Cover story -- Cuba
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Issue Date:  March 24, 2006

Paradox rules in Cuba

Where 'the simplest things are always the most complicated'

Part 1 of 2 on Cuba
Part 1 looks at daily life as Cubans experience it, 47 years after the revolution, from free baseball to frequent blackouts. Part 2 will look at the Catholic church in Cuba today.

Havana, Cuba

Salvador Márquez is an industrial engineer who drives a taxi, works 12 hours a day seven days a week, and lives with his wife and three children in his mother-in-law’s apartment because of Cuba’s chronic housing shortage. Yet when his 5-year-old son draws a picture for a foreign visitor, Márquez insists he add a Cuban flag. And he is bursting with pride because 15-year-old Antonio has been accepted into the Lenin Vocational School.

Márquez prefers to talk not about daily hardships but instead about Cuba’s health care and education systems, which are consistently ranked among the best in Latin America. He draws a religious parallel: “Look at the idea of Jesus: to share the bread. What we are doing here in Cuba, for all of its hundreds of problems, is closer to Christ than anything else in the post-modern world.”

Luis Mario Carbó, 37, sells jewelry and shirts out of the crowded apartment he shares with several other people in a dilapidated barrio of Old Havana. Although businesses from department stores to jazz clubs are run by the state, Cubans are permitted to sell goods out of their doorways. You can usually count the numbers of pens and hair bands on their tiny tables. Compared to most, Carbó’s offerings are a cornucopia of merchandise, yet he chafes under the arcane rules that govern private enterprise in Cuba and has been arrested and jailed twice for trying to flee to Miami on a raft.

“For me, the ideal of socialism is more like a perfect lie,” he said. “And it’s an elaborate lie, because behind the scenes everything is being manipulated to disguise the truth, which is that we are living here week to week, day to day, minute to minute.”

He quotes José Martí, the hero of Cuba’s war for independence: “I have lived inside the beast and I know its entrails.” But, then, Márquez had quoted Martí as well to forgive the regime its sins: “Even the sun has its spots.”

Thus in this 47th year of Cuba’s historic revolution, it remains in the eye of the beholder whether the nation is a socialist paradise or a living hell. That raging and seemingly endless debate often steals the stage from the incongruities across every walk of life that are the real show on this island of nearly 12 million people.

“Ay mi amor,” purrs a woman in response to a simple question about where to find a certain museum, “in this country, the simplest things are always the most complicated.” Cubans joke that their national sport is la lucha -- the struggle. The punch line goes unstated: The reference is to the daily struggle, not the revolutionary one.

Yet only in Cuba does an unemployed electrician complaining about the nation’s constant blackouts and dysfunctional economy suddenly roll up his sleeve to show off a tattoo of Che Guevara. Long dead and thus liberated from actually having to administer the revolution he wrought alongside Fidel Castro, Che remains an icon to the Cuban people, the ideal of all that socialism portends to be.

At Cuba’s midseason all-star game, an enormous banner of Che behind home plate flutters in the tropical breeze. In this most baseball-crazy of nations, some 50,000 fans have flocked to a stadium in Havana. Admission is free -- a triumph of socialism if ever there was one. Yet serious fans want to talk about Orlando “El Duque” Hernández and his brother Livan, Cuban defectors who pitch in the U.S. major leagues. No one mentions their politics; they just want to know their earned run averages. Besides, many in attendance are teenagers more interested in dancing the regatón between innings than in baseball, much less in Che, the revolutionary legend.

Not even religion is immune from Cuba’s dualities. The government reinstated Christmas as an official holiday following a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1998, but today almost no one in Cuba celebrates it. In what was an avowed atheist state until restrictions on religious freedom were relaxed over the past decade, the largest denomination is likely neither Catholic nor Protestant but rather Santería, which combines traditional African religions with Roman Catholicism.

In the topsy-turvy economy of Cuba, Maritza Pérez took two months leave from her job as a financial analyst earning $18 a month to clean houses rented to tourists in order to pay for her upcoming Santería consecration, a ritual that involves animal slaughter and other ancestral customs. As a maid, access to tips in foreign exchange gives her the opportunity to earn $30 a month. Dressed in white as a sign of her efforts to purify herself -- a common sight on the streets of Havana -- the 42-year-old single mother regularly attends a Catholic church but also prays to icons in her cramped apartment that range from dried fruits to daggers, rocks and dolls.

Pérez happens to live next door to the office of a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, government-run councils organized by block that watch over neighborhood activities. As if suddenly reminded, Pérez concludes an interview by giving thanks for all she has in life to neither her Catholic nor African saints, but rather to Fidel Castro.

Cuba reaches its paradoxical heights in its approach to tourism. A socialist state whose goal is a classless society has put in place a class-based system of tourism that borders on apartheid. Many Cubans are reluctant to walk near a tourist hotel for fear they will be questioned by the authorities as to why they are there. Cuba even uses a dual currency: for tourists, the convertible peso, which matches the dollar, and for its citizens, the Cuban peso, at about 24 pesos to the dollar. Tourists who live in the convertible world, which includes hotels and restaurants, pay prices on par with the United States or Europe. A Cuban baseball cap costs $25 in state-run souvenir stores, and there are no “knock-offs” to be found on Havana’s streets, virtually barren of commerce compared with other Latin American cities.

A ride for a tourist in a modern taxi is as expensive as in New York City, and passengers even are required to put on their seat belts. Cubans, however, are prohibited from riding in those taxis, just as the crammed and beat-up taxis reserved for Cubans at cheaper prices are prohibited from picking up tourists. Ever alert to the irony of their second-class status, Cubans refer to the vintage-1950s autos that constitute their fleet not as taxis but as maquinas (machines). Reflected Carbó, the shopkeeper, “One day as I was waiting forever for a maquina, I looked across the street and saw a line of empty taxis, waiting for tourists.”

No discussion of Cuba can be complete without touching on the third rail that is politics. After Castro repeatedly broadcast virulent anti-U.S. speeches in late January, Cubans took to the streets for a massive state-run demonstration against American policies. The vast majority of Cubans get their news exclusively from state-run media and have no access to cable television or the Internet, so the government’s demonization of President George Bush, in particular, has become part and parcel of daily life, expressed in everything from billboards to television ads to Castro’s relentless diatribes. The run-up to the march thus augured something of a collective catharsis to exorcise Castro’s rage, which is shared by many Cubans suffering from the U.S. economic blockade.

But this is Cuba, remember, where nothing is quite as it appears. In fact, as dawn breaks the march is nothing if not orderly and the atmosphere is festive. Salsa bands play and smiling marchers dance joyously even as they hold up posters comparing Bush to Hitler. From the rhetoric one might have expected an orgy of anger, but as the morning wears on it becomes apparent that with schools and offices closed, most marchers are more interested in enjoying a day off.

David Einhorn is a freelance writer based in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2006

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