Category Archives: Latin America

Cuba (Part 8) Olympic Spirit

 Part of a series from my recent trip to Cuba.  Part 1 is here.

 

 

One quick stop on our Tour de Cuba was at a Havana boxing arena where some of Cuba’s Olympic boxers train.  Despite its tiny size, Cuba has won more boxing medals in the Olympics than any country other than ours.  The folks in these pictures, though, are just boxers-in-training, not Olympic champions.  Like so many places we saw in Cuba, the facilities were tattered, rusting, flaking and crumbling, but that didn’t seem to slow these guys down.  The guy seated ringside (below) was the coach.  I declined the suggestion to join them for some sparring practice.

 

Cuba (Part 7) Education and “Patriotism”

No. 7 in a series that started here

Basic education in Cuba is pretty good (at least by developing-world standards).  The school buildings aren’t great, but since labor is cheap and other opportunities are limited, there are plenty of teachers.

In some senses, education – specifically medical education – is now one of Cuba’s biggest exports.  A deal with Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has sent about 30,000 Cuban doctors and healthcare workers to oil-rich Venezuela; in exchange, Cuba gets $3-4 billion worth of oil every year.  Cuba pays those doctors around $300 per year and Venezuela pays Cuba $100,000 or more each for their services.  It’s a big part of what’s keeping the Cuban government and economy afloat.  Unfortunately, Cubans can make more money peddling cokes or souvenirs to tourists in the streets than they can by becoming doctors, so it’s hard to imagine how this setup will survive.

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I got lots of pictures of school kids.  The big green doors are a Havana school.  The two boys sitting in a schoolhouse doorway are in Trinidad (notice the all-too-typical gaping hole in the building right at the entrance).  That little girl with no uniform is a preschooler, standing in front of a two-room rural schoolhouse (you can see the edge of it on the right side of the frame).  The close-up shots with pale blue backgrounds are on the porch of that school.

The uniforms are in fact “uniform” across the entire country.  Those “neckerchiefs” seemed to be a nice touch, but my inquiries about the significance of the different colors revealed that the scarves signified the kids’ enrollment and participation in the “Pioneers” group.  Their slogan (which the school kids have to chant as their “pledge of allegiance”) begins:  “Pioneers for Communism.”  Suddenly the neckerchiefs weren’t nearly as endearing.

 

 

Actually, the long form of that slogan is “Pioneers for Communism; we will be like Che.”  “Che” is Che Guevara, who was a key leader in the 1950s revolution that put the Castros and Communists in power.   Lots of propaganda and patriotic discourse in Cuba focus on “La Revolucion,”  which seems to frame Cubans’ political thinking as “Are you better off now than you were fifty-four years ago?”  Contrasting the Castro regime to the 1950s Cuba with an even-worse previous leader/dictator (Batista) yields far more favorable comparison than comparing the current regime against all the progress and possibilities of 21st-century capitalism and democracy.  That focus is reinforced with the ever-present iconic image of  Che Guevara.  That picture is everywhere.  Everywhere.

Other government slogans and billboards (often painted on the sides of buildings — even residential buildings) refer to “Defendiendo Socialismo” (defending socialism), or to the evils of capitalism.  The Castros apparently don’t see the irony in the fact that those signs mostly stand amid dilapidation and squalor brought about by 50 years in a system that saps all signs of initiative, effort, ambition or personal responsibility.

There are also a lot of signs about the neighborhood “CDRs” – Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, which serve the happy purpose of monitoring every person on every block to ferret out any potential “counter-revolutionary” activity.

Another pervasive “patriotic” theme is the slogan:  “Patria o Muerte.”  See, for example, the billboard in the picture below.  “O Muerte” means “or death.”  Literally, “Patria” means “homeland” or “motherland,” but the term seems synonymous with patriotic loyalty.  Someone remarked that the phrase arguably paralleled American slogans like “Live free or die,” or “Give me liberty or give me death.”  But the Cuban version says nothing about freedom or liberty, and when the phrase is paired with images of a military-clad leader who ruled the country under a one-party Communist regime for 50 years, the message seems completely the opposite.

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(Yes, that’s me in front of the Patria o Muerte billboard, so No, I didn’t take that picture.   That last image — with Che Guevara’s face on the side of the building — is at Revolution Square, which is the area that’s the center of the federal government.  You’re not supposed to take pictures of government buildings, but this one is an exception.  In the process of trying to get some basic, touristy pictures of the big monument in the Square and of the big Che and Fidel portraits, though, I had three different police officers blow their whistles at me.  Apparently the rule (that day) was that I had to be standing across a street from whatever I was taking a picture of.  I wound up with only crappy pictures, but at least I’m not sleeping in a Cuban hoosegow.)

 

Cuba (Part 6) Trinidad Town

We spent a few days on the south coast of Cuba, near a town called Trinidad (not to be confused with the Caribbean island-country by the same name).  The town was founded just about 20 years after Christopher Columbus first visited the area, so it’s just shy of 500 years old, and one of the oldest colonial towns in the hemisphere.  Much of the town has cobblestone streets and, as with much of Cuba, there are classic cars and colorful buildings all over the place.

 

A handful of these pictures have birdcages.  Having little birds like that is apparently a big tradition in this town.  I suspect these are the cheapest pets you can have.  Every street is full of pleasant chirping.

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Below, you can see a couple of shots of small restaurants (each with a performing live band).  These are surprisingly-nice privately-owned restaurants, called “paladares” in Cuba.   It was a long-time (though illegal) tradition during the Soviet era that families would operate tiny restaurants in their homes.  More recently, the government started allowing and licensing them (and thus heavily taxing) them.  The outdoor courtyard restaurant had about four “hosts,” five waiters and waitresses, a five-piece band, four dancers and who-knows-how-many kitchen staff, all to enteratin about ten patrons.  The music group pictured up close later invited us to an after-hours “party,” in a nearby home.  It turned out to be a sort of mini-concert, with musicians from various places around town taking turns with their guitars entertaining one another (and us).  That’s what you see in the last picture with mostly-silhouetted musicians.  Quite an experience.

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Finally, here’s a picture of our hotel (near Trinidad) at sunset.  All hotels are owned by the government, and the Cuban government took away our original Trinidad hotel reservations because the Pope was in the country and there were apparently more-important folks who needed a place to stay.  So we wound up a few miles outside of town at a beach resort.  The place was full of German tourists.  Cuban resorts are “segregated,” in that Cubans are not allowed to go.  Because Americans are permitted in Cuba only for cultural missions (or to visit their own close family) and thus never for “tourist” purposes, staying at beach resorts is normally not allowed.  But since we were kicked out of our intended hotel and had no choice, we actually got the chance to visit the beach for a bit.

I called the place “Communism’s Last Resort.”  It looks okay pictured from a distance, but a close inspection would reveal stains on the towels and sheets, empty flower beds and fountains, broken windows, intermittent hot water, and cafeteria food that reminds you your chefs were Soviet-trained.  But the sunset was pretty.

 

 

 

 

Cuba (Part 5) Club Tropicana

Another in a seemingly-never-ending series of my pictures from Cuba. 

 

Remember  I-Love-Lucy’s Cuban-born husband Ricky Ricardo?  Ricky’s 1950s New York nightclub, the Tropicana, was named for and patterned after the real and original Tropicana in an upscale part of Havana.  Barry Manilow could tout the fictional Copacabana only as “the hottest spot north of Havana,” because there was nothing hotter than Havana itself.  Back in the 50s, Marlon Brando (in real life and in Guys and Dolls) was whisking his love interest off to Havana for an evening of spicy, glitzy tropical entertainment.  Back then, the Tropicana was the most glamorous nightclub in the most exciting city in the hemisphere.

The Tropicana’s proprietors were promptly “interned” by Castro after he took power, but the Tropicana lives on.  Today the casino is gone and the crowd has more European tourists than chic movie stars, but the show is great and the showgirls still look just like the ones in the pictures from the pre-Revolution heyday.  It’s an icon I wasn’t about to miss.  You can tell by some of the photo angles that my seat was approximately one inch from the edge of the stage.  Which made for some interesting (if sometimes PG13-rated) pictures.

Since I get to control what goes on this site, you won’t be viewing any of the pictures of me dancing with a showgirl near the end of the show.  My crew of travel buddies all ducked and pointed to me when one of the dancers stepped off the stage in search of a dance partner.  Hey, the joke’s on them:  How many Americans can say they’ve danced at the real Tropicana?!?

 

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Skip back to Cuba (Part 4) Kings of Cohiba

Cuba (Part 4) Kings of Cohiba

Number 4 in a series that started here.

 

I don’t smoke.  Not even cigars, and not even cigars when I’m in Cuba.  But of course the Cuban Cohiba is the Holy Grail for cigar lovers, and cigars are among the iconic symbols of Cuba.  Apparently the Cohibas go through a unique (and secret) fermentation process that creates a distinctive taste.  Legend has it that Fidel Castro himself “discovered” the Cohiba blend.  Another legend (though apparently true) is that poisoned or exploding Cohibas were among the dozens of ways the American CIA devised to attempt to assassinate him.  Given all this history and mystique, I was glad we got a chance to see some of Cuba’s rural tobacco country.

These pictures are from the Pinar del Rio province in far western Cuba, in the countryside near Vinales, a couple of hours west of Havana.  The guy in the clean, slick cowboy hat is Marcelo Montesina – described in at least one write-up as the “King of Cohiba.”  He runs one of the few, elite tobacco farms that provide the tobacco leaves used for the real Cohibas.  You won’t have trouble distinguishing him from the less-elegant-looking farmhand pictured standing in a tobacco field outside a thatch-roofed drying house (holding the dried-up tobacco leaf was his idea).  The guy sitting at a table is rolling the leaves into a cigar (mostly for our amusement – real Cohibas are rolled only in government-owned factories in Havana).  The mustached man smoking a cigar is a garlic peddler at a little market in Vinales.   (Continued…)

 

 

We ran across a little festival in the town of Vinales.  It looked about like what you’d see in most any Latin American country (or maybe most anywhere) — simple carnival rides, lots of street food for sale, temporary tattoos (Che Guevara tattoos seemed especially popular), sunglasses, T-shirts.  Nice to see that communism/socialism hadn’t crushed simple traditions like this.  They sold beer out of tank trucks — imagine a 200-gallon water tank as a “keg.”  You needed to bring your own bottle to be filled out of the tank, and there were guys standing around eager to sell you an empty used plastic water or cola bottle if you’d failed to bring your own.

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The pink building is a hotel we passed on the way home.  The inside looked pretty spartan, but the outside made a nice picture just as the sun set.