Marta, Jose Luis, yours truly, with Yeyito!
In my April blog "Cuba: Just What The Heck's Going On?" [Link] I explained that during my upcoming Cuban School Project trip I would examine firsthand what the local reactions are within the Santiago de Cuba school community to the recent announcement by Presidents Castro +Obama that they will be "normalizing relations" between the countries. Well, I'm back now. Here is my report:
Santiago de Cuba: after 50 years of the US economic embargo, the city is bustling. For the average Cuban Santiaguero y Santiagueras who've been to hell and back at least a couple of times, there ought to be prize. My flight is packed with repeat Canadian visitors to the local resorts. In town, the towering Melia Santiago de Cuba Hotel is flush with European and South Americans! Also, a handful of American tourists on their new US government, specially designated trips.
The crowded streets are lined with family "mom and pop" vender's selling their services and wares everywhere across the sprawling mountainside city; snacks, produce, haircuts, nail polish, shoe, movie rental, bike and appliance repair stalls abound! Family run "particular" restaurants as well as bed and breakfasts are everywhere! Some of my teacher friends have also opened a Santiago de Cuba Rock Cafe. Locals and tourist mix nightly to enjoy a potent hit of now legal Beatle tunes and western pop culture!
Santiago de Cuba Rock Cafe
It's another revolution of sorts, unheard of since the Cuban people arose during the 1959 "Triumph of the Revolution" to toss the Yankees out, and reclaim Cuba for themselves. Now, the 50 year old crippling US embargo seems to be fading like a bad dream in the rear view mirrors of the vintage Ford, Chevy, Dodge and Willy taxi cabs still on the roads. Cuba, it seems, is on the comeback trail, as one of the most laid back, colourful and hospitable holiday and business destinations in the America's.
Melia Santiago Hotel
An American visitor in the Melia lobby sniffs at my task. "What I'd like to know", he asks as he orders a round of $2 rum drinks on his way to the pool, "is if the Canucks, Euros and everybody else has been here all this time, then how come this is the best the Cubans can do?"
He's on a carefully guided tour of the island being set up by the US government allowing Americans to legally holiday in Cuba under US law. These are becoming increasingly popular, if they haven't exactly turned into a flood yet, since US and Cuban Presidents' Barrack Obama and Raul Castro announced last December that the two countries are going to try to normalize relations.
He's not entirely wrong. The changes might seem pretty rinky dink and late in coming for the modern American cosmopolitan visitor to laid back Cuba. Nor are they complete or even widespread across the country. Still, since my first visit to Cuba in 1981, the visible changes here on this hot, sun drenched tropical island nation are ultimately as different as night and day. What can one expect after 50 years of a permanent state of emergency? With a crippling, devastating US embargo, rogue terrorist attacks and the constant threat of military invasion? All things considered it's a miracle that Santiago de Cuba is still standing on it's feet!
Yeyito is a Santiago de Cuba teacher, tour guide and local entrepreneur. We first met in 1992. He was moonlighting as a musician playing banned Beatle songs at one of the few places he could, the Bucanero resort. Also sometimes in the band was his teacher buddy Jesus. Jesus recently opened the new Santiago de Cuba Rock Cafe. Yeyito is also working as his weekend doorman and concierge.
At first, Yeyito was keen to enter as a full partner under the new reforms. However, as the noose of the US economic embargo continues to slip, he is now hopeful that a lot more Cruise ships, including Yankee ones, will soon be making Santiago de Cuba a port of call. One ship a week can help make ends meet. Will there soon be many more?
Yeyito's hopes seem confirmed by the mad rush of renovations and new construction stretching along the city harbour front in a long US embargoed city lacking many of the amenities the modern traveller will be sure to expect. It's enough to make our group of 6 raise glasses high in a toast of "Viva Cuba! Viva Canada!", if not quite "Viva USA!". Not just yet! It's Friday night and Yeyito has reserved a choice table for my Cuban teacher friends and I in front of the overhead TV screen pumping out nonstop rock, salsa and latin hit videos at the Santiago de Cuba Rock Cafe! *
Yeyito speaks of a chance for the economy to "heal". It's an interesting way to describe gradual change. He thinks that the changes will be slow and incremental. Nobody is going to just throw the door open for the Yanks to rush back in and take over again. Beyond that he welcomes the new reforms for creating opportunities.
Family is everything to the average Cuban. For all his life even the most basic of food, medicine and everyday necessities have been rationed and in chronically short supply. He and wife Kathy run the eco and motorbike tours at the mountain and seaside Brisas Sierra Mar resort [Blog], about an hour outside of town. The many repeat Canadian tourists are great, but how many repeat tours of the countryside can they possibly be expected to take?
Yeyito is looking at setting up personalized holidays in Santiago de Cuba. A bed and breakfast in an nicely renovated American art deco home in the once ritzy enclave of Alegro will cost $25 [CuC's] **, with an extra $8 for meals, or you can cook for yourself. Otherwise? Transportation is ridiculously cheap in the mad crush of $5 to $8 cab trips around the city in a vintage American car. Indeed, for about $20 a day I am bopping about town this trip in a 1942 "Willy" that's always at my beck and call. But more importantly, he and Kathy can arrange a specialized itinerary to meet your eco, history, cultural and other travel interests in Santiago or for that matter elsewhere across the island. ***
Recently, a new room was added to their crowded, two floor, family home in the city, so that they can now finally have one all their own. Like most Cuban homes, the house is packed with a large extended family of all ages. There are lots of mouths to feed and people to dress for work and school, but despite their long work hours, things are looking good!
Gretel shows us how it's done!
Yeyito's daughter Gretel absently stirs her drink while he heads off to manage the growing line up at the door. We are a bit late getting seated tonight when a large Scandinavian group arrived again for a second night after their city tour to eat, drink and party. Gretel stares at the rock videos blasting from the large tv screen. She wishes there was more new music. My fellow Cuban baby boomers look perplexed. Gretel might very well be at a small, trendy, baby boomer DIY restaurant, cafe or club along Toronto's "Soho" Queen St. West back home in Canada, but of course she's not.
Dinner with an entree, main meat dish, rice, veggies and four mixed drinks cost $10. Unfortunately, most teachers in Cuba would only earn the equivalent of $40 [US] to $60 a month. Dad's tourist tips of course, go a long way to helping out the family. Still, a $10 night out is a great luxury when there is so much else the family still needs. No matter, tonight the food and drinks are on me. The final bill, for our group of 6, with dinner, drinks and a tip? The equivalent of about $70 [US]! Hardly Queen St West Toronto indeed!
Gretel has just graduated from teacher college. She's gotten a position at the local college teaching English to the dentistry students. With one eye to the new changes, they are also expecting to graduate soon. As we talk, I remember Gretel as a very young child. The cute, typically skinny, little Cubana with a pretty ribbon in her hair is now a very pretty and sharp young modern who little remembers the hard struggle her parents went through during the Special Period from 1992 to 2010. The Soviet Block collapsed along with all foreign aid to the country. The Red Army pulled out of town. For many years all hope seemed lost. And now?
Gretel's comfortable with her new job teaching English. The staff and students are pleasant, the work hours and location great. However, she eyes the young models in their stylish make up, fashions and new cars in the t.v. videos. Wonders sheepishly if she might ever be able to get out of here. Things are really hopping in Habana! Carey, from the Toronto Friendship school is also her age. She managed to go live and work there rather than stay in Santiago. But travelling beyond Cuba's shores? She smiles, looks off for a bit deep in though and shrugs nonchalantly. Who knows?
Before the US embargo, Habana Cuba was militarily run by the dictator Batista, under the auspices of it's US multinational and mafia power brokers, defacto as the wide open, vibrant, political, economic, social and cultural capitol of the Caribbean. With the US embargo, that action moved en mass to Miami, making the US the winner by default of even greater wealth and increased influence in the region. With the US gone, Commandante en Jefe President Fidel Castro's revolutionary changes were able to root out the nation's post colonial Spanish and US influence and control, hopefully for good. It created a level of independence, though at a price, that's still virtually unheard of let alone enjoyed by most of Cuba's like minded independence seeking neighbours in the Caribbean, or for that matter quite arguably in Latin and South America too.
Might Habana's reawakening help re-establish Cuba as the "place to be" in the America's under the new changes? Could Habana become the new mecca for the young Cuban on the move? Most Cubans I've met in my travels to the schools, have a deep pride and love of their country. It might be very hard for us North Americans, largely weened on "manufactured consent" horror show "news" stories about the Cuban struggle for independence, to understand that El Commandante Fidel Castro is still a much beloved founding father figure for the average Cuban living on the island.
Despite 50 years of the US embargo, Cubans enjoy universal education and medicare. Their housing and food rations though meagre, are also guaranteed. Policing is strict, but the streets are usually safe and quite decidedly gang free. Cuba is still very neighbourly and family orientated, reminiscent of our own Canadian towns and cities back in the 1950's and early 60's. In Cuba, some things never change. The island culture, largely untainted by the crass commercialism of the past 50 years, remains rich and pure both in it's traditional musical and dance styles and in the new trova music and salsa staples so popular among the young Cuban people today.
As I listen to Gretel talk I realize it's false to assume that most Cubans might want to leave someday. Of course, one can argue that about 75% of the world might well like to immigrate to the United States and Canada. Most, including the Cubans, would probably qualify as "economic refugees" in a perfect world. In reality? If the average Cuban can survive a dangerous boat ride across the Florida Strait and make landfall, they will be granted landed immigration status. Otherwise? The Cuban government is willing to let them go. Let's face it, it's one less mouth they can barely feed. However, unless you win an immigration lottery, or perhaps can be sponsored by a family member, it is a crap shoot at best.
It's a false, dangerous Cold War game of "look at the poor Cubans fleeing communism" to shock us and build consent for US aggression against Cuba on the evening news. Much more sensational and easier to explain and label than the hordes of illegal Mexicans fleeing that supposedly democratic NAFTA country in their economic plight. Its a dangerous US immigration "carrot and stick" game, not one the average Cuban wishes to play. Nor might they want to if the situation was better at home!
Perhaps Gretel is tempted by the opportunities of a new life in the US if the immigration wrinkles can ever be ironed out with the US offer to "normalize" relations with Cuba. However it would mean leaving behind her family and life in Cuba on a huge roll of the dice at a minimum wage job. Her university and teaching qualifications would need upgrading. That wouldn't be free, as countless foreign trades people and professionals have learnt in coming to both the US and Canada. Gretel tosses back her long dark hair nonchalantly, stirs her drink. Who knows what changes the future will bring? But it doesn't seem like she will be going anywhere in a hurry anyway. Not yet.
The lure of the bright lights and fast life that they can see on t.v. or in the movies is not lost on most of the Cubans I've met. However they are well educated, like Yeyito, Gretel and Carey, with many trade skills and degrees that unfortunately will not be accepted on par in the United States and Canada. They would face a long life of separation from home and family earning low wages under very uncertain circumstances if they were to "flee" Cuba. Despite everything else it lacks in the material sense, Cuba has a strong strong sense of family, of national pride and a wide social net, all of which is forfeited in going abroad.
I sense the prospect gives Gretal pause for thought. She seems noncommittal when asked if she'd want to leave, perhaps mostly just miffed that things still haven't picked up that much here yet. Sure, she would like to travel, visit, and see new things, but beyond that? The prospects remain frighteningly unclear.
Prof Alberto teaching class at the Toronto Friendship School!
Professor Alberto, a teacher at the Toronto Friendship School is much more certain that he would like to leave. He enjoys teaching at the English school. Its a good work environment in the heart to Santiago de Cuba close to to his family home. However unlike Gretel, Alberto has to support a young family with a new born baby. At the going rate of $40 [US] a month, he is keeping open his options out of necessity sake. Other than that? He says he loves his country and his job. Everybody he knows is here. He's lived in Cuba all his life. He too plans to take a wait and see attitude about what he will do as the changes kick in.
During my visit, I taught 3 classes of conversational English and reading to the mixed aged basic, intermediate and advanced classes at the Toronto Friendship School. I had the chance to quiz them informally on why they are studying English and whether they want to leave the country. Perhaps few of my US readers understand that Canadian foreign policy, contrary to the US embargo and other economic sanctions, has been to "engage" Cuba in our ongoing relations instead. It is with that in mind that I began the Cuban School Project in 1992 [Link].
Most of the students in my classes expressed interest in learning more about the outside world, which none have ever visited. They are eager to be able to talk with the many visitors, especially the older students, many of whom are starting new family businesses under the recent reforms. Also those with regular government jobs who are increasingly coming into contact with customers from the English speaking world.
The advanced class!
During summer in Santiago de Cuba during the early to mid 90's, I once spent 6 weeks without meeting another foreigner, or for that matter anyone who spoke fluent English. That's been gradually changing for many years now, especially with so many Canadians and Brits visiting Cuba. However, the momentum and excitement is now really starting to grow. Although most students said that they would love to travel outside their country, very few told me that they would want to move, even though a handful worried that it might be an economic necessity. There was nobody else listening and they had no reason to bullshit me. Nobody really wanted to "flee"
Most claimed that they loved their country very much and were very proud of their independence, much like us. There wasn't any cartoonish ringing of hands nor cries for freedom like the US media might have us believe, just a cautious optimism. They too hope to able to someday travel abroad but live in their own country, enjoying many of the same benefits that we take for granted, such as more opportunities and a better standard of living.
Jose y Marta
Prof Jose Luis gazes around the Rock Cafe quite pleased. For Jose, it's a dream come true. Now there's a rock and roll club in his home town of Santiago de Cuba! Retired and in his sixties, Jose Luis and his wife Marta are both unassuming but well respected university academics, still actively involved in the cities rich literary life through their leading volunteer work with the Jose Marti institute.
Both Jose Luis and Marta are also actively involved in developing our "Ingles Para Ti" Made in Cuba English language workbook, as they have been for the past 15 years since it's conception. Marta loves learning how to work on a computer. They are keen to begin an English version, "Espanol Para Ti" which might be useful for visitors to Cuba who'd appreciate a specially tailored Cuban Spanish language instruction program. Usually the quite different ones from outside the country don't reflect the Cuban social, economic, political and cultural reality.
Another purpose of my trip to the Cuban schools this time is to provide the seed money for getting the new project started. Regretfully, Jose's $40-60 [US] pension is barely enough to live on let alone develop the first step, a new book. As is usual, local school funding is, out of sheer economic necessity, virtually running on empty.
Jose is amazed by the Santiago de Cuba Rock Cafe; the cool, exciting Beatle videos, baby boomer posters, artwork and sleek custom built club furniture. It's beyond his wildest dreams. Jose grew up, lived and worked most of his life in Santiago. He fondly remembers listening to Paul Anka records as a teenager, his earliest experience of Canada. Also the wild, contra brand Beatle records the Soviet experts, technicians and ship crews would later sneak into Cuba with them during the Cold War.
Jose knows that at his age it's increasingly unlikely he will ever be able to afford to travel north, perhaps even for a visit. Still, he takes a deserved pride in the accomplishments of his life work and as such, in his own small part in the triumph of the revolution. Still, he enjoys the many new liberties he increasingly enjoys in the form of the music and movies, that were once forbidden fruits. Perhaps for Jose and Marta that's as good as it gets, but despite their dire financial straits, it's somewhat of a consolation prize all the same.
Lunch at Jose's casa/ home!
Jose's once youthful idealism is now tempered by the realization that mistakes might've been made over the course of the revolutionary struggle. It's understandable considering the enormous size of the task and the gravity of the situation during the permanent Cuban state of emergency over the past 50 years. Such idealism, perhaps Utopian in a sense, has helped bear many fruits for his country and his people. He continues to take great pride in Cuba's independence, it's literacy campaigns and universal medicare campaigns. Even for when he had to stop teaching classes and cut sugarcane to help feed the hungry during the darker hours of the US embargo. He remembers it all quite well.
Like Jose, most of us who grew up in North America under a quite different political, economic and social system, also automatically plugged into it as a way of life. It's what you are expected to do, and so it is for the average Cuban too. Jose remembers the revolution from his own first hand experiences and those of his family, neighbours and friends. Many in Santiago de Cuba personally assisted and fought alongside Fidel y Che at great personal risk and sacrifice as the revolutionary guerrilla army waged war against great odds from the towering Sierra Mountains overlooking the city.
You say you want a revolution ....
Despite being internationally blown way out of proportion, the Cuban revolution was very much just a small, local independence struggle. It got thrown out on the ominous, Cold War world stage, in the seemingly epic 20th century struggle between capitalism and communism. Most of us outside Cuba don't realize the implications of the US government's longstanding demands that free elections be called in a country which was hardly democratic before the revolution. After 50 years of a permanent stage of emergency it still lacks many of the prerequisites for a stable democratic government. Nor do we realize that for the past twenty years or so Cuba has been methodologically trying to move towards a mixed economy with pride of place being maintained for it's Made in Cuba socialist constitution.
The US government has long demanded that the Cuban government system be dismantled and it's national revolutionary heroes tossed from power in disgrace before it would normalize relations. Very few of us know that octogenarian President Raul Castro has already announced on his own that he won't be running in the next election. Jose thinks the young Miguel Diaz-Canal, a possible candidate from the Central Committee politburo just might have the sufficient experience and credentials, if elected, that would be necessary to carry on the important job of Cuban president after Raul retires.
I ask Jose whether he thinks that the Americans will now be able to overrun the fiercely independent, socialist state with huge hordes of tourists, corporate businesses, big name restaurants and brand name stores, along with the rest of their long implicit list of other capitalist monopoly demands? He seriously doubts that such US style "normalization" is something the Cuban government will want to rush or be pushed into.
As we discuss the prospect of the anticipated American commercial and tourist invasion of Cuba, he believes that the young people will need to be taught more "ideology" to instill the necessary civic values to weather the coming changes. In our Catholic and religious schools in Canada we also teach a faith to sustain our next generation. In the public schools, our various civic values serve the same purpose. For the older generation of Cubans, like Jose, it is the socialist and independence values of the Cuban revolution that are the ties that bind and instill a greater sense of civic duty, purpose and responsibility. But will that be enough?
The risk for many Cubans, especially the older generations remains great. Their jobs, food, in many cases homes and pensions came from the Cuban government. What happens when the Yankees return? Will homes and factories revert back to the hands of their former US owners, throwing millions of unemployed Cubans out into the streets? What about their pensions now that many of the Cubans are growing older like us?
As for the young, modern Cubans like Gretel, Alberto, Carey or the students at the Toronto Friendship School, what happens next to them? Will real help in building freedom and democracy, like after the collapse of the Soviet Union, prove to be an empty promise that the US will ignore, as an invasion of corrupt, self serving corporate and criminal interests race in to exploit the void?
The Cathedral ["Christmas in Cuba 1996"] is getting a makeover!
Will the only hope for future Cuban generations be to join the hordes of other immigrants used to cheaply supply the underpaid and exploited underground workforce in the US and Canada? Sans even the most basic of sustainable social nets that they still now have at home in Cuba today?
Or can enough local opportunities be created to allow Cubans like Yeyito, Kathy and Jesus to build a better life for themselves, along Made in Cuba lines, within their own country? Perhaps if the US proves too manipulative, the ongoing help of the Canadian, Brit, Euro and South Americans which they already have, despite the US embargo, and derision's of "is that the best you can do", will continue to suffice?
Realistically, when it comes to change in Cuba, there's a lot more at stake than might meet the eye. Much more so than the questionable US normalized and over simplistic "freedom" and "democracy" platitudes and bromides that we are spoon fed by the mainstream news might have us believe!
Fidel y Che: admired throughout the America's even today!
For much of the America's, Cuba is now reemerging onto the scene independent and free of American control after having survived 50 years of most everything the US could throw at it. It has a refreshing, vigorous, pro active, revolutionary thrust that puts even our own struggling protest movements in the US and Canada to shame. Is it possible that Cuba for most Cubans, will still remain the only "with it" place to be? While ironically posing a beacon of hope for others who also still want to be the self determined grass root masters of our own country and lives, free from the exploitative, self serving, corporate America social, economic, and political way of life?
As our evening at the Rock Cafe draws to a close we spill out into the quiet streets of Cuba and the night looking for a cab. Everyone is in high spirits. Jesus waves us goodbye from the front doors of his swinging joint. Among much kisses, hugs and Cuban good cheer we head out knowing a new day will soon dawn, most likely in more ways than one.
Jesus sees everybody off after a night out at the Rock Cafe!
I can only hope that that the everyday, home grown dreams of my Cuban colleagues and friends will actually come true. The future as always remains uncertain. Will US normalization work out well or not? The final chapter in the history of their life and times is still unwritten.
Will the US government recognize and respect the many positive, self determined goals and achievements of the Cuban revolution? Will it allow the Cubans to create their own place at home and in the world today, respecting the difference that they just want to do it their own way, but with a little help from their friends?
If I have been able to grasp any true sense of what I've heard and seen during my visit, after having waited 50 years for the Americans to finally come back around, one can hardly imagine it any other way. It would be foolish to accept change at any cost. Should the road ahead prove slow and cautious, then I hope my report helps us better understand why the changes must be Made in Cuba, not in Washington or anywhere else.
I am glad to continue helping facilitate a sustainable, ongoing process for welcoming Cuba back into the world fold. That's at arms length through educational engagement, providing the necessary English and business skills by way of the Cuban School Project. One can only hope that others will also get involved in similar ways to try correct the past injustices. Viva Cuba! Viva Canada!
Viva the USA?
* = Santiago de Cuba Rock Cafe
Sta 3 e/ Garzon y Escario,
Rpto. Sta. Barbara, Stgo de Cuba.
6 pm to 2 am nightly
T: 22 647729
** = all prices are in "CuC's" [Cuban Convertible Pesos] worth approximately $0.80 US, except as noted, usually in the case of salaries and pensions, which are estimated in US dollars. The local Cuban Peso, by which most Cubans are paid, is worth approximately 20-25 to $1 US. Note that a different conversion rate is used for the Canadian dollar, which was trading at about 0.75 to the CuC. These rates are approximates, the Canadian dollar continues to fluctuate. At any rate, whatever the accurate, current conversion rate, Cuba continues to be an excellent bargain and remarkably cheap! I will review and try to readjust these figures better at a later date.
*** = contact me and I will put you in touch with Yeyito y Kathy who can help you with any arrangements [E: firstname.lastname@example.org]
For more info, including a "Cuba Study Guide" covering the issues covered above, as well as links to my various, extensive articles, stories and poems about my Cuba trips, please see "Cuba: Just what the Heck's Going On?" @ Read!
The Cuban School Project is a non profit education developmental aid program. I am the founder and director. We are always seeking donations from unions and concerned individuals who'd like to help. Past assistance came from OECTA, OSSTF and OTF before I retired. More info about the the Cuban School Project Story is @ CSP and