November 09, 2003

An Eyeranian in Cuba

photo: Wim Wenders

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I have too many memories of Cuba to encapsulate in one single post. But as a few of the regular readers here have written me to ask, here are some random thoughts;

My first trip to Cuba started when my seatbelt came apart as I tried to abide by the Cubana Airline pilot's request to fasten it on the tarmac in Toronto airport. This was just a sign of a crumbling infrastructure caused by years of a U.S. led embargo against this island nation that has seen every piece of any machine, every utility delivery apparatus and every building and structure (with the exception of some tourist facilities, mostly built and maintained by foreign companies) in Cuba is either broken or needs major servicing. On a clear day, you could still see American warships in distance from Havana port enforcing the embargo that has been condemned over and over again by the UN general assembly. But the seatbelt failure was also a testament to Cuban people's resilience and ingenuity. As I pointed the flaw to the flight attendance, suddenly this grease covered mechanic appeared out of nowhere and tightened it back in its place. I had no idea the plane carried its own mechanic with it, as it needed constant maintenance and the guy must've been hidden away somewhere with our luggage as he disappeared as quickly as he had emerged.

A look around the plane, I was shocked to see many Marines flying there in full uniform. Remember, this is a flight from Canada to Cuba, so where did they come from or where were they going? This is when I was introduced to Quantanamo Bay for the first time, after asking one of the Marines. Holding a Canadian passport, I had no concerns flying into Cuba. Canucks pride themselves in being a nation of peacemakers and hostility towards another nation based on their ideology is unheard of. But there were many other Americans on the plane too, breaking their country's law by vacationing on the beaches owned by a communist administration. Cubans don't mind the U.S. visitors at all though. They need the tourist based income and go out of their way to help in concealing any evidence of a trip to their island for their American visitors. This includes not stamping their passports by adding a lose page and stamping it instead.

Many Cubans hold university degrees as education is free all the way into post graduate levels. But as government decides (and sometimes miscalculates) the future needs of their country, students are directed into fields where forthcoming needs are expected. As everyone is guaranteed a government job, this occasionally means that people like our scuba-diving guide was actually trained as a veterinarian. At first I thought how ridiculous this was, but thinking of other neighboring islands that have not had to be challenged by similar limitations and still a huge majority of the population is illiterate made me admire these people even more.

This, I believe is key to understanding Cuba and Cubans. Comparing them to U.S. or western Europe or even far east and other places is just unreasonable, but when you put them besides their neighbors and other similar islands in the Caribbean, you begin to understand and appreciate what they have achieved. Just a short boat ride away in Dominican Republic and even more in Haiti, health issues are a major concern to the point of often becoming major international tragedies, yet all Cubans enjoy free healthcare and their hospitals (aside from the shortcomings) are staffed with experts to handle most situations.

I found most Cubans less political than I had imagined and dissatisfied with one aspect of their government or another. Yet, even the most outspoken ones express a rather father-like affection for Fidel Castro. No wonder many experts predict a fall of the current socialist system after Castro is gone. Another common element for many Cubans, is this utopian image of what's available across the waters in U.S. Perhaps watching Florida television and more so, listening to dissident radio stations from there plays a large part in that, encouraging the odd one to try to cross the distance in ill-equipped man-made rafts and often not making it.

I was staying in a hotel about 45 minutes outside Havana on that trip. This is before Varadero area was so well developed with the help of foreign resort investors and hotel chains. Havana is a beautiful city ravaged by years of neglect and gradual destruction. There are signs of its past as America's favorite playground all over, including clubs, former casinos and buildings that make you think you've seen them before elsewhere. The embargo has also stopped for most parts importing of cars to the island, so 1950's automobiles are everywhere to the point of making the visitors feel they are trapped in some time warp scheme where the history has stopped at the point of Cuban Revolution.

Speaking of the revolution, there are no shortage of small or large tributes to Comandante, Ernesto Che Guevara on every corner. My favorite was Havana's car museum. Well, in reality all the streets in Havana are a car museum, but this is basically a large room with about 7 to 10 cars parked inside. Sitting on a corner and behind the velvet ropes was this greyish-bluish 1959 Chevy that once belonged to non other than Che himself. Needless to say, I HAD TO find a way to fool the attendants and manage to get behind those wheels, which I did. Imagine having a poster of this guy in your room for the better part of your life and now looking for the signs of the wear on the steering wheel of this car caused by his sweat and hand contact.

Miramar is the former upscale area of Havana, where many of the old mansions are now occupied by foreign embassies. At the time, the Iran-Iraq war was still taking victims from both sides and it was curious to see how those two embassies almost face one another in Cuba and are certainly within a stone throw of one another. Another memory of Havana involves Boutique "La Casa de la Moda Cubana" and restaurant in nearby "La Maison", where you can watch a fashion show at evenings and leave your heart watching some of the most beautiful people on earth.

On the topic of people, Cubans are perhaps one of the most warm, friendly and generous people on earth. Despite all the hardship they have faced over four decades of a brutal embargo that is essentially only supported by U.S. and Israel, they have managed to maintain a vibrant and flourishing culture while building a bright and healthy community. You must tip your hat to that.

I can't finish this without acknowledging some of the reports on abuse of human rights by Cuban government. Although the constant aggressive hostility from a foreign superpower plays some role in that, there are no excuses for limiting the basic rights we are all born with and must maintain to grow as individuals and communities. Any administration that participate in such conducts must be admonished for its behavior.

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Posted by Pedram at November 9, 2003 11:49 PM

Great article Pedram.

Yes, Cuba is another symbol of US aggression.

I have to add that after fall of Soviet Union and further isolation of Cuba, in only few years Cuba bacame one of the producers and exporters of high quality medicines. The same medicines that lack of which for many Americans (who cannot afford the high cost of it in the US)makes them suffer.

I am sure Cuba would do even much better if it wasn't for the abusive sanctions against it by the US.

Posted by: Faramin at November 10, 2003 06:07 AM

So let me get this straight.... we supported Saddam, a dictator who violated his people's human rights and that was bad. Now, we don't support Castro, a dictator who violates his people's human rights and that is bad too? So what would you have us do?

Also, the large population of Cuban immigrants in the US who go into hysterics when even the whisper of normalizing relations with Cuba is mentioned plays a large part in the continued embargo.

Posted by: Kristen at November 10, 2003 06:22 AM


There is only one conclusion that can rasonably be reached: that these complaints abut the U.S. are founded in a fundamental dislike of the U.S.

That Castro has run a highly repressive government no one can deny.

That huge numbers of Cubans have risked thier lives over decades to escape that government also cannot be denied.

That Castro has no regard for individual rights, the rule of law, nor any social tolerance cannot be denied.

Yet none of these matter to the many who would make him a cultural hero.

Castro is not only politically opposed to the U.S., but also our concept of government and freedom, and those who support him are willing to set aside all his abuses and join hands with him because they really do share his views.

Posted by: stephen at November 10, 2003 07:12 AM

Is it possible that the deterioration of Cuban infrastructure (and from the post, apparently everything else) results as much or more from communist mismanagement as from the American embargo? Similar decay could also be found in the Soviet Union, in China before the 1980s, and can be found in North Korea today. Were the conditions in those communist countries our fault too? Shame on us for not helping countries ideologically devoted to destroying us fix their infrastructures.

Posted by: regressive at November 10, 2003 12:23 PM

Isn't it interesting that us Americans are the only capitalist nation that is so fearful of some tiny nation somewhere destroying us all the time, as was the case with Vietnam, then Cuba and now Iraq and Iran?

Germans, Brits, French or about a hundred other countries that also may believe in Communism being a threat to their form of economy have repeatedly voted against embargos against Cuba, the same way they did on Iraqi embargo.

Maybe they know something we don't, since it appears it's us that usually get in trouble for thinking that way and pay the price with our lives in this land or half way around the world.

This mentality of fear and fear mongering is killing our kids. So sad.

Posted by: Kris at November 10, 2003 01:48 PM

So ok, Kris, pretend that there were these two really tall buildings in a big American city. And some really mean people decided to knock them down and kill the people inside. The President of the American's is named Kris.

What would Kris do?

Posted by: stephen at November 10, 2003 02:39 PM

Interesting point Kris...
Wonder why the USA hasn't learned its lesson yet.
And Stephen:
What about the millions of buildings all over the world that have been destroyed by USA or american funded weapons? How about lighting a candle for the millions who died in the 8-year war between Iran and Iraq? I'll bet the WTC attacks will still be the excuse for carpet-bombing the ME ten years from now.

Posted by: Eyerane(dk) at November 10, 2003 04:04 PM

visitor would go back and re-evaluate its past relationships to find out how it has managed to make millions (if not more) of enemies who are so willing to give up their lives to enact revenge upon my country. Then stop my support for the region's dictators, starting with the Likud fanatics in Israel and extending an olive branch to others whom in the past built weak young democracies that I finance to overthrow and replace with dictators (like Shah) and finally start a process of listening to those who we treat as enemies (like eyeranian) instead of continuing the only way we know how to deal with difficult international situation: send in the troops!

Posted by: visito at November 10, 2003 04:43 PM

I'm not sure why you would be surprised that there aren't that many politicaly outspoken Cubans. They're all either dead, in prison or living in FLORIDA! Cuba has no political freedom.

So they get free sub-standard education from the government. Big deal. They are not free to study what they want and are assigned jobs by the government.

And why not see Fidel as a father figure? Iraqi's saw Saddam as a father figure too. There is no freedom of information, freedom of speach or freedom of anything else for that matter. They don't hear the truth about Fidel and they are constantly being force fed propaganda saying how good and caring he is. Fidel doles out life basic necesities based upon each families loyalty towards his communist state.

I agree that the sanctions should be stoped. It would embarass the heck out of him to have the United States sudenly decide to normalise relations.

However, the current state of affairs in Cuba is not the fault of the United States for refusing to do business with him. I don't know if you've noticed but fascist dictators don't have a very good track record of sharing wealth with the people. Adding a billion dollars to Cubas economy would make no difference at all to the people, but it would certainly strenghthen the government.

Cuba would have a thriving economy if not for their fascist dictator.

Some of these comments are nothing more than anti American hate speach. It's absolutely absurd to criticise the United States for supporting Saddam and refusing to support Fidel. We should not have supported either. You can't have it both ways. If you are American you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. That's just hatred. And hatred is always born out of irational fear. hatred is never rooted in truth.

Communism does not work because it's basic ideology is flawed. It didn't work in Russia, it doesn't work in Cuba and it only barely works in China because they have adopted capitalist reforms.

I certainly hope you are not thinking of subjecting the people of Iran to it! People were meant to be free.

Posted by: American Guy at November 10, 2003 09:18 PM

"fascist dictators don't have a very good track record of sharing wealth with the people". agreed, just look at distribution of wealth in U.S. as proof.

Posted by: NoBody at November 10, 2003 10:34 PM

NoBody can't possibly be serious with his witty but angry remark. Were he serious he'd have soome passing familiarity with facts.

Posted by: stephen at November 11, 2003 07:31 AM

American Guy,

Cubans get free sub-standard education form their government?

First of all how do you know that?

Second, sub-standard education is more apprent in the US: just look at your president. He has post-grad education?

Posted by: Faramin at November 11, 2003 08:32 PM

Stephen - Kris would resign in order for her Vice President, visitor to become President and implement his/her plan as it sure seems like a good one.

Posted by: Kris at November 11, 2003 09:48 PM

I would probably do what Jesus would do: turn the other cheek.

Posted by: at November 11, 2003 11:24 PM