to Disneylandia After Three Months in Cuba
by Walter Lippmann, CubaNews
February 14, 2006
It's just over five weeks since I returned to Los Angeles after another extended visit to Cuba. I got there October 7 and remained until January 7, after which I returned to this city. Aside from simply that I don't like to travel, remaining in one place allows me to get to know it in a deeper way than a quick week or two visiting. Over time I get to know the city of Havana, and, to a lesser extent some of the rural areas which I've visited several times, including on this visit. I like to think of myself as an advanced beginning student of Cuban life. What follows are some thoughts on returning to the United States after another extended visit to Cuba, and some reflections on the situation in Cuba as I observed them during this visit. No claim is made that this is a complete, rounded analysis of what Cuba is like today. These are my own observations which I hope readers will find informative. If you have questions, please write.
Today is Valentine's Day. In the United States, this is primarily an occasion for the merchandising of flowers, candy and ideas about romance and, mostly, fantasies and idealizations of heterosexual marriage. Cuba, a deeply sentimental country, likewise gets very worked up about this day as well. Flowers, ever popular, are probably more bought and sold today than on any other day in the Cuban calendar. I've followed this trend with amusement for years since I started visiting the island. Here's a note about it written four years ago and still timely, including Mary Murray's 2001 article "Cubans pierced by Cupid's Arrow" which you can read here:
In addition to the silly and fun aspects, Cubans look at Valentine's Day in a serious way, too. This is can be understood if you consider how Jose Marti, the apostle of Cuban independence, looked at the day:
Jose Marti and St. Valentine's Day by Pedro Pablo Rodriguez:
Today, the Cuban media marked Valentine's Day in a number of ways, reporting on the various ways Cubans are working to make the world a better place. In Pakistan as in many other places, the Cuban medical teams are marking Valentine's Day basically by being at work. We've got a lovely translation for you from today's Juventud Rebelde newspaper which tells the story of two pairs of Cuban doctors who are working in Pakistan, couples, working as doctors in Cuba's medical aid program in that country. The story mixes romance and public service to humanity in a beautiful way, and it's great to be able to bring it to you on Valentine's Day:
Returning to the U.S. invariably causes me to experience a strong kind of culture shock. While the culture of the two countries has many similarities, there are radical differences as well, and it always takes time to get back into the rhythm of life here in Los Angeles. These differences are things people in Los Angeles simply take for granted and never think about. Last night as I was driving home from a very spirited memorial meeting for that staunch fighter for the First Amendment, Frank Wilkinson, I noticed that so many people were standing at bus stops along Vermont Avenue, waiting for a ride. In Cuba, most such people would have their hands out looking for a lift. Hitch-hiking is a familiar way people have of getting around all over Cuba, but one here in the US no one engages in any longer. I used to hitch-hike in the 1960s, but that's something very few people do here any longer. Cubans also signal for inexpensive taxi rides in the same way as they try to hitch.
Indeed, some in Cuba walk right up to drivers and ask for a ride. It's just normal daily life. In the U.S. people tend to roll their windows up, so afraid are so many of us of strangers on the street. And this isn't without reason, as anyone who's had a derilict walk up to our car and start to clean the windshield without asking our permission first can tell you. Cuba is arguably the safest country in the world, certainly for women. With all the negative publicity Cuba gets in the international media, not to speak of how actively Radio Bemba (Cuba's "grapevine") reports on developments which the Cuban media doesn't report, we'd certainly have heard news of it had their been any such problems by now.
Indeed, hitch-hiking is such a well-developed system in Cuba, and public consciousness of its utility in a transportation-stapped country, that the Cuban government actually organizes the informal system formally. At some intersections around the country you'll even see workers in yellow or blue vests with clip boards calling on government-owned vehicles to stop and give people rides. Can you imagine what would happen in the United States if the government began to organize and encourage hitch-hiking?
After leaving Cuba I stopped for a couple of days in Cancun, which was very, very different. It's Spanish-speaking and has a warm, humid climate for the most part. But it's also a capitalist country with billboards, commerical advertising and private businesses everywhere. I saw little evidence of the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, which battered the city some months ago. From what I could see, business activity was completely normal, though there were some construction sites active which seemed to be recent repairs rather than new construction.
Unlike Cuba, there were numerous internet cafes wherever I looked, certainly in Cancun's tourist districts. All were operating with DSL connections and some seemed to be completely busy on several different occasions. In Cuba the internet is much harder to access and far more expensive, too. In Cancun it cost $1.00 per hour whereas Cuban internet cafes charge $6.00 and hour and only have dialup connections. It seems there's a small Cuban community in Cancun, since I met a number of Cubans in these internet cafes. These were people who've left the island for one or another reason and prefer to live in a Spanish-speaking country. My further impression was that these people who may choose not to live in Cuba nevertheless retain ties to the island and visit it from time to time. One man was co-owner of an internet cafe, another was a customer in a different internet cafe. Interestingly, some of these cafes offer long-distance telephone services, but not all offer the ability to call Cuba. The Cuban man's cafe offered calls to Cuba, at eight Mexican pesos per call, somewhat cheaper than here in the United States.
My flight to Los Angeles was uneventful, and I lucked out and got two empty seats next to mine, so I was able to sleep most of the way. Let me recommend Alaska Airlines for its larger and more comfortable seats in coach class.
In Los Angeles the initial customs check was no hassle. I filled the form which asks the countries you've visited, with Cuba and Mexico. And then I declined to fill out the detailed questionaire which they presented to me. A friend picked me up and took me home. I was, and am, glad to be back. It's really quite cold here in Los Angeles, even though it was unusually cold in Cuba for the last few weeks of my vist there as well. I'm told the chill is gone from Cuba now.
One of the big differences between our two countries is the great difference between the way we receive news. Cuba's news consists of daily newspapers which are normally eight tabloid pages in length and contain no advertising. There are weekly and monthly newspapers and magazines with considerably more pages, and virtually no ads. Virtually every line of print is information and analysis in the Cuban media. It also all follows a single political line, that of the Cuban Communist Party, the country's sole legal political party.
In the United
States the provision of news serves two purposes. In the first place, with most
publications and electronic sources, it's the making of money, a task to which
the provision of analysis and of information is generally subordinated. Though
the great majority of what one receives in your typical daily newspaper in the
United States is commercial advertising, I find I do appreciate having the
ability (and time!) to look through a physical newspaper. Operating the CubaNews
list I see scores of webpages every day and it is easy to miss occasionally
important items scanning so many sources.
The Internet is a technological wonder which makes it possible to find news and information with a few clicks, providing we have the time, a computer, electricity, a telephone line and the ability to pay for all of these, in addition to being able to read and write. One of the things I'm most grateful for is the high-speed access to the net which we can have here in the United States for a relatively modest price. This makes it possible to share information and opinions through the various list serves such as CubaNews and others.
The news from and about Cuba has been very heavy these weeks, and there's going to be a an amount of backup material to come out. It's not going to be possible to send it all out, but there are several areas which should be of considerable interest to readers of these messages and I'm going to send out a significant number of these. Among the stories in this category perhaps the most important is the latest supposed Cuban "spy" story which has appeared in the Miami media. Outside of the Miami media and the Los Angeles Times, there's been virtually no coverage of this case. Even though the two Miami academics have NOT been charged with "spying" or "espionage" in any manner, the media in Miami, led by the Herald but followed by all of the rest, continue to refer to this as a "spy" or "espionage" case.
Outside of Miami, this development has hardly been reported at all. It seems there is an effort by the Bush administration, completely beholden as it is to the Cuban extremist exile militants to stifle the growth of moderate voices in the Cuban community of the United States. Keep in mind that, according to the way the story was presented in the MIAMI HERALD, the accused supposedly "confessed" to being Cuban agents SIX MONTHS AGO, but were only arrested last week and now are being held as a supposed "flight risk" even though they had supposedly "confessed" six months ago. If they didn't flee then, why would they flee now? In any event, it's a very important story and CubaNews will be following it as closely as possible. In any event, at their arraignment, the Cuban-American academics, Carlos and Elisa Alvarez, denied confessing to having been agents of the Cuban government, and we'll be following the story as best we can.
One thing seems obvious, there is a link between the arrests of the academics and the case of the Cuban Five, which is proceeding to a hearing before the full 11th Circuit in a matter of weeks. Certainly a link in time, but what an odd link, since it demonstrates, if anything could, that there cannot be a fair trial for anyone accused of anything linked to Cuba in a place like Miami where people NOT accused of spying are broadly identified in the media as "spies".
There's was an excellent series of short radio documentaries on Cuba recently on Public Radio International's "The World" program. It's somewhat like National Public Radio, but in this case mostly avoids all of the nasty anti-Cuba style which NPR normally brings to its Cuba coverage. Very nicely done series which you'll enjoy: http://www.theworld.org/worldfeature/cuba2/index.shtml
On returning it takes me awhile to decompress. Since returning I've avoided rushing into the regular routine of collecting and sending out large amounts of information, some of it with comments to help frame, contextualize or at least give some indication of what's significant about the material. There's so much material it's actually impossible to send it all. This isn't always a good thing because the quality is rather uneven, but I'm trying to make a useful selection. Sometimes people wonder about the selections of materials for the CubaNews list. How are they made? It's my decision in the end as to what goes out and what doesn't. This list tries to provide a range of news and information, as well as comments and observations, from the Cuban media, from the international media based in Cuba, and from left and alternative media internationally as well. Some of it is informative, some of it is very slanted. Some simply expresses opinions, favorable or unfavorable to Cuba's revolutionary process.
In order for this list to provide a useful service to its readers, I endeavor to provide broad selection of material so that those tho receive this mail get a sense of what's being discussed, debated as well as what's being reported on. I don't agree with everything which I send, but I also don't think it's necessary every time to give an opinion. Please keep in mind that this is simply an e-mail list, an information service, and not a political organization with a "line".
I think the Cuban Revolution is a good thing and hope to contribute to the ultimate normalization of relations between the US and Cuba by providing information with readers can be informed and take what action they deem best to help bring about normalization. I don't expect that to happen any time soon, but it is the goal which is clearly explained at the list's home page. It's useful from time to time to remind readers of what the CubaNews list is, and isn't: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CubaNews/
During these last five weeks I've devoted quite a bit of time to reading some of the many books which piled up in my absence, and there's a massive amount of new books which have come in. Among these, some of the ones most interesting are:
JEWS IN CUBA: The Chosen Island, by Maritza Corrales. Everyone knows that in the aftermath of the Revolution's triumph, many people left after losing personal property or simply because they didn't want to live in a socialist-oriented society. Cuba had been a refuge for some ten thousand Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, including my father and his parents. Indeed, my personal interest in Cuba derives from that family history. While most of the about ten thousand Jews who were present at the time of the triumph left, about 1500 remained. This book contains interviews with thirty six of these people, some of whom were born on the island, while others were immigrants.
AFTER FIDEL: The Inside Story of Castro's Regime and Cuba's Next Leader by Brian Latell. He was a top CIA analyst of Cuba for many decades and was a member of the initial Bush transition commission which met in secret for six months before publishing its May 2004 report. Latell left that group before its report was published for reasons which haven't been explained, but this book might help explain his departure. An implacable opponent of Cuba's revolution, Latell sees a close and collaborative relationship between Fidel and his brother Raul. Indeed, Latell assumes that should Fidel die and Raul succeeds him (as already authorized under the Cuban constitution), that the transition will be smooth. He thinks, and says, that Raul wants to improve relations with Washington and to turn Cuba into something analagous to the system in China. The book includes very enthusiastic blurbs by people like the former CIA director George Tenant, former drug czar Barry McCaffrey, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castanenda and Jeane Kirkpatrick.
One element striking by its absence is any discussion of such aspects as the terrorist activities from Miami aimed at Cuba by people such as Bosch, Posada and so on. Regardless of readers' opinions of the political views of an author like this, his years of work for the CIA and the enthusiastic comments it's received make it an important book to be familiar with. It's one which will be circulated widely among those circles and one which those who support Cuba's right to solve its own problems without meddling from abroad should be familiar with.
LETTERS OF LOVE AND HOPE from the Cuban Five. A collection of letters from the five Cubans languishing in U.S. prisons for their work in the United States monitoring the activities of right-wing Cuban exile militants in Miami. On this Valentine's Day there was a hearing before the 11th Circuit Federal Court in Atlanta, Georgia in which attorneys for the five met and confronted attorneys for the federal government. The attorneys were hopeful after the hearing, and a decision there is expected in two months. Here's a report on the day's development from Bernie Dwyer, the Irish journalist who works at Radio Havana Cuba. She has brought many detailed and eloquent reports as the case has been evolving. Here's her report from today's hearing:
STORIES OF MARTA VENARANDA by Sonia Rivera-Valdes, a series of short stories by
a Cuban-American author who travels frequently to the island and won a Casa de
las Americas prize for her fiction a few years ago. These stories cover a range
of aspects of women's lives and relationships.
COMRADES IN MIAMI by Jose Latour. This is a novel about a Cuban intelligence officer, indeed the head of the Miami Desk of Cuban intelligence who decides, with her husband, to electronically rip off the Cuban state and then defect. The couple aren't political defectors, just demoralized people who cleverly make the big score, but their lives go downhill from there. As described in this book which makes them the protagonists, these are a pair of thoroughly unsavory types. This author has recently himself broken with Cuba. His break was celebrated with a flattering feature about him in the Wall Street Journal some weeks ago, at just about the time Evo Morales won the Bolivian presidency by an overwhelming majority.
With all the of trials in and related to Miami, from the Cuban Five appeal due to be heard shortly, the trial of Santiago Alvarez, the supporter of terrorist Posada Carriles, the trial of Carlos and Elsa Alvarez, the academics who've been accused of being Cuban agents, and the matter of Posada Carriles himself who is currently being detained in a Texas immigration facility, you'd think there would be substantial national coverage of these events in Miami, but it hasn't been the case at all. Just as the Cuban Five case itself has been all but absent from the national media, the new round of cases has likewise been restricted to coverage in the Miami Media, with the exception of a series in the Los Angeles Times, and some coverage in the left media.
Awhile back 1.4 million Cubans responded to the government's call to mobilize in protest demanding the extradition of Posada Carriles from the United States to Venezuela, in support of the call for freedom for the Cuban Five and a new trial for them outside of Miami if they're not released, and in broad support for the policies of their government. This was the largest such mobilization in quite some time on the island, held in front of the U.S. Interests Section building on the Malecon. Washington tried to take advantage of this using its building to flash quotations from people like Martin Luther King, Jr, but ones selectively chosen to try to stir hostility among Cubans toward the Cuban government. Fidel Castro and other officials denounced this as a violation of the purposes for which diplomatic facilities are used, and there's been a raft of news articles and editorials in the US media denouncing Cuba over this. We're already seeing a raft of news articles about this. In the international media, the tone is as usual, another basis on which to attack Cuba's system.
Further, Washington backed off of its effort to exclude Cuba from playing in the World Baseball Classic, and the Cuban team is now set to play. The effort to exclude Cuba made Washington look ridiculous all over the world. Even sports writers in the United States, usually a very conservative, patriotic group, wrote strongly against the US exclusion of the island's team. Cuba's teams have often dominated in international Olympic play, so excluding Cuba meant preventing the best teams from competing.
Keeping the championship Cuban team out was yet another step in the decades-long efforts by Washington to maintain the climate of hostility toward Cuba in the Miami/South Florida area. Now that this has been turned around, we have already seen immediate steps by the same forces to try to creat provocations against the Cuban team, and to encourage some Cubans to defect in hopes that they can make more money playing professional baseball in the United States.
I watched and listened to George W. Bush's State of the Union address for 2006. It struck me as odd to hear Bush say, "In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting -- yet it ends in danger and decline." Later on he even said this: "America rejects the false comfort of isolationism."
Bush and his administration who have done more than anyone before to ISOLATE the people of the United States, and particularly the Cuban- American people of the United States, FROM Cuba. That's the meaning of the Bush re-definition of the Cuban family to exclude aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins, and to deny Cubans in the United States their right to visit even those relatives permitted for a mere two weeks every THREE YEARS. Talk about isolationism!!! Cuba has plenty of problems, including internal corruption and various unresolved social, economic and other problems, but Cuba doesn't keep people from the US out. People from the US are completely welcome in Cuba
Bush's main international target was the government of Iran, which he singled out for harsh criticism for what he called its plans to build nuclear weapons. Then later in the speech he spoke about expanding what he called "clean, safe nuclear energy." Nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, none of them are clean or safe. Only one country has actually used such weapons in the history of the world: the United States. Washington's desire to instruct the world as to what it can and cannot do is simply its way of saying that it, and only it, should have the final say for the rest of the world on what it has the right to do and build. Bush says that Iran is building nuclear weapons. The same Bush said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and now we know that it did NOT have them.
Bush's claim to be a champion of democracy all over the world was well- described in a cartoon in a recent L.A. Times by Mr. Fish. It shows Bush holding a newspaper up with the headline: HAMAS THE BOSS and Bush saying: "This is why we only support democracies that we have complete control over."
In a laboratory-pure example of life imitating art, in his State of the Union Address delivered that evening, Bush said: "The Palestinian people have voted in elections. And now the leaders of HAMAS must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace." To Bush, democracy is certifiable if you do what we tell you you must do.
This does help explain to people everywhere just what Washington means when it says it wants to bring democracy to the rest of the world, and to Cuba in particularly. Iran's government was democratically elected. Chavez's government and Evo Morales's government were also elected, and now the Palestinians have said "no" to their occupation in even louder and clearer terms than ever.
Bush's defense of Washington's domestic spying programs - he says that it's legal and it's only against terrorists, so it's OK, is belied by the fact that there are terrorists walking around freely in Miami today, such as Rudolfo Frometa of Comandos F-F, and Orlando Bosch, co-author with Luis Posada Carriles of the Cubana bombing of 1976 over Barbados. Posada himself, a publicly-acknowledged terrorist, is at the moment only detained (the term seems to suggest he's a bit late for dinner) on a charge of illegal entry into the United States, not for the crimes he's notorious for having commmitted. This is in addition to Washington's failure to respond to Venezuela's extradition request, made on the basis of treaties between Washington and Venezuela going back as far as 1922.
Bush's State of the Union address may be read here:
Coming back to the United States I have been observed the big problems this society has in accepting alternatives to the dominant heterosexual paradigm. Moves by rightist groups with the support of the president of the United States, and most of the top leaders of the Democratic party, to ban gay marriage continue apace. At the same time, these issues are being discussed and debated on the cultural level, though such vehicles as the movies BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and TRANSAMERICA. Cuba is taking some very positive steps in these areas too. At the December meeting of the Cuban national assembly, discussion took place on the need to take up the rights of trans-gendered people. Here are two major articles on these themes translated for CubaNews from the Mexican daily LA JORNADA, translated to English for CubaNews:
Cuban Parliament considers legal recognition
of the rights of transsexuals (La Jornada)
Wendy: Living in the wrong body (La Jornada)
For dressing like a man: A new Book on Transexuality.
(The translation of this, by a Cuban website, is very, very awkward, but you'll have no trouble grasping the drift of this.)
Another area I tend not to think about when in Cuba, but which looms very large when I return is the incredible level of violence which is so pervasive in this society. In recent weeks's we've heard reports of another one of the periodic shootouts at post-offices, police deemed to have acted within policy when fatally shooting children, a family in Compton, California held hostage and terrified for their lives and many, many more. This is in addition to those state-organized killings which have the more sanitized designation of "capital punishment" but these are but a few of the numerous examples we could cite. There is a small amount of social violence in Cuba, too. I think that the Cuban media tends to go overboard in response to the scandal-sheet style of journalism which existed prior to the Revolution. Murders simply are not reported in the Cuban media at all, though they do occur from time to time, as they do in any human society.
Week before last I attended a large memorial meeting for Frank Wilkinson, a long-time fighter for social justice, and for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps four hundred friends, families and others in the activist community came out to celebrate his life. Though there was nothing said about Cuba in the meeting, many people who've been to Cuba and who are supporters of Cuba came out to salute this wonderful and courageous man. I don't know if Frank ever visited Cuba, but he certainly would have been a supporter of everyone's right to travel there.
And then there was a similar memorial meeting here in Los Angeles for Schafik Handal, long-time leader of the Communist Party of El Salvador (he joined in 1944), and later one of the founders of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement which organized an armed struggle for over a dozen years in that country. Most recently Handal had been presidential candidate of the FMLN in his country's last presidential election. He was defeated for a raft of reasons (redbaiting and the threats by the US to cut off family remittances should the FMLN have won), but he remained an awesome public presence. He literally died at the airport after returning from Bolivia where he attended the inauguration of Evo Morales as president of Bolivia. There were some 3-400 people, virtually all Salvadorans at this memorial meeting held in a large Methodist Church in the central city area. This meeting was conducted primarily in Spanish, the first language of the majority of those president. Speakers at the meeting included supporters of the Nicaraguan FSLN and Guatemalans from that country's revolutionary left forces. They spoke very strongly, including making forceful comments in support of Cuba for the island's role backing the Salvadoran fight for self-determination, of which Shafik Handal was a central leader. This is one of the many ways in which the Cuban Revolution's influence is felt widely in this country, though it's not apparent to English- speakers.
2005 has been declared the Year of the Energetic Revolution in Cuba. Many changes are being made in the island's ways of both obtaining and providing energy to the Cuban people. These involve rooting out the corruption which had become widespread in the island's distribution system for gasoline. Upgrading the island's electricity distribution system and plans to eliminate blackouts are going ahead full-tilt.
For more details on this: Why Cuba is Undertaking an Energy Revolution By Istvan Ojeda Bello posted to the Radio Havana Cuba website http://www.radiohc.cu/ingles/especiales/enero06/especiales31ene.htm
In addition to the energy issues, and connected to them, is the ongoing struggle against internal corruption which has been discussed publicly in the Cuban media since Fidel Castro's speech focusing on the November 17, 2005 at the University of Havana. Fidel had many other areas to discuss, and it's simply impossible to summarize that speech and its importance in a paragraph or two or even in an article or two. But he does talk about major issues, problems and preoccupations, from corruption, to the energy problems the island has been having, and Cuba's distinctive rationing system, known as the "libreta", by the small book which Cubans have and use to obtain heavily-subsidized food and other domestic necessities. Fidel even took up the question of whether or not the Revolution can continue to survive. His answer will surprise you: it's open ended. Amazingly, he doesn't end his speech with the usual triumphal "Patria o muerte! Venceremos.!
You can read Fidel's complete text in English in either of two formats: one or two column:
Two-Column Word Format, 33 pages:
The Cuban media doesn't feature debates in the sense that readers in the United States and other advanced capitalist countries would think of the. You won't find counterposed viewpoints in the Cuban media, so Cubans mostly do their discussing, debating and arguing among themselves in informal ways. Cubans rarely talk to me about "life after Fidel", a topic about which Western journalists and foreign visitors seem to obsess. Of course it's one I'm interested in, too, having spent the majority of my life involved in political activities where Fidel and the Cuban Revolution was one of the key factors.
Fidel's speech has evoked further reflections both inside and outside the country. We've got a pair of articles discussing these by the German professor, activist and long-time Cuba supporter Heinz Dietrich, and a response by the Cuban historian Jesus Arboleya. In addition, there's what I think of as an especially significant commentary by Francisco Soberon Valdes, the President of Cuba's national bank. Soberon takes up some of the more difficult problems facing the country, including the effects of corruption on Cuban society and the fact that, even after all these years of the "special period", there are Cubans who manage to live without employment, in one way or another. You'll definitely want to read these materials to get a fuller understanding of how Cuba is facing its challenges.
Heinz Dietrich: Cuba: Three Premises to Save the Revolution When Fidel Dies
Jesús Arboleya: Heinz Dietrich and the "Salvation" of the Cuban Revolution
Francisco Soberon: For Cubans, Socialism is not a chance option:
Here in Los Angeles, in order to save money, I've begun to replace some of my incandescent bulbs with the more energy-efficient compact fluorescent varieties, but I have to pay for my bulbs. In Cuba the social workers who are coming around take the old ones and give out the new ones for nothing. Here, of course, we have to pay for our compact fluorescents...
The CubaNews is is going to continue to bring its readers important news from, about and related to Cuba. It will continue to bring translations of materials from the Cuban media about a range of social, cultural and political issues of interest. There's plenty of work to be done and I'd like to once again invite any readers with Spanish skills who'd like to volunteer to help us bring out more translations from the Spanish-language media about Cuba for the readers of these messages.
Another one of the wonderful things we have here in Los Angeles is the annual Pan African Film Festival which these last few years has been held over a ten-day span at the Magic Johnson theaters. This festival always features a number of films from and about Cuba. This year is no exception, with Roble De Olor (Scent of Oak), the Cuban film featuring Jorge Perugorria which takes up racism in Cuba during the time when slavery was legal on the island is being shown. LOVE & SUICIDE which had its Los Angeles premiere is a feature by a Cuban-American author who, while not a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, violated various government policies and went to shoot his film on the island. Now he's got into trouble with OFAC and is fighting back against them. His work, a feature which takes up the chance encounter of two young people from the United States with one another and with a Cuban taxi driver, includes lots of lovely footage of Havana. It's absurd that U.S. filmmakers are forbidden to go to the island to make movies. U.S. movies, the good, the bad, the sublime and the obnoxious are greatly appreciated by Cubans on the island. I hope that Luis Moro, the author, producer and one of the stars of this film wins broad public support in his fight with OFAC for the right to travel to Cuba.
Leaflet for the showing at the Pan African Film Festival here:
Film-maker's own website with trailers and etc:
The full schedule for the entire festival can be found here:
TRAVEL TO CUBA
Licensed travel to Cuba has been virtually eliminated by the policies of the Bush administration. Cuba today is the only country on the planet earth where U.S. citizens have to request permission and a specific license from the federal government in order to visit your mother or father, your sister or brother, or your children, and then you can only do this once every three years. One of the small exceptions is the religious license, through which followers of various religious faiths have been able to visit the island to follow their own beliefs. This area has recently come under attack by the Bush administration too, which recently shut down one of the largest agencies will booking travel to Cuba out of Miami. Practicioners of the Afro-Cuban syncretic religions such as Santeria have been able to travel to Cuba under this license, and it is these people, primarily though not entirely black, who are being affected by these restrictions.
It's important to defend the rights of religious people to travel to Cuba, and it's important, I think, for all of us to understand the simple idea that "an injury to one is an injury to all. Everyone should of course be free to travel to the island whether they follow any religious practice or not, but taking away the rights of some to travel is something everyone who believe in the right to travel should strongly oppose. There has been some good publicity put out about this by the Latin American Working Group, a congressional caucus devoted to improving relations with Cuba, and you can read an article about the religious license which was posted to the CubaNews list here:
One of the ways Washington has succeeded in limiting travel from the United States to Cuba is to make the regulations so onerous that it's all but impossible to go. Many people don't want to take the risk of receiving threatening mail, fines, needing to contact attorneys and so forth. For those individuals, licensed travel remains a good option. Well-organized tours can give people who haven't been to Cuba before and don't know their way around a good broad overview of many aspects of Cuban life. Those who qualify should strongly consider participation.
Recently I found a half-page ad from Temple Beth Shalom, which describes itself as a progressive conservative congregation, in Chula Vista, California. It appeared in the Jewish Journal, the main weekly newspaper in the Jewish community of Los Angeles advertising a trip to Cuba from March 17-22, 2006. This is a pretty pricey visit at $3380.00 for the one-week trip originating in Miami. Keep in mind that some of the money will be donated to the Jewish community's institutions in Cuba. For those who can qualify under the regulations, and who have the time and money, you can get a good overview of Havana and of the Jewish community there.
FROM TEMPLE BETH SHALOM of Chula Vista, California:
March 17-22 2006
Discover Cuba during this once in a lifetime trip and reunite with the last remaining 1500 Jews in Cuba. During this United States Government approved trip, the group of Americans who travel to Cuba will have the chance to help influence the future of Jewish political rights in Cuba and observe life on this tropical Caribbean island.
All accommodations for the group are First Class: Private, chartered jets to Havana, Cuba; hotel accommodations at Cuba’s Premier 5 star resort, the Melia Havana; daily gourmet breakfast buffets as well as private lunches at restaurants throughout Havana. All transportation in Cuba is aboard private luxury coaches and translators and guides will be with you to assist with any and every need during your stay.
To receive more information call (949) 838-7156 or go to www.usatocuba.com
WEBSITE OF TEMPLE BETH SHALOM:
It is unclear when the first Jews arrived in Cuba, some arrived after the expulsion from Spain in 1492. According to popular lore, three came with Columbus: Luis de Torres on the Santa Maria, Juan de Cabrera on La Pinta, and Rodrigo de Triana on La Nina. All three were Marranos, or forced Jewish converts to Catholicism. Francisco Gomez de Leon, a Jew, was put on trial during the Inquisition in Havana. He was later executed in Cartagena and his large fortune was confiscated. There is little information about Jews in Cuba until the late 19th century, when a larger Jewish community was formed.
Cuban Jews were involved in all aspects of Cuban society and economy. Jews were instrumental in the sugar cane business; they brought the sugar cane from Madeira to Brazil and to the Antilles. Jews also were the first ones to use a protective cloth used when growing tobacco to protect the plants from sun and wind. These protective coverings are still used today to produce the highest quality tobaccos leaves in the world.
Many Jewish traders pursuing business in the New World set up outposts on the island. In 1898, after the Spanish-American War, Jews established a permanent presence. American Ashkenazi Jews born in Romania and Eastern Europe came to Cuba to work for U.S.-owned plantations and businesses. In 1904, Cuba's first synagogue, the United Hebrew Congregation, was founded. A large number of Jews immigrated to Cuba from 1910 until 1920, including Sephardic Jews from Turkey. Many of these Jews came from Eastern Europe and used Cuba as a stopover en route to the United States, which had a strict quota system at that time. Many decided to stay since there was little anti-Semitism in Cuba, as well as good weather. Many of the new immigrants from Europe prospered in Cuban’s garment industry. By 1924, there were 24,000 Jews living in Cuba.
In the 1930's, a Central Jewish Committee was founded for all the Jewish groups in Cuba. Jews continued to seek asylum in Cuba during the Holocaust. One Havana-bound German liner, the St. Louis, was denied access and the Jews were unable to depart from the ship. In 1944, Jews from Antwerp who were able to find refuge in Cuba began a diamond-polishing business. In 1952, only 12,000 Jews were living in Cuba.
Havana has the largest Jewish community in Cuba. During its height, more than 12,000 Jews lived in Cuba and, of that, 75 percent lived in Havana. Havana had five synagogues (including one Sephardic synagogue built in 1914), a Kosher restaurant, one Jewish high school and five Jewish elementary schools. At the time of the Revolution in 1959, Cuba’s Jewish population peaked at 15,000 people.
Approximately 94 percent of Cuba’s Jewish population fled after the Revolution. Some settled in Israel, thanks to secret diplomatic efforts made by the Canadian government. Although the Castro led revolution was not directed against Jews, it destroyed the economic stability of Cuban Jewry, which was primarily middle class private business oriented. The reason for the flight was not anti-Semitism, but the economic shift from capitalism to communism. The majority of those who remained were either firm believers in the communist system that frowned on religious practice, were intermarried with strong non-Jewish family attachments, or were too poor to leave. Either way, they were concerned for their economic welfare if they would be labeled “Believers.” Thus most Jews let go of their religious practices and those born after 1955 were too young to have ever experienced any form of Judaism.
An interesting mix of cultural freedom and anti-Zionist feelings prevailed in Cuba. Cuban Jews were discriminated against, along with other Cubans who were members of religious groups. Jews and Christians and other religious people had restricted access to jobs and universities.
Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, along with other Third World countries. Israel considered Cuba to be one of its worst enemies in the United Nations. Repeatedly, Cuba participated in embargoes and sanctions against Israel and voted for the infamous resolution stating "Zionism equals racism."
In the late 1960's, a number of Jews were sent to forced labor camps for political dissenters, religious peoples, gays and exit applicants. Jewish activists were under constant surveillance. Due to this atmosphere, Jewish life suffered in Cuba, but never disappeared. Jews still could pray in shuls and attend Jewish Sunday schools. In the 1970's, the synagogue in Santiago, the school in Havana and the Zionist Union of Cuba were closed. Another synagogue in Havana, the United Hebrew Congregation, was abandoned in the 1980's.
Throughout the 1980's, the Patronato, Havana’s main synagogue, could barely recruit a minyan. Some Jewish families continued to practice Judaism at home and celebrate the major holidays. Cuban Jewry faced increased assimilation and its elders were worried about the community’s future.
In the early 1980's, the Tikkun Olam Hebrew Sunday School opened in Havana to address the needs of Cuba’s disappearing, young, Jewish population. The school grew with time, due to the leadership of Dr. Moises Asis, the principal and one of Cuba’s few Jewish educators.
In recent years the Jewish population has continued to survive but has remained very small. There are efforts in Cuba by community leaders to help revive the religion today, but resources are slim. Right now the most important thing for the survival of the faith is help from the outside world. This is very limited though due to political relations between the United States and Cuba.
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