Until Victory, Always

by Justin on May 24, 2006 · 1 comment

In an effort to improve diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, Justin visited the communist nation as part of a small humanitarian relief team.

Following are his journal entries from the trip.

Day 1

After about an hour flight from Miami, the plane lands and we exit onto an open runway. The sun is beating down on Jose Marti – La Habana airport, which many american tourists would call ‘quaint’. In the distance, a building is blazoned with the words “PATRIA ES HUMANIDAD” – country is humanity.

We board a motor coach, typical tourist fare. Our guides name is Manny; trained as an engineer, he guides tours as a part of the “second economy,” relying on tourist gratuities to pay his bills. The first, or official economy, is the Cuban government, employing all citizens in various jobs at a salary of $10-15 USD per month. Up until 2002, Cuba received about $4 billion a year in donations from US citizens, but the Bush administration has clamped down on this and many other interactions between US and Cuban interests.

Within 5 minutes of leaving the airport, we see two stalled cars being pushed down the street by teams of men in slacks and button-up shirts. Our bus pulls up next to a city bus, nicknamed a camel bus because of it’s strange military-adapted hump shape. The Cuban citizens aren’t allowed to ride the tourist coaches, enter the hotels, use the internet, or own a cell phone; our tour guide uses a phone registered in the name of somebody from Atlanta. The camel bus was is packed, standing passengers crammed together – two, sometimes three people to a seat. One defiant looking boy stares hard at our air conditioned coach, which has televisions, a cooler, reclining seats, ample space. As we pull away, our eyes lock and he raises two fingers in the international symbol of peace. I feel my brow furrow as I return the gesture.

We drive past the Plaza de la Revolution, Revolution Square. A large building serves as a tribute to Che Guevara, christened with his familiar silhouette and the phrase, “Hasta la victore Siempre” – Until victory, Always. This icon of the revolution has become a martyr here, and a symbol of ongoing struggle. Many of the buildings are crumbling, war-torn from years of neglect. Stunning architecture of a heyday long past lies in ruins. Arrested development.

We stop at the Cohiba cigar factory. For such a prized international brand, the headquarters are extremely humble. Where the linoleum on the floor has been worn away by years of disrepair, it is replaced by taped together pieces of cardboard. The workers at the factory are extremely proud, charismatic. This is considered a great job, because certain workers are allowed to smoke cigars all day as they work. We get a laugh when a woman shows us the chupa chupa machine, which checks the draw of each cigar – I stick my finger in, and the machine suckles it like a nursing infant. A poster on the wall reads, “RevoluciĆ²n: inspiraciĆ²n y esperanza” – Revolution: inspiration & hope.

The tour literature reminds me that while I’m encouraged to write about this trip, due to the limitations of the travel license, and that fact that both the Cuban and US governments read what is written, I should keep my articles focused on the main purpose of this mission: getting to know the Jews of Cuba – in other words, religious purposes. Fittingly, the next stop on our trip is the Centreo Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba. This synagogue was rented out to the cultural minister of cuba and used as a theater for years, but now it’s back in the hands of the jewish community and is used as a warehouse. The bottom floor is a gym. There is a small synogogue, enough room for about 100 worshippers. The bathrooms reek like a campground. There are only 1,300 jews out of a population of 11 million; 95% of the jewish population left during the revolution. To join the synagogue, it costs one cuban peso a month, or about $.50 American per year. This includes a cabalat shabbat meal every friday, and use of the facilities. The membership fee is not enough to cover the cost of operations, so sustaining the congregation requires donations from people outside the country.

After lunch, I’m approached by the cutest little man, about 5’2″ wearing all red – shoulder length white hair and his sunburnt, weathered nose peek out from under his red, floppy brimmed hat. A bunch of cameras hang around his neck, fashioned from old cans of beer and cola. Holding a camera up to his eye, he groups together a bunch of tourists, and when he snapped the shutter, a smiley face fashioned from a bottle cap pops out of the barrell with a metallic ‘clang’. He sells them each for two convertible pesos, just over a couple bucks, almost the equivalent of a week’s salary for a Cuban doctor. The creativity and ingenuity embodied in this camera of discarded cans amazed me.

We pass the US Offices, what used to be the US Embassy, but is no longer as diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba have ended. It is hardly visible behind a huge group of black flags. The flags were put up by Castro after the US put up a red electronic sign inside an entire floor of windows that said things like “Castro lies to his people.” Each flag stands for one of those killed by terrorists, who plotted to overthrow the Communist government and are now harbored by the US. He also surrounded the office with billboards of his own – featuring huge heads of George W. Bush, labeling him a murderer, an assassin, hitler, stating “We are not afraid of you, imperialists.” Bloody brass knuckles in a pool of blood. It’s a war of propaganda.

There are billboards everywhere, just as there are in the states. But instead of advertising products and brands, almost every one of these billboards is propaganda, telling the population exactly what to think. But then again, maybe this is not so different than in the states. They are surrounded by talk of freedom, but are these people free? They stand up for sovereignty, yet at what cost?

Somebody on the bus asks the guide, “What do these people do to better themselves?” Looking around at the buildings, even the nicest streets here have the feel of an inner city slum. The next street over, buildings are just remains, crumbled piles of brick and mortar. Living in this environment can’t be inspiring. If society as a whole is in decline, how can any one person rise up? In a socialist environment, where most of what people have is doled out by the state, maybe it doesn’t occur to them to try to get more.

We arrive at the hotel after a long day of siteseeing. The hotel is easily the nicest place we’ve been to all day. Cubans are not allowed here, except employees. It’s like two different countries fill the same space – there are different systems for tourists and residents. The few internet cafes are only open to tourists. There are two different forms of currency. Equality is a relative term… equal to who? Different currency, different prices, different places, different laws… There is a huge, institutionalized difference between the two.

Outside the hotel room, there’s a big marble pedestal where a statue used to stand… Now all that remains of the figure are the feet. This is the Avenue of Presidents… at one time, the street was home to huge bronze tributes of the presidents of the country. Now all that’s left is a tribute to the violent change of revolutionary overthrow.

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Day 2

Today we visit an orthodox synagogue, which is beautiful. We are told that there are no rabbis in Cuba. The temple appears to be in one of the poorest neighborhoods we’ve visited in Havana, until we pass the opera house, which I think must be in a pretty decent part of town. As we pull away from the curb, a man blows us a kiss; there is fire in his eyes. Everyone around him laughs – the kiss was a fiercely sarcastic gesture. As the bus rolls down the street, a young boy throws an apple core at us. I wonder, what the hell are we doing here? We tell ourselves the buildings are charming, the landscape is lush and beautiful, we’re here to help. Yet we are tourists in one of the poorest countries on earth. Famine and destruction surround us. What are we getting out of it? Am I really helping by being here? I felt this was the question asked by the man who blew the kiss. If he ever got the chance to leave, would he want to come back?

Many people don’t know that there are elections in Cuba, every 5 years, for the national parliament. Campaigning is not allowed. the vote is called a united vote, and usually takes place in doctor’s offices, by secret ballot. It’s one vote, yes or no, all or nothing, 610 officials. Then the parliamentarians decide who is president. There are officially no dvd players in cuba, they are not sold, and they are not allowed in to the country. The official explanation for this is to save power.

There’s a saying that Cuba is an island made of cork – that it will always float. As I look at the demolished homes on the sea wall at the edge of the island, I wonder what would happen if a hurricane came through, how they could rebound. Would it be the straw that breaks the camels back, that would force the country to accept bribes and conditions from the World Bank or IMF? Or would they be able to withstand the ensuing devastation? Everything seems so fragile, right on the edge of collapse.

We visit the bet chaim – house of life – the hebrew cemetery. Cuba is the home of the first holocaust memorial in the western hemisphere; there’s a very interesting take on religion here. Religion is not widely recognized, nationality is of much greater importance. Our guide tells us the first man who ever set foot on cuba was a jew who came over with Christopher Columbus in 1492.

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Day 3

Today in our free time, we visit the Museum of the Revolution. It used to be the Presidential Palace before Bolivar was overthrown. This is a place of past opulence, full of bullet holes. The castle-like entrance gives way into a palatial inside, like the huge hallway of a Washington DC government building. High painted ceilings, marble stairs, gold-leaved rooms, and the remnants of a violent overthrow. The opulence makes it easy to see why this building was attacked. The people took up arms against a corrupt government, one leashed by imperialism. Reading the revolutionary insights and teachings of Che and Fidel seemed like a foreshadowing to me. As I walked around what once represented the height of a this country’s democracy, laden with mortar damage and tanks sitting on the front lawn, I looked at the rich surroundings and realized that wealth pacifies. This regime was overthrown by ideas, not by military force. A government that grew out of touch with it’s people, who rose up. Just as the American fathers of the revolution did in 1776.

The museum asserts that Che Guevara was hunted down by the CIA and assassinated in Bolivia – believable in light of other alleged central / south american assassinations and confirmed attempts on Castro’s life. A person can be killed, but an idea can not. I wrote down some of Che’s ideas that spoke to me, almost 50 years later:

Hasta la victoria siempre – until victory, always

This kind of struggle gives us the chance of becoming revolutionaries, the highest link of human beings.

I am not a liberator. Liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves.

If we have to kneel down to live in peace, they have to kill us first.

From the Museo de la Revolution, we headed to La Bodeguita del Medio, fabled one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite haunts. Nice mojitos, a chance to decompress. It’s pretty amazing seeing the dedication these people have for the cause of freedom. Their definition of freedom is much different than ours. Their country is free from imperialism. Yet they are oppressed, to us they are not free. They can’t do simple things that we take for granted. Technically, many of them are not even free to make a living for themselves or their family, to buy a house, to travel as they wish. Yet their country has determined its own destiny, free from western intervention. The cost they pay is high, yet they do not waver to accept the bribes of the west. They understand the fast cash we may offer them would shackle them with debt. The world bank money and the tourist dollars would benefit very few of their population, only the ones at the top. Instead their solidarity is braved by all. We in america have it much differently. Many are free to do whatever we wish, as long as we live within the system. We have accepted and rejoiced in the bribes, not realizing what we give up. It’s every man for himself, and those at the bottom are ignored, forgotten. They live the worst of both worlds: no hope, no independence, no piece of any pie. And it seems accutely obvious that those at the top, fat with wealth and status, have gotten there at the expense of others around the world who’s voices are too easy to ignore.

The question comes up now and then, what does the future hold for cuban citizens? What after the death of castro, the seemingly inevitable fall of communism? Are they ready for captalism, commercialism, colonialism, imperialism? The citizens themselves are divided.

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Day 4

Sitting by the pool at the Presidente, listening to soft rock classics by stevie wonder, madonna… “Celebrate Good Times”, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”… Was this music that cubanos enjoyed, or what they thought we did? It occured to me, perhaps the revolution had failed.

I’ve been waiting for a girl like you, I want my mtv… Do any of these people have mtv? As Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” began to drift over the speakers, I couldn’t ignore it… All in all, we’re just another brick in the wall.

VJ Lyrics

“We are the world”… Was this some sort of plea? Living on a prayer… All these songs began to speak to me in some way or other. “We gotta hold on to what we got, it doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not, we got each other and that’s a lot… take my hand, we’ll make it I swear…”

Before the national ballet, a Venezuelan diplomat came onto the stage. I caught pieces of his impassioned speech. Chavez, Castro, brothers in the revolution, the revolution is alive.

Later in the hotel room, the movie Platoon is on TV. It occurs to me: we are at war. We’re all at war, and we have to choose a side. We’ll all die someday. Until then, we must live for a cause, or die without one.

The last line of the movie spoke to me: “I think back now, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves, and the enemy was within us.”

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Day 5

We head to the airport first thing in the morning. This trip has permanently changed my perspective. It’s going to take a while to readjust to living in the US.