Saturday, February 21, 2009
Cuba is awesome and wonderful and beautiful and WARM. We're starting classes soon, so we've been walking around Havana a lot, seeing what is to be seen. On Wednesday, we went to a santeria museum in the Guanabacoa municipality and learned about the patron saint of Cuba. People are supposed to wear all yellow when they need a favor from her. We've seen some pretty glorious yellow outfits so far. The national Book Fair, co-sponsored by Chile, is going on now, and one of the sites is in this old fort that the Spanish built when they first came to Cuba. The first exhibition room I walked into was presented by a Vietnamese publishing house, and I got a sweet 25-cent poster of Leon Trotsky next to a food cart where they did amazing things with potatoes. The whole experience combined three of my main interests in life - Ho Chi Minh, french fries, and inexpensive Communist propaganda. We went to a lot of cheap music shows as part of the Jazz Festival that just ended. One of the theaters we went to had an outdoor patio with a huge painting of Bertie Brecht (ole!). The place where we're staying is run by the National Association of Small Farmers. They make us watermelon juice every day. We're near the Gran Sinagoga Bet Shalom, where I went to meet the other five Jews in Cuba (there are apparently 2,000 or so). I met Solomon, who proceeded to introduce me to everyone as his girlfriend. I should maybe mention here that Solomon is 85 years old. He carries around a New York Times clipping from an article about the Bet Shalom congregation. Apparently he's the only person in Cuba who can speak Yiddish. Bet Shalom gets money from synagogues in Israel and Miami. Solomon wasn't really interested in talking about Zionist politics beyond saying that people shouldn't kill children but the Jews need a safe home. I think that's about as nuanced as some embarrassed Jews get. In any case, on Thursday I went to see a famous statue of John Lennon (there's a Lennon Park and a Lenin Park here...what a great country). Apparently people steal the glasses off the statue all the time, so there's a guard stationed there 24/7. People are for the most part very friendly, especially when they're asking for money. One US dollar is worth about 23 pesos (moneda nacional), and a big lunch might be about 15 pesos. There is also the convertible peso, which is about equal to the US dollar. The system allows for certain goods and services to be very cheap (a bus ride is 40 peso cents, or about one penny) and others to be extraordinarily expensive for Cubans (a washing machine is 427 convertible pesos, with each Cuban making about 25 convertible pesos each month as a salary). For us though, everything is inexpensive except phone cards and the internet. Even when we got scammed by a ferry captain who wouldn't give change, we still spent only roughly 80 cents in US dollars, though for a Cuban, that would be enough for a book, a huge ice cream cone, or three Lev Trotsky posters (hoo-rah). We're starting classes for real next week,and I signed up for a sociology class called "The Theory and History of Cuban Thought, A Marxist Perspective." The Communist propaganda seems almost shameless here, with even the giant murals of Che proclaiming on every street corner,
(We will be victorious in defending socialism). It's almost kind of kitschy. It is refreshing though to be away from the inundating commercialism of the US, and to see posters promoting agricultural production rather than skinny jeans and purple hoodies. People love to talk about the revolution and reveal its successes and failings in their experiences. One guy I met said that his father owned three houses under Batista, but Fidel's government bought two from him. I asked him if his father was mad that he couldn't keep his houses, and he said no, he was happy that there wouldn't be people suffering anymore from homelessness. I'm not sure that this response is standard, but people do seem to have genuine support for Fidel and socialist organization. I think they're very unhappy with the dual economy and the general difficulty of acquiring basic consumer goods like laundry soap and deoderant, but Cubans have been well-versed in the art of el resolver (resolving, figuring it out) for more than the 50 years of the revolution. People tend to make their lives work, and there seems to be a certain successful rhythm of life in Havana despite the hardship. It's not true that everyone here wants to move to the US, but it is true that everyone wants more money. The people might appreciate free schools and healthcare, but they have very limited opportunity to appreciate what's not free.