Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The colonization of mental space (Day 8)

Previous post
The iconic image of Che, but rendered in corn kernels on a black surface.
From the stairway to the roof at the Museum of the Battle of Ideas
(Slogan noticed today: “The fight brought us unity, unity brought us victory.”)

Today’s main event was an outing to Cárdenas, a small city not far from Varadero, and the main thing in Cárdenas was the Museum of the Battle of Ideas.
This bas relief sculpture is mounted on the wall across the street from the entrance to the museum.
The words below the Cuban flag say, "Cuba responds" (to the U.S.'s stance in the Elián González affair).
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
The motivating force of the museum is the Elián González incident, from 1999-2000. González’s parents were divorced, and his mother fled Cuba with him by boat. The boat sank in a storm and the mother died, along with most on board. González was rescued and turned over to the US Coast Guard and eventually to relatives in Miami.

The Miami relatives said, now that Elián had escaped from totalitarian Cuba, it would be wrong to return him to such a horrible place. The father argued that he was Elián’s surviving parent and therefore had legal custody, and he wanted the boy returned to him.

The situation dragged on through months of court hearings and protests, ending with a raid by border police who took Elián from the Miami relatives’ house, so that he could be returned to his family in Cuba.

From Castro’s perspective, the incident was a Godsend. He was backed up by international law and by sympathy for the father, and it seems that many Cubans were authentically angry at the U.S. for its slowness in reuniting the boy with his one surviving parent.

The treatment of the Elián story in the Museum of the Battle of Ideas is unremarkable. It is narrated with his school desk, photos, artefacts, and art work.
Bottom left: "We are going to read and then write:
The Cuban of today is free.
The workers are building their houses.
There will be houses for all.
New factories will be opened.
The message is unambiguous, about the bad Miami relatives and the unjust tearing apart of a son and his father.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
The inner lobby has a statue of revolutionary hero José Martí, who is conspicuous for being a hero both to the Castro regime and to its opponents, each side portraying themselves as the true fulfillment of his ideals.

The statue is about twice life size, and Martí is holding an infant in his right arm and extending his left arm toward—well, in the museum, it’s extending toward nothing in particular. But the statue was commissioned for Havana, and the original stands not far from the U.S. Interest Section (the former embassy), with Martí reaching out an accusatory arm. The whole thing was put up during the Elián incident.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Jesús says there are only a few photos of Martí and Cubans get used to seeing him in those poses, so it really brings out a different side of him to see him realized in a different way like this. Which I guess it does, but it raises the question of whether it’s a different side of Martí, or merely his likeness stuck onto an allegorical body.

While the focus of the museum is the story of Elián, the subject is broader. The first room they showed us is dedicated to the first one-and-a-half centuries of U.S. efforts to seize or dominate Cuba (1797-1947, from Alexander Hamilton’s vision of a hemispheric power to the creation of the CIA).

Another exhibit concerns the Cuban Five (los Cinco), a group imprisoned by the U.S. as spies, but viewed in Cuba as heroes. (In Cuban Revelations, Marc Frank says the men were sent to the U.S. partly in response to efforts by Cuban exiles to attack Cuban resorts from small private airplanes, as a way of damaging the Cuban regime. Their job was to spy not on the U.S. government, but on the exile community, to try to thwart any future attacks.)
Photos: Pawsansoe Bree
There are also materials from the energy campaign, when the Party sent youth out around the country to promote the adoption of habits and devices to reduce energy consumption. The museum represents that with brochures for rice cookers, and a compact fluorescent light bulb next to an incandescent one.
An inspiring idea, but not the most inspired presentation.
The overall feel of the museum was very reminiscent of comparable facilities in the Soviet Union, both for the roughness of the presentation, and for the beat-you-over-the-head approach of the narrative.
"This bud will grow in its own garden."
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
The courtyard is decorated with memorial stones to various Cuban heroes.
Photos: Pawsansoe Bree
We were guided to the roof, which has wonderful views across the city, which is laid out on a square grid on a bay.
Our trusty guide, Jesús
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
The group, on Paw's camera
Along the way we passed a couple of representations of Che, including the corn-based icon at the top of the post.

There was also this telling sign on a closed door:
"Level of access
Computer room
- Director
- IT staff
- Authorized personnel"
Back out on the street we were given 30 minutes or so to wander around. A student took a picture sequence on a single corner that gives a sense of the traffic
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
And just random vendors, pedicabs, bikers, and pedestrians.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree
Pat and I walked over to a bookstore we’d seen from the bus, while some of the students changed money; the offerings included a book by Fidel on the strategic counteroffensive, which seemed to be the last period of the war in 1958. I never found out who buys such inspiring tomes. Perhaps they are required reading in schools.

On our way to the bookstore we passed the old market building a two-story structure in the shape of a square cross that takes a whole block, with rooms on both floors for merchants to set up their stalls out of the wind and rain.
Abandoned market building
Along the whole side that we saw, the only use was a man at a table with a key-cutting machine.
Well, not entirely abandoned.
Our itinerary billed the day in part as “Compare vibrant beach town of Varadero with much quieter, authentic town of Cárdenas.” Quieter, but lively in its way.

With my prejudices about tourism, it was a lot easier to like Cárdenas than Varadero. Yes, Varadero is vibrant, but there’s something unreal about it. On the other hand, much of the money that supports daily life in Cárdenas is earned in the tourist businesses of Varadero, which is only about 10 miles away. The abandoned market building and the sluggish bookstore certainly didn’t suggest a hive of local activity.

Back at the hotel, I was greeted by my towels shaped into a … jester? I’m not sure, but it was charming.
"Hello!"
I went to the store in the hotel to buy myself a replacement swim suit for the one I’d left in Cayo Santo Maria. In the store I noticed the health warnings on the cigarette cartons, message like, “Save your life, don’t lose your beauty, don’t smoke.” On some cartons, the health message was covered up with a price sticker. People didn’t seem to be paying it much attention anyway.

And out to the beach for a float in the warm Atlantic, still a somewhat surreal experience for a guy who grew up going to beaches on Cape Cod and near Boston.

The beach here is not as picture-postcard perfect as at Cayo Santa Maria. Rather than fine sand, it seems to be made up of many distinct pieces of shell with sizes from ice cream sprinkles up to dimes. If you float on your back and let the waves raise and lower you as they pass underneath, you hear the tinkling of the sea shells wax and wane as the waves pass to and fro over the bottom.

I mentioned that the museum reminded me of Soviet museums, but it’s not surprising that there are other parallels between Cuba and the old Soviet Union. A big one is the absence of commercial advertising and the presence of slogans, of the type I’ve been documenting during the last few posts.

It really is a striking difference from our own environment. From my experience living in the Soviet Union in 1988 and talking with people there, you partly tune out the omnipresent slogans and exhortations. But not entirely. It’s part of your mental environment, whether you pay attention to it or not.

There’s a Soviet folk song from the 1920’s, “We were born to make the fairy tale into reality … In place of a heart, we have a flaming motor.” That first line used to be mounted in huge letters atop a building that was visible from Red Square in Moscow. A Russian friend one time remarked about, “That stupid slogan on the building, making the fairy tale reality. Fui! They made reality into a nightmare is what they did. And having a flaming motor in place of a heart—that’s supposed to be a good thing?” At some level you cease being aware of the slogans, because they’re just part of the background, but you are taking them in.

And even if you think they’re stupid, they’re taking up space in your mind. They’re helping provide some of the tools with which you think.

We don’t have government slogans plastered all over our public space. Instead we have ads, messages designed to make us want to buy things. And a good way to make you want to buy something is to make you feel bad about yourself, or to make you focus excessively on your problems or weaknesses, then suggest that you can remedy it all by buying product X.

On the surface, you couldn’t find public spaces more different than that of a commercial society like ours and a communist one like Cuba. But there’s a deeper similarity than I think people realize.

Our minds are going to be occupied by something. It’s simply how they work. We pay no more conscious attention to our commercials than a Cuban or a Soviet citizen pays to their slogans, but our minds are being just as effectively colonized.

The authoritarian state, whether communist or some other flavor, claims that it’s looking out for the best interests of the citizenry, but it is also, by its nature, looking to keep itself in power, and that often conflicts with what would be good for the citizenry.

The commercial society claims to be building a paradise of consumer sovereignty, where the society thrives by everyone looking out for their own best interests, but above all, by its nature, the entities in the commercial society are looking out for their own bottom line. If that means making you feel bad about carrying an extra 20 pounds, or feeding your envy of your neighbor’s possessions, well so be it. The fact that it’s reducing the overall level of happiness in society is—what’s the term?—a necessary cost of doing business.

It’s in the nature of a society to colonize people’s minds with something—I’d guess that part of what makes any society a society is the large overlap in what it is that has colonized the minds of each of us individuals.

I’m not advocating that the government take over the public space and squeeze out the commercial messages, à la Cuba, or the Soviet Union—that’s not exactly a recipe for free thought or a healthy democracy. And I’m open to the argument that that would be worse than what we have.

But I’m not thrilled with the system we have, where so much of our mental apparatus is designed to help someone else make money, our own spiritual and mental well-being be damned. And I think our own society testifies to the fact that a free press doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have an informed populace.



After dinner I walked around the grounds of our resort, including up the external staircase / fire-escape.
The spit of land that is Varadero reaches out into the Atlantic.
Our hotel is just like the one in this view, except the orange and blue are reversed.
Though the hotel isn’t as nice as some of the newer ones, my room is comfortable, and the facilities are objectively fairly nice.
A variety of shapes of swimming pools for your pleasure.
But there are surprises, like the doors off of the fire-escape that are missing their glass.
Kids got a kick of going through the door without opening the door.
Or the unimpeded access to the roof, and a guy sitting there enjoying the breeze and the late-afternoon light
Quite a view from here ...
with no railings to harsh his mellow
... but stay away from the edge if you're not confident in your balance.
(in the U.S. that roof would be a lawyer’s payday in a New York minute).

After dark, as I was sitting on my bed finishing up these notes, there was a flash outside which I assumed was lightning. I went to my balcony and saw stars in the sky, so I dismissed that first guess, but then it came again. That’s when I noticed that the stars were only in the upper part of the sky; the lower part, out toward the horizon, was in clouds. Somewhere out in the Atlantic, a storm was putting on a big show.

Meanwhile, the air was filled with coal smoke—or perhaps it was the refinery in Matanzas that a Canadian vacationer had said you could sometimes smell.
A whimsical version of the Cuban flag,
from the Museum of the Battle of Ideas.
Photo: Pawsansoe Bree

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