Friday, May 24, 2019

3252. Short Story: Between Dream and Reality: My First Visit to Cuba

By Kamran Nayeri, May 21, 2019
A festive May Day crowd on the Malecon, in front of Hotel Nacional, Havana, 2004.  
As the Cubana de Aviación's Antonov An-24 44-seat twin turboprop plane took off from the Cancún airport for José Mari International Airport in Havana I was filled with a feeling of joy.  A dream of my political life to visit revolutionary Cuba was about to be fulfilled. 

Suddenly, smoke rose from the floor of the cabin. My heart sank! “Would we make it to Havana?” I asked myself instantaneously.  One look around the cabin and I saw flight attendants busy going after their post take-off tasks. A few of other passengers had a look of concern on their faces. But others seemed unconcerned. A man across the isle from me  s loudly said: “Sorry but that is how it is!”  I did not understand what exactly he meant until later when someone explained to me that the collision of the colder air pumped into the cabin by the air conditioning system with the hot and humid Cancùn air that had filled the cabin when we boarded the plane from a ladder on the tarmac had caused instant condensation that appeared as “smoke” rising from the floor of the cabin.

With my mind at ease once again, I returned to my dream dreaming about what I am about to witness when we arrive in Havana just as the plane made it across the blue sky over the Yucatan channel where Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sea meet.  

I was on my way to the Conference of North American and Cuban Philosophers and Social Scientists, a five-day event at the University of Havana, in June of 1994. Professor of philosophy Cliff DuRand, a member of Radical Philosophy Association, organized these annual conferences in collaboration with some Cuban philosophers and socialist scientists.  While such conferences did serve an academic purpose, they also provided a venue to circumvent the inhumane U.S. embargo laws that were meant to suffocate the Cuban people and their revolution while at the same time taking away the right of U.S. citizens and resident to travel as we please. Only a very limited number of U.S. citizens and residents could have visited Cuba legally for family, business, journalistic, or academic reasons or they would have to ask for a special permit to travel from the Treasury Department. Thus, many thousands of Americans visited Cuba illegally every year.

Not an hour had passed when land appeared in the horizon and the plane circled and landed in the modest José Marti International Airport just south of the city of Havana.  The customs and immigration did not take much time as the airport was not busy.  Knowing full well that some U.S. residents may be traveling despite the embargo laws Cuban immigration officers asked us whether we want their visa issued on a separate sheet.

Hotel Colina
More than a dozen conference participants were on the same flight. As Cliff had suggested we had made reservations to stay in the same hotel in Cancún for the night before our departure for Havana.  For decades there was no direct flight to Cuba from the U.S. due to the U.S. embargo. So travelers from the U.S. had to take a plane to Cuba from the neighboring countries with Cancún being the most favored airport as both Cuban or Mexican airlines have regular flights to Havana.

As I walked out the Josė Marti airport building, I took in the hot and lightly musky air that was more humid than in Cancún.  Two Cuban guides, Eduardo and Ramon, holding a sign welcomed us one by one and boarded everyone on an air conditioned bus that traveled nine miles through to the north side of Havana to Hotel Colina, a budget hotel frequented by visitors to the University of Havana that was just a couple of blocks away.  The hotel has five floors with guest rooms and the lobby floor include a small restaurant and bar on the left side. Located at calle L e/ 27 y Jovellar, in Vedado neighborhood in the norther part of Havana, it is strategically as they are many cultural locations for a visitor to explore nearby. 
A map of Vedado neighborhood

At the hotel lobby we were assigned to a room, typically two persons to a room (except for those who paid extra for a single occupancy room). I was assigned a room with a young philosophy student named Mike who I came to like a lot as we spent a lot of time discussing not only the Cuban revolution but also U.S. politics. 

It was still early afternoon and after lunch we were invited to go for a walk in the historic Habana vieja (Old Havana), a gem of colonial architecture with a number of hotels, restaurants and bars, but also cultural, political, and administrative institutions.  Because it is the hub of Cuban tourism there are also street artists and vendors who try to make a living off the tourists who go by. For me the entire experience was a novel journey as experiencing minutia of daily happenings is to a toddler.

Alas, there were also small boys who followed us around asking for our pens and pencils. I found it extremely distressful despite having prepared for it on an intellectual level. I knew fully well that I was traveling to Cuba in the midst of its great depression caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc which had provided it with two decades of favorable trade and credit relations as a member of the Council of Mutual Economic Cooperation (CMEA).  Later I learned that the real GDP had contracted at an average annual rate of 10 percent from 1990 to 1993 and that June 1994 when we were in Cuba the economy had hit the bottom.
The impact of the economic crisis was comparable to the Great Depression in the United States except Cuba was also facing an intensification of the U.S. embargo that Washington hoped would hasten the collapse of the Cuban revolution. It was later that I learned about the extent of hunger and malnutrition that set off the epidemic of optic and peripheral neuropathy which occurred in Cuba during 1992–1993 affecting over 50,000 people.

A conversation at the bar
After dinner I accompanied Mike and another U.S. participants to a bar nearby for a mojito. It must have been about 9 or 10 o’clock at night and there were no table seats. I sat by myself at the bar next to a young Afro-Cuban woman and ordered a mojito. After exchanging pleasantries in my very limited Spanish, the young woman began to speak in English asking me why I was there in Havana. I briefly mentioned the conference but went on to express my admiration for the Cuban revolution in part because I wanted to ask her about  the children I had seen in Habana vieja. 

As if she too was glad to find "an American" to ask her questions about Cuba, she quick went from the question about the children to her view about the failure of socialism. Alluding to my reference to Che Guevara’s vision of socialism, she dismissed it as a dream that has failed miserably not just in the Soviet bloc but also in Cuba. She told me that she is at the bar looking for men who want to have a good time. 

In her view, socialism was a lie perpetuated by a regime that had enriched itself at the expense of the Cuban people whose basic material needs are not met. She dismissed my argument about the gains of the Cuban revolution from achieving independence from Washington to provision of education, health care, housing, and culture for ordinary Cubans.  But to her mind, Cuba had exchanged one master for another--United States for the Soviet Union. To her mind the U.S. has proven resilient and successful in providing all that a consumer could demand. While the "communist" model followed by Cuba has proved in crisis as in full display now and where the population's needs for consumer goods are not met and can not be met.  Not being able to voice their grievances, she claimed, dissident like her had no choice but try to escape. 

Meanwhile, she said she was selling the only thing she had that was marketable, her body. She was looking for a man to take her out of Cuba, preferably to the United States.

Of course, I was not the right pick for her.  I left the bar in a daze to return to my room. That night I did not sleep well and when I did fall asleep, I had anxiety dreams about Cuba and about socialism. 

A question of philosophy
One of our guides and interpreters was a young tall man with a thin mustache named Alberto (I do not recall his last name).  Alberto was a professor of philosophy and like other highly educated Cubans he was using his language skill as a way to make the much needed extra-income in the tourism industry. One day as part of our daily excursions to see various aspects of the progress of the Cuban revolution, we visited the Technological University of Havana José Antonio Echeverría which was established in 1964 as part of the effort to develop and industrialize the Cuban economy.  During the visit, we met with several professors at the university who told us about its history, mission, and curriculum.  Included in the presentation was a reference to a faculty of philosophy at the university. In the discussion that followed, I asked why a technical college has a faculty of philosophy. I prefaced my question by noting that there in no parallel in the United States. In fact, interest in philosophy among curriculum designers and students alike has been on a decline even in liberal arts colleges. I also noted that this was not always the case as at the turn of the twentieth century a liberal arts major in the U.S. was required to take two courses in philosophy. Today, philosophy is no longer a requirement except, of course, for philosophy majors. The response to my question was rooted in the 1960s view in Cuba that socialist development required a philosophical vision of humanity and no technological innovation and introduction to advance the humanity can be considered and accomplished properly without it. This response impressed me.  So did the meeting we had with the representatives of the
Cuban Association of Persons with Disabilities (La Asociación Cubana de Limitados Físico - Motores--ACLIFIM) who told us about a new policy to ensure all new constructions are wheelchair accessible. The visit ended with a basketball game between two teams of disabled players.  

I was similarly impressed in our delegation's visit to Hospital Psiquiátrico de La Habana Comandante Doctor Eduardo Bernabé Ordaz Ducunge.  Established outside of Havana in 1857 as Casa General de Dementes de la Isla de Cuba, before the 1959 revolution it was known for its cruel treatment of its patients.  What we saw in 1994 was an entirely different place. The hospital was on a well-landscaped estate with a number of building. We observed patients who were working in the garden or playing games or being groomed.  In my own work experience, I had visited a number of psychiatric hospitals where the patients ward was more like a prison with locked door.  In 2010, 26 patients in the same hospital died of freezing cold. The hospital management was tried, convicted, and sentenced for their negligence.

Bread and ideology
Alberto had become friends with Mike and me and after our visit to the technical college he invited us to his apartment.  On our way, I bought a loaf of bread to munch on as we were almost past the lunch time. When we got to Alberto’s apartment that was on the second floor of the building, I discovered what is very common in Cuba. He and his wife and their son shared the small apartment with his parents.  It is still quite common to find three generations of Cubans to live in a small dwelling.  At the same time, no Cuban is homeless. Home ownership is about 86% and those who rent by law pay no more for rent than 10% of their wages.

When we sat down I placed the loaf of bread wrapped in paper on the coffee table in the center of the room and offered it to everyone. All said they just had lunch: “Gracias!” We stayed for about 20 minutes exchanging pleasantries and engaging in small talk which Alberto helped to interpret. We were asked and provided with water. But there was nothing else. When we got up to leave I noticed the bread was all gone as each of Alberto’s family took a small piece starting with the little boy.  They were obviously more hungry than I was.
On the way back we ran into a friend of Alberto who also spoke English. We talked a little and soon we learned that he like Alberto was a volunteer in Angola to fight the South African Apartheid army.  A discussion erupted between Alberto and his friend about the wisdom of Cuba’s support for the ruling People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the war against the insurgent anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) that was supported by the United States and South Africa. The war lasted until 2002 when MPLA forces with the support from the Cuban volunteer armed forces prevailed after the Cubans decisively defeated the South African forces in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, August 1987- March 1988.

Alberto’s friend argued that the MPLA government has refused to send much needed oil to Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet bloc thus proving it was an unworthy ally for Cuba’s sacrifice. Alberto countered that Cubans in Angola were on an internationalist mission not because they expected material return for their sacrifices, and that Cuba's campaign played a significant role in the downfall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. 

The socialist cake
One of the Cuban professors at the conference invited a few of us to his house for his son's birthday party. I bought a bottle of good rum for the party. They had a good size house for a Cuban family. The festivities were centered in what might have been a large dinning room with a large table in the middle. But there was nothing to eat or drink on the table. Salsa music was being played and people congratulated the little boy who was busy playing with friends his age. The rum that I brought was very much welcomed by the adults and in no time it was consumed.  When it was time to sing the "happy birthday" song for the little boy someone brought in a good size cake which was decorated for his birthday. By tradition or by law the Cuban government provided a birthday cake to everyone on their birthday. Despite shortages, this was still honored at least for children. The cake with a candle on top of it make the little boy very happy.

Workers’ control and management
We also visited
the Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas where the world-famous habanos cigars are produced and is housed in a well-preserved industrial building dating from 1845 in Habana Vieja.  Our guide was a leader of the union at the factory where production is still artisan like with highly skilled workers prepare cigars one by one.  During the tour, in response to a question, the union leader told us that factory managers are assigned by the ministry of industry.  That is also true of all Cuban state enterprises and raises the  question of centralization of power relations in the economic and political spheres. To my mind, it was a problem that three decades after embarking on the task of socialist construction there was little sign of workers’ control in the cigar factory and no sign of their management of it.  This reality did not sit well with Marx's conception of self-organization and self0activity of the working class or with the idea of teaching philosophy to future engineers because the revolution must be guided by its philosophical vision.

Embargo and socialism
My visits to Cuba has always included a health policy focus. Since 1987 when I began teaching health care policy seminars at the State University of New York: Health Science Center at Brooklyn, I had offered a seminar on comparative health care systems.  The seminar began with an examination of the U.S. health care system and its problems and then surveyed the British, German, Canadian, and Cuban health care systems with a focus on their costs, access, quality, and equity issues.  Melanie, a medical student who took the seminar and had been to Cuba, had a slide show of aspects of the Cuban system which she  generously shared with me to show in the seminar.  My 1994 trip was motivated in good measure to gain a first hand look at the Cuban system. In the 1994 trip, I spent a fair amount of time visiting health care facilities and talking to health care professionals and ordinary Cubans about their system. The result was a 1995 paper “The Cuban Health Care System and Factors Currently Undermining It” which was published in the Journal of Community Health.  One episode stands out in my mind in our visit to a polyclinic.  The polyclinic is the hub of the Cuban health care system as it offers expanded primary care focusing on health education, prevention and environmental monitoring.  Patients who need specialized secondary and tertiary care are referred to relevant medical facilities and hospitals.  In our visit, we found the polyclinic clean and well staffed. In our meeting with the staff they had one common complaint: lack of gasoline for their ambulance. The bottom up health care approach enabled the health care system to function but their ability to act on the cases requiring more intensive care was hampered by the crisis and by the tightening of the U.S. embargo. 

With the onset of the depression-like conditions in Cuba, in 1992 U.S. Congress tightened the embargo through the passage of the Torricelli Bill (Cuban Democracy Act) which barred U.S. subsidiaries in other countries from trading with Cuba, and prohibits ships that dock in Cub from visiting U.S. ports for six months. In August 1994, the Clinton administration moved to annul the 26-year policy to admit Cubans who leave Cuba illegally, bar Cuban-Americans from sending money to their relative in Cuba, bar most visits to Cuba, and intensify its hostile broadcasting activities. As Representative Torricelli admitted, these measures were intended to cause further hardship in Cuba so as to foster a counter-revolution.

Che Guevara or Deng Xiaoping?
I must admit that my education about the Cuban revolution had not prepared me adequatly for the complex reality that confronted me in June 1994.   This was reflected in my short paper for presentation at the conference
(we were limited to eight pages because papers has to be translated by Cubans into Spanish). The paper was centered on the key ideas in Ernesto Che Guevara’s theory of transition to socialism seen as gradual replacement material incentive (markets) with moral incentive (communist consciousness) as the Cuban  working people increasingly overcome their social alienation.  A corollary for Guevara, which he note in his Socialism and Man in Cuba (1965) but did not elaborate, was the idea that communism is not about a life of material plenty but one of human development and solidarity.  I must note that when I was making the presentation to a small group of Cuban and American participants at the University of Havana, all of us were sweating bullets in a room without air conditioning and our water glasses were an assortments of variously shaped coffee mugs, glasses, and even empty jars of condiments. There was not even ice in the pitcher of water.  Thus, my appeal to return to the rectification process based on Che Guevara's they which was launched in 1986 by the leadership of the Communist Party but was quietly dropped at the early signs of the crisis must have been seen as quixotic.

A fellow panel participant which was organized on the question of transition to socialism was David  Schweickart, a professor of philosophy and a promoter of market socialism, which at that time was showcased by Deng Xiaoping’s policies in China with apparent success as judged by economic development measures.  His paper entitled “Socialist Envy” was an argument based on some of Marx’s writings that socialism cannot be built without a high degree of development of forces of production that can support a growing material plenty.  Otherwise, it would be a socialism of envy.
Schweickart's message resonated with the reaction to the depression-like crisis in Cuba at the time, and the idea that socialism of scarcity, as in Cuba, is doomed to failure. The solution, Schweickart argued, was market socialism and material incentive.

Some quarter of century later, it does seem that the leaders of the Cuban Communist Party have been increasingly taking a page from "market socialism" of China and Vietnam (as well as theories and experiments with market socialism in Eastern Europe). The problem, of course, remains that the Soviet bloc collapsed, and not just due to CIA plots as some pro-Moscow Communist parties alleged, but because of the policies adopted by their respective Communist Parties, and that China and Vietnam while nominally “socialist” because they are run by a ruling elite in their Communist parties who still control sizable parts of the economy, are in every other respect capitalist societies.  Still in practice, Schweickart’s point of view has won a majority in the Cuban Communist party, and to my knowledge no significant political current in Cuba today proposes policies that are based on Guevara’s vision of socialism.

Looking back
Thus, my first visit to Cuba was a dramatic disillusionment.  I could see with my own eyes the progress the revolution had made in terms of providing basic necessities of life such as housing, education, health care, culture and sports to all and when there is scarcity, as there was in case of food during my visit, it is largely equitably shared.  But Cuba was far from socialism understood as society run by and for the working people themselves. The State bureaucracy and the Communist Party dominated all aspects of life, not self-organized and self-mobilized organs of the working people such as it was with the soviets in the 1917 revolutions and the short period immediately after. Finally, there was little open and wide ranging discussion about the socialist vision, theory, and strategy.  A critical question was the collapse of the Soviet Union and other “Actually Existing Socialisms” which in the 1960s  Guevara had critiqued but in the early 1990s there was no open discussion of it. The official position was similar to the Communist Party of the United States that the collapse was the work of the CIA!

Still, I fell in love with Cuba because I encountered a population still alive with zest for life some of them still fighting their way forward and some among a smaller group that was interested to dig deeper into the problems they faced. The working people of Cuba were not in control but they held and exerted more power than anywhere else I had seen save for the very short period after the 1979 revolution in Iran.  There was room for innovation and organization to advance the revolution.

One of my most pleasurable pass times in Havana was to walk with a friend or two the streets at night perhaps in search of some live music or pastry.  What was astonishing to me was that at no time my friends and I felt uncomfortable or unsafe in those often poorly lit streets. 

When I returned home to Brooklyn, I called my friend Teimour for a walk in the Prospect park a few blocks from my apartment on 834 President street in Park Slope. It was about seven O’clock in June and sun was still out.  I was telling Teimour how I enjoyed walking poorly lit streets of Havana late at night to enjoy the cool sea breeze.  As I was talking I noticed that both he and I continued to look behind us every couple of minutes. We both feared being mugged again! Already, I had been mugged three times in New York. Just as every lock on a door is the affirmation of human alienation, so is the fear in taking a walk where you live. By that measure,Havana was a light year in advance of New York.

No comments: