Sunday, January 29, 2012

Socialismo o Muerte

"Socialismo o Muerte!" Socialism or death. The banner hangs across 23rd Street in Vedado, a couple blocks down from Hotel Habana Libre. It is a banner of pride for Cubans who consider their home the last bastion of true socialism, alone in defiance of foreign imperialism and tyranny. For Cuba, socialism is central to the existence of the state and people. Virtually every sign in Havana highlights this fact, and plenty of Cubans are ready to point out to the visiting American the benefits of state-provided health and education.

The grim reality of "Socialismo o Muerte" is beginning to catch up with Cuba. As the country ages and the birthrate remains stagnant, Cuba will find it more and more difficult to maintain the social programs that are considered integral to its identity. The government-provided healthcare system will continue to grow more and more strained as the average age trends upwards and the state of Cuba needs to provide more care than it is able to. While Cuba's low birthrate makes for a lower quantity of education that needs to be provided by the state, the ever-increasing competitiveness of the global marketplace requires Cuba to provide increasingly high quality education if Cubans are to be competitive. Given how important socialism is to Cuba, these programs cannot be scaled back. "Socialismo o Muerte" does not provide the Cuban government with any flexibility, and as socialism becomes more and more difficult to sustain, it grows closer to the unfortunate alternative.

In order to secure hard currency and float the social programs that define Cuba, the government uses a unique, bizarre two-currency system. Tourist and luxury goods are paid for in an alternate currency which is pegged to the dollar and wholly separate from the peso that most Cubans use for everyday goods. This may be an economically sound choice for the government of Cuba, but it comes at a tremendous ethical and ideological cost to the ideal of the Cuban Revolution and what it means to be Cuban.

It is acknowledged that the double currency widens the economic gap between Cuban haves and have-nots, but it also has the danger to separate these two worlds much further. Farmers, professors, and doctors do not have the means to obtain the more valuable tourist currency, and therefore cannot obtain the goods that Cubans who earn tourist dollars can afford. The nightlife scene in Havana provides the most striking example of this problem- as more and more bars adjust prices to what tourists and Cubans earning tourist dollars can afford, going out becomes more cost prohibitive for Cubans that earn pesos.

The double currency has opened a chasm in Cuban society, and runs counter to the goals of a socialist state or any reasonable state in the twenty-first century. Until it is done away with, currency apartheid will continue to decide which Cubans will possess mobility and opportunity, and who will be left out.

American in Cuba: Unfamiliar Territory?

I disembarked from the chartered plane in Havana, Cuba without a complete picture of life in Cuba and without a complete understanding of what I should expect to see and experience once I arrived there. I knew about the blockade (embargo). I knew politically, the country was somewhere between communism and socialism. I knew that they had an impressive healthcare system that attracted patients and students from all over the Americas. Having been to the Caribbean and other places in South America, I could guess what the landscape would be like. While I felt as though I was entering unfamiliar territory, I appreciated being able to put together my own image of Cuba as I went along.

In my image of Cuban, healthcare, education, and propaganda are very important. Ironically, those topics are also important in my image of the United States. In Cuba they have universal healthcare and universal education at a time when in the U.S. both healthcare and education is expensive, and the value of higher education is being questioned.

In Cuba, images relating to the Revolution (which is seen as ongoing in Cuba), defending socialism, and honoring Che, are everywhere. Instead of the commercial advertisements that we would see in the U.S., in Cuba, they appear to be "selling" the Revolution. I felt inundated with government "propaganda". At the same time, however, I recalled how I would wait for a show to record before I watched it so that I could fast-forward through the commercials. I felt inundated with capitalist "propaganda." I even thought about how we as students are instructed to look for peer-reviewed sources and also to have a variety of sources, despite mainstream society often "selling" specific images.

From the outside of Cuba it seemed that Cuba is "sheltered" from other propaganda. To some extent, information is definitely screened and limited for various reasons, but through tourism (people from other countries are allowed to travel to Cuba) and education, other images do get in. Considering the prevalence of very strong opinions towards Cuba despite how little the average American knows about Cuba other than what we have been told, it begs to question the reliability of the information that we as Americans receive and if we are not also being fed our own propaganda.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

4 Cities in 2 days= 1 Amazing Weekend

After a week of informative speakers, exciting activities and various experiences in everyday La Habana (Havana) life, the American University Cuba Troopers (as I have deemed the group) set out to explore more than the Cuban metropolis. Everyone was thrilled to hear that we would be visiting the cities of Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. Early Saturday morning, the group hit the open road starting our four city journey equipped with overnight bags, a knowledgeable tour guide and a freshly scented tour bus. 
City #1 Santa Clara
Santa Clara is a city that boast a rich history and cultural character but most importantly is home of the Ernesto Che Guevara Memorial.  So, as you can tell, the trip was off to a good start.  Our first stop in Santa Clara was the outdoor train car museum.  This outdoor museum is constructed of the original train cars that were carrying Batista’s soldiers and weapons to the city of Santa Clara.  Before the train could reach army barracks, the rebels (with help from the locals) successfully derailed the train, captured Batista’s soldiers and weapons which subsequently resulted in Batista’s flee from power and the country.  These train cars and the infamous bulldozer used to derail the train cars are national symbols of one of the most pivotal victories of the Cuban revolution. 
Pardon the brief history lesson on the Battle of Santa Clara, now back to the regularly scheduled detailing of our weekend trip.
Next we visited the Che Guevera Memorial and Museum. The museum was everything about Che… baby Che, scruffy Che, incognito Che, Che’s weapons, Che’s degree, Che’s asthma inhaler… you get the idea. Next we visited the adjoined memorial that held the remains of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and his revolutionary comrades.
City #2- Sancti Spiritus
We arrived to Sancti Spiritus as dusk was quickly approaching and the group was given a brief tour of the city. We visited the oldest bridge in Cuba, interacted with local Cuban children, bought some Cuban street ice cream, and made our way back to our luxurious hotel. 
Our hotel was located at the central plaza of the city.  At exactly 9pm, speakers placed in the plaza began playing music non- stop until 2 am in the morning.   There was literally a party in the streets.  After we all convened at the hotel’s rooftop bar, the group ventured out to experience the Cuban Weekend Night Life. Some danced the night away, some did Cuban karaoke, some went to a Cuban punk rock concert, some slept, some had moonwalking competitions in the plaza, but all thoroughly enjoyed their one night in Sancti Spiritus.  
City #3 Trinidad
Sunday morning we traveled to Trinidad which was a group favorite [city]. The city was vibrant with colors and culture catching our eyes at every corner. We all enjoyed and needed that change of scenery. First we visited the Sugar Mill Valley where we climbed the watch tower. It was breathtaking. Climbing what seemed to be an infinite amount of steps was literally breath taking but once at the top the view was beautiful. After leaving the Sugar Mill Valley, we visited a famous Cuban tavern, La Canchanchara and sampled the well-known Cuban drink, Canchancara. We had a little free time to explore Trinidad and then we took off for our last city.
City #4- Cienfuegos and the Beach
On our way to the last city on our tour, the group was pleasantly surprised with a VERY brief beach trip. Our beach stay was short, but 15 minutes on a clear blue beach with beautiful weather (in January) was definitely a treat. When we arrived in Cienfuegos we were given time to explore on our own. The city was very quiet and calm providing the perfect ending to our exciting marathon 4 city trip.  I think we all would agree that it was a great weekend getaway.
-          Akosua Dosu

Internet access in Cuba

Buenas Dias

We’ve since returned from Cuba. You may be wondering why the post-trip blogging.

Well, Internet service is a precious gift and not nearly as abundant in Cuba as in other countries. In fact, Cuba boasts one of the slowest connection speeds in the entire world. Using a satellite connection (as the new Venezuelan fiber optic cable is not officially being used) the entire country shares an estimated 245 Mb/s connection speed. For perspective, that is the equivalent of the home connection bandwidth shared by about ten apartments in a D.C. apartment building.

            To ration this resource, connection preference is given to academics, journalists, the government, hospitals, and tourists. This follows a best usage rationale, where people demonstrate a need for the Internet for business purposes (like an academic researching) and then get a level of access to address their need.

A professor at the University of Havana explained in her lecture that her home connection is split in a router with many other professors. This is a dial-up connection. She often finds that important work is done best in the middle of the night because fewer people are trying to work online. Much like sharing a router with roommates, if too many professors try to access the Internet the connection can take hours to do even the simplest of tasks.

This kind of access provided through the government is completely free for the users. Professors at the University of Havana do not pay for either their home access or the access in the office. Other people without the good fortune of having approved access through their place of employment, must find their access in other means. Less than 14% of Cubans have ever used the Internet.

For non-employment access it is very difficult to use as the price is very expensive and largely accessing the Internet lies beyond control choke-points. 

The main choke-point of internet access in Cuba is the currency itself. Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC) is designated for foreigners and people working in the tourism industry.  It is worth about equal to a US Dollar. The Cuban people are supposed to use Cuban Pesos which are worth 1/24th a CUC. Internet cannot be purchased in Cuba using Pesos.  This means even if someone had saved enough local currency to access the internet, the internet café would not let them purchase time on a computer.

One of the biggest black markets in Cuba is the use of CUC by Cuban nationals to gain access to the internet and purchase other goods currently rationed by the Cuban government.  It is very expensive for a Cuban person to buy time on the internet at a hotel, as the prices are slated for wealthy tourists.

To remedy this, some embassies (particularly members of the European Union) and the United States Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy, offer free access to the public. The problem is that even this access may mean reserving a 2 ½ hour block of time over 2 months in advance to use the Internet.  

The sad irony in Cuba is that as one American University classmate updates a Facebook page and gchats with friends at home, somewhere else a professor is watching a digital hourglass as they download a journal article for class.

-Frances Cirenza

Monday, January 23, 2012

State Run Media?

One of the first things that one will notice when arriving in Cuba is the pervasiveness of government messages. Instead of a smattering of advertisements on billboards, the streets are cloaked with messages from Fidel, Ché, and the Cuban Five. In defense of socialism. Bush the Terrorist. Moving beyond still life, you will find cafes and bus stops ripe with rich conversation on the ideals of the Cuban nation. Unfortunately, for Cubans, the media belongs to the government, and thus the ideas that fill the streets are not reflected in the daily news.
There are two daily papers in Cuba, supplemented with one national weekly. At 20 pesetas a piece (0.3 US cents), these 10 page papers are widely consumed. Senior citizens stand anxiously in line hoping to get one of the limited copies, and then resell it later in the day to someone who was unable to make it to the newsstand before opening hours. For most Cubans, this is the extent of their daily (read) news consumption. Once we left Habana, the access and supply to these papers become increasingly more scarce.
For those who do not live in the major port cities, they must rely on TV and radio for their government news. Though telenovelas (similar to soap operas) are the most popular shows the viewing schedule of these shows are contingent upon how much party news is on the agenda for any given day.
I do not mean to be misleading—not all media is government propagated. The black market provides plentiful access for foreign films and media. Small shops lining the main roads are walled with everything from Discovery Channel specials to recent episodes of the Big Bang Theory. Therefore, other medias can be consumed, but it is at one’s own risk: buyer beware. Consumption of this material is not authorized by the government and purchasing of it is a punishable offense.*
*Not actually advertised, simply the sentiments on the streets.
- Becky Walker

Cuban Flags and the U.S. Interest Section

On the first night of our arrival in Cuba we took a walk in the neighborhood surrounding the residence where we were staying.  Along the Malecon, the miles long sea wall, about 50 waving Cuban flags caught everyone’s attention.  We asked our Cuban guide about it and he said it was the US Interest Section behind all the flags and the memorial to the Revolution.  Most of us thought it very interesting that there would be such an exhibit of Cuban patriotism right in front of the US interest section unequivocally marring the beautiful view of the ocean.  This discordant undertone between the two countries continued throughout our lectures and discussions.
The Interest Section is only one of three such U.S. representative institutions in the world.  They are in place in countries where the US has no diplomatic relationship but still has some economic or governmental interests (hence the name).  The other two interest sections are in Iran and North Korea.  They carry on business like an embassy, but in Iran and North Korea they are staffed by the host country nationals and they represent more than just the U.S. but the EU and other countries that do not have embassies in place.  Cuba, on the other hand, is the only interest section that is staffed by US citizens and the only one that has its own building.  The other facilities have offices inside other embassies.  Even in Washington D.C., Cuba has its Interest Section inside the Swiss Embassy.  While in Havana, the interest section occupies the old US embassy but they can only communicate through Swiss Embassy letterheads.  This means that every letter is written on the Swiss Embassy stationary and has a brief introduction that the Swiss Embassy is has received a statement from the US Interest section and so on.

At the end of our two weeks the group had the opportunity to speak with the Deputy Chief of Missions, the title of the Ambassador who is not an Ambassador, John Caulfield and the Public Affairs Officer Gloria Berbena.  This was the first chance we had to see the Cuban relationship with the U.S. from the perspective of the U.S. government.  Before this meeting we had been to discussions and lectures about the Cuba’s policies with the US and Cuba’s thoughts on U.S. policy but now we had a chance to see the other side.  Caulfield spoke to us for about 45 minutes and then answered questions.  His speech touched on topics such as the arrest of Alan Gross and internet access in Cuba.  He said that Cuba development is stalled currently because to change there needs to be both political and economic change.  Caulfield also spoke of the embargo which is the largest issue for Cuba.   He said that Cubans use the embargo as a scapegoat for all their economic troubles when in actuality trade in Cuba would not look any different if it did not exist.  He ended by saying that the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. is at a standstill and that it does not appear that anything will change in the future.  He said that unless Cuba agrees to “keep their mouths shut” about human rights, media and freedom of speech there will be no negotiations or change in policy.  In conclusion,  Cuba’s relationship with the U.S. and future is ambiguous.
Ann Przybyl        

African Religions in Cuba

Before going to Cuba, I read a great deal about Africans brought to Cuba and enslaved in sugar plantations after Haiti’s successful slave revolt in 1802.   Slavery existed as early as the 16th century and peaked in the 19th century, and reached far beyond the confines of sugar plantations, but my story will start in the sugar fields in the 1800s and end in modern-day, contemporary society in Cuba.

Africans were forcibly taken from many regions in Africa, and they brought diverse spiritual beliefs and traditions with them.  They crafted drums, which were central to the practice of their religions, from barrels used to ferment sugar into rum. Drumming and dancing helped diverse groups communicate with one another and to find commonalities between traditions.  Life was harsh and short in the cane fields, which necessitated the constant import of new labor and meant near constant influx of new persons and ideas into enslaved groups on plantations.  The cramped slave quarters were situated away from the slaveholders’ home, so there was space for private practice of traditional religions, though persecution from the Catholic Church eventually drove these practices underground.

Slavery was formally abolished in Cuba late in the 19th century, long after it was abolished in the Americas and in other European colonies.  African religions and traditions had a strong following on the island, and the beliefs were reinforced by new arrivals, some of whom were spiritual leaders in their homeland. Traditional drumming became part of contemporary music, traditional dance moves and styles fused with European (especially Spanish) styles, and the past worked its way into the present, bit by bit.  African traditional religions have been dismissed and repressed by dominant religious forces nearly everywhere; in Cuba, the Catholic Church spurned its practice.  In response, African deities were aligned with saints revered in Catholicism, which created the appearance of adherence to the faith while retaining their own belief systems.  One of these “mixed” traditions is called Santeria, and it is one of the most prominent African traditional religions present in Cuba today.

The practice of African traditional religions is strong in contemporary Cuba, especially in rural areas, and is diverse in origin.  The Palo Monte tradition originated with the Bantu people (who populated Central Africa, parts of Southern Africa and West Africa), the Yoruba tradition from West Africa, Fon from Dahomey (present-day Benin) and Nigeria, Abakua, Ifa, Santeria and other traditions have adherents on the island.  Each tradition has its peculiarities, but they all share similarities.  African traditional belief systems are open, which means they incorporate elements from other religions.  They are also human-centered, which means the gods or deities serve humans instead of humans only serving god(s).  All traditions include rituals to mark stages in the life cycle, from birth to death.  Each uses symbols and has sacred rhythms and rituals.  Though many aspects of the practice of traditional religions are private, an astute observer in modern-day Cuba can see evidence of its practice in even the most public places.

Live music performances are excellent opportunities to glimpse aspects of ancient belief systems originating in Africa and taking new forms in Cuba.  One can hear elements of sacred music through African rhythms played on Congas, bongos and bells, and see movements associated with sacred dances on dance floors and in the streets.  Cuba’s tumultuous history has contributed to a vibrant, beautiful present, which would be cold and empty without the influence of its African roots.

It was an honor to get a glimpse into the “other side” of Cuba, beyond the European influence and into the African, and to hear the musicians live whom I have admired for so long.  I long for the day when Americans can travel to Cuba freely, and I can delve deeper into the music and dance of an island that has preserved its beliefs and traditions in spite of, or perhaps in part because of, its immense suffering.  African traditional religions are central to this beautiful music, and deserve the same recognition and respect as their European and American counterparts.

Shannon Edam