Cuba Day 7 - Che Day
Che Guevara, that is, the Argentinian who drove his motorcycle up and down South America and who helped Fidel and Raul win the revolutionary war. He became the minister of finance in the early post-revolution days, bringing Marxism to Cuba. He then went on to help fights for freedom in other countries in Africa and South America. Unfortunately, Bolivia wasn't as ready for revolution as Cuba was. He was captured and killed (Was the CIA involved? I heard hints that just maybe . . .). His remains were discovered in 1997 or so and they were returned and interred along with those of his comrades in Santa Clara.
But I'm ahead of myself. Santa Clara is a town about an hour's drive southwest of Remedios, our current home base.
We stopped to visit a real honest-to-goodness cigar factory in Camajuani, a town about half way to Santa Clara.
They sure enough hand roll cigars there in the way that the museum in Ybor City (Tampa) FL shows. This one is a moderate size operation (the big ones are four times as large). I'd guess there were forty or fifty people rolling cigars while we were there.
This a State owned enterprise. They make a variety of cigar brands, shapes, sizes and qualities according to production requirements set by the central government's cigar authority. Cigars are an important export for Cuba, right up there with rum, so getting the forecast right is important.
The various brands use different combinations of three tobacco types, each grown in different regions of Cuba. Yet different tobacco types are used to encase the core leaf mixture and for the outer casing. Readers entertain the workers during the day, reading news, general information and novels. Many cigar brands are named after books read to the workers: Monte Cristo, Anthony and Cleopatra, etc.
Quality is Job 1 in the cigar business. Quality is monitored at three levels:
1. The cigar rollers must ensure that their cigars are of the proper length and diameter ("Short and not to big around. I'm a man of no means . . .).
2. All semifinished products are tested by a Drawmaster machine to make sure the cigar has the proper puff-ability. Rejects are returned to the roller for correction.
3. Final product lots are sampled by experienced quality control people who smoke the cigars for flavor, aroma and half a dozen other parameters. Lots can be rejected if more than 2 to 4% flunk the smoke test.
Our guide was a final QC tester. She's worked there for the better part of 40 years. She doesn't smoke cigars except for her testing job.
My big question was: What's up with the employees? It turns out the average roller makes roughly $500 per month, more than double the average Cuban income level.
Note I said average: workers' compensation depends on how many cigars they produce per day. Each cigar type has a quota assigned to it, from 60 to 150 per day. Beat the quota, you make more. Make less, you suffer. And don't forget, quality rejects count against you. Too many QC rejects and you must repeat the nine-month training program. There is also a factory-wide profit sharing program. Sign me up!
The motivation system works: everyone's fingers were flying; no slackers in this crowd!
Lunch was another paladar and another economics lesson (Hope your eyes aren't glazing over yet. Now you know how my students used to feel). It's a private mom-and-pop operation, the result of eight years or so of fixing up the old homestead to serve dinners and put up B and B guests. We've been over this before.
The interesting twist this time was their marketing and promotion plan. Remember, advertising is a no-no in Cuba. So how do guests find them, I asked. "Air BnB and TripAdvisor" was the answer. Their signature dish is chicken slow cooked with honey and pineapple. "Here is a card with the recipe. Share it with your friends. And check out our website and like us on Facebook."
Next a visit to the local university. They recently merged a number of smaller local schools and now have 7,000 undergraduates and 15,000 graduate students. Tourism and English Language studies are the most popular subjects; teaching the least. Guess which lines of work pay the most and least. Right.
Our host is the head of the Tourism Studies department at the university, part of the economics "faculty". I asked him, "How do you reconcile Marxist-Socialist economic philosophy with the private enterprise that is becoming a significant part of the Cuban economy today?" He answered, "Five years ago I was not allowed to use the term 'private enterprise' in the classroom. Recently the government has encouraged us to 'reflect current realities' in our teaching." A sign of change in Cuba?
The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting various sites of significance in the Che chronicles, including a large complex that houses Che's remains and the railroad crossing where Che had his greatest revolutionary war victory. On December 28 (Google my dates; I'm going on memory here) Che's outnumbered guerrillas bulldozed a key railroad crossing and ambushed Batista's government forces. On December 31 Batista loaded his family and friends on his airplane and flew off to the Dominican Republic (?) and the revolution was over. Fidel declared victory on January 1, 1959.
That was it for the night, except for another nice dinner here in Remedios. We told Guide Yuly that, with regret, we'd have to beg off dancing and drinking tonight. We're not as young as we used to be after all.
That lasted all of the 5 minutes it took to stroll back to the plaza. Then, shazam, we were both dancing in the arms of our teenage dancing friends from last night (yes, we went out last night too) and had a piña colada on order.
Now it's 11 PM. Judy is back in the room getting organized for our departure tomorrow morning to Matanzas, a four-hour trip.
Here are a couple of pictures from this evening: a neat old car here on the square and a pair of not-so-neat slurpers.
Subject: Cuba Day 8 - Shhh - Don't Tell Anyone!
Recall that this is supposed to be a person-to-person cultural exchange. What was billed as "our hotel in Varado" turned out to be an all-inclusive resort on one of Cuba's best sandy beaches. This resort hotel, as are most tourist hotels in Cuba, is a joint venture (49/51%) with a foreign firm. Close your eyes and you'd swear you were in Cancun or Club Med. But hey, Brits, Knucks and the European riff-raff have cultures too, so we'll absorb those cultures (and as much all inclusive booze as we can) while we're here. We're not exactly living up to our charter by visiting here, though.
Not quite as busy a day today as we moved from Remedios to Varado, a four hour drive.
On the way we watched a documentary about Fidel. The takeaway for me was that, say what you may, Cuba is for the first time since 1492 independent of foreign powers and standing on its own. First Spain then the US and then the USSR dominated. It hasn't been pretty but here we are.
We had a discussion about what Cubans want after Fidel and Raul. The leading candidate is a 50ish moderate who seems more worried about Cuba's future than trying to maintain the hard-and-fast principles of the revolution. Yoly says most Cubans are hopeful that he is picked so that the process of economic liberalization can continue.
Do Cubans want a representative democracy? Yoly points out that free and universal elections are called for in Cuba's constitution today. Members and leaders of the National Assembly don't need to be members of the Communist party; membership is in fact representative of all segments of society. The catch is that Fidel and Raul serve as the executive branch and as members of the National Assembly. Because they are worshiped by virtually all Cubans no one dissents and as a result they can function as virtual dictators. The sixty four peso question is, what will happen when they are gone? Will the new leader be forced to forge consensus rather than rule by fiat?
Someone asked Yoly whether she favors elimination of the US embargo. "Yes," she said. "But I fear that when it is eliminated we might lose our spirit of oneness, of cooperation and care for one another. I fear that instead we will become competitive and stratified." Wonder what gave her that idea.
Our stops today:
La Finca Luna, a smallish family farm that operates as a nursery, providing palm trees and plants to commercial developments (e.g., hotels), raising fruits, vegetables and nuts and, of course, providing tourists with a cultural exchanges opportunity. Nice folks; good eats.
PALMAR DE JUNCO in Mantanzas is said to be the oldest baseball stadium in the Americas. A comfortable field even if it's showing its age. We talked with a retired Cuban baseball player and several took turns batting. One of our five 80+ year olds and our bus driver pitched.
I asked the player, in jest, if it was true that Fidel once pitched and struck out the side with 9 pitches (the implication being that no ump would dare call a ball and that no batter would take a swing). He became very serious and said, "Fidel loves baseball. He used to play with our team. I have played with him many times and he is an excellent pitcher." Boy, did I feel like a chump.
It's now tomorrow morning and here I sit in our ocean view room listening to the surf and enjoying the sunrise (Our room faces north into the Florida Straits. Start swimming and you hit Key West) and finishing what I should have done yesterday. Instead Judy and I went for a sunset walk on the beach, had dinner (a buffet, just like a cruise ship), danced a little and drank Mai Tais while listening to two lounge singers render all the American love song classics. I'll try to do better today.
But now I'm going to send this, wake my bride and hit the beach for a pre-breakfast walk on the beach. We leave for Havana and the last leg of our trip after lunch.
Subject: Cuba Day 9 - I Got the Spirit
This should be quick. Here's what we did today:
1. Slept in
2. Ate breakfast
3. Walked on beach
4. Showered and packed
5. Ate lunch
6. Got on bus
That takes us up to 1:30. It gets a little more complicated after that.
We drove about half an hour to Matanzlas from our hotel on the Varadero peninsula (I misspelled Varendero yesterday). There we went to a Santera's house to learn about the African religion of Santeria. This wasn't an academic history lesson. Santeria is today practiced by about 40% of all Cubans.
I don't know about you, but when I think about Cuba and religion I assume that a) religion in Cuba is banned by the communists and b) what religion there is is Catholic. But in fact today religion is permitted by the State and while Catholicism is widely practiced it doesn't dominate. In fact the two religions coexist and work together.
Santeria came to Cuba with slaves, mainly from today's Nigeria. Santerias and Santerinos (practitioners of Santeria) believe in a series of deities, each with its own personality and powers. There's a whole lot more and I won't bore you with the details but drumming and dancing are deeply embedded in the religion.
Becoming a Santerio/a is a lengthy and expensive process. It begins with a weeklong set of rites. The initiate must then dress in white and ensure the sun never strikes his/her head for one year. Individuals choose to join to improve some aspect of their lives - health, relationships, etc. Santero/as then serve as spiritual advisors to others.
The first step in becoming a Santero/a is to be baptized in the Catholic Church. That's right; the two religions coexist. Originally owners took their slaves to church for conversion to Catholicism. While paying lip service to Catholisism, the slaves continued to practice the old religion they brought with them from Africa. Over time they assigned each Santeria deity to a Catholic saint. African Chango became associated with St Barbara, for example. Thus a slave could pray to both at once.
I asked our hostess what her priest thought of Santeria. She indicated the priest recognized Santeria and was ok with her dual role as Santera and Catholic partitioner. Priests draw the line at animal sacrifice; that must be done outside the church.
So now I'm ready to become a cigar rolling Santero. Who knows I may end up voting for Bernie the way this trip is going!
Then on to Havana, our hotel and dinner. We're camped out in the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, located by the Malecon, Havana's famous sea wall. We have a two room suite with gorgeous views of the harbor.
A busy day tomorrow and we've succeeded in avoiding dancing and drink tonight - for once!
Our Santera and her son, also a Santero
A random old car seen in a parking lot along the way
The view from our suite
Subject: Cuba Day 10 - Off to a Running Start
I haven't taken the time on this trip to get up early enough for a run - too much dancing and drinking the night before, to tell the truth. But there it is beneath our eighth floor window: the Malecon, a broad walk along the bay. It's an active social venue at night. People come to stroll, chat and share a bottle of rum, passing it from friend to friend to new acquaintance.
So it was love at first sight and I was out of bed at 6 AM and out the door a few minutes later. It was still dark. I ran maybe a mile and a half or a little more, westward past the US embassy before turning around. The sky had begun to lighten so I was treated to some pretty views on the return trip.
Here's a brief recap of today's activities:
- A lecture at 9 AM on dance and music in Cuba by the head of a private dance group, Malpaso. Then immediately after we traveled by bus to his studio to watch his dancers perform. His is one of the best modern dance studios in Cuba (and his dancers are the best paid, earning up to three times as dancers in publicly funded groups).
He made the point that there are three reasons to dance: to participate in a social activity, to perform for an audience or to take oneself to a state beyond normal consciousness. Cuban dance is unique because it is founded on African religious dance that was brought to Cuba by slaves. Dance was their only possession. And African dance in the Santeria religion can lead one into a state where a diety takes control of the dancer, just as happens in Pentecostal churches in the US.
Our next stop was at a community center in El Solar, one of Havana's poorer neighborhoods, set up to provide low cost housing in a previous hostel building that now provides upwards of 30 family units. It also provides community programs for kids and "third wave" members (I.e. Senior citizens). They entertained us with a drum trio performing African music. Three guys danced. It was an exciting and energetic performance. A transcendental state was not far away.
The administrator of California House (no one can recall where that name came from) is also the neighborhood CDR, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the position that we encountered in Remedios. I used my Fuji printer to give them a half dozen snapshots, including one of the administrator/CDR president and her grandson.
Lunch - pasta and pizza - was at a local private Restaurant California just down the street.
Then off to the fort Cabana. Like most forts it had never been attacked. The site does provide excellent views of downtown Havana.
Back to the hotel for a quick break and then a 6 PM jazz concert for our group held here at the hotel. The trio - violin, guitar and electronic base guitar played an unusual and quite effective Cuban interpretation of modern jazz. All three are classically trained musicians and it shows.
We dined as a group in the wine cellar basement of yet another paladar. Don't kid yourself; these private eateries don't serve a handful of people in the dining room of someone's house. They are fully functional large scale establishments just like we have back home. The menu is pretty basic and gets monotonous - lobster tail, pork and lamb, pretty much the standard with chicken substituted for lamb. Imported beef is sometimes offered; killing a cow in Cuba carries a 20 year jail sentence. But the chefs are creative with the limited raw ingrediens at their disposal so the net effect is positive. Of course paladars cater to tourists and a few wealthy Cubans.
The bus dropped 11 of us off at the Tropicana for the cabaret: show dancing girls and guys, lots of Cuban music. Pricey but a really good time.
The capstone of the day was the ride home. Many people come to Cuba hoping to ride in a '57 Chevy like the ones you see in National Geographic. But few find themselves drag racing down the nighttime streets of Havana in a pair of 1986 Russian 5-cylinder limousines like we did. There are only 10 in all of Cuba. I wonder what famous people rode in these limos back in the day Fidel? What a kick!
It's one AM and lights out time. The local hotspot is around the corner from the hotel so wifi will have to wait for daybreak.
Abuela y Nieto
Subject: Cuba Day 11 - WARNING: More Economics Ahead
We're in full Do Havana mode: on the bus, see the sight and back on the bus . . . Actually it wasn't all that bad.
First up: Revolution Square, a large parking lot with its monument to Jose Marti, the leader most closely associated with the War of Independence from Spain and a building-sized sculpture of Che Guevara, the symbol of the Revolution. This is where Fidel gave his six-hour speeches to the assembled masses (Raul makes brief announcements via TV) and where three popes have spoken.
Next a shopping opportunity at the cigar store. I no longer worry about the Cuban economy: you wouldn't believe what the government charges for a three pack, especially after seeing how they are made.
Like dominoes? We learned how and we'll teach you the Cuban version when we get home. It's a national pastime, easy to learn, full of teamwork strategy and lots of fun.
Most interesting for me was to meet and talk with one of our instructors. He's 78 years old, married with three kids, has three grandkids and is a retired professor of plant science and biology.
His English is better than my Spanish but we had fun conversing in both. He has been elected by his neighborhood to be the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). He's also on the executive committee of the Communist Party.
He served in the Revolutionary Army from 1956 through the end in 1959. He said, referring to his current role in the Party, "Young people try to tell me what the Revolution is all about. But I was there. They can't tell me anything about the Revolution."
Finally, more shopping at a craft market: tons of tourist trinket shops crammed into a long, tin-roofed building.
We returned to the National Hotel at 3 PM for a lecture on the architecture of Havana given by Pedro Vacez, a professor of architecture. Let me see if I can summarize what this very interesting person had to say.
Havana's architecture has been defined by first the Spanish then Americans and then the Russians. All building stopped and existing buildings deteriorated badly during the "Special" period. Things are improving somewhat these days but there is still much to be done especially to provide better residential housing.
The Q and A session quickly turned to economics. Here is a summary of what I understood.
The Socialistic philosophy of the government has as its objective to furnish all Cubans with everything they need period. Everything. Reality has set in, however; the government recognizes that it doesn't have the wherewithal to pay for "everything." Furthermore, citizens become lazy if everything is provided.
The fallback is to provide "everything" in the areas of education, health care and housing. A limited amount of "everything" is provided elsewhere.
There are two tracks to address this situation. First, the government actively supports and encourages entrepreneurship and private enterprise in the service sector (especially tourism) and agriculture. Today land ownership is 30% private and 70% public. Agriculture output is 70% private and 30% public. Almost all restaurants are private and the few remaining State restaurants struggle to keep up with the competition. Operating profits and capital gains (e.g., gains on the sale of private real estate) are not taxed.
Second, the government has been aggressively pursuing foreign investment in large scale industry (production and refining for example), infrastructure (e.g. port facilities and telecommunications), etc. The government is careful to retain control of these projects. The US, he pointed out is "late to the party" compared to Europe, Japan, etc.
He believes that the government will be successful in this strategy, walking the tightrope between capitalism providing the resources to achieve the social objectives all the while retaining centralized control of the total economy and the political structure of the nation.
He believes the Cuban people will accept this plan. He believes that Cubans don't want a more democratic society, that they are happy with the current "all for one and one for all" spirit of immunology sharing.
He also said that the Cuban people hold no grudge against the US. "No Cuban has ever burned a US flag in protest or disrespect," he said.
I'm not sure I agree with him. I've seen too much motivation and entrepreneurship these past 10 days to believe the next generations will be complacent and accepting of the "big brother" approach. He argues that Cuban culture is unique. He knows far more about Cuba than I ever will so he may be right. We"ll see.
Tonight we're going to a Buena Vista Social Club group here at the hotel. All of the original members are no longer with us but the music does and the performance should be fun.
Plaza de la Revolution
Cuban Dominoes with Our New Friend
Subject: Cuba Day 12 - Old Havana
The laundry bag is almost full, the pill vial is almost empty, I've taken my requisite 3,500 shots and put on the target 5 (pounds, that is. Weight loss: bad trip; weight gain: good trip.) And we're getting the itch for some quality grandkid time. Esme and Griffin (plus their minders) come to Florida Saturday for a week. Reagan and Carter come solo the following Friday for a week. What could a couple of nieto-starved abuelos ask for?
But first, we had a day of work to get through and of course the farewell dinner.
Before getting into the beginning let's jump to the end. If you've ever been on an organized trip you know the farewell dinner drill: another tour group meal followed by oaths of undying love and then the final bus ride back to the hotel to pack. This one was a little different. First, this has been a really fun group of seasoned traveler's who really did get along well. We will remember this group with fondness and look forward to traveling with them again.
And then there was the goodby surprise: a ride back to the hotel in vintage convertible cars. And ours, beyond all belief, was a 1958 Edsel. For those who don't know, my dad and granddad were Edsel dealers in good old Hillsdale. I was 11 years old in 1958 so I remember the Edsel well. I thought we'd had our old car experience with the Soviet 5-cylinder limo ride night before last. But this tops the cake. What I'd give to be able to tell Dad about this!
Here's the car and my main squeeze:
Now back to the day's activities:
First a lecture on the Cuban economy. Yeah, another economics session. This time by a real life economist from a university; his main focus is economic statistics. I won't bore you with the details but the so-what was the emphasis on economic revitalization through the Updating Process, a formal Cuban government program to encourage private enterprise in tourism and agriculture plus capital investment partnerships with foreign organizations and governments. The plan is under continual review in a trial-and-error process. Academics like our speaker are included in the Updating Process.
Growing the export economy is a major goal. Here are some export statistics:
75% services. 21% industrial and construction 4% agriculture
Services includes tourism. Recently Cuba has been providing medical services to foreign entities; these services count as exports.
Too 10 foreign trade partners: Venezuela, China, Canada, Spain, USA, Brazil (2013 data). USA's share is declining. Note China's position. Just what we need: China and, for that matter, Venezuela propping up a country 90 miles from Key West. Sounds like a remake of that Cold War movie.
So far the results have been positive. As I've reported already, productivity in tourism and agriculture is way up. Our speaker said that the building renovation program (and there's a whole lot of reconstruction needed) has been speeded up through use of private contractors rather than government agencies and workers. The project to move commercial shipping from Havana harbor to a new nearby port is foreign financed. The old port will be a cruise ship terminal. I can't wait to see Old Havana crowds when a couple of 4,000 passenger ships dock!
Next, a recital by an a capella women's chorus of approximately 16 voices. Beautiful harmonies and rhythm perfectly executed. We're coming home with eight CDS, including this one. Once again the performers are university trained and State paid. They spend three hours per day rehearsing. Many teach part time.
Finally, Old Havana, the place you see whenever someone references Cuba. Lots of plazas, lots of Spanish architecture, lots of decay as a result of the Special Period, and lots of signs of revitalization too. And of course lots of tourists.
While in Old Havana we got to meet Yoly's husband and six year old daughter. She also has a thirteen old boy who wasn't with them. What a good looking family. And what a great tour guide Yoly has been.
It's been a great trip, we've learned a lot and enjoyed a great country and some vey nice people. Come on down and pay them a visit some time! You won't regret it!
P.s: we'll post pictures and videos and let you know when they are ready.