February 26th, 2010
We returned on February 12, 2010 from a 17 day holiday in Cuba staying with Cuban families in Habana, Trinidad, Bayamo, Santiago and Baracoa. It was self-planned and wonderful. It has taken me two weeks to mull over the experience before writing about it, other than to put the photos up on Facebook. Cuba makes you think.
Travelling in Cuba you are bombarded with slogans, exhortations and heroes. In countries like ours we are accustomed to billboards telling us to “Just Do It,” or making us feel guilty that we have so little regard for our friends or our time that we don’t have the latest cell phone. In Cuba, billboards encourage both sacrifice and bravery, the values of the (continuing, yet precarious) revolution, and praise past heroes like Che, Frank País, Camilo Cienfuegos and, endlessly, José Martí. Every town there has a Parque Céspedes, honouring the first plantation owner to free his slaves and begin Cuba’s struggle for independence in 1868. Just how much blood has been shed so that Cuba could write its own history hit me like a machete when we visited the most important cemetery in Cuba: the Cementario de Santa Ifigenia in Santiago. It is a place filled with the ghosts and the stories of Cuba’s greatest heroes. The simple guard at José Martí’s magnificent mausoleum is changed every hour in a dignified ceremony.
Castro’s eloquent wish that all revolutionaries be buried near each other is immortalized in a stone tablet. Fidel himself will lie nearby when the time comes, but José Martí, the spiritual father of Cuba, will remain the most important figure. Women heroes play a major role. Our guide was careful to point out the grave of Mariana Grajales, the mother of The Bronze Titan, Antonio Macéo, the greatest Cuban general who fought in both the 1868 and 1895 wars for independence. Macéo earned his nickname by being wounded 24 times.
Mariana Grajales operated field hospitals during the wars and sacrificed ten sons, two daughters and her husband to the cause. José Martí said of her
It is easy to be heroes with women such as these.
By contrast, my country’s relatively peaceful transition from colony of England to an independent monarchy to a colonial consumer society seems tepid and timid. Our current Prime Minister behaves treasonously as he prorogues parliament and then, while everyone is watching Canada’s attempt to “own” the Olympic podium and parliamentary opposition is suspended, enacts a quiet trade deal with the U.S. that will simply kill many of the best jobs left in Canada. Maybe if we had fought harder for our “democracy” we wouldn’t allow it to disappear. Maybe, in fact, we would actually possess enduring values that are worth something you can’t buy – worth fighting for.
Cuba, with all it faults, somehow “owns” a curious, tangible purity. You can taste it. This is what I will remember.
10 thoughts on “Cuba – A Reflection in 2010”
Thank you for sharing about Cuba. I have always been intrigued by this culture. I am originally from Puerto Rico, which historically is like a sister of Cuba. Although I have not set foot on Cuban soil, I appreciate this culture, its people, and what they have gone through. Maybe some day I will visit this island, which I think will remind me of my own.
Thank you, Noel, for your kind and thoughtful comment. Recently I was ashamed of my country for objecting to Cuba being invited to the latest meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Colombia. The other states were in favour of inviting Cuba except for the U.S., which also prevented Cuba from attending and has blockaded Cuba for decades. If you are interested in learning more about some of Cuba’s successes this article is a place to start: http://beyondcapital.org/2012/04/17/the-cuba-factor/ Are you permitted to visit Cuba from Puerto Rico?
Thank you for the link. It sure has very interesting facts about this island. I currently live in Florida, so I am not sure if it is permitted to visit Cuba from Puerto Rico.
I miss Che Gueverra all the time. I miss Hugo Chavez. I miss Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, and Bishop Romero…
Che died a month before I left on a trip around South America after my 2-year CUSO assignment teaching in Rio Claro, Trinidad and Tobago. I was 21 and only beginning to become politically aware. People I met on the South America trip opened my eyes. Canada has had a long association with Cuba. Canadian corporations operated there in a symbiotic relationship that helped Cuba survive their horrible isolation. Castro used great creativity in surviving the embargo, achieving universal literacy and an enviably low per cent of infant mortality .
The people we stayed with were professionals who improved their standard of living by renting one or two rooms (Castro’s limit) to tourists. They, the hosts of these Casa Particulares, were lovely people, but desirous of some of the goodies available to the First World and somewhat tired of the austerity. To me, they failed to compare their good fortune to the abysmal misfortune of Haitians to have remained under dictators friendly to US interests, political and corporate. Hmm, one day “political” and “corporate” may well be synonyms…
Cuba is one of the first places in the world to have developed a close-to-sustainable economy, showing that out of necessity good things can sometimes arise.
By the time Allende lost out to the sinister machinations of AT&T and the Chicago School of “Economics” under the er… Nobel Prizewinner… Milton Friedman I was much more aware and, as a result, deeply saddened.
The continuing lack of awareness that our educated society still shows about what is happening amazes and angers me, as it does you.
We both miss the example, courage and vision of all of the folk you have mentioned. We can do so much better as a species if we pay more attention and read people like Robert Parry instead of absorbing what the MSM in all western countries keep selling.
Wish I could cheer you up; not sure this has… Thanks for YOUR faithfulness.
Wow. You really saw a lot: November of 1967. I have only been able to read about these events, not being around to experience them as you did. Yet, I somehow feel as if I were there. I blogged the below in November of 2012, about the last hours of Allende, as Pinochet/CIA troops zeroed in on the capital building where he was speaking to the people for the last time via radio. Bursts of gunfire could be heard in the background.
“Soon the radio will be silenced, and my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you.
The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again, where free men will walk to build a better society.
Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!”
Seguimos oyes, querido Salvador. Siempre vamos a te escucho.
We hear you, dear Salvador. We will always hear you.
I still cry over these struggles. Not very revolutionary, I know – to cry. I would do anything to join the Zapatistas. At this point, I’m fully ready to become a real revolutionary. But I don’t know what that would really mean for a middle-aged American with no financial resources. I wouldn’t want to be a drain on an already-impoverished people.
I often can’t help feeling that New Mexico would be a ripe location for an insurrection to begin! The poverty here is mind boggling.
I will be back soon, I promise. Keep the faith, brother.
P.S. What is CUSO?
Oops! I checked too quickly on the date of Che’s death. I left Trinidad in July of 1967, four months before. My first live intro to South American politics came at Christmas time in 1966, when my Canuck friend, and colleague, George O., and I stayed with his brother in Caracas. The students were protesting in Caracas and President Leoni’s palace was under “siege.” FALN was giving him some significant jitters. We were stopped at random by troops: a machine gun was placed into the open window of our taxi and the polite request was made: “Pasaportes, for favor.” They were quickly returned. Then, on the first leg of our tour we partied with fellow CUSO teachers in Georgetown, Guyana who filled us in on the UK/US interference and eventual removal of its PM, Cheddi Jagan, via gerrymandering (unsuccessful) in 1961 and forced electoral reform prior to the 1964 election. Bye, bye Chedi. He was luckier than the magnificent Allende. I casually met an Italian Argentinian in Buenos Aires who was so proud that Argentina had been “cleansed” of its indigenous people. So I saw a little, but not so much as you might think. Enough to make me read a lot.
CUSO is Canadian University Service Overseas, started in the 1960’s. It sends people all over there world to countries who are prepared to pay them the local wage for what they do. There were 300 of us sent out in 1965 to teach and do other important work. Eight of us were the first CUSO folk to go to Trinidad. I remember how US-produced TV series were starting to present Trinis with a glossy, phoney, unsustainable lifestyle. Desire to have some of those tempting goodies aided the advent of the corruption and violence that come with the money that comes from drugs. I never locked my door during my two years in Rio Claro. Trinidad is now a crime-ridden place that scares everyone who lives there. Sad.
I was motivated largely by a simple, apolitical desire to travel, help out, and experience the attractive-to-me Caribbean culture. You were more involved than I early on and still are so much more committed. Politics were never discussed (in my presence, anyway) when I was growing up. My awareness and relatively modest participation has grown slowly. I am a part-timer. The kudos go to you, my friend.