Cuba, Michael Eastman photo, used with permission of the photographer.
For more of the photographer’s work, click here.
A Traveler’s Varied Impressions
by Jim Palombo
It’s often hard for journalists to compress what appears before their eyes. Particular experiences can require so many links to so many elements that an entire book may be necessary to explain what is on the table. In the end it might be better to simply suggest that one go and experience things for himself (or herself). This is certainly the case with Cuba – go there and see/feel for yourself.
However, given the current focus on improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and given that I just returned from Cuba with the intent to offer more as to what is occurring there, I obviously have a sense of journalistic duty to report on my trip. So with this in mind, I thought I would provide you with my field notes that were gathered during my month-long stay in the country. Generated by a number of experiences and personal conversations they appear, as notes often do, in a somewhat scattered form. And I apologize in advance to those of you who might find this approach a bit too cryptic and/or not very mindful of journalistic principles – as these are definite possibilities. But I think if you think, well, you’ll get the picture of the expanse of considerations garnered on the trip, perhaps using the notes as a type of “sensitivity road map” when you make your own journey to Cuba.
Before you proceed in wandering through the notes however, let me offer a few explanatory thoughts that actually frame the rest – two considerations that are meant to serve as a base for assessing Cuba and U.S. relations. First, I was struck by how different the young people – best categorized within the popular “millennial” or “generation Y” age category – in the two countries actually are. For example, that particular group in Cuba has grown up without the attachment to technology that US-ers have, i.e., the Cubans tend to rely a great deal more on person-to-person exchanges than do those in the U.S. Also, the young Cubans are more prone to developing and maintaining their reading and educational habits (a very literate group, I might add) in relationship to the “printed,” rather than “digital,” world. Simply put, social media in general is not at all near the level in Cuba as it is in the U.S. As a corollary, the links to materialism and commercialization that usually attach themselves to technology are not as prevalent within the Cuban experience. Moreover, the cultural instincts there (behavior developed over time in regard to a particular ideological frame) have been pointed at the notions of collectivism and public good, notions not so clearly articulated/defined in the U.S. These points, taken in total, not only reference the differences that exist, but also speak to the very nature of discussions that occur as one speaks with the two groups. (Without insisting on a value one way or the other, one can wonder which group might be in better stead in terms of dealing with the human problems we now all face on the planet. On this point consider what “individualism” might mean between the two groups – with Cuba representing an “earned independence of judgment based on a collective experience” and the U.S. representing “being free to do what one wants.”)
This is not to imply that things won’t change in Cuba or the U.S., for certainly they will. For one, the young people in Cuba are indeed very much interested in what contemporary and future technologies can offer. This in and of itself spells change. Yet what they will do with these advancements is a most significant aspect of Cuba’s developmental concerns. In short a primary question is pointed at “To what extent the young people can be encouraged to maintain the “equality and societal focus” principles tied to their revolution while integrating the need for market-capitalistic development?” And this question needs to be continually kept in mind as the public policies being implemented in Cuba are being discussed and/or measured.
On the mention of the revolution, the second consideration is offered. In examining the Cuban revolution, especially in today’s ever-changing world, it is interesting to note where, as Cuba is now, the U.S. was 55 years post its own revolution? In this context, a brief historical review of the 1830s-1840s reveals that the U.S. was struggling with issues tied to political corruption, slavery, land grabbing (especially in regard to the Native American population) and the advancing changes and problems attached to the developing industrial revolution. In other words, the significant and globally relevant accomplishments that came forth from the U.S. amid the problems that were tied to its mix of democracy and capitalism principles could, given time, patience and legitimate recognition/support, come forth in Cuba. Said another way, the variables now at play within the Cuban experiment may well lead to a growth model that will be of particular prominence in world history.
Well, with these thoughts in place, here are the notes. Again they are a bit disjointed and not in any particular order. Certainly if you have any comments or questions, journalistic-wise or not, please feel free to send them along. And keep in mind that the previous Ragazine.CC article, done prior to my trip, might be worth a review. This is especially so in terms of the “symposium on dialogue” being suggested between the two countries. When placed side by each there is no question that the juxtaposition raises a myriad of important considerations. Suffice it to say, my exchanges in both Cuba and the U.S. have proven bringing together Cuban and U.S. students to discuss issues and concerns within their respective ideological frames would indeed be a valuable initiative − one which I continue to pursue.
NOTES FROM OBSERVATIONS/THOUGHTS…
Beauty and the Beast-old, dramatic backdrop − rubble of inner Havana – rebuilding the infrastructure one piece at a time, crumbling buildings relate to spirit as it too has crumbled a bit (especially given the ‘special period’ with the failures of Russia, but the strength to build is there – in fact the wind seems finally at their back. (Where is “wind” for the U.S., especially as it continues to find itself involved in war?)
Concept of “self” – how is this different between the countries? Notion of self-regulation and freedom to pursue self-interests – in reality has it led to the U.S. being a bit lazy, too fat, too much in debt (if no credit cards and very little money to what extent can personal debt be a problem in Cuba – appears not much – consider the economic-banking adage that power comes from creating and then managing debt?)
Self, goodness and god – how are both countries doing in relation to the principle of almost all gods? Is it better to just be beginning to digest the religions of the world, as in Cuba, or to have already digested them, like U.S.? In terms of spirituality keep in mind the “millennials” and the their cultural instincts as to success-money-individualism-freedom and compare that to what the Cuban “millennials” are like? (Can’t help but think of “romance” with the technological revolution resulting in more touching of its tools than each other…)
Were the dissidents who left Cuba angry with Fidel and the notion of communism? Did they prefer/support Batista, who seemed to represent a puppet tyrant? (Consider history of orthodox party – Castro, who was not originally a Marxist, and the Marxist faction and the coalition via the underground movement and the strength gathered from ongoing U.S. support of Batista regime.)
Consider that learning and discipline attached to self-regulation, freedom, equality can be something for hire, i.e., having money creates the possibilities – discipline kids in school, day-care/babysitters/nannies, pay for health/training/sports instructors, teaching aids, etc. – this seems “discipline” based on ability to pay – economic success… theory of the leisure class – Thorsten Veblen.
Speaking of which – freedom in general – “market” itself is only relatively free and in society certainly not freedom from market considerations – the “deep state” where people are controlled without thinking about it (the idea of being “free from government” means very little in terms of being “free from overall system influence”- illusion of “freedom”
– in terms of changing things is it better to understand the nature/the mission of the control than not (in Cuba element of control is clearly/better understood – U.S and market control?).
Delusional scales – is there some form of delusion attached to economic advancement, more money more delusional as to life, or less money and more delusion? What is actually happening around the world on this point? Where do religion-faith-hope fit with delusion?
Does delusion fit with advertising-commercialization – what about the fact that no commercial advertising on Cuban TV – where public good ads are used? Brings to mind the military as a socialist-run organization-equality over freedom notion, health, education, pay equity, etc., AFN (armed forces network) and no commercial advertising…
When overall poor in terms of money-economy but literate, and without religious “crutch” nor commercialization, perhaps a better understanding of human condition/empathy and its basic elements? (‘pure’ sex – ‘pure’ work – ‘pure’ fun – to what extent can/will advanced market and commercialization effect these ‘pure’ elements?)
Concept of God and Catholicism (Pope) – does the catechism brought to the table fit better with the principles of communism than with the practices of capitalism? My Beirut colleague suggesting U.S. religion as capitalism, catechism and all… C.S. Lewis – sets out to prove no God only to find him – fits with what may happen in Cuba (also perhaps a skewed tie to U.S. – set out to prove badness in communism – perhaps find its value?)
Consumerism-Veblen again – never really “outside the box” of consumerism in the U.S. – consider even advertising and public service – most posters in the West are to encourage to buy not really to explain anything, kind of mixed-up societal agenda in this sense
Economic/market exchanges are really necessary but both short and long-term planning will take time (the Cuban experiment’s management of economic and social man, their particular growth model, is at stake…)
Duality of systems in education, the law, criminal justice system, representation in gov. – issues facing U.S. and income gap as well – how will these be addressed within Cuba’s growth?
Standing up for workers when there is very limited work – will more work/jobs make this more or less difficult? What is role of unions when government, as in Cuba, appears to be “unionized” by its own agenda?
Could it be said that embargo, as much as it has hampered economic progress, has in another sense (and over time) strengthened the resolve of the people (like with U.S. support of Batista – it actually backfired in driving people/groups toward revolution) in a way has its continuation given them strength in the new world order?
Embargo – Cubans themselves recognize the significance of it but also that it is over-used, problems with communism in a world dominated by capitalism has its own set of concerns – and also people can get lazy with too much struggle, the struggle becomes an excuse (just as societal laziness with “too much” – like U.S.).
Other countries with similar growth models – how much have they assisted Cuba? How much do Cubans want to be like China, Brazil, Africa, etc. or do they see their experiment more on its own terms? (There are dozens of other countries struggling with similar concerns in the world.)
All this tied to “venture capitalism meeting venture communism” – managing economic man and social man – the history of the world for the most part.
**Added in regard to two articles read on the plane ride back stateside:
“The Castro’s New Friend”, James Kirchick’s National Review article – critical of Obama – he is helping an oppressive regime – conservative logic, no need for Obama to bend to Cuba, pitfalls of communism as opposed to democracy-seems smug as if we don’t have difficulties with political and economic systems, inequalities in income, etc., to what extent are we a democracy and to what extent are we capitalist? What are the differences here? What makes one become a conservative versus a liberal – biological, sociological and psychological motivations of behavior, choice (like becoming a criminal?). How does each actually differ in terms of U.S. policies, especially with ties to market influence? Underscores import of “symposium” concept for both countries, especially with revolutionary histories and current issues for both tied to their respective ideological considerations.
“The Business of Business – an age old debate about what companies are for has been revived.” Schumpeter Column article from The Economist: reviews elements of “what is purpose of a company” debate – profit or broader social ends or to what extent a mix – long term and short term interests/thinking? Brings to mind “new” business models being suggested, like the B-corp concept, which encourages corporations to prioritize the notion of “public good” – does this spell something different in terms of U.S. corporations? Consider Buffet, Gates, etc. To what extent can these considerations blend with what is occurring in Cuba? Perhaps another “symposium on dialogue” tie-in?
NOTES RE: PEOPLE…
I spoke with a number of individuals – focused on past to current efforts in maintaining revolutionary principles tied to communism policies, asked about U.S. principles as well, and what U.S. and Cuban relations might be suggesting-worries, hopes, etc. (Must keep in mind in discussing things – $30 per month average income, technology limited, yet health, education, food assistance, etc., is provided. Like with taxi drivers in the old cars – money is made/informal economy at work as well. Also, idea is for government to make money that is for the benefit of the overall improvements in both infrastructure and societal lifestyles, this is with personal incomes and also foreign investments. There are people with more and less, there is discrimination particularly evidenced between the dark skinned and the lighter skinned Cubans, there is corruption, etc., but this is true everywhere – raises question which system might be best to manage these seemingly “human nature” elements, i.e., what type system turns the key in favor of the best human traits?)
These relate to sit-down conversations and are the most expressive examples of the people I talked with – I hope to stay in contact with them:
M: An elderly gentleman who was a part of Cuba’s revolutionary movement since it began, working as a student in the underground movement in conjunction with the insurgent efforts of Fidel, Raul and Che. His recollection of what transpired in those days was certainly mesmerizing – by the glint in his eye could tell that he remains proud of what he and the others had accomplished. He was impressed with what the future was now looking like as the world’s wind appeared to be finally at Cuba’s back. He was actually educated in the U.S. at Boston Academy and honed his English as well as his understanding of American values – which he reasoned in a democratic sense were not so distant from his own country communism. He returned to the University of Havana for his university studies and found himself involved with the politics of the day, fighting for worker’s rights as had been his family’s inclination. And as U.S. backing of Batista became more evident this became a struggle against what he and his underground colleagues saw as unwanted U.S. intervention, which is of course the history of the revolution itself.
This being duly noted (over more than an hour’s talk) our discussion moved to thoughts on modern day relations. He put forth the idea that many things may well be possible in terms of Cuba developing a more substantial economy, but that they would have to be careful how they proceeded. In essence the Cuban people are systematically aligned with China and the other BRIC participants, as well as with most European countries, but their culture is certainly different. (This point seemed to blend with the Cuban peoples cultural and spiritual connect to African nations, which became quite clear in a number of other discussions.) All and all, time, patience, diligence/carefulness are paramount – not an easy future but changes can be accomplished. Noted issue with young people, professionals especially, leaving, although others are returning, as “change possibilities” are in the air.
J: A middle-aged woman brought up in and managing a large Cigar business – successful, indicative of hard work and societal mix, “women” and careers are not as much a focus as “people” and careers, both genders open to education although men are clearly in most powerful roles, maybe a change will occur in conjunction with other things. Entrepreneurial changes to business occurring, mostly with smaller, family-type developments, larger businesses will take more time, especially in figuring out business models, differentials as to money and work, everyday life, it will all happen but in time. Difficult to anticipate the integration of the communism/revolutionary frame and capitalist/materialist tendencies – not an easy mix.
L: A woman around 60, born and lived throughout revolutionary period, very intelligent and successful in work although not as much in terms of living standards as she imagined when she started. Lenin School, Military School, significant Communist party member, government/public work, like many “graduates” – worked over three decades, little movement in terms of career, increase in money but limited, children, married 3 times (marriage and divorce seem to come and go with little restriction – no religion variable?). Now, chance to be moving to U.S via emigration visa which is allowed but surprised her in the getting, her children live and work abroad, one in U.S. another in Argentina – almost a second life as she sees it, something different in her “finishing days”, better or worse, she had just sold her house and her wares, has some money and expects to work in the U.S. – stressing that most Cubans make good workers in the U.S., diligent, savvy, etc. Again a new/different life that she feels she has earned the chance to pursue.
E: A middle-aged man, artist, his art is extremely interesting and he is currently using tobacco juice for his painting and sketching. He is sociable but angry and aggressive over U.S. position toward Cuba and what it has meant to his people over time. He has witnessed a good deal of the “ugly American” especially as he sells his art in open markets – U.S. people seem overly arrogant to him. (He likes the U.S. women more than the men.) He admits some over-use of embargo as a problem – it has become a part of his culture nonetheless. He wants some changes, too much reliance on old, revolutionary aspects but whatever comes is up to them/Cubans to sort through without U.S. meddling. He likes the market exchanges but doesn’t seem to trust those forms of business at larger levels – doesn’t trust the U.S. but sees the relations as necessary. He has never been out of Cuba (a common situation) – no need as he is happy to be Cuban (a common response) but he does wonder at times how he would be in other parts of the world.
B: 19 year-old woman, university student, very bright, very athletic (tennis) and representative of a number of other university students I spoke with. Being young in Cuba is good, even if poor or without things, seems more so than what her parents had experienced – reminds one of the “well in my day…” speech although it seems more serious. Having friends, playing as kids, talking and meeting, but the inner city types, those who have almost nothing and live in very poor places still have it difficult. Hope exists for changes for better conditions, she expects to stay in Cuba after graduating, would like to work at problems. Hope also exists for new technological things. When asked if that will change her/her group a “maybe, at least a little bit” response, but she expects this as a problem to be resolved. Her experience with U.S. and European students who have come to Cuba – they seem a bit arrogant as they really don’t understand the things they see in Cuba. Perhaps they can’t help to be that way given their culture, but she can’t help make that observation given hers – seeing Cuba as a leader in many ways, especially in regards to the shallowness exhibited by young people in other countries. Interesting point – I was struck by how much litter was on the beach, seemed very dirty in this regard, especially for such beautiful strands of beach and I suggested a law to prohibit this. She explained the “not caring” was related to the poorness, especially during the “special period” and said laws were not the answer, education was – found this rather profound.
G: A middle-aged journalist who has spent his life documenting the development of the revolution. He is careful in his discussion, stressing that there have been ups and downs in a world of ups and downs. His people have suffered a great deal with being poor but because of their spirit and pride they don’t seem to show it as much as others might. He has reservations about whether the U.S. will help in the way they say they will, pointing out that there are different factions amid the Cuban revolutionary frame in terms of how to proceed with economic measures and social policy. China is more important than the U.S. – in fact U.S. recognizes this – needs Cuba as leverage in the struggle.
F: A middle aged man, very informative, has worked in the national library system collecting information regarding equality and educational opportunities, on his way to Harvard as a guest lecturer in that regard. We covered a lot of ground as to current relations with U.S., mirrors what others have said about possibilities, dangers, and need for time – expectations of those in the U.S. he has talked with seem a “quickness” – fast pace to changes – he disagrees. He says in fact that because Cubans have been so used to not having, why should there be any hurry to have?
P: A young French priest, in Cuba for almost five years with the Catholic Church, most interesting observations as to developments with faith, hope, spirituality (Santeria, Yoruba have provided a great deal of the spiritual base in Cuba.) Certainly evolution versus creation at play here. I noted that when I asked Cubans how is life without spiritual, afterlife considerations they seemed to shrug their shoulders, not much to say. He sees Catholicism as filling this void (obviously) – young people in particular finding this of interest – religion/catechism attachment to communism (seems a better fit except for history of Marxist principles and “opiate of the masses” notion) – capitalism-materialism/profit motive by its logic is not a positive influence in terms of “goodness” – perhaps related to U.S. dwindling ties to organized (vs. self) religion. His job has been first connect to the people’s wish to be “good” – then connect that idea of goodness to the Church/its catechism which can provide the way to maintain that spirit of goodness with both Faith and Hope – important concepts to explore, especially in terms of man’s continuing inhumanity toward his fellow man.
Locals/peasants/low incomers: difficult to approach these individuals in terms of language differences and an overall suspicion of my being from the U.S. – but did get to talk with a few, only men, especially within the market setting where I had made an English speaking contact. (I could exchange money with this contact, also arrange taxi travel and whatever else I might need.) Being careful not to insult the individuals with “academic” topics, staying more in line with feelings as to life and if maybe life was changing. Overall responses seem to indicate that it would be difficult to imagine it getting worse, especially for those who remember the “special period” – when Russia broke down and support for Cuba went with it. But whatever happens the people relayed that they will most likely remain as they are, in the peasant-end of society, but probably with more on the table – a good thing overall. One young man when asked about having a job or trade was not overly responsive, remarked that he may get an old car to be a taxi-driver but he was not that good of a mechanic. Being poor with little expectation of things changing – difficult to measure the variables in any society.