Thursday, June 30, 2016

A package deal (Day 7)

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Early morning from the balcony of my hotel room
This morning we boarded our bus and rode to Matanzas, a small city a little ways in the direction of Havana. Our itinerary was the Pharmacy Museum, and Ediciones Vigía, an outfit that creates hand-made books.

Slogans found today:

“Socialism is the only way to continue being free and independent.”

“The victorious revolution continues forward.”

On the way, Jesús gave a condensed version of how the embargo developed over a few months, involving an Esso refinery that was nationalized because it wouldn’t refine Soviet oil.

In Matanzas, the Pharmacy Museum turned out to be closed, so we headed off toward Ediciones Vigía, but en route we stumbled upon an art gallery / workshop the Jesús hadn’t known about, a joint venture of several artists.
This peculiar fellow greets you just inside the door.
Artists seem to have “themes” that they work in multiple variations. In Trinidad there was a woman who crafted coffee pots that were women. In this gallery in Matanzas, there’s someone who does heads in clamps.
There are many variations on this theme.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

Someone explained to us that the coffee pots were commentary on the objectification of women. I wasn’t sure what put them in that category rather than being just a clever turn on tourist kitsch. The heads in clamps seem more provocatively “art,” but at some point the repetition of that idea would also seem to be cranking it out for the tourists.
The heads-in-clamps guy got an award, and to mark the occasion, he drew his own head in a clamp.
I think this may be more of his work.
You know how you get that feeling that you have lots of shoes stuck to your head?
But you're still insanely happy?
Yeah, that's a great feeling.

One of the artists, at work.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Perhaps the most dramatic piece in the gallery, a set of
four gigantic allegorical figures, on a rickety sort of cart.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

Though there's certainly competition for "most dramatic."
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

We went back up the street to the museum, which preserves a pharmacy from the late 1800’s that continued functioning until the 1960’s. At least at its height, it did its own compounding of medicines based on 56 volumes of medicine recipes, available for you to see.

From the pharmacy we headed back to Vigía, where I bought a book of poetry for my parents.

The gallery and Vigía and the museum were all interesting, but they don’t really teach us about Cuba today. Or rather, they don’t shed much light on the reality of Cuba today. The gallery is a partial exception, but all three in a sense are just high-end tourism—they exist to draw the attention and money of the tourists, just with some cultural context, as opposed to the beach stretch of Varadero.

Back at the hotel, we tried to get internet access. Supposedly you can buy it from the hotel desk. You pay them, they give you a code, and you log on. Pat tried it on her phone, but it simply wouldn’t connect.

Pat has seen more of the Ugly Canadian. I’ve been noticing some Ugly Russians. A group of six Russians approached the hotel desk yesterday. There was a sort of pater familias, a man bulked up on a combination of fat and muscle; his wife, or more likely his girlfriend, a willowy thing who looked too young to be the mother of the sullen teenager who was with them; another couple of middle-aged women, and an older man.

The bulky fellow approached the hotel desk and said in the most abrupt manner possible, “Internet, five minutes!” No “excuse me,” no “please,” no modulation of the tone in his voice. Classic.

In the afternoon after reading the students’ journals, I went up to change into my suit for a walk on the beach, maybe with a dip in the waves, and discovered that Id left my suit in Cayo Santa Maria, hanging in the shower to dry. So I stayed in my shorts and went to the beach anyway, walking out and back, taking just under two hours, so it was probably about 3 miles out.

I watched people wind-surfing, and a guy sitting on the beach getting lessons on how to control the rig.

On the return I saw a couple I’d noticed earlier, now being addressed by three police officers. From the rapidity of the officers’ speech, it seemed the couple were Cuban, or at least Spanish-speaking. I didn’t want to be seen loitering around a police matter, so I had no chance to catch what the issue might have been.

The guy who showed us around the gallery earlier in the day earlier in the day asked me, “¿Y Usted es profesor de que?” [And what are you a professor of?]

“De la económica.” [Economics.]

“Ah, muy bien,” [Ah, very good.] and he disappeared into a storage room.

When he reemerged I said, “Todavía no entiendo la economía Cubana.” [I still don't understand the Cuban economy.]

“Y no va a entender. No es posible. Yo vivo aquí toda mi vida y no entiendo.” [And you won't understand it. It's not possible. I've lived here my entire life, and I don't understand it.]
Our unofficial guide through the gallery.
And there’s lots not to understand.

Your wage in a normal job in the state sector comes to about $15 or $20 a month. Sure, health care is paid by the state, as are primary and secondary school, and university (if you get in). And there are some subsidized foods. But $15 a month is still just damn little.

Meanwhile, in the tourist sector, a hotel maid might pick up that much in tips in a day. Taxi drivers, waiters, bartenders, tour guides, owners of the private restaurants allowed under Cuba’s experiments with market activities—these people certainly aren’t rich by American standards, but they’re making far more than people in the state sector, whether you’re talking about teachers, doctors, or cigar rollers.

How does anyone live on $15 a month? And how does anyone find the will to keep doing it when their classmates are off in the tourist sector, making an income many times larger?

In my Day-4 post I mentioned the loss of the massive subsidies the Soviet Union had been providing after the Soviet Union closed up shop as a going operation. In addition to the conversion to organic agriculture, for lack of synthetic inputs, Fidel’s government made a conscious decision to turn to tourism as a source of foreign exchange, which could then be used to buy at least some of the things the country needed.

One of the earliest fruits of that was this hotel we’re staying in at the base of the peninsula that is Varadero, but it looks like the whole peninsula has been built out into various hotels, condos, and other facilities for tourists.

The appeal is obvious. Here we are on a beach 10 miles long on the warm waters of the Atlantic, 2-1/2 hours from José Martí Airport in Havana. Some of the Canadians here told our students that you can get a package for $800 Canadian that provides your roundtrip travel from Toronto or Montreal to Havana and on to Varadero, and your stay for a week at one of these all-inclusive hotels. (Even the liquor at the bar is covered, though apparently the bartenders are likely to get around to serving you a lot quicker if it’s clear you’re a tipper.)

This was quite a turn for the country.

The Revolution envisioned a “new man” who would be a model of hard work, rectitude, moral probity, and fitness. The inner and outer flaws in people were viewed as distortions created by the cruelties and deprivations of living in a capitalist system. Once capitalism was overthrown and a generation or two had been raised in socialism, the population would be made new, every citizen a specimen of the nobility that is each person’s potential self.

And then there are the people brought in by country’s need for foreign exchange.

On my way down for breakfast I shared the elevator with a couple I guessed to be Quebecois, and around 60 years old. Partway down, the doors opened to reveal an apparition, headphones on ears, shirt unbuttoned, straggly shoulder-length hair, vacant eyes, stooped gate, and a jaw left slack as if it had forgotten how to hold itself closed—an exile from some circle of hell Dante could not have envisioned.

Looking at my two Quebecoise companions on the elevator, he recognized familiar fellow-vacationers. As he boarded, he exchanged pleasantries with them, about how he had slept until 2 or 3 in the afternoon the day before. “I need to quit drinking and smoking. I need a vacation from my vacation.”

The Quebecois couple chuckled good-heartedly, “A vacation from your vacation.” We all left the elevator at the same floor, but the apparition went one way while I followed the Quebecoise toward the buffet dining room. “A vacation from vacation,” the husband chuckled again appreciatively. It truly seemed as if he’d never heard that line before, or else he’d forgotten it, the memory of such penetrating wit having been wiped away by the cleansing power of alcohol, when consumed in sufficient quantities.

In general, humanity at a beach resort is generally not its most attractive self. Parts of it are rude, feeling entitled after paying a sum of money to spend a week in a simulacrum of paradise. Parts of it could be held up as models of the failings of capitalism, set against the inspiring specimens being sculpted in the sports school at Sancti Spíritus. And large parts of it are consuming enough booze to drown out who knows what horrors or emptiness from their lives back home.

So you have the socialist vision of a new man, purified by his liberation from the oppressions of capitalism. And you have the reality of the people who keep some semblance of the socialist vision alive. The country may not have much alternative, but I don’t see how this is a healthy way for it to keep itself going.

“Y no va a entender.” And you won’t understand.

(In the afternoon I again spotted the apparition, and his demeanor didn’t suggest any sudden attack of temperance.)
Yeah, this guy again.
Maybe it's a depiction of what a hangover feels like.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
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