A journal, 1994
Friday, October 22, 1994
After a fair night’s sleep (the “new bed” syndrome) I go down and look over the breakfast buffet, trusting that at last I’ll find my trusty rice and beans. No luck. No beans, either. Rice there is, but it’s all cheesed up. So it’s more bread for the kid.
Back in the bus and off to our first meeting of the day, this with Mario Coyula, head of a non-governmental advisory group of architects and city planners who are “dealing with the problems of a city of 2.2 million.” Housed in a set of offices in a single-story building that looks to have been part of another, larger organization, Coyula, a good-looking man in is forties or fifties, with an athletic build and thick black hair, takes us back to see “the map.”
“The map” is an impressive sight. A scale model of the city (or a large part of it) built on a 1/1000 ratio, it’s mounted on wood flats standing on saw-horses and is carefully constructed in three dimensions to represent every structure currently in existence and demonstrate their relationships to one another. It’s a great bird’s eye view of Havana and would be a model-builders dream. Probably 25′ by 25′ or so, it is not only topographically correct and laid out in scale, but is color coded, we come to find out, to demonstrate the different periods of development of the city.
The organization’s purpose, Coyula tells us, as translated by Ivonne, is to “train people to gain control of their own environment.”
Their have been problems, he says, in black Afro-Cuban neighborhoods (which he points out in the city center area) which were overlooked in the early days of the Revolutionary Government because the primary focus at that time was to bring the countryside and its poor into more social and economic alignment. Those who were overlooked felt even more alienated as the new programs did little for them.
Then, in the late ’60s, the temptation was to go heavily into urban renewal, condemning older areas and developing condos and high rises. This added to the problems by creating dislocation. “Fortunately,” he says, “we stopped and reassessed.” He now considers himself a “preservationist.”
Clearly relishing his task, Coyula tells us that Havana was founded in 1619. Because of its placement directly between North and South America and in the center of the Caribbean – and also because of its natural harbor – it was the perfect center for trade and travel and soon became the world’s largest exporter of sugar.
Because of a need to protect its inhabitants from the glaring sun, the old city was designed with many arcades and covered sidewalks, most of which are still in existence. The architectural supports for all the arcades caused Havana to become known as “The City of the Columns.” And because Spanish control lasted here until nearly 1900 there is more European influence evident in the architecture than is the case in most other Latin American cities.
The color scheme of the map demonstrates the way development flowed outward from the harbor to the west and south-west, and because of the fact that there was no major demolition, much of the original flavor is maintained. “The city moved without destroying itself.”
Once he explains it, the color scheme tells a very clear story. Sweeping outward from the harbor are buildings colored a dark brownish-red, which were built between 1600 and 1900. Then come the yellow buildings, which represent the growth during the Republican period (when Cuba separated from Spain and was an independent republic) of 1900 to 1958.
From Coyula’s point of view, the “most valuable” thing about Havana is the large mass of the city which was built in many different periods and architectural styles by and for a large middle class. In his view this makes it very different from most Latin American cities which are essentially large slum areas with a few small areas for the very wealthy.
The black areas began as settlements for former slaves and have persevered for a number of reasons (one cited above). After the Revolution, a 50% cut in rents was granted to anyone who wanted to stay in the homes they lived in. One of the unintended consequences of this was to maintain a kind of racial separation.
After the Triumph of the Revolution (that phrase again) the wealthy fled the country, leaving their houses empty. The government saw that the poor were given those homes, which made for a racial mix in what had been white wealthy areas. “Bourgeois culture” was replaced, in many cases, by “marginal” culture – people who had different habits – throwingg garbage on the streets, for example – and this created some tensions. It made for some separation as those who were criticized felt as though they were looked down upon by their critics. “Now, we are trying to instill a sense of history and culture into these areas to help build a sense of neighborhood participation and pride.”
Attempts (on the part of his organization) to deal with these problems through ideas of design were met with a shrug. The people, it was found, could care less about design. They first wanted basic repairs. They wanted the plumbing fixed, the leaks in their roofs repaired. Now, he says, they are trying to establish workshops where bricks and tiles can be manufactured (though it’s made complicated now by the lack of fuel), which will at the same time provide materials for use in doing basic repairs to the people’s homes and give some of them jobs in the process.
Most of the homes in the city are owned by the people who live in them, due to the Urban Reform Law of 1960. However, people cannot own more than one house at a time.
Q. – Can they sell?
A. – You can sell a house only if you inherit another. If you want to sell your house to someone who is not a relative, the State has the first option to buy at a very low rate (a kind of right of eminent domain).
Coyula says they are trying to develop an urban gardens program. He wants to plant thousands of fruit trees in treeless areas, both for shade and for food. Vines and trellises, in dense urban areas, can be beneficial as well.
In his “preservationist” mode, he has to find ways to deal with traditional problems. For example, politicians like new construction, he says, because they can appear at a ceremony inaugurating a new building and get the social benefits attached. He’s trying to encourage a system wherein they can get the same benefit by appearing at the inauguration of a rehab project or the subdivision of existing homes.
“Things are changing,” he says. The problem is “how to keep the good things from the Revolution and at the same time make the current situation viable.” There are problems of overcrowding, of industrial downsizing. One government program, for example, is encouraging people to go back to the country by guaranteeing them they will be paid 60% of their former wage once there, even if it’s to do nothing. He hopes they can be put to work in their new neighborhoods.
It’s a massive problem, that much is clear. It’s interesting to see this perspective, that of the city planner and architect who clearly has such great love for the city itself. On the way out, he takes us into a garage where we see stacked on huge racks a half-dozen more of the maps which, put together with the one we’ve been looking at, represent the whole city and surrounding area. (I wonder what area the maps themselves would take up if laid side by side? It would probably cover an area the size of a tennis court)
Outside, we find Jack soaking up the sun. The subject got to be too much for him, so he’s been out here talking to people and enjoying the day. Jack is his own man; probably ten years older than the next oldest member of the delegation, full of energy, unapologetic in his admiration for what the government is trying to do here, high-spirited, full of jokes and quickly bored when the dialogue becomes too weighty or goes on too long. He’s already gaining the notice of the others in the group because of his guilelessness and zest for life.
Coyula joins us on the bus to point out some of the life-size versions of what he’s been showing us on the map. After a tour that would be an architecture student’s dream, he brings us to the central cemetery which is very ornately laid out and reminiscent of those in New Orleans, with the crypts, or tombs, largely above ground. As he points out, the money that was spent on these monuments to the dead is a striking example of disordered priorities in a country which had, at the time most of them were built, a large, hungry and unemployed peasant population.
Coyula’s knowledge of the times and his ability to tell stories of family rivalries and historic events through the dating of the various structures is impressive. The tombs themselves are largely off-putting because of the obviously squandered wealth (not to mention the bad taste of many). Some, of course, are beautiful, and a couple of stories stand out in memory:
o A man so loved his wife, whose beauty was legendary, that when she died he had her embalmed and laid out in the crypt under glass in a such a way that she was visible to him when he visited her every day. In addition, he had erected a spire above her with windows that had roses engraved in them and positioned in such a way that the sun shone through them and onto her face. It was actually quite a beautiful structure, and the unabashed romanticism of the story was kind of touching.
o A woman died in childbirth and the child died as well. A statue was erected over her tomb depicting a Madonna-like figure holding an infant and the beauty of the statue and the tragedy of the story had so entranced people that to this day mothers, pregnant women and women who want to be pregnant (we saw a number of them lined up) come here and go through a kind of ceremonial ritual of knocking on the tomb (to announce themselves), leaving flowers and money, and touching the statue (usually the infant, whose bottom, Coyula points out, has been polished by the caress of loving hands).
Coyula then takes us to an area of the cemetery which has special significance for him. This is an open area which serves as a memorial to those who died in the assault on Batista’s Presidential Palace in 1957, at the beginning of the Revolution. The area is laid out, he shows us, in the form of a leaf of the Yagruma tree, which is native to this country, (a number of them line the northern rim of the memorial), the spine of which is surrounded by grass-covered hillocks beneath which are buried the remains of the fallen (the “martyrs,” as I believe they refer to them). Some are named on markers and some markers are blank, allowing for the inclusion of those who didn’t die in the attack but who took part in it and choose to be buried here at a later time. The southern rim of the area is bordered by artistic representations of flags on poles and are set in such a way that on the anniversary of the assault, the shadows of the flags fall on a designated spot in the monument. It’s clearly a very meaningful memorial, very artfully done. It turns out he and his partner had entered this design in a contest run by the government to commemorate these fallen combatants and had won, so this was his. Further, we learn, he was one who had fought in that battle, thus making this memorial, his passion for the city and his investment in it take on another dimension.
Much to think about on the way back to the hotel.
At lunch, Janet has brought in two old friends of hers, Julio and Pedro, who are economists associated with an independent kind of “think-tank” not connected with the government. Each has spent time in the U.S., both studying and teaching, but because of restrictions imposed by the embargo, can only do so for short periods of time. Asked why that is so, Janet explains that the embargo makes illegal their receiving “a service of value” because they are citizens of Cuba. (!) One of the men speaks English. Though Janet insists the other does as well, he’s more comfortable in Spanish, so she interprets.
“Economic change will bring in its wake political change.”
Q. – What is the necessity of economic change?
A. – The economic crisis is extensive and has been intense since 1990. The GNP is down 40% and imports are down 85%. The government has responded in two ways, 1) to ration everything and 2) to choose to not close enterprises. Government controlled businesses have stayed open so workers can still receive their salaries, even though they aren’t producing. Demand continued to rise as supply plummeted. The negative consequences of these factors have been the creation of a black market, the deterioration of labor discipline and the concept of “salary” has lost economic meaning.
By 1993 the country was in crisis. If it continued there was no possibility of the government continuing to stand. In December of ’93 there were discussions in Parliament as to how to restructure – how to reduce the excess of dollars in the economy. Possibilities were to impose taxes, to raise prices or to reduce production. The decision was made to take the questions to the people and in January of ’94, discussions were organized in work centers and other places around the country. The discussions resulted in decisions to raise prices on certain products, to charge for services that were heretofore free (such as dance classes, school lunches, school uniforms, karate classes) and to impose certain taxes. An income tax (tax on salary) was rejected.
Then there was a debate about replacing the old currency with a new one. No decision was reached.
In May of ’94, the new Parliament adopted by consensus a policy of price hikes, the elimination of certain free services and the imposition of select taxes (but not on salary). Thus, the economy began absorbing the excess money supply.
These decisions were politically the easiest, but not economically the wisest, per our two guys, because today, two months later, “we have exhausted the ability of these measures to absorb the excess money.” “Our preference” would have been the immediate issuance of new currency. It would have had better results in less time (because this excess of $ is concentrated in certain sectors of the population – that 1% or 2% of the people who operate on the black market most successfully).
Another point debated is that it is not sufficient simply to reduce the $ supply, but is necessary to “turn off the faucet” of the dollar supply. That (new currency) would have made big economic changes – would have changed the effect of the subsidies, would have changed how production is organized. But this choice was not considered by the government.
Q. – How do you operate?
A. – We publish reports and send them to the government and the press (often foreign press), but the government traditionally ignores us.
A parallel to the economic crisis is the food shortage. The reasons for it are 1) the embargo, 2) the attendant lack of ability to import and 3) the drastic drop in sugar production. The reasons for the drop in sugar production are lack of fuel for machinery, lack of money for spare parts, lack of fertilizers, pesticides, lack of labor discipline and poor management. For example, in ’92, sugar production was 7.2 million tons, in ’93, 4.2 million tons and in ’94, possibly 4 million, with a resultant loss to the Cuban economy in excess of $1 billion.
In early times, sugar provided 80% of the gross domestic product dollar as we were in both sugar production and sugar processing. With the Soviet subsidy, sugar production became highly mechanized so that people could leave the fields. The failure of the USSR not only cost us the ability to keep the machines running and the crops fertilized, etc., but it also required the reintroduction of large numbers of people into the fields to do the work the machines could no longer do. Many of them are not interested. So many years removed from it, many are not trained for this kind of work.
Mechanization was the result of the Cuban government’s interest in advancing the lot of the Cuban people, to bring them into the modern age, to give people a chance to raise the level of their lives through education and the arts, etc. In 1959, for example, 400,000 people harvested sugar. In 1988, 60,000 did it. The others had moved to the urban centers that had been built up to service the industry.
Continuing food shortages had led to changes in the way food was produced, particularly from State to cooperative farms. Now (within the last 15 days) free farmer’s markets have been introduced. This is due to the government’s recognition that it had to deal with the food crisis. But despite the fact that these reforms are moving things in the right direction, the problem today is that there isn’t a coherent plan of economic reform. Ad hoc measures, not interconnected, deal with each crisis as it arises. There is no new economic model.
Though there is still a high level of political stability, even in the face of the gravity of this crisis, the political stability is weakening and the government has no plan to deal with it.
Q. – What would you do?
A. – A master plan of economic reform, rapid and determined, would have a positive effect politically and address people’s growing concerns. You have to, in a specific manner, discuss these things with the people and engage them and their support.
When this crisis hit, the government made minimal changes based upon their belief that the problem was “imported.” All of the things that were done were to avoid basic changes in the Cuban economic system.
Today, for example, the emphasis on pharmaceuticals is a mistake. Cuba has the ability to produce them, but no ability to market them.
Increasingly, the development of the export capacity of the economy has begun to look more like a capitalist system. Then other aspects of “capitalist” style experiments began to appear. At the same time, in order to maintain the “Revolutionary Model,” the government cracked down on some who were going too far. The result is confusion.
Two factors, the failure of the sugar harvest and the contraction in the economy, have forced the government to continue the liberalization of the economy.
Q. – Aren’t you, by saying that, supporting the rationalization behind the embargo?
A. – If this “tightening” had practical results, perhaps so. But the Cuban government is distanced from the outside world. Sugar, citrus, tobacco and nickel are 90% of Cuba’s economy. Add tourism and foreign investment (Canada, Mexico and now Great Britain are coming in) and that is the economy. What else can the US do? Force an uprising?
For that reason, some inside the government say that the worst thing the US could do is to lift the embargo. Some of the orthodox Marxists truly don’t want the embargo lifted. Also, of course, there are reformers inside who do want it lifted, but may be kidding themselves as to how much they can remain in control if it happens.
The question of why the US is maintaining the embargo brings to light some confusing possibilities:
– one is the question of economic rivalry between Cuba and Florida (sugar, citrus fruit and tourism, so important to the capitalist interests in Florida may be more meaningful than Cuban émigrés who oppose lifting the embargo for political reasons). Given that analysis, issues of democracy and human rights are raised, but if addressed will turn out to have been a smoke screen.
– also, Cubans in Florida know that their only hope of returning to the country on their terms is after a disaster in Cuba.
In being asked why the US position on Cuba is so hard-line as opposed to its position with regard to China or North Korea, for example, a US State Department spokesperson (Rick Nuccio) said, “The United States’ greatest commitment to democracy is in the Western Hemisphere.” (!!)
Whatever the case, in the view of these two men, “more space is open for dialogue on economic terms today.” Because, in their view, economics is the basis for everything, this will lead to openness in politics – possibly to the formation of new political groups.
Back in the bus on our way to the next meeting we drive once again along 5th Avenue, the main drag of the western side of the city where we’re located. The stately homes Coyula told us about, many quite large, some in fact baronial, line both sides of the street. Again, most need a coat of paint but still are quite impressive. All are of the same square-block-style of design and construction. These structures, once the homes of the wealthy elite (who now reside for the most part in Miami) are now co-ops or are occupied by embassies and/or religious or educational groups of one sort or another. The ocean front, as we come onto it, is very impressive. A sea wall on the north side of the road provides space for a walkway overlooking the Caribbean/Atlantic. This is a city of many wide streets. Quite often the lawns are overgrown, but things appear to be neat and clean otherwise.
Our 3:30PM meeting is in the Ministry of Public Health and we are welcomed by a panel of physicians from the National Asthma Program, the Family Doctor Program and specialists in maternal and child health. This building, as the others, is a fairly dilapidated place with questionable elevators. Everything wants plastering, a coat of paint or a thorough scrubbing, but the people are unfailingly polite and thoughtful, always offering coffee, water and sometimes cookies or the like.
After introductions around, they begin. A few of the doctors speak English (though invariably with an apology for how poorly they do so) and whenever one doesn’t, the ever-ready Ivonne is there to interpret.
Childhood asthma, we’re told, is a serious problem in the country. Humidity and climatic changes seem to be the aggravating factors, as far as is known, in the creation of the problem. Cuba is 2nd in the world in prevalence of child asthma, which affects 14% of the children in the country. (The US has an incidence of 13%, Australia and New Zealand have 10%. Highest in the world is in the Carolina Islands, which has an incidence of 34%.)
In 1959, they tell us, the country’s health situation was very bad. The hospitals were poor and mostly tended to the wealthy, doctors were difficult to find and the economy was not in good shape. At that point they had an infant mortality rate of 70/1000 at birth.
There were 6,000 doctors in the country at the beginning of the Revolution, and half of them left at the Triumph. The population then was 6 million.
Today, there are 52,000 doctors for 11 million people and there are more medical students graduating per year than the total number of doctors here in 1961.
The Family Doctor Program now brings health care (free of charge) to all in the society.
Hospitals are being built all over the country. Today, however, the available money goes to living needs and is creating a difficult situation for medicine.
The doctor who is speaking specializes in the Asthma Program and says “It is difficult to find one family in Cuba without a child with asthma. In my own family, all three children have it.”
Q. – Why is there so much asthma in Cuba?
A. – Bronchial asthma is very prevalent in islands. In the US it is mostly found on the coasts. Here, out of an 11 million population, we have 900,000 asthmatics, of which 350,000 are children. In determining the severity of asthma, it is broken down that 5 attacks or fewer per year qualify as Grade 1; 6 to 9 attacks per year, Grade 2; and ten or above, Grade 3. 18% of Cuban child asthmatics, or 60,000, are Grade 3. The largest so-far insoluble medical problems (in the world?) are #1 psychiatric, #2 AIDS and #3 asthma.
Q. – Is it fair to say that the causes are a mixture of genetic and environmental factors?
A. – Indeed. Inbreeding and weather. The only solution is to attack it as soon as possible – before birth. Pediatricians generallly wait until age 5. Too late. Perhaps prenatal diet control and medication. Certainly 100% breast feeding. “There is no such thing as benign asthma.”
Studies now show that the mainly effective steps are 1) health education, 2) environmental control of risk factors, 3) continuous medication, 4) rehabilitation and 5) immunotherapy. If one can bring a child safely to the age of 7, his or her hormonal secretions will often take over.
An asthmatic patient, well-treated, should improve unless there is:
2) continued exposure to the risk
3) inter-current infection
4) psychological tension
5) bad diagnosis
6) food allergy
The primary danger in Cuba today with regard to the continuing treatment of these afflicted children is that we are running out of drugs. The medicine for asthmatic mothers, chromo-glycate, which is taken during the last three months of pregnancy, is very expensive. We (meaning, I think, the world) need to find ways to lower the cost of anti-asthmatic drugs.
We always try to produce in country all the medicines we can. The difference in cost (to importing them) is on the order of 1 to 8. Some of the new products, we find, are inflated in cost by the producer in order to gain back development expenses. But we can’t produce certain medications. We don’t have the materials and can’t get the formulations. We can’t afford to buy them even when they’re available.
Q. – What is the effect of the Torricelli Bill (the Cuban Democracy Act)?
A. – In public health, many examples. Cuba’s main supplier used to be the U.S. Now it is Europe. The advantages to Cuba of trading with the U.S. as opposed to Europe are obvious; proximity and expense, primarily. There used to be two ferries a day running between Florida and Havana. Ten short airplane flights a day. Europe is farther away, harder to get things from and more expensive. In addition, for example, for many years we’ve bought our medical supplies and technology from Germany. All pace-makers here are from Siemans, in Germany. Since they have been taken over by a U.S. corporation, they can’t sell to us any more because of Torricelli.
Q. – (Most of these questions were asked by Stephen Ayres, himself a public health physician.) With all the shortages in hospital supplies and medications, how do you explain the fact that Cuba has been able to maintain its low infant mortality rate and even continue to reduce it? And what are the danger signals as far as that changing?
A. – We worked very hard in the first 30 years after the Revolution. Now, fewer X-rays and less technology available means that the doctor has to make better use of his knowledge.
Infant mortality was 9.4/1000 last year, almost the same as the U.S. Child asthma rate was worse last year than the year before. The problems with supply of food, quality of water, the environment, sanitation, etc., all of which are worsening, will affect the child mortality rate.
Q. – The basic steps of a medical exam are 1) history, 2) physical exam, 3) simple tests, 4) further examination and 5) expensive tests. In the U.S., because little money is made in the early steps, doctors often start with step #5. Perhaps we should send US doctors here to learn the basics.
A. – The difficulty in getting access to modern medicines and technologies has made us better doctors. The old saying is, “The doctor cures one out of ten. Nature takes care of the other nine.”
Our problem at the moment is the increase in the number of low birth-weight babies, which may mean problems in the future. Infant mortality in the first year is 14 times higher if the baby is born at less than 2500 grams . Before, babies born with low birth weight were 7.3% of live births. Now it is 9%.
Q. – The U.S. has that problem too, in poor communities. In most of the world the problem is poor physicians. Your problem should be simple to solve, it’s only money.
Paul, who it turns out speaks very good Spanish himself, points out that this is the dilemma for the NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Usually they work in areas where trained people don’t exist. Here, because of the expertise and training available, it would be more of an authentic partnership.
Q. – Tell us about the Family Doctor Program?
A. – (Holds up book.) Read the book. (Laughter) There is no tuition fee charged for medical school, so doctors go, after graduation, where they are assigned. The National Public Health system is a plan designed by doctors, families and nurses, which guarantees a doctor and a nurse for each 600 people (120 to 140 families) in rural areas, and for every 800 people in urban areas.
There are 121,000 family doctors in the countryside. Some of them are in medical and educational centers. The aim is to improve the general health level of the population through prevention of disease, promotion of health, early diagnosis and rehabilitative treatment post disease.
The birth of this plan in Cuba was due to the fact that the epidemiological reality of Cuba was different in the ’80s from what it was in the ’50s. Also, there was the political will to retain the high degree of health that we had achieved. The Family Doctor plan began in 1984 with 10 doctors and 10 nurses. It had great results and grew.
Late again, we thank our hosts and rush back downstairs and onto the bus. We’re supposed to be back at the Ministry of Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation (where we met Raul Taladrid yesterday – was it only yesterday?) for a “welcome cocktail.”
Again I abjure the elevators and walk up the dark stairway. Much safer in my mind. We are introduced around to a bunch of people, all associated with the Ministry. Taladrid is not there, but Senor Roqueta welcomes us warmly. The even is very informal, thank God, because we’re pretty casually dressed. All of the Cubans are in their Guayabaras which, given the weather, are a terrific idea.
Drinks are available and wait-people pass through with hors d’oeuvres. It gets embarrassing to keep saying ‘no thanks’ to everything, because I don’t want to offend anyone, but there’s nothing I can eat so I just smile a lot.
One guy, whose name I didn’t get, has a kind of aggressive intelligence about him (it’s easy to picture him as one of the “orthodox Marxists” our lunch partners talked about) and singles me out for conversation. We talk a bit about our trip through the city and what impressions are so far. Frank (who has a special focus on racism at least in part because his boss [Congressman Payne] is a member of the Black Caucus) is also part of this conversation and somehow the subject turns to the Afro-Cuban population and whether or not there has been a conscious effort on the part of the government to raise their status.
Karl Marx says there has not been. He says they were of course descended from slaves, and this explains why they are primarily on the lower rungs of society, but the attempt has been to raise the status of all, without singling out any ethnic group. In fact, he points out, there is little awareness of any difference in ethnicity in Cuban society. We discuss for a while the special sensitivity many in our society have because of the very same background for African-Americans, and the need that is felt to find ways to address the gap in social status that has resulted. Not so here, he insists.
Then it’s time to say our good-byes to our hosts and head for the bus. We have to get back to the hotel and clean up before dinner with the President of the Cuban Parliament, so we beg our leave and take off.
On the bus back to the hotel, Frank is unconvinced. His boss, he says, has taken a position against the embargo and has gotten heavy flak for it. He would like to arrange a tour of Cuba for a delegation of Black Caucus members, but, according to Frank, if they hear someone say there is no discrimination in this society and Afro-Cubans are mostly among the poor because they started as slaves but there’s nothing special we can or need to do about it, they’ll go berserk. The question he will have to answer, he says, is with everything this society has going for it, why should Black Caucus members make it a priority over under-developed nations in Africa?
On the streets through which we pass, I’m struck by the tempo of life here. For a country suffering the shortages we’re hearing about, the people look remarkably good. To the casual observer, the average Cuban on the street would appear to be young, vital, healthy and neatly, if not expensively, dressed. The sense of impoverishment doesn’t extend itself in an obvious way, at least to the streets we see. There is a legendary grace and rhythm to Cuban life that is evident around us, and it seems there is an unusual number of attractive people of both sexes.
Pulling into the hotel driveway, Gail is queried about the appropriate dress for meeting the President of the Parliament tonight and assures us that things are pretty casual in Cuba. The most dressy occasion, she says, is satisfied by wearing the Guayabara, so something comparable will be fine. I ask if an open-collared shirt is a problem and she assures me it’s not.
So after a quick freshen-up, quick because the water never gets beyond luke-warm, I head down to the lobby in slacks, a white shirt and a tie. (The only sport coat I brought is a wool tweed one for the speaking engagement in Indiana on the way home – a bit heavy for this weather.) One by one, my companeros appear, all the men in suits and ties, all the women snappy looking as well. I wonder if I’ve made a colossal error. But thank God for Jack (we show biz types are expected to be somewhat eccentric), who, though looking spiffy in black slacks and a black shirt, is at least without a coat. I’m worried. But into the bus and off we go, with Gail reassuring me that I won’t insult anybody.
After driving East and into a different part of the city we pull into a curved drive at a rather imposing home – or what looks like a home. Disembarking, I almost fall over when I see two men in tuxedos at the front door! (I wanna go home.) Reluctantly, I fall into line with the rest and move through the open doors to be greeted by women in maid’s uniforms and more men in tuxedos. Yet another tuxedoed man arrives and welcomes us and proceeds to show us around (all I can think of is Hugh Griffith in “Start the Revolution Without Me” wandering into a fancy dress ball in the castle dressed as a chicken, saying over and over, “I thought it was a costume party”). Finally it begins to dawn on me that this splendid home used to be a splendid home but is now a splendid restaurant. And these formally dressed people aren’t our hosts… well, they are our hosts, but they’re not the people we’re meeting for dinner.
After being shown about a bit (the place is actually very nice – one can eat outdoors either under the covered patio or in the garden, or in one of the nicely done rooms inside) we’re ushered into a private room in the rear of the building (where, doubtless, some filthy rich person used to sleep) and made comfortable around a large table. Seating is always an interesting problem with a group as large as ours when we’re dining and meeting at the same time. There is an attempt made to get the primary speaker into a central place and then to be sensitive to the position of those within the delegation who might have the most direct interest in the subject at hand. Janet and Gail are both fluent in Spanish and at times have to correct or clarify some of Ivonne’s translation, so it’s important to have them close at all times. And we don’t want to leave anyone out. Jack is fun to watch in this regard. He has a bad ear, so places himself appropriately, but whenever the talk drones on too long or he loses interest I see him turning away a bit and I smile to myself, knowing that he’s tuned out and is off in a zone somewhere, meditating.
Shortly after we’re situated, two men come in (in Guayabaras) and are introduced around. They are Jose Antonio Arbesu, head of the Americas Department, Central Committee of the Communist Party and Fernando Garcia Bielsa, of the Department of International Relations (I believe he’s also a member of the Central Committee). Our main guest, Ricardo Alarcon, President of the Cuban National Assembly (the Parliament), isn’t with them, we’re told, but will be along when he’s free from a meeting. (There are many meetings, I’m sure, because we are here directly in the aftermath of the exodus of the “rafters,” thousands of whom are still encamped at Guantanamo Bay, and negotiations on the subject have been continuing between Cuba and the U.S. Alarcon, who is reputed to be next in line for the leadership of the country when Fidel steps down, led the Cuban delegation to the U.S. and is expecting an American delegation in a couple of days to follow up. The buzz around is full of speculation as to whether or not these initial talks will result in a lessening of the tension and perhaps be the beginning of a new relationship. Janet, for one, is disappointed at the make-up of the U.S. delegation that was announced because the relative low level of the leadership sends a signal that isn’t hopeful in that regard.)
Drinks are ordered and conversation is casual. Arbesu is a powerful looking man, probably in his late forties or early fifties, with a slightly menacing look (perhaps enhanced by the fact that I think he is or was involved with State Security). Fernando Garcia is younger, very thin, and has a warmer manner (though I hear later he is thought of as a hard-liner). Arbesu sits to Janet’s left and she is to mine, so I can hear pretty well. He says of his government and its relationship with the Party that it is based on the Bulgarian model – the Party does not control government ministries.
Q. – Are Party members elected to the Political Bureau?
A. – Elected? (Pause) There is a Party Congress. Delegates are selected from different area. They convene and elect members of the Central Committee.
Q. – Is Cuba part of GATT? What do you envision the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba to be after the embargo?
A. – Cuba is a member of GATT. We were in the World Bank, but were forced out by the U.S. What we look for post-embargo is regular, legal trade, as with any other country. On an equal basis. Start from zero. What is most important is not what we can buy or sell, but that we not be blocked in trade relationships with others.
Q. – If the U.S. Government said it would end the embargo, does Cuba have a position on paper with which to begin negotiations?
Arbesu makes a joke – I think it’s about the lack of paper – and there is laughter.
Q. – When was the last time a high-ranking labor delegation was here from the U.S.?
A. – In the late ’70s.
Fernando Garcia, further down the table, makes a point about the democratic inroads that Alarcon is making. He refers to something called, I think, the National Assembly of the People’s Power, which is made up of people elected from the neighborhoods. He said it is 500 strong and he may have said it is the Parliament (maybe he said it was a body like a parliament).
Paul asks/offers that redistribution of power and bottom-up participation seem to be dual evolutionary processes. Agreed?
Arbesu says he agrees in part. He says originally “we were not forced by circumstance to make changes.” (They did them because that was the purpose of the Revolution.) But now they are being forced because of the economic constraints. As to the other part, he says they always tried to have a redistribution of power – from the beginning. There are 600,000 Party members and 600,000 members of the Youth Communist League. Non-party members can be elected to Parliament – and are. Also, he says, there is no requirement that a Minister of Government be a Party member.
Q. – Are there any?
A. – No.
Ricardo Alarcon comes in. He is probably in his forties, a thin man with brown hair, passionate dark eyes and a ready smile. When he sits down he seems smaller, somehow, but never lacking for energy.
We go around the table again with introductions for his benefit, and when I mention being an actor something is said about my having played a doctor in MASH, which he knows from having spent time in the U.S. Using that as a spring-board, I quickly tell about being shanghaied into assisting with the surgery on Commandante Nidia Diaz in El Salvador in ’85. They know of Nidia and it provides a light moment.
He says the meeting next week with the Cuba desk officer (from the State Dept.) who is coming here to discuss implementation of the agreement on refugees is instructive. The low level of the head of the delegation is being seen as a signal that the Administration is not anxious to show – or make – progress (at least before the election). He says the pressure on the Administration coming from Miami is readily apparent.
Frank mentions a memo he saw in Congress that indicates that 2,000 of those at Guantanamo would be sent to the U.S. Is that a violation of the agreement?
Alarcon says he would have agreed to the number. That is not a problem. They are accepting children, the chronically ill and people over 70 years of age. What is a problem, he says, is that by doing so they are indirectly encouraging older people to leave and that is a mistake.
Q. – Has the agreement then been abused?
A. – From Cuba’s point of view, the U.S. is doing things which they have said they would not do. We are in a strong position, nonetheless, because they cannot go back to the old policy.
(All during the Cold War years, and even up to just before this recent “rafter” crisis, the U.S. automatically took in anyone who came from Cuba as one fleeing from Communist repression and therefore deserving of immediate acceptance and special status. (Someone said automatic citizenship. I’m not sure of that.) This double standard became impossibly embarrassing, especially with the flood of Haitians who were being turned back. The fact that the U.S. reacted to the rafters differently, returned them to Cuba [albeit Guantanamo], negotiated with Cuba on ways to contain them and didn’t welcome them automatically, represents a major change.)
**(Because the ability to leave one’s country is considered a basic human right, Cuba has always been criticized for not allowing people to freely emigrate if they chose to do so. Now, having allowed these people to leave, they are being pressured by the U.S. to stop others from doing so, thus putting the U.S. essentially in the position of pressuring the Cuban government to do what we’ve always criticized them for doing, thus violating the rights of its citizens. Human Rights Watch has written a critical letter to President Clinton on this point.)
Alarcon continues, the U.S. has not given an answer to Cuba’s request for a list of the names of those at Guantanamo. It has also not responded to a request for information on children who “were taken against the will of one of the parents.”
Q. – How are your relationships with other Central American countries?
A. – We have had good relationships with all Latin American countries and continue to have. We have diplomatic missions in all of them except Guatemala and El Salvador. There have been changes in some of the relationships, sometimes, because of their relationships with the U.S.
Q. – Does the fact that the upcoming Latin American Summit is being held in Miami reflect the power of the Cuban exile community?
A. – There is no agenda so far established for the Summit. Indications are it will be meaningless in the long term. We are not invited, but we will be very much there. Because of our absence, we will be the subject of every discussion – especially post-summit.
Q. – Would you like more support in Washington from other Latin American countries?
A. – We get some support. It would be nice to get more, but their independence is limited.
On the political change by the U.S., he says that anger exists today in Miami because of the Cubans detained in “safe havens” (Guantanamo). That will not go away. We will see demonstrations of emotion on the part of the Cuban exiles against Clinton. All of this feeds the requirement that the Cuban issue be seriously addressed.
Q. – Assuming no change in the embargo, what is the future of Cuban diplomacy?
A. – The permanent objective is the achievement of Cuban independence. The lifting of the embargo will be a step toward financial/economic independence. After the embargo our goal will be the same; how to adjust to a changing world.
Q. – Human rights and democracy are issues often raised – used against Cuba. How far has Cuba gone in meeting the issues raised in those complaints?
A. – Those issues are important, but subject to manipulation. There are issues of “selective interpretation.” It can be said we are subject to special scrutiny as a result of U.S. pressure. There are reports of torture, murder and disappearances in other countries, but even the human rights reports that do criticize Cuba don’t accuse us of that. Nor do they mention the seven heavily armed men who came into our country last month and were dropped off a boat on our northern coast. These are men who were trained in Florida, who came here to kill our people and did in fact kill one young man, a harmless fisherman who they happened upon, before being captured.
We don’t say that in Cuba there are no violations of human rights. Things happen. The point is if there is impunity or not. There is no impunity, nor is there promotion of those who violate human rights by violating the personal integrity of an individual.
(He then goes on to talk at length about the fact that the U.S. manipulated the member nations of the U.N. to appoint a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cuba in 1988 even after there had been a report indicating serious progress was being made in the country on the issue. He said Cuba would not accept the Special Rapporteur [He has to be allowed in the nation by the government in power and they said no.] because it was being used against them politically and they felt it wasn’t warranted.)
(I respond by suggesting that because of the fact that it is their position that the human rights issue is being unfairly used against them, it might be of value to them to consider inviting in a delegation from a widely respected non-governmental human rights organization to study the situation and issue a report. Such a report could be of great benefit, it would seem, in responding to unfair and inappropriate charges against them.)
(Later, as we both headed for the rest room, Alarcon and I had a chance to talk in the hall and I re-addressed my suggestion, telling him that I was associated with Human Rights Watch. I mentioned HRW’s report on the human rights violations in the Miami Cuban exile community, of which he was aware, and he spoke of their letter criticizing the current policy of the Clinton Administration, which he appreciated.)
Back in the room the discussion is about to pick up again when we are invaded by a group of musicians who want to serenade us. They quickly get it that the discussion is much too serious for that and beat a hasty exit.
Q. – Has the government given special consideration to programs aimed at improving the lot of blacks?
A. – Some. There is more discrimination against women than against blacks. There is a tradition of male chauvinism. Attention must be paid to eliminating the social conditions which have created these situations. The lack of blacks in upper levels is obvious and true, but progress is being made. Now the majority of our scientists are women, the majority of our professionals are women. In political leadership, most are whites, but there is (sounded like Armeda). The leader of the Party in Havana now is a black man (Lazo), who was moved here from Santiago de Cuba. It is difficult to say how much success we’re having, but it is also illegal to say. All discrimination is illegal. All references to differences in race are illegal. We set out to eliminate all social sources, all legal sources and all cultural sources of racism.
Frank makes the suggestion that Jorge Mas Canosa (the leader of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami and reportedly one of the most violent, powerful and feared right-wing Cuban émigrés in the U.S.) may have taken the position he did against the rafters because some of them were blacks.
Alarcon says “Many of those in U.S. prisons, without charge, since the Mariel boat-lift, are black.” Also, he says, Jorge Mas and his followers have stated publicly that one of the things they object to is the idea of black people and their kids now living in their old houses in Cuba.
(The issue of the political influence of the Cuban exile community in Miami is a hot one. Many don’t understand why the Clinton Administration hasn’t been more progressive on what is clearly an out-dated, Cold-War related, right-wing policy. Information is that Hillary Clinton’s brother, Hugh – currently the Democratic candidate for the Senate from Florida – is married to a Cuban exile who is a constant source of anti-Castro, right-wing propaganda. One anecdote has it that a Cuban-American named Lillian Pubillones, a brilliant scholar, was tapped for a job at the State Dept. She was told, however, that she’d have to be interviewed by President Clinton’s sister-in-law. She went on the interview, with the woman, was asked her position on the embargo, which she said she opposed, and was vetoed.)
It’s late. We say our good-byes and head for the bus. Another full evening with much to think about. Home through the darkened streets – and on a Friday night – we’re again reminded of the lack of fuel and other of what Americans think of as life’s necessities. Few automobiles, many buildings without lights