Thursday, June 23, 2016

Welcome, imperialist pigs! (Day 6)

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Today we made our way from Cayo Santa Maria and its fabulous beach via Caibarién, where we visited a former sugar mill turned into a museum, then Remedios, where we learned about their festival of Las Parrandas, and finally on to Varadero, where we will spend three nights.
We traveled the red line from east to west.
Before leaving the resort at Cayo Santa Maria, I took a stroll around the grounds. It’s a nice place, fancier than the “all inclusive” place we stayed outside Cienfuegos, but probably not the top of the line. It has characteristic bits of not quite getting it right: the sloppy grouting in the bathtub, the light fixture along a path, just left off of its base, as if a repair was begun and then just never quite finished, the dry pools around the restaurants.
A nice place, just a little rough in some spots
There’s a “Ciber Café.” Or at least, that’s what it says above the door.
This is not a cyber café

Judging from the surrounding spaces, the thing is the size of a commodious closet, but I can’t actually tell, because the door is locked. The same was true when I stopped by here last night.

I know the government is conflicted about the internet and its potential to benefit the country but also to destabilize the government. But I think this particular space may have simply been designated by a person who was told that hotels need to have cyber cafés, but didn’t actually know what a cyber café is.

There’s also a placard advertising day-trips to see the “real” Cuba. Judging from the pictures on the placard, the real Cuba has jungles and rivers, and people in simple pants and shirts that are meant to hang outside their pants. This place, Cayo Santa Maria, with the tile floors, the performance in the beach theater every evening, the beach party every night, the Cubans in spiffy hotel uniforms and often able to speak English a little or a lot, and the all-inclusive packaging—this place, apparently, is not the real Cuba, and presumably these sons and daughters of the island in their spiffy hotel uniforms are not real Cubans.

Pat was watching Cuban TV last night, and is struck by the paternalism—“We will take care of you.” She saw an old man on TV: “Because of the Revolution I was able to go to university,” or something like that; maybe it was “become a doctor”. “The young people need to be given more responsibility so they understand to be responsible for the community. The young people are interested in making money; our generation would take voluntary pay cuts when it was necessary.”

Pat notes that the kids of today have known nothing but socialism. If they haven’t gotten it already, they’re not going to get it.

We leave Cayo Santa Maria behind and head back to the mainland and Caibarién.
The lagoon from the bus. Islands to the left, mainland to the right.
Leaving the causeway, we see military police. Jesús says that the road work around us was being done by the military. He explains that when Raúl was in charge of the army, he built up its capability to do many things for itself, so it wouldn’t have to depend on the economy—which is an interesting commentary on the state of the economy, and on the leadership’s own conception of the economy’s condition and potential. In the course of his explanation he mentions that he’s met Raúl more than once.

In the course of today’s drive, I start taking more careful note of the slogans painted on billboards, or the sides of buildings.

“The economic battle is the most important task today.”

“En voz alta SOCIALISMO” (In a loud voice, SOCIALISM)

“Sí se puede” (Yes we can) –Raúl

When you arrive at the sugar mill you pass a stand where you are offered freshly pressed cane juice, served in a simple ceramic bowl/cup that fits nicely in your hand. It is, of course, very sweet, but also tastes like grass, as if you were chewing on a stalk of grass—which isn’t surprising, since sugar cane is a grass. I drank perhaps more than I needed to, since some of the students didn’t find it all that appealing, while I liked it.
Kind of like the machine that Chris and Sawyer played with a couple days earlier, only powered by electricity rather than humans. Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
From that introduction you’re ushered into a small theater where you are shown a short video (10 minutes?) about the history of the sugar industry in Cuba. I think this video included a reference to the Cuban-Spanish-American War, which was a term I hadn’t heard before coming here.

My history books in high school, and every source I remember encountering, describes the “Spanish-American War”. There was this fight in Cuba, the USS Maine blew up in Havana harbor, the U.S. went to war and ended up in possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. We gave Cuba a kind of independence, and kept the other two for ourselves.

A few treatments were rather jingoistic about how the US had acted nobly in this, most were somewhat or very critical of the US’s actions, sometimes criticizing how we got into the war, and pretty universally condemning the anti-guerilla war we waged in the Philippines to put down self-rule by the local population.

And the treatments of the war with which I was familiar were generally critical of the Platt Amendment. Following the Spanish defeat, the US kept an army of occupation in Cuba for another four years.

Partly we were dealing with real humanitarian disasters—many years of war preceding our involvement had left behind huge problems with health care, sanitation, and food.

But partly we were there to make sure that the new Cuban constitution incorporated the Platt Amendment, language that gave the US the right to intervene in Cuba.

But even the critical treatments that I knew from the U.S. still called it “the Spanish-American War.” The Cubans point out that they’d been fighting the Spaniards for independence off and on since the 1860’s. From their perspective, they were on the verge of winning (mainly by simply having exhausted the Spanish), when the U.S. stepped in and plucked the fruits of victory.

I’m not familiar enough with the military history to know how close the Cubans were to winning before we stepped in, but at a minimum, it does seem reasonable to call it the Cuban-Spanish-American War, as they do, reflecting both the effort each country put in (particularly relative to its size) and which countries were affected most.

Beyond the politics of the video, the museum made a vivid impression regarding the technological development of the sugar industry, from simple equipment powered by humans or animals and producing relatively small amounts, to the giant machinery that was the mill’s centerpiece, capable of processing train-cars’ worth of cane at a time.
The device in the foreground is a very basic technology for crushing sugar cane.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Behind the guide: a vat for boiling down the cane juice.
Photo: Pawansoe Bree

One slave leads the oxen while another feeds the cane into the crushers the oxen are powering.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

The cane would be dumped into the trough in the center bottom, then lifted up to be shredded by the teeth left of center.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
The museum also made clear how much the industry was tied to the U.S. economy. On the one hand, we were the largest buyers of Cuban sugar. On the other, every piece of machinery that had an identifiable origin was made in the U.S.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Outside the shed roof that covers the refinery equipment, there’s a park of retired steam locomotives, set amidst trees, and the makers I noticed were all from the U.S. (Vulcan – from Baltimore? and Baldwin from Philadelphia).
The garden of locomotives.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
On top of the intimate connection with the U.S., the sugar mill is a reminder of the resource use behind economic activity. (Well, it serves as that if that’s what you’re inclined to look for.) There is first of all the resource of the cane itself, requiring sun, water, and soil. Then there’s the energy to bring it to the mill in trains (they were steam locomotives, but powered by oil—most likely imported from the U.S.). And of course the energy to operate the gigantic machinery. And then there’s the entire process behind the manufacture of all that equipment and all those locomotives.

After scampering all over one of the locomotives in the park, we boarded the same tourist train we’d driven alongside the day before, for a ride to Remedios, where the bus would meet us.
In the background: "We must work with order, discipline, and all due speed" (or something like that)
As the train clanked along, there were various picturesque photo opportunities, some of them involving human subjects.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Outside one shack there were four old men playing something like cards or dominoes, and they waved. Others watched us more guardedly. I acquired a reluctance to take those pictures, because it felt too much like being on safari and snapping pictures of exotic wildlife.
A view from the train
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Remedios itself is known for Las Parrandas, a giant Christmas festival where the two halves of the town engage in friendly competition over whose parade floats can be more extravagant. It being January, we were late for the festival itself, but then again, at Christmas it would have been hard to even get into the town, what with all the other visitors.

Our guide to the warehouse
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

We were allowed to visit the warehouse where one of the town’s teams stores its float materials, a tremendous assemblage of curious items.
I don't remember the legend now, but this guy with the tree feet and the bow is connected to the woman whose head is a hummingbird and whose foot has broken off.
Photos: Pawsansoe Bree
Part of a float
Near the door there was an electrician working on some wiring. I was taken with the ramshackle collection of parts and tools he was working with, and the patched-together quality of the wiring he was fixing. He was puttering away in the background of the explanation we were being given and our attention was elsewhere, when he seized our attention by falling off of the rickety chair he’d been using in place of a step-ladder. He was maybe 60 and not in the best of shape, so the fall rattled him. He sat nursing his soreness for a time, but then got back to work.
The gate to the warehouse, with the name and mascot of the neighborhood.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Out in the main square we’d been told the legend of the statue of the Virgin that kept magically moving from the church to the shack of the black man who’d found it on the beach, so the local authorities eventually gave in to the will of the Virgin and built a church on the site of the black man’s shack. This is the quaint story behind the fact that Remedios is the only city in Cuba with two churches on the main square. I’m curious whether they did right by the man who found the statue and built him a new place to live after plonking a church down where his shack had been.

Currently, the square is obstructed by some sort of construction framework strewn about, so only small cars can actually navigate all the way around.

And on the side that’s open, there’s a building being fixed up, presumably a hotel (at least there will be high demand in late December, for Las Parrandas). The old name of the building, visible above the steel construction fence, is “La Ilusion,” which seemed appropriate.
Someday, a hotel
We didn’t have much of a lunch plan. We scattered to local stores to try to find something to nibble on the bus, like maybe some cookies. I found a store that sold groceries, but also household appliances. I got cookies, rather than a dishwasher.

We made our way back to the Nacional, the half a highway that traverses the country, then left it just after we entered Matanzas province to make our way back to the northern coast and Varadero. As you drive through the countryside, you start seeing this plucky fellow painted on the sides of buildings, the mascot for the Matanzas baseball team.
File:Matanzas logo beisbol.png
We finally make it to Varadero, a spit of sand that sticks out into the Atlantic about 10 miles. Our hotel is at the base of that spit, closest to the mainland, one of two matching buildings that, we are told, are the original hotels from the beginning of the country’s return to tourism in 1990.

The guests in the hotel turn out to include large numbers of Canadians and Russians, and they’ve developed something of a reputation, as was hinted at by an incident earlier in the day.

When we’d turned off of the Nacional and were driving along two-lane roads, we drove past a farmers market and either Pat or Jesús spotted a fruit that Pat remembered from childhood and really wanted to get a taste of.

Victor quickly pulled in and Jesús hopped off to buy some of the fruit, and the bus was immediately the object of the attentions of several vendors hoping to get a piece of our action. Victor was minimally responsive to their offers that they were calling in through the open door of the bus.

One woman finally asked, “Where are they from?”

“They’re Canadians.”

The woman turned away in disgust. “Shit. They don’t buy anything.”

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the involuntary absence of the Ugly American has left open an ecological niche for another species, the Ugly Canadian, as Pat has come to think of them.

They buy package tours from Toronto or Vancouver and come here for a week of beach-side oblivion, while they complain about the buffet food (included in the price): “It’s the same shit every week.”

Tristan had a conversation with a Canadian who thought it was cool we were here from the U.S., but hoped there wouldn’t be lots more of us, or it would get more expensive. I guess that’s a reasonable fear.

The day ended on a slightly surreal note. I ran into Chris C. as we were both wandering the grounds after dark. Neither of us had yet been to the beach, so we walked together out to the water. When we turned back toward the hotel, there was a bright light coming toward us.

Chris told me later he was somewhat freaking out. Sixth day in Cuba, and his family will be notified when his body washes up on the Florida coast.

“Security … First time in Cuba?”

“Yes, we’ve been here five days.”

“Where are you from?”

“The U.S.”

“Coño.” (I’m not quite sure what this word means. I’m pretty sure it’s vulgar, but its sense is, “Oh, man.”) Then he reached out and shook our hands. “What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful and very interesting,” said Chris.

“We’re here with a course, studying how Cuba is changing,” I added.

“For the better.” He pulls out a coin. “See this? Cuban money, 3 pesos, Che Guevara. Good souvenir.” He continues holding it on the palm of his hand.

“For me?” I ask.


So I take it. Then there’s a long, awkward moment while his hand remains there, open. I reach into my pocket and pull out a coin worth 0.25 CUC (the coin he’s given me is worth about 0.03 CUC). I put my coin in his waiting hand and he looks at it unimpressed. I pull out the remaining 0.25 CUC from my pocket and add it to the one that’s already in his hand. “I don’t have anything bigger.”

“That’s fine.” We parted amicably.
All aboard!
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
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