Thursday, June 11, 2015

Your money where your mouth is (Day 5)

One of the early works in the canon of Russian opera is Glinka’s A life for the Tsar, set during the Time of Troubles in the early 1600’s. A Polish army is on its way to Moscow to help Polish troops already occupying the Russian capital.

They stop in a village to get someone to guide them further on their way, and Ivan Susanin, a village elder, takes the responsibility. But instead of leading them to Moscow, he leads them into the woods and intentionally gets them lost.

As a snow storm closes in around them, the Polish soldiers realize they’ve been tricked. They kill Susanin, but they themselves die, lost in the storm. Without the extra troops, the Polish army in Moscow has to give up. The city is liberated, the new Romanov dynasty is saved, the Time of Troubles is brought to an end, and on stage at the Bolshoi Opera, the new tsar rides out of the Archangel gate of the Kremlin on an honest to goodness, live, white horse.

For a Russian, anyone who leads you the wrong way is a “Susanin.” Keep that in mind.

This morning we checked out of our hotel (not before I snapped some pictures of it in the morning light) and walked a couple of blocks to where Victor was waiting for us with the bus.

2nd-floor balcony outside hotel rooms,
overlooking the hotel atrium

Sitting area outside 2nd-floor rooms

Ornament on the Writers' Union building

The Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba
Well, some of us walked a couple of blocks. As students gathered in the lobby, we explained where the bus was and told those who were ready to head over to it. When we finished up paying and walked to the bus ourselves, we were unnerved to find that many students who’d left the hotel before us had not yet arrived.

On the map below, we needed to get from “A” to “B”. The blue route is the obvious choice. But it turned out that one pair of friends had absent-mindedly missed the turn, gone all the way up to the main square, then doubled back. And at least half the group followed those two.
Underlying map from here, but only showed up here.
We were relieved and amused to see a line of our students approaching the bus from an unexpected direction, lugging their suitcases, faithfully in the footsteps of our two Susanins.

On the way to the bus, I snapped a picture of a seemingly home-made bike mod that I’d seen around: a pretty handy way for two people to ride one bike, particularly if the person in front is fairly small—like, kid-sized.

We had to get a fairly early start because it was a travel day with an important stop in the middle. From Sancti Spíritu, we returned to Santa Clara, where we’d arrived by plane 4 days earlier. There we were to visit the Che memorial and mausoleum, and the train derailment museum. Then we’d catch lunch outside of Santa Clara and proceed to Cayo Santa Maria, where we’d spend the night.
Our route is the black line: northwest to Santa Clara,
then east northeast to Cayo Santa Maria
Most of our drive to Santa Clara is on the Nacional, the National Highway. It was started under Batista and designed to run the length of the country, three lanes in each direction. Around Havana and some way on either side, it lives up to that.

But further afield, the money ran out. In many places the Nacional is a three-lane highway, with drivers more or less keeping to the right and using the middle lane for passing or meandering at their convenience, but this isn’t really a problem, because the high price of fuel compared to the average Cuban’s salary means that there’s very little traffic.

Still, it’s not a normal three-lane road, because they had done much of the work to make the right-of-way for the other set of lanes, even getting as far as building the bridges for the west-bound lanes, which were never built. So you have a flattened area wide enough for a three-lane highway with shoulders, given over to scrub grass with dirt paths meandering through it, and where this right-of-way is interrupted by a road or railroad underneath, a fully built highway bridge is there, stranded amidst the scrub.

If the link works, you can see two of those bridges here. Just to the right of the middle of the screen, you can see a bridge as a white rectangle, spanning a stream. Further left there’s another bridge, crossing a railroad and a local road. A light-colored path meanders from one bridge to the other.

The Che mausoleum is a whole complex. Outside, there is a vast plaza facing a speakers’ tribune, overseen by a much-larger-than-life statue of Che.
"Chavez: Our best friend"
The museum and mausoleum is in the base of the speakers’ tribune, and you enter it from the back.

Jesús cautioned us in advance that this is a place of great importance to Cubans, so we needed to be quiet and respectful. And absolutely no cameras.

When you enter, the museum is to the right, and to me it was reminiscent of Soviet memorials. Lots of weapons used by Che or by those alongside whom he fought. Pictures of him as a child, with his parents, with various guerilla groups, with Fidel and/or Raúl numerous times (taking the popular Che and having some of his energy rub off on the country’s still-ruling brothers). Letters and documents. Examples of the books he liked to read (not his copies, but modern Cuban printings of them). You do get a good sense of his importance in the military success of the Revolution, and also a flavor of his quixotic effort to jump-start Cuban-style revolutions in Africa.

The other wing is the memorial to Che and the people who died with him. You enter a sepulchral space with low light and a selection of jungle plants, to represent the area of Bolivia where they died. Then you walk along a wall with niches holding terra cotta reliefs of each hero, with Che’s set a little bit forward of the rest. The far end has another area of jungle plants and an eternal flame. There was no visible indication that you weren’t supposed to walk beyond the flame, closer to the plants, but if you did, you got a reprimanding “Hola” from an attendant.

I was underwhelmed by the aesthetic of the place, and by the quality of its construction. The entryway was illuminated by cheap fluorescent lights set in a dated modular metal ceiling that was also in poor shape—it didn’t meet the walls neatly, and some of the panels had shifted out of place.

The signs of shoddy construction were another feature that reminded me of my Soviet experience, and they were particularly revealing in a monument of such importance to the regime. And not just to the regime. I felt like a bad guest for my critical response, sensing Jesús’s genuine emotion in this place.

On the outside the monument is firmly in the Soviet camp aesthetically. The massing of forms draws your eye to the right, more or less in the direction the Che statue is looking.

The plaza is something else again.
The red sign says, "We want to be like Che!"
I walked to the far end and found a favela just off the end—and litter.
From the back of the Che plaza
Another view off the back
"It was a star that put you here and made you part of this people."
In the background: Che (and Chavez).
In the foreground: missing capstones.
A road passes between the tribune and the plaza.
The truck with the openings near the top is effectively a bus.
After the monument we stopped at a park which is an open-air monument to an important action right at the end of the guerilla war against the Batista regime. A government train full of soldiers and supplies was heading east to fight the rebels, when Che and his crew used bulldozers to mess up the tracks, causing the train to derail. Batista fled the country soon after, and Castro’s forces were in charge.
One of the bulldozers used to set up the derailment
Photo: Chris Shaw
The jumbled pieces of concrete suggest the disruption
of the derailment
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

A railway car displaying a gun
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

The interiors of the cars are used as exhibit space, such as
this picture of Che in Santa Clara in 1958
Photo: Chris Shaw
Across the street from the memorial, a storefront with the slogan,
"Ever onward to victory"
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Just down the street is a statue of Che sprinkled with symbols, from the motorcycle of the eponymous diaries, the hammock he used for sleeping in the jungle.
Che carrying the future
Photo: Chris Shaw

A kid rides a goat up Che's shoulder
Photo: Chris Shaw
"Che, hold still, we're taking a group shot!"
With the mausoleum and the train memorial and the statue with the symbols, Santa Clara occupies an important place in the mental space of the Revolution. It’s also much dirtier than the other places we’ve been.

After Cienfuegos and Trinidad, a student observed that you didn’t see litter around. In Santa Clara you do. It’s in piles by the side of the road. It spills down the banks toward the stream that runs through town, where people have evidently brought their trash to the end of their street and tipped it into the stream (thus explaining the derivation of the British word “tip” meaning a dump). A student said that along the stream bank he’d seen two horse skeletons, with only traces of flesh on them.

What they lacked in cleanliness, they made up for in wall art reminding passersby how bad the U.S. is.
Photo: Chris Shaw
Photo: Chris Shaw

Photo: Chris Shaw
On the outskirts of Santa Clara we stopped for lunch, then hit the road for Cayo Santa Maria.

Our bus rides are chances to view the countryside, to rest, to write, and to chat—among the group, and with Jesús, who is an excellent talker on a broad range of topics.

The dual currency system has been a source of much puzzlement. Cubans are paid in “moneda nacional”, or “CUP”. Foreigners are not allowed to possess CUP but instead trade their dollars, euros, whatevers for convertible currency units, known by their Spanish-language acronym “CUC”, pronounced “kook”.

The CUC trades one-for-one with the US dollar, but when you buy CUC’s at an official government exchange facility, you pay a 3% transaction fee. And if you’re buying with US dollars (rather than, say, Canadian dollars), you pay an additional 10%. So you hand over a $100 in cash and get CUC 87 back.

I had assumed that there were limits on converting CUCs to foreign money. That way, it would act as a tool for the government to limit the outflow of hard currency, but Jesús says anyone with CUCs can, as the currency’s name suggests, convert them.

So then what’s the point?

Jesús says there are stores that are not allowed to accept CUCs and that still have subsidized prices. That does provide an understandable role for the separate currencies.

If you subsidized some staples, like rice or cooking oil, but only had a single currency available to Cubans and visitors alike, you would be subsidizing the visitors, when the point is to make money off of them. By having a currency that foreigners aren’t allowed to hold and then having stores that can only sell in that currency, you create a space where the subsidies can still function.

Of course, it will be imperfect. Foreigners may get their hands on some CUP. Cubans may buy subsidized goods for CUP, then sell them to foreigners at a markup, effectively splitting the government’s subsidy with the foreigners. But if those actions are illegal, then they may be kept to a low enough level that the system still serves its purpose.

According to Jesús, the CUC was instituted in response to US complaints. The Cuban economy had been dollarized, and the US was concerned that the situation was facilitating money laundering.

(The Economist tells a different story. In their version, the dollar became legal tender in 1993, in response to Cuba’s desperate effort to obtain hard currency in the wake of the economic catastrophe of losing Soviet subsidies. The CUC started at the same time. The use of dollars became illegal once again in 2004, not in response to US complaints about money laundering, but as part of a strategy to improve the Cuban government’s ability to get its hands on dollars in the face of US government efforts to limit such access.)

There are aspects of this currency situation I clearly still don’t get.

On to Cayo Santa Maria.

You drive from Santa Clara via Camajuaní and Remedios to Caibarién. As with our first day's drive from Santa Clara to Cienfuegos, it wasn't clear what kept the smaller roadside settlements alive economically.

Camajuaní: Bicitaxis ready for customers

Camajuaní: a mystifying assortment of tchotchkes
available for sale
When the wall of your bakery has to remind you to "Work with order, discipline, and efficiency," you may have a problem.

The old American vehicles aren't just the big cars you
see in many photos.
Leaving Remedios, we pass a fountain with dolphin ornamentation.

Between Remedios and Caibarién we briefly run alongside a steam engine pulling a couple carloads of tourists.

On the outskirts of Caibarién we passed neighborhoods of prefab concrete apartment buildings. It's basically the same aesthetic as in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites, but adapted to the tropical climate.

A school building amidst the prefab apartment blocs

Cayo Santa Maria is a barrier island several miles off Cuba’s north coast, and you reach it via a causeway across the lagoons, a total of just about 26 miles from the land to the beach.

Once you get there, you encounter a stunning beach that in turn is host to ranks of resorts of varying degrees of fanciness.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree 
(Jan Seeley, note that in January the temperature is pretty nice for running, and the distance of 26 miles somehow rings a bell, and ending at this beach would be pretty sweet. Just sayin'.)

Why exactly were we going there?

We were scheduled to stay in Remedios, on the coast near Santa Maria, but Jesús says there aren’t enough unoccupied rooms in Remedios, so we were moved out to Santa Maria as the nearest available option. Just our bad luck …

Yes, she does love Hartwick (and Cayo Santa Maria)
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Jesús also juggled our itinerary. We had been scheduled to get to Santa Maria in time for a late dinner, but Jesús figured we’d be in a bad mood driving the extra distance out to a beautiful beach, only to eat dinner, go to bed, and leave right after breakfast. So he changed things in Santa Clara to get us out here mid-afternoon, which was an excellent call.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
And the beach is stunning, washed by warm, turquoise Atlantic waters. The hotel feels swank, with different dining rooms set amid ornamental pools (though one of them doesn’t have water).
This pool does have water
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
It turns out to be a nice pairing, being here the same day as we were at the Che monument. Is this what he was fighting for, derailing that train?

You pass through such poverty to get here, then there’s such extravagance when you arrive. Like our accommodations in Cienfuegos, it’s another “inclusive” situation, where you meals (and alcohol!) are covered in your price. Pat has been struck by the amount of food laid out and the likely quantity of waste. Presumably it becomes pig slop, like buckets we saw being carted off outside restaurants in Sancti Spíritus.

Off of the lobby, opposite the gift shop with Havana Club rum etc., there’s a pair of display cases with literature for sale. There’s lots of stuff about Che, or excerpts from his diaries, or things by or about Fidel.

What a perfect place to sell these works, in a resort that thrives off of the system that Che and Fidel excoriated as being the essence of exploitation.

My head is filled with this contrast between poverty of the locals and playground for people from wealthy countries. That contrast is hardly unique to Cuba, but the combination with this country’s universal education and health care make the contrast sharper. If people are getting sick of the lack of progress, when they are so widely educated and are faced daily with this evidence of how others are able to live, at what point do they check out, or fight back?

In the lobby when we were checking in, Pat noticed an employee who was on the customer side of the check-in counter, reaching across to pick up the phone behind the counter and make a private call. He finished and asked a fellow employee how much he owed. The colleague behind the desk said, “Oh, don’t give it a second thought. Everything is included. Even the smile.” Pat cracked up and enjoyed a laugh with them.

Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

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