LETTER FROM LOS
by Walter Lippmann, February 14, 2003
Dear Friends -
This is to let you know that I'm now back in Los Angeles after another three months in Cuba. I'm both glad to be back here, in the familiar surroundings of my own home, and sad to be back here as well. Familiar sounds, friends and surroundings to which I'd got accustomed are gone, now replaced with others, very different in many ways.
The threat of a sharply escalated war against Iraq now overshadows everything else on earth.
The flight in was long but uneventful. This was my fifth visit to Cuba since retiring from Child Protective Services in 1999. When returning from an international trip, you complete a form on which countries you've visited and of course I've always listed Cuba, as required. On past occasions I was asked if I'd brought tobacco or alcohol, and after explaining I didn't, US Customs waved me on through. This time things were very different.
US Customs, in the form of a uniformed agent wearing rubber gloves, inspected my suitcase and briefcase in a way which I found very frightening and intimidating.
My travel to Cuba certainly falls under the category of a General License for journalistic work as my numerous writings, posted photographs and so on, demonstrate.
The agent's demeanor was ominous and threatening, as she said to me, "You knew it was illegal to travel to Cuba, yet you went anyway? Don't you know you can be fined $7500 for this". Worse still, she copied of some of my work, including lists of names, addresses and phone numbers of people I'd contacted in my work.
She also copied a petition I'd been circulating to the INS protesting the threatened deportation of Roger Calero, an editor of Perspectiva Mundial, the Spanish-language companion publication to The Militant. Is there something suspicious about a petition to redress a grievance?
It is of course NOT illegal to travel to Cuba, as we know from the case of William Worthy, the though there are certain restrictions on such travel. (These are highly unconstitutional, in my opinion.) And if you aren't familiar with Worthy's experience, take a look at him and it here: http://www.walterlippmann.com/worthy.html
During my professional career in children's services my experiences with law enforcement personnel was generally positive and helpful. Because of their assistance, children were taken out of some potentially dangerous situations with a minimum of difficulty. I was grateful for their help and was not afraid to say so openly at the time. But this was a completely different kind of experience, one which I hope you will NEVER have yourself.
This kind of thing is yet another reason why we all need to do what we can to bring about normalized relations between our two countries. There's no good reason why anyone should be subjected to such grilling and such intimidation by the US government.
During the last couple of weeks of my time on the island some medical problems caused me to reduce my flow of work. I also took some time to read informative new books about Cuba and its foreign policy, which I'll be telling you about separately. Now I'm planning to resume a more normal flow of work to bring you news and analysis about Cuba and issues and struggles related to Cuba.
Most of you realize it's a tremendous amount of work to read and review the volume of material available about Cuba, and to try to make some informative comments as appropriate. With the experience of having spent three months on the island, looking around, meeting and talking with people, reading and viewing the media and talk on the street, I'm struck by just how remote is the Cuba that I knew and saw from what's reported in the mainstream corporate-controlled media.
It's not so much that what they do is lie and falsify what is happening on the island. (There's plenty of that, of course). Rather, they simply don't really report what is going on at all. The rhythms, the feel, the smell and sounds of life on the island are basically not told.
On returning to the US I have taken some additional time to both absorb and reflect on the big differences between life as I've seen and experienced it in the two countries. It has been an incredible shock to be back, let me tell you...
Though it's rather unfair to compare or contrast the life in Cuba with that in the United States, some of this is impossible to avoid, so bear with a few moments...
Being back in my own home, my own space is something I'm deeply grateful for. The conveniences of having both hot water at the tap and the ability to sit in the tub and soak in the heat are among the genuinely special things I've never been able to experience on the island outside of hotels, where I rarely stay. Having high-speed internet access here also makes my work and internet experience radically different here than on the island. From a technical standpoint, it's far easier here
Being the homebody I am, I actually didn't get out of the city of Havana this time. I regret that, and in the future I'll try to get out and see more of the rest of the island.
For three months in Cuba I never put my hands behind the wheel of an automobile. To go to the local market for fresh produce, I had to walk a few blocks as virtually all other people there do. Indeed, I walked everywhere but the longest distances, and didn't miss having a car at all.
Back here in Los Angeles it's simply impractical to try to do the simplest things without using an automobile. I'm glad to have a nice car which is comfortable and works well. I bought it when I was still working and, at the rate I use it expect to keep it for another ten or twenty years.
(It's a 1998 Honda Accord with 41,000 miles on it.)
How easily we forget: city traffic in Los Angeles is so terrible, and the lack of public rapid transit so stark that I'd really forgotten just how much time I spend (that is, waste), in bumper-to-bumper traffic to go to the shortest distances. Now I really know and dread the traffic here. Public transportation is one of the biggest problem areas in Cuba, and everyone complains about the bus service.
Cubans can often bee found in long lines to get on the big and often sardine-packed buses, but they seem to work and get people where they are going, though very, very slowly. Foreigners with dollars, such as myself, can always find ways to use the Cuban ten-peso taxi cab system, or the various other ways Cubans use to get around. As my friend Mike Fuller says (he's lived in Cuba for eight years and is married and has a son) any car in Cuba is a taxi, and so those who can afford to, don't seem to have difficulty getting around.
Every time I've been on the island I've noticed, with amazement, all the women out on public streets who are hitchhiking in evidently complete safety. Women of all ages do this. I don't see many men hitchhiking, though one sees a few doing it. I gather that women are usually picked up by men and there's a bit of friendly flirting which takes place, but not much else.
Cuba's a country where people talk about the way life is, its troubles and problems, all the time. Some days I think that complaining is the national religion in Cuba, as there's so much of it. Thus "No es facil"
(It's not easy) is one of the most frequently heard expressions, as is "acustombrado" (I'm used to it.) in the Cuban lexicon. If there were real problems of sexual harassment in hitchhiking, I'm sure we'd have heard about it, if only on the ubiquitous Radio Bemba as the Cuban grapevine is often called.
Cuban news media, being public entities, have either little or no advertising. Here in the US I rarely watch television, and mostly listen to the radio in my car, because it's all dominated by commercial advertising in one way or another. Even supposedly alternative sources, like NPR (sometimes cynically referred to as "Nearly Private Radio") have lots of ads now.
Cuban newspapers are small tabloids, which run from eight to sixteen pages each. They have no advertising at all and are incredibly cheap: 20 centavos a copy, which is the equivalent of less than one US penny.
(In Mexico City, on the way back, I picked up a copy of the Sunday New York Times, which cost an amazing $10.50 USD. It's filled with advertising, but also includes the beautifully slick magazine section. Some of what's in it is worth reading, especially the cultural coverage.)
On the news in Cuba, reporting on the Middle East invariably had a pro-Palestinian perspective. News on the Iraq situation is analysis of the causes and consequences of Washington's plans to escalate the war and invade and occupy Iraq.
Cuba has every reason to be concerned about the escalating US war against Iraq because the island understands and functions on the traditional idea of solidarity: an injury to one is an injury to all, so if Washington succeeds in replacing the Iraqi government with one acceptable to the US and its oil companies, the independence of all other states, including Cuba, will be at greater risk.
The Bush administration is doing everything it can to convince the people of the United States that anti-war demonstrations don't stop wars and that their determination to invade and occupy Iraq is an unstoppable juggernaut. It certainly gives that impression, but it's imperative to try to mobilize as much public opposition to it as possible. Thus, the Cuban media gives extensive coverage to and support for the anti-war struggle in the US and beyond that internationally. CubaNews list tries to share as much of this with its readers as it can.
In Cuba there's one point of view on the media, the viewpoint of the Cuban Revolution. It's rare to see any other point of view presented. Since most of the analysis and information given refers to things that I'm interested in, and the analysis coincides with the way I look at the news, it's not bothersome to me. I never saw any discussion or debate in the Cuban media, not even a letters to the editor column.
News of the major political news on the island, and its relations with the outside world, are at the center of coverage in the print and electronic media. The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was attended by 100,000 people.
The Cubans sent a massive delegation to the WSF which was covered every day during the week-long gathering. Among the members of the Cuban team were Culture Minister Abel Prieto, Aleida March, daughter of Ernesto Che Guevara, Pedro Ross, the head of the Cuban Trade Union Central, Hasan Perez, President of the University Students Federation
(FEU), Juan Miguel Gonzalez (Elian's father, newly elected to the Cuban National Assembly) and many others. Granma's website linked to the WSF site and Cuban TV also provided full presentations of talks by newly-elected Brazilian President Ignacio Lula Da Silva and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Using feeds from Venezuelan TV, Cuban TV news presented the full talk given by Lula at the WSF, with Cuban trade union leader Pedro Ross standing right behind Lula.
The WSF is at the center of the anti-globalization movement and Cuba is the only country on the planet whose government explicitly supports this struggle.
I used to have the impression that the Cuban media never presented any analysis of social problems on the island, but if that was true in the past, it's certainly not true now. Serious social problems are now being taken up and discussed in the media.
Yes, most of the news presents the positive side of the revolution and the island's accomplishments, and these are fully justified. A careful look at the Cuban media now, particularly the daily print media shows in the last couple of years more and more analysis of some of the social problems which clearly exist.
During the time I was in Cuba, an entirely revised and updated traffic code was implemented, and those who drive automobiles found lots of cops out on the street giving out tickets for various infractions. Cynics say such changes are always heralded by an early period of strict enforcement and then things quiet down and become more relaxed. These are matters affecting the daily lives of many people, but which one nearly never sees reported in the international media.
Long, detailed articles on driving problems appeared in the newspapers on the island. The entire new traffic code was distributed to everyone via inserts in the newspapers. I don't recall the various penalties, but I heard a lot of complaining from drivers who were getting tickets for offenses they'd never got before. They particularly complained about the fact that the conditions of many of the streets are terrible and there's no compensation for damage to the cars by the pot-holed streets of the nation's capital.
Even more striking, was the announcement by the Cuban government that it now acknowledges what it refers to as an incipient market for the sale and consumption of illegal drugs on the island. This was completely new for Cuba since the Revolution. The international media ran a few articles about it when the issue first came up, but hasn't said anything on it since that time.
In January the Cuban daily newspaper GRANMA presented a major editorial on this subject, which was also reprinted in another paper, Juventud Rebelde, on the same day, and in the weekly Trabajadores (Workers, the organ of the Cuban trade unions) as well the next week. In order that no one miss the point, I happened to watch the morning news that day, and saw the entire text of that editorial being read out, word for word, by the TV anchor, not once but twice. The main evening newscast
(emision estelar) again presented the same editorial being read, word for word, by Rafael Serrano, the main anchor for the show. There was no way that anyone who paid any attention to the news that day could possibly miss the fact that this was heralding a major campaign by the Cuban government.
In the days which followed, Cuban mass organizations all stepped up to the plate and issued statements on the drug issue. Cuba's leadership is deeply concerned to prevent the spread of a drug culture on the island. In addition to the news coverage and statements by mass organizations, the media also began to present discussions on drugs and other addictions. After my years of seeing the frightening impact of a culture of drug abuse in the United States during my days as a child protective services social worker, I can see how the Cubans don't want anything like this to happen in their country.
There's very little evidence of a drug culture in Cuba as we know it in the United States. I've never seen anyone smoking marijuana in Cuba. Indeed, while I've heard one or two people speak about it, in ten months on the island over the past three years, the most I've seen has been a kid or two with a hat or shirt bearing the familiar image of a marijuana plant. Whatever drug culture there is must be extremely discrete from what I have seen and heard.
There's a certain recognition that addictions in a broader way are significant social problems there. Alcoholism is certainly one of these and is said to be one of the reasons why a new traffic code and new enforcement activities were being implemented.
Remarkably, smoking is also viewed as a problem of some significance, and the term "tobaccoism" has been used in tandem with "alcoholism" to discuss such issues. I wish it were possible to present some of this written material in English, because I saw many articles on this in the Cuban media, but virtually none was translated into English beyond the most important.
Given the role of sugar, rum and tobacco in the island's historic life and culture, taking on such problems has to be a daunting task. Like the need for Cubans to adopt a healthier diet and lifestyle, with more fruits, vegetables and less fats, etc., these are being dealt with through education and consciousness-raising.
A chain of vegetarian restaurants has opened in the past year as well. While expensive by Cuban standards, they are priced in pesos and seem aimed mostly at the Cuban public.
Illegal drugs, on the other hand, and here I'm referring to both marijuana and other, harder drugs, are being dealt with in a very sharply "law and order" manner by the Cuban authorities. I think it may be useful to read that Granma editorial again since it's become a major theme of life on the island right now. This anti-drug campaign is being coupled with stepped-up activity against many other kinds of illegal activity, including unlicensed room rentals, video banks, sales and etc.
It wouldn't surprise me if there isn't some kind of flap developed around this by libertarian types, but so far it hasn't happened. Since the initial round of articles when the anti-drug campaign was first inaugurated, there's been nothing else on it in the US media.
(Since returning to the US I've not of course been able to read the Cuban newspapers in print, and have simply not looked at their websites which are of course available.)
THE CASE OF THE CUBAN FIVE
One of the biggest areas on which the Cuban media pays attention are developments in the case of the five Cubans who were convicted on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage (no actual acts of espionage were alleged or charged against the men) and who are now incarcerated for immense terms. Outside of the Miami area, the case has received virtually no publicity, so the Cuban media and the government officials on the island are doing everything they can to generate some attention to the case and the harsh prison terms meted out to the men.
These five men had, in fact, infiltrated ultra-rightist Cuban exile terrorist organizations and were actively working to obtain information on terrorist activities which these groups have been carrying out against their homeland for over forty years. These groups can publicly boast of the violent acts they have been committing within Cuban territory as recently as just LAST MONTH, and no law enforcement attention is focused on them. When some Cuban hijack planes and bring them to the United States, they are given the red carpet treatment as heroes. All of this goes on at a time when Washington tells us it is waging a war against terrorism in the Middle East.
Earlier this week I attended an excellent meeting at which important steps were taken to bring this case to broader public attention. Attorney Bill Paparian, former mayor of Pasadena, California, and a long- time friend of Cuba, pulled together an impressive gathering at the home of Stanley Sheinbaum and Betty Warner in the Brentwood area of Los Angeles.
The gathering was aimed at winning broader public understanding of the case of the Cuban Five and their efforts to secure a new trial in a jurisdiction outside of Miami, Florida where it was impossible for the men to have any kind of fair trial.
Among those attending were Ramona Ripston, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the SC-ACLU, and California State Senator Kevin Murray (my State Senator!) who authored the recent California State Senate resolution to end the blockade of Cuba. Murray, who had also attended the National Summit on Cuba in September and who has traveled to the island several times, is that rare public official who speaks out against the blockade and does NOT attack the Cuban Revolution. Indeed, he states openly that the black population of Cuba is better off today than it was before the Cuban Revolution, and that the Miami Cuban exiles are the very people who had orchestrated the island's prior historic policies of racial discrimination.
Also in attendance were United Farm Workers Union Vice President Dolores Huerta, National Lawyers Guild local executive director Jim Lafferty, Office of the America's director Blase Bonpane, actors David Clennon and Mike Farrell, and Academy Award- winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler who filed the event.
Film-maker Saul Landau presented an interview he had made on video with Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon two weeks earlier in which he thanked those in attendance for coming out and supporting this case.
Gloria LaRiva, who heads up the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five www.freethefive.org read a personal letter from prisoner Gerardo Hernandez to this meeting thanking those in attendance for their efforts, on behalf of all five of the Cuban men. She announced an effort to gather funds to place a full- page ad in the New York Times, the newspaper of record for the United States. This would be a very costly proposition, but would enable the issue to be brought to a larger public than has been the case to date.
Attorney Leonard Weinglass, now representing Antonio Guerrero on the appeals presented many key aspects of the case, riddled as it is by procedural irregularities and prejudice against the defendants, and took questions from those attending.
Weinglass also spoke on local radio stations and to a public event at Loyola Law School later in the week, as well as appearing on Pacifica Radio affiliate KPFK as well.
The weekend's international anti-war protests are a prime area where people in solidarity with Cuba can work to get out some of the facts about these five Cuban men, imprisoned for their ANTI-terrorist acts. Banners, literature and other activities to help bring the news about this case to the attention of protesters will be part of the protests widely, and their case will also be addressed from the speakers platform.
The Bush administration wants us all to believe that nothing can be done to stop their march toward an escalation of the war leading to an invasion and an occupation of oil-rich Iraq. Back during the Vietnam war period, we were similarly told that the Nixon administration paid no attention to the protests. We later learned that they paid very close attention.
The same situation applies today, which is why we all need to get out and join the protests this weekend.
Walter Lippmann, Moderator, CubaNews