Bread and roses

Hearts starve as well as bodies

Give us bread, but give us roses

– John Denver

Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I managed the business operations of an Internet service provider.  I vaguely remember participating in a Point/Counterpoint article in a business magazine where I was asked to argue one side of a topic and the governor’s tech guy the other. The topic was the urgency of bridging the “digital divide.”  

Really, we were not so much on opposite sides of the fence as straddling it.  Both of us wanted more people to have better internet access – me for financial reasons, him for political reasons – but even so, I’ll never forget suddenly finding myself in the bizarre looking-glass position of being the one to point out that in a state where so many people lacked access to decent healthcare, just as one example, faster, better Internet access might not be the first priority.

Fast forward and I find myself, twenty years later in Cuba, where a similar argument is taking place but the intensity of the debate is much louder.  In Utah, in the pre Facebook, Twitter, Instagram era, when everyone’s access was over a dialup modem and DSL was a distant murmur on the horizon, that debate was one that few people followed and even fewer remember. Here, now, with millions of Cubans finally connected to the internet, there’s currently a campaign launched over that same internet, complete with hashtag: #BajenLosPreciosDeInternet (Lower The Internet Prices).  Its promoters are a familiar crew, quick to criticize their own country, somewhat casual in its defense, and overwhelmingly silent when it comes to calculating the role of the greatest drag on the country’s economy: the U.S. blockade.

It is a blockade. I know that the State Department hates the word, and I understand their reasons, but we must agree to disagree. I have lived the Cuban reality and they for the most part, have not.  They do not know what it means to have to acquire the paint from Miami to repair a chalkboard in their child’s classroom because it has deteriorated to the point where the writing is nearly invisible.  They have not stayed in a Cuban hospital where the medicine shortage is severe.  They don’t know how it is to wait hours for a bus with no discernible schedule, in punishing heat, only to have the bus arrive and realize that there is no possible way that another human body can fit inside.  These are far from the worst examples but they are three very ordinary ones with which I am intimately familiar.  They are the daily reflections of a shattered economy, and it is senseless to even talk about it without recognizing how the blockade permeates everything.  But that is something for another day.

Back to that magazine article.  Utah was not by any means a socialist state, and Cuba is very much a socialist state, so it’s a little like apples and oranges.  I could make the argument back then about state priorities because I was debating a state official, and in the United States there is at least a minimal nexus between the state and healthcare, while the provision of internet access has been almost totally controlled by private capital, blissfully free of meaningful state oversight. 

In Cuba though, the state controls both healthcare and telecom, because this is the system the Cubans have designed.  Private capital has made incursions over the last twenty-five years but the state still runs the show.  In fact, Cuba’s national budget includes everything, from food production and imports, to medicine, to the arts, to free education all the way from pre-K to university, to infrastructure, to tourism, to the press, to energy, to manufacturing.  I may have missed some.  

It was not as illogical as it may seem for me to question a state’s priorities and influence in a mixed economy.  It is totally illogical though, for the proponents behind the #LowerInternetPrices campaign to ask why ETECSA (the Cuban telephone company) profits are not reinvested strictly in telecom infrastructure, the better to subsidize internet prices, while simultaneously the country has other huge gaping needs that affect everyone, hitting those without computers or even smartphones especially hard.  

It doesn’t work that way under the Cuban socialist model.  Priorities are set further up the line, where the needs of the majority are considered, not the few.  To put it very bluntly, funds certainly could come in through ETECSA and stay at ETECSA, but are lower internet prices more important than the electricity generation that lights the houses and pumps the water to those without interest or need for internet? Or the electricity that actually runs the internet?  Or the education that made it possible to staff the electric plants that run the electricity that lights the houses and pumps the water and feeds the tourism so critical to the current economy? The medicine that supports the healthy students that study the engineering that teaches them to operate the electric plants that run the electricity that runs the country?  Well, you get my point.  In Cuba, everything is interconnected. There are no silos here.

This is a point that the foreign press working here often miss.  But they miss so much.  A few years ago someone gave me a copy of a book of Cuban cartoons, one of which showed two television cameras focused on a rose.  One camera belonged to the foreign press, the other the Cuban press.  The one for the foreign press was focused on the thorn.  The Cuban camera was focused on the bloom.  

The truth is that the rose has both a blossom and a thorn and the cartoon was an almost perfect characterization of Cuba in the eye of the beholder.  Cubans are fully aware of their country’s defects and its virtues. They gripe plenty about the defects and perhaps they boast less then they should of its virtues.  The conditions that feed the rose are not unimportant, though.  I would argue that without a chilly wind constantly blowing from the north, many more roses would thrive, with fewer thorns, and the Cubans would have fields of them.  Low internet prices would be among them.  

P.S.  I am still waiting for the foreign press to correct their analysis about the tremendous lines at the grocery stores, supposedly caused by additional US sanctions and pressure on Venezuela.  The lines have vanished.  The stores are stocked again, at least to the levels they ever were.  Were the sanctions lifted?  Or was it actually a panic, as I suggested, stoked by the relentless focus on the thorn? 

Burning questions

Q: Is it still legal for Americans to travel to Cuba?

Honestly, the scare tactics channeled from Miami through the White House and meant to frighten Americans away aren’t working all that well.  There are more Americans here now than ever – the Cubans keep track and statistics show twice as many right now as this same time last year.  Curiously, they’re open and defiant about their travel in a way I’ve never quite seen before.  A friend of mine who recently happened to stop by the Kempinski downtown (the 5 star hotel that is one of many on Trump’s blacklist) found the lobby packed with Americans, laughing and joking about who might tattle on them.

I’ve always said that what happens in Cuba stays in Cuba.  There’s no way the Treasury Department can know what you’ve done here unless you tell them.  I understand that different people have different comfort levels with that concept, which is why when I make travel arrangements here for family and friends, and friends of friends, etc., I do it in a way that’s totally compliant with the regulations, without making them feel like prisoners.

As far as the regulations go, there have been threats to limit the non-family travel, but no revised regulations to match.  Will they appear?  Who knows?  And really, who cares?  Because I’ve always found, over the twenty years I’ve been coming here, that where there’s a will, there’s a way.  It’s just interesting to see that so much of the current US policy toward Cuba is based on huffing and puffing and threatening to blow the house down – fear certainly has its uses but as a concrete enforceable tactic it’s rather limited.

Q: What’s this about food shortages and rationing?  Are you ok?

A: Yes, we’re ok.  Yes, there are shortages.  But this is not news.  There have been shortages ever since I came to live here seven years ago.  It has always been a scavenger hunt to find anything, often involving a stop at several or many different stores. There are reasons for this. We can discuss them some other time. I believe I have written here before about the year we had no butter (admittedly a luxury item) anywhere, for nine months. You quickly learn that if it’s not here today, it might be tomorrow, and if not tomorrow then next week.  Or next month.  Or next year.  Or maybe you can actually live without it.  You learn to go with the flow and eventually you even begin to separate your wants from your needs, which is a useful exercise for anyone.

What is new is the panic buying, stoked by fears of a severe downturn in the already poor economy, with media reports pouring fuel on the fire.  The real situation is a little more complex. 

Neither food nor petroleum imports turn on a dime.  No-one knows for sure if there is less petroleum coming in than before, because the Cuban government views information like this as strategic and doesn’t share it with anyone. Sometimes it doesn’t even share non-strategic information.  I once needed a relatively unimportant figure from the 2002 census that is supposed to be online, but the link to the 2002 census doesn’t work, and no-one could be bothered to fix it.  Getting a copy of the census at the library is a machiavellian exercise that is not exactly the library’s fault, and not worth detailing either.  A visit to the statistics office is met with a demand for credentials, and an ID card is not seen by those guarding the door as sufficiently important, regardless of the fact that one is only seeking public information.  

Also there’s the enormously complicated matter of how oil is actually bought, sold, traded and transported.  Even if it were true that oil deliveries have dropped (which no-one knows), arrangements for substitute deliveries often involve triangulating the trade in a way that would make your eyes glaze over if I tried to explain it.  My point is that anyone who reads the tea leaves and says there’s less oil coming in, therefore less food, is grasping at straws, I don’t care who they are.  

Nevertheless there are measurable things.  The problem is that no-one bothers to measure them.  The Ministry of Domestic Trade says that basics like oil, eggs and rice are at the same or even increased levels as ever, but the hoarding is throwing everything off kilter.  A journalist visiting different stores with a grocery list could easily compare and confirm year on year numbers with store managers, but the Cuban journalists are evidently unmotivated to do so and the foreign journalists are too busy shouting the sky is falling and tweeting alarming pictures of mobbed grocery stores, which proves only that there are scarcities but makes no meaningful contribution to answering the question of why.

So yes, for now, action is being taken like limiting the number of packages of certain high demand products that a single consumer can buy at any one time, but it does not quite rise to the level of rationing.  We do have that. But it’s something different. Unless U.S. journalists also call Black Friday shopping limits rationing, then ok.  Just remember, language is political and context matters.

Road hazards

Cuban highways can be as wretched as they are good. A three-lane, lightly traveled “freeway” stretches horizontally across the western half of the country and is mostly smooth, complemented by the occasional floating overpass, unconnected to any on or off ramp and mostly serving as a convenient sunshade for people waiting for rides in either direction. The rides sometimes come in the form of buses, sometimes open air lorries, rusting Chevys, Ladas or Moscovys and sometimes, like manna from heaven, the occasional “tour,” which is how Cubans refer to a modern comparatively luxurious air-conditioned car driven by a tourist. A stop to ask directions often ends with the acquisition of an additional unplanned passenger. Continue reading “Road hazards”

Farewell compañero

Sean Joseph Clancy, courtesy of Escambray.cu

This post is one I’d hoped never to write, but considering that so many of my family and friends came to know Sean Joseph Clancy as a result of our friendship, and because he was such an extraordinary person who charmed all of them, and finally because we could not attend his memorial Mass in Ireland today, I want to at least offer his family my heartfelt condolences, and share a little about the Sean I knew. Not very long ago, he sent me a copy of an article he had written for Socialist Voice, and I’ve included a link to it at the bottom for those who are interested in knowing a little more about him. Continue reading “Farewell compañero”

Cat show

When I came to work in Cuba in 2012, my son was six years old and spoke no Spanish whatsoever. Despite everyone telling me that “children are sponges, much more flexible than adults” and that it was the ideal moment to make such a move, it was still something I worried about obsessively. With practically everything else in his life uprooted, the one stable thing I could offer besides myself was his beloved cat, so despite a fairly costly and lengthy bureaucratic process we brought him along. When I told a friend, she exclaimed, “I can’t believe you’re doing that! Everyone will see that he’s a pampered American cat!” Continue reading “Cat show”

Occam’s razor

Macraea laricifolia (Romerillo)

Pretty much every year, the males in my household come down with a cold. I am less often afflicted; men are after all, the weaker sex. The last cold I remember having several years ago, left me with a stopped up ear that lasted so long I began to wonder whether I’d ever recover. (I did.)

The Cuban remedy is “inhalaciones” – you bring a pot of water to boil on the stove, remove it, and then breathe in as much of the steam as you can tolerate. Five minutes are ideal, several times a day. I find even a minute intolerable and have always viewed the remedy skeptically. So I felt somewhat vindicated several weeks ago when some Cuban nurses visiting from Spain pointed out that “inhalaciones” are no longer recommended. Cubans still do not agree, however. They say that this claim is nothing more than a first world plot to hawk cold medicines. Which could also be true. Continue reading “Occam’s razor”

Vicious circles

Watch out for the dogs / don’t enter without calling / don’t call either

The circle of scarcity:

1. The less available something is, the more you want it.

2. The more urgently you want something, the less available it becomes.

So many egg-laying hens were killed by Hurricane Irma that eggs have become nearly as scarce here as the non-existent teeth in their mothers’ mouths. Eggs are a staple of the regular ration system that has existed in Cuba ever since its first and hardest “Special Period” in the early 1960s when Che Guevara traveled the world as the head of Cuba’s national bank and returned to report that thanks to US pressure, all trade doors had closed. The economic blockade had begun. Cuba’s relationship with the Soviet Union followed. Continue reading “Vicious circles”

Idiot box

It must be awfully difficult for US editors to fact check stories they receive about Cuba, given that their own knowledge of the country is so slim. It might also be too much bother to find, or pay, a Cuban in Cuba to do it, although there are plenty of Cubans who could. My 11 year old son, for example, who as I read an article published by Harper’s this summer about Cuban television, was reading over my shoulder and chuckled at the claim that iPhones are illegal here. “That’s not true,” he smirked. Continue reading “Idiot box”