Category Archives: Rants and More

Cuba 2013: May Day! (Primero de Mayo!)

Ordinarily, photographing the Cuban military is prohibited, and just might land you and/or your camera in a Cuban military hoosegow.  But Primero de Mayo (May 1) is Cuba’s version of Labor Day, and there’s a huge parade/march through Revolution Square in Havana with lots of military groups.  Apparently, all bets were off on that no-photography rule during the parade. 

 

Last week, I made my second trip to Cuba.  A happy coincidence of timing put me right in the middle – literally — of the May Day parade.  The whole thing is fully orchestrated, with (according to press reports) about 400 thousand marchers and with Castro’s government handing out the various flags and banners each group of workers will carry.   It is a spectacle.  The crowd paraded right through Revolution Square, past El Presidente Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as leader of Cuba in 2008.

We arrived at dawn – jumping out of our cabs near the back of the parade staging area.  I wandered right into the middle of the crowd of flag-bearing young people, then headed off to see if I could photograph the uniformed military personnel.  Soon the throng started to move while I was in the middle taking some pictures, so  I moved with it.  I wasn’t completely sure if it was still “staging” or if the march had officially begun, because there were almost no spectators.  Then I saw we were approaching Revolution Square, the site of the big Jose Marti Monument (Cuba’s ugly, creepy version of the Washington Monument).  At that point it was clear that I was “in” the parade.  Physically within, at least.  I was in the fat middle of the military marchers as they chanted their way past the Monument, with President Castro looking on from the viewing stand.

Thousands of Cuban soldiers participated.  Cuba has a mandatory military service requirement, so there are lots of 19ish-year-olds (male and female) in some form of “military” service.  You do not get the feeling they are fierce warriors (though surely Cuba has some somewhere).  I got no sense that they were unhappy about being “forced” to be there; nor did I get any sense of deep fervor or passionate ideological support of the regime.  You just got the feeling they were a bunch of strangely-dressed teenagers looking to hook up on a Spring Break in Havana, chanting prescribed political slogans with about the level of intensity and sincerity a casual fan might show for his local college football team.

At one point I was walking backward, taking pictures of a group of 100 or so young soldiers walking along behind me.  They got so preoccupied with following and “posing” for me (lots of flag-waving and thumbs-upping), they failed to hear (or to comply with) their commander’s instruction ordering them to stop.  Happily, he was a good sport — especially when I rushed over to take several shots of him, to make sure he was in on the fun.

Cuba’s economy is very dependent on Venezuela, with whom Cuba has a doctors-for-oil exchange program that supplies Venezuela with semi-indentured Cuban healthcare workers, and supplies Cuba with at least a faint economic heartbeat.  Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez died recently and Cubans seem worried that their support from Venezuela may be in jeopardy.  Thus a major theme of the parade was solidarity with Venezuela.  Signs, large and small, pictured Chavez and labeled him “Our Best Friend” (that’s Communist for “BFF”), which seemed a little odd since he’s dead and all.

Last year when I went to Revolution Square, the military guards barely let me walk around and take pictures at all, so being “allowed” in the middle of the parade as it went past Castro was unexpected to say the least.  I carried two very professional-looking cameras, so they all seemed to assume I was a press photographer (which is ironic, because I spoke to an actual press photographer, and he did not have the same degree of freedom to move through the parade).  At one point, I was asked (in very good English) what newspaper I was with.  I blurted out (truthfully but nonsensically), “Soy de Houston!  Tejas!” — as if I could fluently speak neither English nor Spanish.  I gave a goofy thumbs-up and headed off to get lost in the crowd again.

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I’m one of the last people on earth you’d ever expect to find at – much less “in” — a Communist-organized march extolling the virtues of socialist labor.   But put a camera in my hand and a documentary mission in my head, and I’ll go almost anywhere.  This was one of the craziest experiences of my life – and that’s saying something.

Posts from my spring 2012 trip to Cuba started here and ended here.

Hiatus: I’ll be back.

Thanks to those who check in regularly for new ‘stuff’ on my site.  I’ve had to take care of some actual real-life business for a few months.  In the meantime, check out the Archives for some older stuff you haven’t seen.  I will be back; I hope you will be, too.

OverCapitalized

It’s hard to take pictures in Washington D.C. that don’t look just like the zillion images you’ve seen all your life.  And you spend a disheartening amount of time waiting for a little gust of wind so the flags will look better flying in the breeze.  

It’s a tough time to get excited about Washington D.C.  Washington is nothing if it isn’t a big symbol – full of smaller big symbols – of the federal government.  A very big federal government.  I suspect D.C. tourism rises and falls a little with the approval ratings of the President and Congress – making this a fairly uninspiring time to visit the capital.

Even so, walking among the monuments and museums and memorials and government buildings, it’s hard not to be impressed.  I remember my first trip to D.C. many years ago:  what struck me was that it was full of American castles.  I’d grown up thinking that the U.S. – unlike England or France or Germany – didn’t have castles, but there they were in D.C., one huge, lavish government “castle” after the next.

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 I went to a seminar in Washington a few days back.  I got there a little early and stayed a little late so I could walk around the “mall” and take a few pictures.  Several of the pictures you see are of the Capitol just at sunrise (thus the pretty light).  There are a couple of shots – with the Washington Monument and reflecting pool – taken about 15 minutes apart, from the Lincoln Memorial.  One of those was taken as a nasty storm blew in, trapping me (and about 400 others) inside the Memorial watching the downpour.  A couple of shots (those from up high, and including the one of National Park Ranger Julia Clebsch) are from the clock tower of the Old Post Office.

That picture with the Capitol building in the distant, lower right and with the relief sculpture up close is at the Ulysses Grant Memorial, which is at a very prominent spot between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.  It was striking to realize that it’s a tribute to General Grant (as opposed to “President” Grant).  It’s a war momument:  He’s on a horse, dressed as a Union general, and flanked on all sides by dramatic sculptures of Union soldiers on the attack.  As a de facto Southerner, somehow that ongoing granite-and-bronze celebration is a little unsettling (To be clear, though:  I’d never suggest it be removed.  It’s real history.).  It reminded me of my lifelong observation that many Americans have been much quicker to embrace our former foes from international wars and conflicts than their fellow citizens from opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon.

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A Small Slice of Pisa

I spent one hour and forty-five minutes in Pisa.  I know this because that’s how much time I could buy on the parking meter with the Euro coins I had in my pocket.

I was unwilling to be the only person in 500 years to go through Pisa, Italy without touring the town’s tilted Tuscan Torre.  The strikingly slanted stone spire is the belltower of Pisa’s 900 year old major Duomo.   The cathedral’s conspicuously canted campanile has been plauged by that famous foundational flaw since its construction in the 11th through 13th centuries.  I had no city map, but assumed (correctly) that I could just follow the flow of tourists to the area’s awkwardly angled axis of attention.  (Okay, I’ll stop.)

These pictures are misleading — especially the first one, above.  When you use a wide angle lens and point the camera upward to take a picture of, e.g., a tower, everything looks like it’s leaning inward.  (Click here for another example).  In fact, the tower actually leans away from the adjacent (perfectly upright) cathedral, as you can sense in the pictures just above, and at bottom.

The line to go up in the tower was exceeded only by the line to buy a ticket to get you into that other line, so I decided to stay at ground level.  It’d be hard to see the tower from the tower anyway.  The goofiest part of the experience was the number of people (a hundred or so at any given moment) posing for pictures that would give the illusion that they were holding the tower up (Google “funny pictures leaning tower pisa”).

 

 

There’s a famous story that Galileo — the Renaissance-era physicist/astronomer who was born in Pisa and started his scientific work there — dropped two cannonballs of different weights off the Tower of Pisa (already tilting back then) to test his theory that they would fall at the same speed.  What’s interesting is the reason that story is probably not true:  Galileo “proved” his theory not by experiments, but by just thinking about it.  I love that.

(Here’s the thought process.  Imagine two same-size blocks being dropped – one ten pounds and the other two pounds — connected by a very short string.  If the heavy block was prone to fall faster, the tether to a slower-falling two-pound block would slow the fall of the heavy one, making the pair fall slower than the ten-pounder by itself.  But if that short string has effectively tied the two tightly together, they are a twelve-pound unit, and if heavier things fall faster, the now-twelve-pound unit should fall even faster than a ten-pound block by itself.  It can’t be that both these things are true, so the assumption – about heavy things falling faster – can’t be correct.) 

Galileo was a stud.  Maybe da Vinci was smarter, but Galileo changed the world.  When earlier scientists encountered evidence inconsistent with what the Roman Church taught them about an earth-centered universe, they just puzzled over why their evidence must have been in error.  Galileo changed all that — gathering and sharing the telescopic observations and thereby ushering in a Scientific Revolution.  He was darn-near burned at the stake by the Church for doing so.  One historian has suggested that the astounding scientific and technological progress of the last few hundred years — and thus the ensuing prosperity of the modern Western world — would have been greatly delayed without him.   (Two good books on these topics:  Galileo’s Daughter and The Birth of Plenty).

For a while, at least, Pisa was the center of Galileo’s universe.  So it was fun to imagine that Galileo himself had wandered around Pisa’s Tower Square just about like I did — only five-hundred years earlier, and with a lot “weightier” things on his mind.

 

Cuba (Part 9) El Bloqueo

A brief, mostly-nonphotographic post before I finish the Cuba photography series.  It’s impossible to spend a couple of weeks thinking about Cuba in the year 2012 without some focus on the 50-year-old American trade and travel embargo.

The most popular and controversial topic in American-Cuban relations is of course the U.S. “embargo.”  American laws put in place mostly by President Kennedy still bar much trade and travel with Cuba.  The Cubans call it “El Bloqueo” (“the blockade”).  Castro complains about it regularly, using it to demonize the U.S.A. and to justify his own harsh policies.  As you leave the Havana Airport, the Cuban government has a big billboard that says, “Bloqueo.  El genocidio mas largo de la historia,” which means “The longest genocide in history.”  The second “o” in Bloqueo is a noose.  Though this is obviously ridiculous hyperbole, a lot of the world has taken Castro’s side – criticizing America for keeping the embargo in place.  Even the Pope recently popped off about it, feeding Castro’s Communist propaganda machine by criticizing the American laws as “unfairly burdening” Cubans.

The U.S. (including our current President) has consistently said the embargo will remain in place until the Castro regime yields to a democratic system.  There is much legitimate debate about its effectiveness, its rationale, its continued relevance and its potential counter-productive effects, but at this point we are at least standing behind our word on this.

Importantly, whatever you think about the continuing rationale for a 50-year-old embargo, it is not to blame for Cuba’s economic woes.  In the 21st century, it should be painfully obvious that the sources of Cuba’s problems are its socialist economic policies and its un-democratic political system.  As The Economist recently reported, “The American embargo is an irritant, but the economy’s central failing is that Fidel’s paternalistic state did away with any incentive to work, or any sanction for not doing so.”  (Let this be a lesson to us here, too.)

Remember:  Cuba can and does trade freely with every other country on earth, and the U.S. actually does provide much-needed food to Cuba (we’re already its biggest source of food).  So scapegoating America for Cuba’s situation is mostly a Castro-regime P.R. strategy (for which many America-bashers and socialism sympathizers have gladly fallen).  It’s not as though Cuba has lots of surplus goods to sell the U.S. – or lots of money with which to buy American goods.  The reason Cuban people do without lots of basic items is because their government jobs pay them almost nothing, and their government-run stores won’t sell many foreign goods anyway.  Otherwise, Cubans would be buying Chinese-made goods just like we do.  Cuba already has a tourist industry servicing Canadians and Germans and Brits.  If American tourists were allowed to go, they’d soon learn that the Cuban-government-operated hotel facilities did not compare favorably against the many other options in the Caribbean.  It’s Cuba’s own Communist/socialist policies that prevent, e.g., Spanish-based Iberostar Hotels or Canada-based Four Seasons Group from opening hotels and resorts there.  Unless Cuba changes its own policies – including allowing foreign investors to own and develop resorts, factories, stores and commercial farms — removing “El Bloqueo” wouldn’t make much difference.

The best argument for lifting the blockade may be simply that its continuation gives Castro and other eager America-bashers a convenient, misleading scapegoat for Cuba’s socialism-induced economic quagmire.  But compromising one’s plans and principles because one’s foes have condemned them seems to be a ludicrous foundation for foreign policy.  Of course Cuba is no longer the security threat it was in the 1960s, but the leadership and the political and economic systems in place there haven’t really changed.  Lifting the embargo might help make Cuba’s Communist Socialist system a bit more palatable to its citizens, but that may actually prolong the regime’s existence.  Changing Cuba is going to be Cuba’s responsibility; we just need to make it very clear that we’ll gladly change our policy when they change theirs.