to buy food so your child has lunch at school things are okay, but if you are living off of Cuban Pesos, this is a difficult task.  Regarding water, every child takes their own water to school. Water in Cuba is not drinkable before being treated, and the water in the schools are not treated, this means a backpack full of food and water is lugged to school by every child.  That can be difficult enough in the heat if you walk to school several blocks, but imagine if your commute consists of standing in the back of a truck, or on a donkey for miles and miles.

School uniforms, while not terribly expensive, are now only given once every two years.  My god daughter and her brother can at least swap out shirts and ties, but she wears a skirt and he pants, so they are bought big in the hopes they grow with the kids.

If a teacher is ill, or is not able to get to school due to the complete lack of transportation in Cuba, class is canceled. At least they don’t have to sit through the indignity of a 1950s health movie.

If you are interested in reading more about Education in Cuba I suggest this article in the Atlantic.

Aug 022015
 

DSC_4453While the actual numbers regarding July temperatures do not scream hot to many, it is one of the hottest July’s on record in Santiago de Cuba.

This is a colonial town, there are no trees. The homes, built of heat radiating concrete, sit side by side, wall to wall, and the streets are narrow and treeless. Plaza Jose Marti and Plaza Cepedes were once a respite from the sun until hurricane Sandy ripped the trees from the ground.

DSC_5274Breakfast is outside in the shade of the two story wall that separates neighbors, fans are running on high, but it is still cool enough to enjoy coffee and conversation.

Sadly the breezes ignore Santiago in the morning.

Lunch is served at around 1:00, there are 11 of us sitting in various positions around the table and the kitchen, with six fans doing their best to keep us cool.

Once the dishes are washed and until around 6, everyone is sitting and doing nothing. I read, the kids are watching TV, but for most everyone else, staring at each other or a siesta seems to suffice for entertainment in this heat.

Three rooms in this house have air-conditioning and all 11 of us are in those three rooms. Unfortunately, my room is not my favorite place during these times. There is no glass in Cuba to speak of, so everyone’s windows are covered in steel hurricane slats, while it keeps the house “cooler” it lacks the natural sunlight and view that makes idleness so much easier for me to endure. Yes the slats open, but that takes away the advantage of having a very expensive air-conditioning unit in your room.

DSC_5256By 5:30 or 6:00 the breezes begin to pick up and everyone heads outside.

Aug 022015
 

San Miquel de Allende-70In July I was walking down the miserably hot streets of Santiago de Cuba on my way to the mercado. As I rounded the corner the women’s voices began to ring out, huevos (eggs), donde? (where?) la esquina, (the corner). You heard this repeated from house to house, street to street.

Eggs were in. While eggs are guaranteed to every Cuban on their ration card, there are never any eggs in the market. Tuesday there were eggs, and they arrived, from wherever the government keeps them, to every store in all of Santiago, all at one time.

So goes the life of obtaining food in Cuba. My family has the privilege of having access to the hard currency in Cuba the CUC, so eggs should be accessible all of the time, but they are not. If you do not have access to CUCs, you are truly on the bottom of the food chain.

We bought 4 dozen for the house; you never know when the next shipment will arrive. With four dozen sitting on the counter unrefrigerated we needed to get to cooking. On the dinner menu, Huevos Diablos. This is a wholly American dish, it is not known to Cubans, but there was a recipie in the house. The only thing that changed was…the ingredients.

Cuban mayonnaise is not of the highest quality. Cuban mayonnaise is made with the lowest quality oil and a lot of chemicals. It sits on the counter, in the Cuban heat, for months at a time. I find it interesting that the name of the company that makes the mayonnaise is Los Atrevenos, which if one takes it literally means, those of us that dare.

The next ingredient is easier to obtain, lots of chopped onion, garlic and cilantro, but alas, what makes Deviled Eggs is the spicy paprika on the top, for this we used a product from Goya (a Mexican firm) that was more salt than anything. They were good, not great, but good, such is home cooking in Cuba.

Thursday was toilet paper day, Gracias Dios, as there was no more in the house. I always tell tourists, take your own, you just never know.

Aug 022015
 

DSC_5013It is July 26th, one of the most important days in Santiago de Cuba. The heat is stifling and the only respite found during the day is a comfortable chair with a fan. Thanks to the extreme drought and continued poor management of utilities, by the government, the lights flicker and all of our water is gone.

It takes many phone calls and a lot of foot work, but the water truck has come to fill the cistern. This costs $12 CUCs, which is pretty much par with the US dollar, out of an average salary of $28 a month, this is scandalous.

DSC_5008Water in Cuba is free, until there is none, and then, like everything else in Cuba you find, water is available, but no longer free.

Water is turned on one day a week so that everyone can pump into their cisterns, and yes, this one day a week dictates your schedule. For this privilege you pay only 60 centavos per month.

Sadly the water does not come every week, often it is no more than 4 out of 7 weeks, and during this drought often water does not appear for 3 weeks.

DSC_5015This house has a cistern that would normally last 21 days, but water hasn’t come often enough to keep it topped up. This week is Carnaval, and our friends and family have been camping out, the showers, the cooking and the simple guzzling of water has taken its toll.

I cannot imagine those that are sitting in this heat who cannot afford the few CUCs that would make things comfortable.

Aug 022015
 

August 2015

Church in Trinidad Cuba

My Cuban friend, whom I call Tio, asked me the other day what I thought of Raul Castro stating he might once again begin to go to church. My reaction, not ironically, was Dios Mio!

In the U.S., a statement like that makes one fear the church will catch on fire, but there aren’t enough standing official churches in Cuba to make that a worry.

On May 10, 2015 Pope Francis and Raul Castro met for a sit down. At the time Raul said he was so impressed with the pope that “I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking.”

“I am from the Cuban Communist Party, that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it, it’s an important step,”
Religion in Cuba is complicated. Declaring itself an atheist state in 1962, that edict was not lifted until 1992. Only then did official Cuban textbooks remove the statement that “Religion is the opium of the people”.
Religious persecution was the norm, not the exception.

While Catholicism is now recognized, there is still no recognition, and therefore, continued persecution, of so called outlying religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

According to the US Commission on Religous Freedom’s 2015 report: “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups.”

The Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) are still regularly persecuted during their processionals to church and some are still subjects of Actos de Repudio.

Will this all stop if Raul actually goes to church? I doubt it, he was a member of the original revolutionaries, it was they that removed religion from the Cubans. What I do believe will happen is that worship will be accepted as long as it continues to follow the party line.

Aug 022015
 

 

cordless drill

It is actually very simple. You can not get decent tools in Cuba. Yes, you can purchase badly made, highly expensive, tools from Russia, but you can not buy quality, made-to-last tools.

What person doesn’t need a cordless drill. They are, in my opinion, the one tool every home should have. This is the reason I was trying to bring a quality piece of every day hardware into Cuba. My friends needed one.

Customs in every country has its own quirks, but in Cuba, looking for things to tax is the foremost. There in lies my drill story.

It was simple, in amongst the 20 pairs of shoes, not for me, but for my friends, was the drill.

Shoes made to last are another quality item almost impossible to find in this beautiful island country. Amongst the shoes, I had several sets of sheets and towels. You guessed it, anything over 30 thread count just doesn’t exist. Tucked deep in all of this was an inocuous little drill, bits included.

That is what I got stopped for, simple really, that is what the x-rays will pick up. I complained, made up lots of excuses, played very stupid and stated that it was in my suitcase, because who doesn’t travel with a cordless drill? I walked out without paying any duty.

Why is this important, I owed in the neighborhood of $30 to $40 US maximum, so why not just pay it and move on.
It is the principal really. My drill was just another symbol of the lack of quality items in Cuba, and if I have to lug them there, instead of buying them there, I am not paying another dime.

The lack of everything, from decent drills to eggs and cheese is already starting to wear through the thread bare patience of the Cuban’s I know. If I can help to show them what is out there, and what they could have when things open up, I am happy to pull that dangling thread on an unravelling sweater.

Apr 282015
 

DSC_1518

This post, I hope, will give you a better insight to the Cuba outsiders just don’t see or know.

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This is the bedroom of one of an elderly woman.  The house was two rooms, the other being the kitchen.

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This woman worked as a school teacher, and at the age of 70, this is all that her pension affords her.  Food, is another subject.

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This is the only room in a farm house outside of Santiago

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This amazingly funny clown and fabulous magician is a doctor, he needs this gig to make ends meet.  The average salary of a doctor in Cuba is $26 US, a specialist can make as much as $67 per month.  Health care is not what you think, it is very common (something I witnessed) for patients to take food to their doctors the day before a visit to ensure care and proper diagnosis.

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For many Cubans, the only way to get protein into your diet is by keeping pigs and chickens in your house.  Despite the fact that the monthly ration includes these items, they are very rarely found in the store.

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It is actually legal for non-Cubans to own property and have businesses in Cuba, but it requires the OK from the Cuban government and that is not very forthcoming.  This yacht was being put in the water at a Dutch owned boat yard in a bay.  I can’t imagine what the Dutch paid for the privilege of owning a boat yard, but I also think it says that they feel things are about to break wide open in Cuba.

DSC_2404

This stunning meal of Lobster, mashed potatoes, green salad and white wine from Spain was served to me in a lovely garden by a private citizen.  The meal was completely illegal.  Beef and lobster both are illegal for a Cuban to purchase.  Those commodities are only allowed in tourist restaurants.

 

Now some fun things…

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This is a cashew apple.  Cashew Apple Jam is often served with cheese as a dessert, and is delicious.  Here is a look at some of the many fruits of Cuba.

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Tamarind Tree

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Noni

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Cuban Almond

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Plantains, fried by the loving hands of a family member.

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Carrots, not a common commodity in Cuba

ODD BITS AND PIECES

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This perfectly restored and manicured home is in the Vista Alegre portion of Santiago de Cuba.  It is obvious that the home was bought, via a  Cuban family member, by a wealthy Floridian Cuban.  They know things will open up soon and the real estate market is getting hot in Cuba.

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The one form of transportation I have yet to mention is the motorcycle.  I rode on the back of this fellows motorcycle from the center of town for about 15 cents, and yes I wore the modified hard hat as a helmet, oh and by the way, I was in a skirt.DSC_2570

Here are some random photos from around Santiago de Cuba, I thought you might enjoy.

My friend Jose juicing limes for cocktails

My friend Jose juicing limes for cocktails

Mama Francesca, one of the saints of the house.

Mama Francesca, one of the saints of the house.

One of many wonderful characters we met in the market

One of many wonderful characters of the local market, the woman is actually the manager.

Cabbage is a major staple of the Cuban diet

Cabbage is a major staple of the Cuban diet

The herb salesman

The herb salesman

Trompo Loco showing me a Malanga. Somewhat related to Taro, a large part of Cuban cooking

Trompo Loco showing me a Malanga. Somewhat related to Taro, a large part of Cuban cooking

I really did not get enough Passion Fruit, but I tried

I really did not get enough Passion Fruit, but I tried

The garlic and onion man

The garlic and onion man

Saint Lazarus is one of the most popular traditions in Cuba. This worship emerged out of the catholic and Yoruba religions and it is related to leporacy.

Saint Lazarus is one of the most popular traditions in Cuba. This worship emerged out of the catholic and Yoruba religions and it is related to leprosy.

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Despite the fact that health care is “free” in Cuba, the incidence of diabetes, chronic asthma and its accompanying heart problems as well as cancer, are rampant.  Doctors, while well trained, tend to leave the country at the first opportunity.  Medicine is nonexistent and when I spoke to a man who’s father needed an EKG, he told me of how the hospital had the machine but no paper for it, and it hardly mattered as the rats had eaten through most of the important pieces of the machine anyway.

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I was in this store to buy pencils and notebooks.  Even though free education in Cuba is the norm, it sadly lacks paper, pencils and books.

Cuban Americans still have to hold a Cuban passport to enter Cuba, and they are not cheap, the reason I am sure the Cuban government makes them have one, income. The passport needs to be renewed every two years at a cost of $400.

Cuban Passport

 

One morning I walked into the main room of the house and there was a gentleman with a book and a beer, it was 8:30 am.  He was the electric company’s meter reader.

 

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This was the original Bacardi Rum factory.  They now make Santiago de Cuba Rum here, it is still the best rum in Cuba.

 

Bacardi

 

The old Coca-Cola Factory

The old Coca-Cola Factory

So what do I think of Cuba and its people?  I love Cuba and I truly love its people, I am as anxious as everyone for things to open up.  I hope for more people in the world to get to know this amazing island, and I hope, so very much for an increased prosperity for the Cuban people.  If any of this has helped you to understand Cuba just a little bit more I am glad, thank you for stopping by.

 

Jan 262015
 

Cuba has the most tightly controlled internet in the world.  Their internet is characterized by a low number of connections, limited bandwidth, censorship, and high cost.  For that reason I posted this first entry prior to leaving and the rest upon my return.

Havana, Cuba

Everyone is talking about the opening of negotiations between the US and Cuba, so before I leave, I thought I would share some thoughts.

Before leaving I attended a lecture with a dear friend who owns property in Cuba and visits regularly.  The lecturer was Peter Kornbluh, author of Back Channel to Cuba.  My friends take on the entire thing was that it was nice to hear the diplomatic side, but it was way off base regarding the people that actually live in Cuba.  The book, while dense, is a good read if you want to get a feel for the complicated situation that has been going on since the Kennedy administration.

While I am truly in favor of, and in complete agreement with the release of prisoners on BOTH sides of the issue, there is still a long way to go towards normalized relations between these two countries.

There were several excellent articles about the release of prisoners, and I will point you to them here (American) and here (Cuban). I do not want to get into a discussion of “left vs right” or “I see it that way vs You see it this way”, I would just like to present a few good articles.  At this point, my attitude is, unless you are Cuban and have lived there for the past 20-50 years, you really only have the right to listen, there are just too many facts not available to people that are looking from the outside in to have an opinion of value.

I will say, however, that my Cuban friend Otis, who now lives in the United States, has said the only person in Cuba that will benefit from the lifting of the embargo and complete normalization, at this point would be Castro.  Presently the embargo is a good way for the Castro’s to stay in power and keep up the “revolutionary fervor” as my friend Gary Brown has so aptly pointed out.  However, if the embargo were lifted Otis feels that all the money and goods would go to the people in power and not the people of the country.  Since this has played out so often over history, I have to agree he has a point.

Castro who is now 88 years old

Castro who is now 88 years old

I have been told by many that have traveled to Cuba that one can not be prepared for the overwhelming sense of poverty.  I have taken that under advisement.  I have been in some of the most impoverished parts of the world, but they were not islands, they were a part of a more dynamic country with parts that had an actual economy.

I have also heard that you never feel the poverty because of the beauty of the people, and the amazing, if somewhat dilapidated, architecture.  I am excited no matter what I find.

cars in Cuba

When I heard that comment about poverty, I immediately thought of an article I had read about the cars of Cuba.   Yes, the Cubans are master mechanics, they have the ability to hand make any part of any U.S. car, but what about materials to make those parts?  Tires are nonexistent in Cuba.  Think about that. You utilize your car to make money, tourists for private rides during the day, and by night, taxi, but your tire has been repaired so many times you desperately need a new one.   Also, why classic American cars? Well a Peugeot costs approximately $262,000 in Cuba, necessity is truly the mother of invention.  Should the price of oil continue to plummet and the Cuba Venezuela pact breakdown, none of this is important, because there won’t be any gas to operate the cars anyway.

If you aren’t up on Cuban politics and that last line threw you, basically Cuba sends thousands of medical professionals to Venezuela and, in return, gets billions of dollars worth of Venezuelan oil cheaply.

Morrocas

Some common Questions:

The night before I left the rules changed, but just 24 hours prior as an American I was required to travel with a group.  one could not enter Cuba legally from the United States, without being in a group.  One could not get a visa without being part of a group and only the group can give one the authorization letter  needed to enter the country.  This won’t change too terribly much to be honest. The US now has no problem with American citizens traveling to Cuba, however the Cuban government is another story.  You will still need to have approved Cuban visas that are issued only by approved agencies.  For that reason most people will most likely still need to be on a tour, for a while anyway.

Most everyone travels on what is considered a People-to-People expedition.  What that means is that you don’t choose where you want to go and what you want to see, they do.  That being said, it really is a great itinerary.  Local craftspeople, local farmers, several museums, tobacco sorting and drying facility, art projects, schools, and senior centers are all on the agenda.

CheI have been told over and over that washcloths are non-existent, I have come prepared.  Also toiletries, while available, are not plentiful, nor any of the other items one has grown accustomed to finding in even the cheapest hotels around the world.

Cuban CigarsI am fortunate in that I will be part of the first group of people to be able to legally bring back Cuban Cigars and Cuban Rum to the United States.  Yes, I plan to do so!

One last thought – is Castro dead?  The rumor was running rampant on the island according to my friends that returned just before I left, then the newspapers and internet picked up on it.  The best that I can say is no, but that is only because an Argentinian soccer player, Diego Mardona, has received a letter from Castro saying he is very much alive and well.

If he were would it affect Cuba, probably not, Raul is pretty well ensconced and has been for seven years now. The military complex controls 60% of the major enterprises on the island according to the Institute for Cuba and Cuban American Studies at the university of Miami, these officers have a huge incentive to maintain control regardless of who is in charge.

In 2013 when Raul lifted the exit visa requirements for Cubans allowing them to travel more freely, and then instituted a series of economic changes allowing for a slightly less state-run economy things also eased up on the potential for revolution.  While dissidents continue to protest an outright overthrow seems hardly in the wind.

With that all said, I look forward to bringing you my findings and my photographs, see you in a few weeks.

 

 

Jan 192015
 

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DSC_7795The architecture of Cuba is filled with glorious, and rapidly deteriorating buildings.

Each large city in Cuba had its own distinct style but overridingly the architecture of Cuba is the definition of fusion. The 16th and 17th century was dominated by the Spanish, but you also have the Moorish influence from Granada. These all show touches of baroque and classical, and yet I was surprised to also see much Art Deco and Art Nouveau.Art Deco in Cuba

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Decorative Wrought and Cast iron began to replace wood elements in the 19th century

Carved stone work is found all over the island most done in the 16 and 17th centuries.

Carved stone work is found all over the island most done in the 16 and 17th centuries.

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Fine metal work is prolific, not just in the profusion of doors and grates but in lamps and lamp holders, door knockers and door knobs and corner guards protecting entryways from carriage wheels.

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Fanlights, called mediopuntos, were designed to light rooms that opened off of a central enclosed patio.

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In the countryside you will find colored glass over doorways and in high windows everywhere. It is odd, because it looks like a bad attempt to mimic stained glass windows carried out without much artistic thought. When you arrive in Havana you see the actual windows and realize how glorious the work is when done right. These glass windows are a distinct feature of Cuban architecture, and were described by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier as “an interpreter between man and the sun”. The windows are set as to be enjoyed more from the interior than the exterior.

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Ceramic tiles were shipped from Spain by the thousands, the more durable colored concrete tiles were used for flooring.

You can see remnants of what was likely a large use of decorative tile on floors and walls in some of the better preserved buildings. According to some, Cuba has the largest amalgamation of 19th century Spanish Valencia tiles

Outside of the cities you begin to see a large Caribbean influence in the architecture of homes.

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DSC_5881In the countryside when visiting the coffee plantation we were able to view the construction of the typical farm home. Berto and Maria Colorado’s home is clay. While less expensive it is always dusty and this type of construction does not hold up well in hurricanes. Their son’s home, however, is wood, the problem being, getting wood in a country that is trying so hard to keep people from cutting down trees.

Characteristics of Havana architecture include Media Ponto Arch, Stained Glasss and long balconies.  The blue color is Havanian Blue .

Characteristics of Havana architecture include Media Ponto Arch, Stained Glasss and long balconies. 
The blue color is Havanian Blue .

The barrotes of the 18th century (seen here) were replaced in the 19th century by grilles decorated with ornamental motifs in the architecture of Trinidad

The barrotes or rejas of the 18th century (seen here) were replaced in the 19th century by grilles decorated with ornamental motifs in the architecture of Trinidad.  They were traditionally draped inside with a cloth or leather curtain called a guard-plovo to provide privacy and help keep the dust out.

Architecture in Cuba cannot be discussed without touching on the Russian Influence.

The Embassy in Cuba is without a doubt the most striking and overwhelming example. This constructivist building was completed in November of 1987, and designed by architect Aleksandr Rochegov.

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There is also the Russian brutalism influence, but if these buildings were built as badly in Cuba as they were around the world, they will not be with us long.

Jan 172015
 

 

Cienfuegos

Our first people to people experience was in Cienfuegos. We had the pleasure of listening to a choral group The Cantores Cienfuegos. We were in a fabulous old vaulted plaster ceiling creating just wonderful acoustics.

DSC_5437Have a listen:

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The performance started with “I wish I Could Die” by Claudio Monteverdi, and included “Oh Shenandoah” and then three Cuban songs. The first with the original title of “Song” and then a folk song” El Manicero”, the Peanut Seller. While Cacahuete is the word for peanut in Spanish the Cubans use the word mani. This song, written by Moses Simons explains the custom of walking up to a large black women in Cuba and yelling mani. Why or what that really means was left to the imagination.

 

Parque Condina

We had a short spell at Museo Cuba Arte in the Los Helechos mountains . This museum was created because much of the artwork that was originally in the local sanatorium needed a place for the public to enjoy it. The building, a 1940s art deco structure housed approximately 64 pieces of art from contemporary Cuban artists.

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The most famous of the artists at the gallery was Tomas Sanchez. The top contemporary artists today in Cuba are Jose Villa, Joel Jover and Jose Rodriques Fuster.

When Castro came to power he gave a speech stating to artists that they must move within the movement or give up being artists. In speaking with guides there appears to be a loosening of that dictate and a more free expression is appearing in arts.

Zapata Swamp Park

Another people-to-people experience was Korimakao within the Zapata Swamp Park. Shown around by the director, Yander M. Roche Miralles, it was explained that Korimakao is a co-operative of artists that don’t need to have come from a formal arts education background. They audition and if they make the cut they become part of the family with living quarters on the property. There are presently 125 members of this group.

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This group was founded in 1992 and was the brain child of a Commander of the Revolution, Fautino Perez and the actor Manuel Porto. It appears to me that this is much more of a theater group. We were entertained by musicians and dancers, and it appears that should you desire to be a painter or a woodworker you are quickly put to work making sets.

Our proffesional ballet dancer Susan Largen speaking with one of the company dancers

Our proffesional ballet dancer Susan Largen speaking with one of the company dancers

At present Korimakao has a working cultural exchange with a similar group in France so they swap members for one month a year. They are hoping when the US Cuban relations open that they may be able to form a similar exchange.

Here is a short video clip of one of the dances:

Havana

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The Beatles music was banned in Cuba until the 1980s when Castro decided that John Lennon was a hero. There is a John Lennon Park with John sitting on a bronze bench.

Why the turnaround? “I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality.” – Fidel Castro. When Lennon was harassed by the US government in his later life, Cubans considered him a rebel and therefore a victim, a metaphor for the US Cuban relations?

The eyeglasses of Lennon have been stolen many times, so an older gentleman stands nearby and puts them on when visitors come by.

Art in Cuba has had its ups and downs, there is actually a strong support for the arts, but it runs headlong into lack of funds and cries of elitism.  Click here to read an excellent article about the trials and tribulations, or listen to the 7 minute clip here:

Jan 142015
 

One of the best regions for growing tobacco in Cuba is the Pinar del Rio region which is where we were.

To understand the agriculture you must understand the end product.

There are three parts to a Cuban cigar. The filler, which contains four types of tobacco; Seco, Volado, Ligero and Medio Tiempo. The binder, which is made from Subcapa or Capote and the wrapper which is made from Capa.

DSC_6313The filler is folded together and then wrapped by the binder. Then one end of the cigar is cut clean and the cigar is placed into a wooden mold. The cigar sits in the mold for 30 minutes, at which point the second end is cut clean, the cigar is rotated 180 degrees, and left to sit for another 10 minutes in the mold.

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The cigar is then beautifully assembled with the wrapper and glue made from sap of the Canadian Maple, a completely innocuous substance. It is recommended you wait a week to smoke.

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We visited a 16 hectare farm owned by the Montesinos family. The farm plants, on average, 150,000 plants per year which equals approximately 6 tons of tobacco.

Tobacco in Cuba is started with seeds provided by the government’s laboratories. It is put in seedbeds in September and planted in the ground when it is around 20 cm. Tobacco takes about 3 months to grow and is harvested when the plant reaches between 1.6 and 1.8 meters in height.

All planting is done by hand

All planting is done by hand

Tobacco is a highly seasonal crop yielding one harvest per year. The soil rotation is augmented with taro, corn, and yucca.

While we enjoyed watching Paul Montesino roll cigars and sell them to us, this is strictly for the tourist trade. The law requires that the farmer turn over 90% of the crop to the government.

DSC_6284The crop is then sent to the Cuban government for the production of cigars.

Habanas are the last cigar that is 100% rolled by hand. When the tobacco enters the factory it is inspected and graded. It then heads to the main room of the factory to be assembled as I have described above.

The question remains, if the government owns all the cigars why various classifications and brands. The Cuban government recognized how valuable the concept of a Cuban cigar is and through the years have honored the “terroir”, growing and blending knowledge and the history of the various regions.

Habana cigars are classified by three classifications called “Vegas finas de primera” one of these classifications is color: light, red, light red, green and ripe red. Another is size. The distinctions would take a far more sophisticated person than I to edify.

There are also labels, many types of bands and labels are there to ensure you are buying a Habana, but with the embargo, smuggling has made much of these superfluous.

Basically there is the DOP seal (designation of origin). Since 1994 the word Habana has been “hot stamped” into boxes to act as a warranty seal of the Republic of Cuba.

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This is an excellent time to discuss Agrarian Reform.

The very first of Castro’s reforms was the Agrarian Reform on May 19th 1959. This reform permitted land owners to keep only 30 Caballiera. A caballiera is slightly less than 14 hectares and 1 hectare = 2.47 acres.

A year later a second, more rigid reform limited the land ownership to 5 caballieras.

In the late 60s the Castro government needed more land for growing sugar cane and other food products. This lead to a type of proposal to the farmer.

The government would move you into a more rural area, provided you with a home, furniture, appliances and ensure that the children had a school within a reasonable walking distance. This was a completely voluntary project but quite an appealing one for most of the farmers.

Those that worked the government owned land would become tenant farmers versus the farmers that actually owned their own land.

Nancy Aldrich and a freshly rolled cigar

Nancy Aldrich with a freshly rolled cigar

The rating of a cigar

The rating of a cigar