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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why is She Beating This Horse?

Harrassment becomes a family affair for the Thomas'. Almost twenty years after Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harrassed her when she worked with him, his wife called and left her this message:
“Good morning Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas,” it said. “I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”
Ms. Thomas went on: “So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. O.K., have a good day.”
Really? She did that? Why?
In a statement conveyed through a publicist, Ms. Thomas confirmed leaving the message, which she portrayed as a peacemaking gesture. “I did place a call to Ms. Hill at her office extending an olive branch to her after all these years, in hopes that we could ultimately get past what happened so long ago,” she said. “That offer still stands. I would be very happy to meet and talk with her if she would be willing to do the same. Certainly no offense was ever intended.”
Olive branch? An olive branch is where you give a little, where you apologize for some part in the process that you have erred. This is stirring things up, pure and simple. The reason for doing so is what remains obscure.
In response to Ms. Thomas’s statement, Ms. Hill said that she had testified truthfully about her experiences with the future Justice Thomas and that she had nothing to apologize for.
“I appreciate that no offense was intended, but she can’t ask for an apology without suggesting that I did something wrong, and that is offensive,” Ms. Hill said.
Indeed. Weird call, sane response.
Their history is not without turbulence, and they are neither acquaintances, nor are they on the same side of any public issue. In her 1998 book “Speaking Truth to Power,” Ms. Hill noted that she had been accused of harboring a romantic interest in Justice Thomas by his wife. “Virginia Thomas and I have never met,” Ms. Hill wrote. “And one can imagine that she is guided by her own romantic interest in her husband when she assumes that other women find him attractive as well.”
Again, the nod goes to Hill. She has shown herself to be measured and cautious in her response to contact, which reiterates that she doesn't seem like a wild eyed false accuser--why would Virginia Thomas want to bring that back to light?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dear Rutgers: What Punishment Fits the Crime?

University's routinely put strangers together their freshman year of college. Students have no choice about their roommate selection, and it is often contentious. University counceling services report the number one psychological distress freshman year is not academic stress or difficulties related to being away from home. It is living with someone who they do not get along with. In the wake of the tragic events at Rutgers University last month, where a student took his life in response to being publicly humiliated, what should those of us on college campuses across the United States think about and try to learn from this? What should we change so it does not become a pattern?
First, is bullying tolerated at Rutgers? I would say no, not on paper at least. This comes directly from the Student Code of Conduct: "All members of the Rutgers University community are expected to behave in an ethical and moral fashion, respecting the human dignity of all members of the community and resisting behavior that may cause danger or harm to others through violence, theft, or bigotry. All members of the Rutgers University community are expected to adhere to the civil and criminal laws of the local community, state, and nation, and to regulations promulgated by the University."
That sounds entirely reasonable, and pretty standard. How do you inform incoming freshman that they are to adhere to this code of conduct? What are the consequences for failing to do so? Have students been disciplined and expelled for violating this code? Are freshman told about these cases at freshman orientation?
When Dharun Ravi posted to his Twitter account that he was filming his freshman roommate, Tyron Clementi, having a sexual encounter, commenting on the live feed he was streaming from the web cam hidden in their room, through the computer of his high school friend, Molly Wei, he was clearly not acting in a moral and ethical fashion. I suspect that neither Molly nor Dharun would want their sexual encounters publicly broadcast--whether they were with members of the same sex, the opposite sex, or if it were a solo performance. For the perpetrators to label such an aggregous act a "prank" is to make it sound "playful". Their act was about power and control, and while they may have been well liked students in high school, there is nothing nice about them. Nice people do not orchestrate the public humiliation of fellow students for their personal entertainment.
There are two things that I hope result from this. The first is that universities take more seriously the complaints that students have about their roommates, and that they develop a "Plan B" for when these situations are truely untenable. The second is that we have so few opportunities to evaluate the underlying character of people, and for Molly Wei and Dharun Ravi we have the uncontested fact that they perpetrated this invasion on a fellow student. What motivated them is unknowable, but it reflects directly on their character, and I hope that this act follows them into their 20's, 30's, 40's and beyond.
Both of the accused have made a statement, through lawyers, related to the potential charges of a hate crime, and the media response to their action. They feel they have been treated unfairly. How so? Public humiliation seems an appropriate response to their act--they dished it out, but they can't take it? That is so often the case--the mean spirited are the one's least well equipped to manage the consequences, which were tragic in this case. When they are treated in exactly the manner they inflicted on another, they are no better prepared to tolerate what is unleashed. One moment they are laughing at someone else's humiliation at their hands, the next they are running for cover.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity

I have not marched in a rally in Washington, DC since the Reagan administration.
One of the most disturbing thing about living in the politial climate of the early 21st century is that comedians are the ones who are making the most sense. So here we are, politics in the 21st century. The most appealing rally of the last decade is not so much about a cause, but rather an approach. Stop ramping up the fear, and start doing your jobs. Which are not, by the way, solely to get re-elected.

The Kline boys approached their parental units with this proposal--that we take a 'family vacation' to Washington, that we show cross-generational moderacy. That we revel in the love of what is smart and thoughtful over fear mongering. And that we be able to laugh about it and have fun. The Sane/Not Sane has some wonderful suggested rally posters--one of them: "Learn From History. Education: Not Just for Intellectuals"--which is edgy for this crowd, I admit, but probably closer to where I am.

So off I trundle, offspring in tow (well, they are more towing me), to enjoy Hallowe'en weekend in the nation's capital--hoping to meet a few like minded people, frolic a bit with my children. It is the center of government, the place where decisions are being made that will affect them for decades to come--good to go there and show our support for the business of getting over yourself and moving on with things that really matter.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Enduring Cuba by Zoe Bran

The double entendre of the title is extremely appropriate. Cuba has endured throughout the past 500 years of what is often referred to as the modern era of world civilizations, or the fourth wave, and it will continue to endure. No question about that. The other meaning, that life in Cuba is not easy, and there is an element of it's people enduring hardships, is also appropriate.
I read this Loney Planet publication, a travelogue of sorts, while I was myself in Cuba. I have read (and often chronicled here) many books written about Cuba, set in Cuba, or which have included Cuba peripherally, and while there are not many that I would recommend saving until you are actually in Cuba, this one would fit the bill.
This is no ordinary travel book. It's definitely not a go-here, do-this kind of book. It's a book about the author's travels around Cuba, where she asks "what next?". She chronicles her adventures in Cuba through stories about the people that she meets and the answers they give her, while at the same time speaking of interesting places and events. You get to see the many different faces of Cuba, literally and figuratively. It's about black, white, and mulatto--cultures that are both separate and mixed. Surprisingly it's also a history book (not a lot, but enough to make it interesting). The book both dispels and confirms many of the beliefs that westerners have about Cuba. You get a taste of the struggles that Cubans go through on a daily basis and well as the strength that they all have to continue in spite of the odds. Of course it's also about politics. How could it not be? It's about enduring Cuba, for those that are Cuban, those that choose to live there, as well as for those that travel there. Everyone endures Cuba in a different way and for different reasons.
Too often many of us travel only to go from airport to resort and back to airport again. Que lastima! She often skips the hotels to stay in casas particulares (I hope that is the correct way to make casa particular plural). She entrusts her welfare often with strangers. She goes places that even some Cubans won't go. And she tells us what she learned from all that. She even ends the book well.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cubano Frijoles Negros

2 c. black beans
8 c. stock
1 onion
8 cloves garlic
1 malanga
Soak beans over night. Put all ingredients in a pot, simmer over low heat until beans are soft. The malanga is the key ingredient for the sweet and nutty flavor that the black beans in Cuba have. It is from the taro family and there is nothing quite like it as a substitute. I have seen people recommend molasses, squash, yucca, sugar, honey. You can try these, of course, but the malanga is amazing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cuba Moves to Self-Employment

August 1st President Raúl Castro Ruz announced to the National Assembly the decision to cut the government work force by 25% and to extend the self-employed sector. In the Assembly session it was made known that various current restrictions would be eliminated in order to allow the authorization of new licenses and the marketing of certain products, along with taxation to provide income to the cash strapped government. Whoever contributes more, will receive more is the principle of the new tax regime that will help to increase sources of income to the state budget, and achieve an adequate redistribution of that income to society.
Increasing opportunities for self-employment is one of the decisions which the country is making in terms of restructuring its economic policy, in order to increase levels of productivity and efficiency
Adm. Valhuerdi Cepero, first deputy minister at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, explained that there will be 178 categories of self-employment, within which 83 may hire additional employees who do not have to be members of the same household or relatives of the business owner. "Authorizations are to be given for 29 new activities that, while they are currently exercised, were not given re-authorization a number of years back." Among them she mentioned food vendors of various categories, winemakers, saw operators, stonemasons, engine and ignition coilers, wreath and flower sellers, panel beaters, sports trainers (except martial arts), refuse recycler, masseurs, etc.

Seven activities have been added to the existing categories, which include bookkeeping, with the exception of accountants and bookkeeping working in that specialty; park and public place restroom attendants; subject revisers, excluding active teachers; casual agricultural workers; roadside stand or cart vendors of agricultural produce in sales outlets or highway kiosks; and travel assistants, referring to those people who organize passengers with private taxis at the terminals.
Valhuerdi also explained that the granting of new authorizations for self-employed work would remain limited for now to nine kinds of work, because there is no licit market for raw materials, although viable alternatives are being studied. They are: auto body workers, marble and granite carvers and vendors; sellers of soap, shoe polish, dyes, ropes and similar items; smelters and blacksmiths; flame cutters; vendors of aluminum items; floor waxers; and vendors of non-iron cast metal items.
Well, speaking as a casual observer with no business background what-so-ever, this seems like a plan fraught with peril. My fingers are crossed for this country.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Have You Ever Seen a Cuban Cow? Do You Hope to See One?

The story of food in Cuba is not a happy one--except that they used to have it, so they can have it again. They jsut have to figure out the right carrot and the right stick to get people back into the fields, planting and harvesting food, so that the rich island can once again feed it's people. So the story of food in Cuba is an unhappy one, but the story of the cow in Cuba is almost tragic. But maybe it is changing, and once real trade with the United States resumes, this will become a thing of Cuba's past.
In 1959 there was a thriving cattle business in Cuba, with ranchers and cows travelling from South Florida to Cuba and back freely. The cow to Cuban ratio was about even at that time. Post-Castro, with all cows now belonging to the government, several things have changed. The first is that there are very few cows in Cuba. As with all things scarce, there is a rampant balck market--whcih in Cuba comes with equally severe consequences. While we were en route back to Havana from Santa Clara, we saw a man taken into custody for selling beef along the highway. If convicted, he will face a 10 year jail term for selling beef. Que lastima!
The issue of cows in Cuba is one where there are solutions that make sense, and for humanitarian reasons it seems reasonable to have trade between South Florida's cattle industry and Cuba--here is an article from 2004 discusisng jus tsuch a deal--involving a long-time U.S. ranching family that had a ranch in Cuba nationalized by Castro. Time to move on, he says. Wise man.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why Golf is not a Cuban Sport

The last time Cuban revolutionaries played golf in Cuba was a long time ago.
Che Guevara shot a 127, besting Fidel Castro's 150 on a par-70 golf course.
So while they were played golf, they were playing it badly--and fatigues and combat boots were not the appropriate attire for the time--nor have they come into vogue since. Their 1961 round a month before the Bay of Pigs invasion was the beginning of the end for golf in Cuba — soon the communist government had eliminated the sport from the island almost entirely.

Well, it is not exactly a proletariat sport, is it? It is hard to make it even modestly into a team sport, and the huge land mass required for an 18-hole course paired with the manpower required to maintain it make golf the perfect sport for a communist to poke fun at. Add in that most golfers aren't getting much exercise--instead of walking the pristine grasslands of a well-maintained course, they are riding about in golf carts--even if these vehicles were to be replaced with bicycle cabs, could this really be a game of the people?

It would be hard.
There is a remaining 18-hole golf course in Castro's Cuba, the Varadero Golf Club in this beach resort 85 miles east of Havana. But the Cuba of the 21st century, a Cuba that is trying to capture more foreign currency, and knowing they do not truly get what would be appealing to people who spend those dollars, that Cuba is thinking of building more golf courses.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cuban Currency

In psychiatry we say all problems that are socially mediated go back to one of two things--sex and money--sometimes both. So why should money in Cuba be different from anything else in Cuba? To put it mildly, it is complicated. First and foremost, there are two monetary systems--one for Cubans and one for everyone else. So tourists get Cuban Convertables, which are know as CUC, of 'kooks' (which seems appropriate--it is a crazy system)--they are worth about 24 regular Cuban pesos. What they are worth compared to other currencies is difficult to ascertain, and fluctuates daily. What seems to be consistent is the 'penalty' imposed on American dollars--they have the worst conversion rate, whereas Loons and Euros are definitely better.
The dual currency system seems set up to make for two different societies--Cubans, and those that visit Cuba--the later are paying top dollar (or top peso) for everything, which is priced in such a way that even if they were allowed to access it, Cubans could not afford. Lunch at a tourist establishment costs literally what the average Cuban makes in a month. So it is a way to not allow tourists to really experience Cuba as Cubans do. We are kept at arms length, with what they think we want.
We had lunch one day in Havana near the Riviera Hotel. One of my traveling companions pointed to the lunch that all the women at an adjoining table were having--it was rice, black beans, fried plantains, and what looked like a deliscious squash stew. No, we were told, that is not on the menu. You cannot have that. Why not? They are having it! That is lunch for Cubans, not for you. Ok, what on the menu is comida tipica, we asked. Lobster, we were told! No way, and definitely not true. If you want to experience anything approaching what Cubans live with, a paladar is the closest it seems that we can get without putting ourselves and others in harms way.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Finca Vigía

Visiting Hemingway's Havana suburb house was something I had heard was a 'must see' part of any trip to Cuba--and while I was personally skeptical, everyone was right. THis is a remarkable spot. Often the home of a famous person is disappointing on many levels, but there was only one aspect of this house that I found offensive--all the animal trophies on the walls. I know Hemingway was a big hunter and fisherman, and that trophies were not only a thing of his time, but also of great personal satidsfaction to him. A manhood boost, perhaps--why shooting ungulates would make one feel powerful is beyond me, but I accept that I just don't get it.

Hemingway's house is otherwise simple and spectacular--it is one story, with a wonderful layout, simple furnishings that accentuate the functional design, and with thick walls and tile floors, it has a feeling of coolness in a tropical climate. The walls are lines everywhere with bookcases filled with books, and it is a home I could move into, take down all the morbid dead animals on the walls, and live happily in. The grounds are grand and spectacular as well (a gardener would be required for that, no doubt, so not my absolute dream house, but a house I would happily dream about, none-the-less).

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Classic Cars in Cuba

In the interest of full disclosure, the cars in Cuba that have exteriors from the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's are largely cars from the 1970's and 1980's under the hood. The cost of fuel in Cuba made economizing necessary--but especially in Havana, every 9th car came off the assembly line before I was born. Cars had style then. They were gorgeous, things of angular beauty in an inanimate metal vehicle kind of magnificence. And in Cuba, they retain their glory.

So the upside is that the streets of Havana are packed with gorgeous cars. And Cubans are legendary mechanics--our guide notes that Cuban with a Swiss Army knife and wire, a Cuban can fix almost any mechanical failing--it is a skill they have born of necessity. So they are the ultimate recylclers--which would be great for the environment if they had some way to clean up the gasoline engine--which they do not. The air quality on the streets of Havana is poor, reminding me of Bangkok, where the diesel fumes limit the time you can spend walking the streets. The computer-based technology that has marked car manufacturing for a decade in the first wolrd makes modern cars useless in Cuba--not only are there no replacement parts, there are no diagnostic computers, so Cubans laugh at men who try to flaunt their wealth with big expensive late model cars--they will be rendered useless before long.
Cars in Cuba reflect on the available resources on the island in a number of complex ways that makes watching classic cars even more enjoyable than it would first appear. Just be sure to come up occasionally for air.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cuba is Not Quite Flat

Housing may have been nationalized. Pay lowered, so as to have full employment and to eliminate the upper class--but there are still stark contrasts in the very richest and the very poorest Cuban housing. The housing pictured here is from just outside Havana, and we saw quite a bit of this sort of abodes. Corrugated metal roof and walls, not much in the way of protection from the elements, dirt floors--a house that would offer none of the coolness that the adobe and cement homes offer in terms of storing some of the night's coolness for the heat of the day. But even worse, this is hurricane country. With gale force winds and blinding rain, these houses are inadequate to protect even livestock from the elements.

I took this photo at Hotel Nacional de Cuba--a magnificent hotel in downtown Havana. We had lunch in this overblown dining room, with two waiters at our beck and call and were occasionally serenaded at the grand piano by one of our table mates. How very gentile. But the contrast is aggravating. I could see that if I was struggling to feed my family, not able to do so despite my best efforts, and I saw how other people in my very own province were living, it could make me a revolutionary. The tinder box was lit, and now everyone has almost the same amount of things--almost nothing. All is owned by the state--the land, the animals, the fruits, the vegetables--and while some are luckier and some are not, some engage in the underground economy to a greater extent and some to a lesser extent (if seems almost impossible to avoid some activity if you want to survive. Even the rice and beans are not quite enough), no Cuban dines in the Hotel Nacional on a daily basis any more.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Colonial Cuba

Trinidad is billed as the finest colonial city in the Americas. I would contend that Granada in Nicaragua is equal to Trinidad in both its beauty and it's restoration, but Trinidad is heralded as a UNESCO World heritage site, which is hard to argue with. We traveled here from Cienfuegos, which is also a beautiful Colonial spot.
Tourism officials like to say Trinidad is a museum in itself. Those visiting the 500-year-old city will find Spanish colonial architecture, underscoring a colonial ambiance that marks the tiny city one of the country’s greatest attractions. Only a few square blocks in size, historic Trinidad is famous for its lovely, cobblestone streets, pastel colored houses with elaborate wrought-iron grills, as well as majestic palaces and plazas. The city can be toured in a few hours, by foot or by horse-drawn carriage. The city is located near both the Escambray Mountains and the Caribbean beach.

So a colonialist past is evident in modern day Cuba. The Spanish began to build in earnest in the early 1500's, but by the early 1990's, many of these buildings and neighborhoods were in wretched condition. In the dark days that followed the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Castro authorized the beginnings of a plan to restore buildings of historical interest in Cuba. The plan was to use the cash garnered through the non-Cuban visitors to restore more buildings--so once it got started, the tourists funded the renovations.

One problem with the restorations is that while the families who were living in a building that is slated for restoration are moved to a new dwelling, often one with more amenities than the housing they left, the real benefit of their house in Havana Vieja was its location. It was amidst the underground economy's hub, its center. So moving means losing that resource and that income. Which is entirely illegal, and therefore what can you say to the government about it? Everyone agrees, whether they are fierce loyalists or dissidents, that the regime does not tolerate criticism well. Breaking laws in Cuba carries very high jail sentences, often without rationale. So the Colonial past seems to persist. Despite the revolution. Hasta la Victoria Siempre mutters Ché as he rolls in his adopted country's grave.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Comida en Cuba

Food, like everything else in Cuba, is complicated. I know, I have been writing about Cuba for a couple of weeks now, and thinking about it intensively for over a month, and I should be better able to describe these phenomena. But I cannot. I am just unable to. I am still am having a lot of trouble sorting through the contrasts, and remain at the level of "on the one hand there is greatness, on the other, there are significant challenges to solve'.It could be said that one does not need to leave home to say as much, and seeing Cuba first hand made the complications all the more vivid, three-dimensional, and real.

There are government stores in Cuba and there are private markets--the picture to the right is from a government store, the one above from a private market. A study in contrasts. Each Cuban has a local government store, which records the rations that each Cuban is entitled to at a subsidized rate--the foods pictured here are what is available in the store--LOTS of extra shelf space in the store for more products, to say the least. My husband's comment was that he would never have to call home from this store to clarify what was on the shopping list. No brand choices and almost no food. One thing that I read about Cuba was that there was a 'sameness' about the food, which people who adopt Cuba as home describe getting used to. We found that to be true in our very brief visit. More on food, food avaialbility, and food shortages, despite living in a fertile tropical environment in a future post--this is a key problem for the future of Cuba.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


Hasta La Victoria Siempre. Portrait of a revolutionary as a young man--that is what it is like to talk about Ché in Cuba. He is frozen forever in youth by his early death. He is the John F. Kennedy of Cuba, a man lionized as a hero and unscathed by a legacy as an older man. Castro may have sent him out of Cuba, but on some level he must envy the uncomplicated admiration he enjoys. In Cuba, Ché is more the man of The Motorcycle Diaries, the young idealist, rather than what American youth have made him out as, an icon of the counterculture, or a motivator for change--which carries the rallying cry of: Ché, Suburban White Kids Unite. The Cuban Ché is the idealism of shared property and a shared destiny.

As depicted in The Motorcycle Diaries, Ché traveled throughout rural Latin America and his world view was transformed by the endemic poverty he witnessed. And throughout the lands he traveled through, not much has changed for many people. His experiences and observations during these trips led him to conclude that the region's ingrained economic inequalities were an intrinsic result of capitalism, monopolies, neo-colonialism, and imperialism--while not exactly true, he was definitely onto something. He saw the only remedy being revolution by the people, who would take over and run the place in lieu of the evicted capitalists. This belief prompted his involvement in Guatemala's social reforms under President Jacobo Arbenz, whose eventual CIA-assisted overthrow solidified Ché's radical ideology.

Later, while living in Mexico City, he met Raúl and Fidel Castro, joined their 26th of July Movement. He traveled to Cuba aboard the yacht, Granma, with the intention of overthrowing U.S.-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Cuba under Batista was a government that was available to the highest bidder, and in the late 1950's, that role belonged to the American mob. They brought gambling, wanton behavior, and live sex shows--not the best part of what America has to offer, and not popular with the locals. Guevara soon rose to prominence among the insurgents, was promoted to second-in-command, and played a pivotal role in the successful two year guerrilla campaign that deposed the Batista regime.
There are postcards all over Cuba depicting the icons of the revolution--the Castro brothers, Ché, and Camilo Cienfuegos. They are all young and optimistic. They look fantastic. Unfortunately there was not a nation builder amongst them. One joke I heard about how Ché became the head of the Ministry of Finance was that when Fidel asked if any one was a good economist, Ché volunteered, only to learn later that when he heard 'good communist' and raised his hand, he was getting into unknown territory. And no one who was better suited to the job appeared.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Paladares as a Paradigm

Paladar (plural: paladares) is the popular name given to a small, family-run, private-owned restaurant in Cuba--the name comes from Portuguese, for flavor, and for a better sense of what Cuban cooking is like, a meal in a paladar is mandatory. The Cuban government allows families to start and keep control of these small businesses in exchange for very high taxes. Paladares are limited to 12 seats only (although they usually have more than that--the one pictured here is in someones small private home--you went through their bedroom to get to the bathroom--but many are quite large). They must serve local food, such as rice and bean, pork and seafood. Cubans do not heavily spice their food, but there is a liberal use of lime and garlic that is quite delicious in the hands of a paladar cook.
The paladares are known for the simplicity and authenticity of their food and for having very good prices compared to the good quality of the food. They don't have particular names or even plates at their doors to inform passers-by that they exist. Being owned by poor families, they also have little to no advertisement--in Havana it was easier to find them through our guide, but in smaller towns it was word-of-mouth.
The paladar pictured above had wonderful food, but truthfully I would have paid the 8 CUC for the experience itself. The women had seen us dancing in the town square in a very norteamericano fashion and did a wonderful job of trying to teach us how to swing our hips in a bona fide Latin style. I haven't laughed so hard, and the hug the woman gave me as we left, I am sure to say that despite my lack of hip action, she wished me well, was genuine and memorable. The dance lesson was followed by a serenade of Cuban music that was spectacular in it's quality and it's passion. The depth of musical talent in Cuba is remarkable. This is what Cuba can be. I hope that the paladar represents what Cuba becomes--entrepreneurial, fun, successful, friendly, a mixed culture that celebrates where it has come from and where it is going.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Housing the Cuban Way

Housing in Cuba is a great way to think about what is powerful about the revolution for Cubans, as well as what is challenging about the future of Cuba. What you have is what you get--and it is pretty hard to get more. One solution is pictured below--take the sweeping second story of a sugar baron's home, and divide it into two floors--instead of one 20' ceiling make two stories of 10' each. Voila! Add a new level, add a new family member. The entry way pictured on the right is yet another grand home that has been bisected for multiple family dwellings. Each meter represents a household--the safety codes are apparently non-existent, because a mess of wires protrudes from very house in old Havana--this is the rule, not the exception.

Since Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution nationalized most Cuban property, what Cubans can do, even with the house they live in, is tightly controlled.
Regulations regarding the use of property is spelled out in Cuban Law 65. According to, interpretation and application of the law rests on the whims of the Ministry of Housing team of inspectors. It doesn't matter what the homeowner reads into Cuban Law 65 but rather how the inspector reads it. Essentially, Cubans aren't allowed to sell the homes they live in but can only trade with another citizen. This house "swap" is the only chance Cubans have to relocate. The bottom line is that no money can change hands during the process. As long as private property is owned or controlled by the government, the prospects of citizens or foreigners being allowed to own private property is fanciful.

The Ministry of Housing dictates that house trades must be of equal value, which means no trades of a mansion for a shack are permitted. The website Se Permuta says that trades such as two apartments for one house or vice versa are allowed. The inspector must be convinced that the properties are of equal value before the transaction will be approved.
All of this contrasts sharply with what we as tourists are exposed to--pictured here, the lobby of the Parque Central is the very essence of capitalist luxury (apart from the unbelievably tiny elevators that are too few to service a hotel this size). Housing is only one of the major challenges facing Cuba as they move forward as a nation entering the 21st century, after exiting the 20th century midway through.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Artist is a Cuban

José Rodríguez Fuster is a painter, a ceramicist, a sculptor, a poet, a chronicler of the spirit of his people and his time, a folk artist of enormous proportions, but most importantly, he is a transformative artist. His work will stay with you, amuse you, cause you to think, make you sit up and take notice. It is not small in scope. His palate is large, and his work expands to fill the space.

Driving into his neighborhood, you know you are somewhere special. Havana abounds with impressive architecture, but nothing on the order of the creativity that surrounds the blocks approaching his home and studio. Fuster has made a major contribution over 10 years of work of rebuilding and decorating the fishing town of Jaimanitas in the outskirts of Havana, where he lives. Jaimanitas is now a unique work of public art where Fuster has decorated over 80 houses with ornate murals, sculptures, tiles, and domes to suit the personality of his neighbors, he has built a chess park with giant boards and tables, The Artists’ Wall composed of a quilt of dozens of tiles signed and donated by other Cuban artists, a theater and public swimming pools. Stunning, and not to be missed.

In a country where people have struggles on a daily basis, it is remarkable how well supported the arts are. Many places would put food ahead of creative expression, yet such a place has nurtured this man, who has a playful and joyful style that exudes from everything around him. He asked for a consultation and while being examined, he created line drawings spontaneously. Every painting in his studio has a story. the story might change tomorrow, I do not know, but it is very fun to be with him.

This painting is the history of Cuba. It includes the church, colonialism, music, money, some of it tainted. It involves love, passion, hard work, adherence to values. It is colorful and it is optimistic. As Cuba sits today, on the brink of yet another change in it's checkered history as a nation, I am most hopeful when I see something like this, someone who sees so much promise and takes such pride in his country's heritage.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cuba, I Hardly Knew You

I am newly back from a week in Cuba, and from the moment I started to pack to go, I realized that it was going to be hard to write about what has happened for me over the time spent there. I have even had trouble articulating the simplest responses. Answering questions like" What did you like best?" or "How was it?"

The short answer is that it was both fabulous and complicated, in equal portions. Cuba has the legacy of colonialism that all the Americas share (to a greater of lesser extent). Cuba's history does include more varied influence than most, and for the longest period of time. Christopher Columbus began the colonialist era in 1492--so Cuba was first in line, by virtue of being discovered first. But external involvement in the country continued up until the revolution in 1959. Five hundred years is a long time, and needs to be kept in mind when viewing Cuba through a lens that focuses on the last 50 years. In addition to colonization, Cuba has a history with slavery, and it's population today reflects that legacy as well.

Cuba has been big news in the 21st century because of it's continuing to adhere to communist principles in the post Soviet era, but, as is so often the case, it is much more complicated than that. The U.S. embargo of Cuba may once have held sway on the international scene, but no more, given the relative ease of access that the rest of the world has had to the island. It doesn't make the situation more complicated nor does it simplify it. What it does do is to take the U.S. out of the picture, which is maybe not such a bad idea, given our history on the island. The biggest unanswered question is what will happen when the Castros pass into the great beyond and the next phase of Cuban history commences.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cuba Libre

2 oz. of rum
1/2 lime
Coca Cola
It is simple. Just squeeze the lime into a tall thin glass, drop it in the bottom and pour the rum over it--a golden richly flavored rum is preferred. Add ice and fill with Coca Cola. Stir. The lime in the bottom will add some bitterness to counterbalance the sweetnes of the soda. Was liberty bittersweet to the Cubans? Undoubtedly.

The drink was invented, it turns out, by a solider in Cuba, during the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. That was in 1900. "Cuba Libre!" was the rallying cry of the Cuban independence movement, a cause that was quite popular on this side of the Florida Straits. Sorta the "Free Tibet" of its day.
In the simplified form of Rum and Coca-Cola (hold the lime, unless you were able to get them), this was one of the chief fuels that kept the home fires burning (or intoxicated) during WWII. It helped that there was practically nothing else to drink. By 1944, all American distillers of any size had for a couple of years been forking 100 percent of their production over to Uncle Sam, and domestic stocks were dangerously low. Caribbean rum was about the only import plentiful enough to make up for that. The mixer situation wasn't much better. Sugar was rationed, and ginger ale was scarce. Not Coca-Cola, though. So while of the three rum based drinks I chronicle this week, this one is the least inventive and classic, but the most resourceful.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Havana Nocturne by T.J. English

The subtitle of this book is "How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It". Which is the Cliff Notes version of what the book covers. Organized crime made inroads into Cuba during Prohibition, but after World War II they opened casinos, attempting to do what eventually happened in Las Vegas. They went legit. In Havana they owned hotels and casinos, they had bars, and sex clubs, and every thing was above board. Unfortunately for them they were not well liked. The seamier side of human behavior that was being fomented in Havana did nothing to endear them to the locals, and if the powers that be were not bribable, it probably wouldn't have come off, and they certainly couldn't be protected after the revolution. They were in danger from each other to begin with, and Castro just made it impossible. But by that time they were headed elsewhere. The Nevada desert beckoned them, and they left Havana behind.
In all of my reading, I have yet to figure out what about this particular mix of location and the crossing of cultures that made Cuba what it is and was and gave to the world. But I am sure that it was not the mob. The mob recognized the zest for life the culture invited, but they did not add anything beneficial to that--they just brought Americans there--so we have a sense of the hedonism that could be supported there should man be left to his own devises. There is a lot of blood and gore, and some interesting history intertwined.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


2 oz. Rum
1/2 tsp. Sugar
1/2 a Lime
Use a short tumbler, add the lime to the bottom (squeeze it then add it--the rind adds some bitterness to the drink that is a plus). Top with ice, add rum, and sprinkle the superfine sugar on top, let it dissolve, then stir. More or less can be added depending on the desire of the imbiber.
The recipe combines three ingredients that are local, the balance being struck between the sweet and the sour is one that is up to the bar tender, and then served over ice--hard to say if it is Cuban in origin, hard to deny that it is the most obvious of cocktails to emerge from the Caribbean. What we can say is that they are named after a Cuban beach (which should be considered nine tenths of invention--the name implies it comes from Cuba), and it is very successful as a cocktail. In the book on Bacardi, Hemingway was given credit with single-handedly bringing the daiquirí to the western world, so no matter how you feel about his writing (I think that 'The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber' is one of the all time best stories), we have to give him credit for that.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Handsomest Man in Cuba by Lynette Chiang

This is a memoir of a woman from Australia who spent three months biking around Cuba. She is not a gifted writer, but she is good, and her account of the people she met, the atmosphere she encountered, the pitfalls that befell her, and the best parts of her journey are well worth reading if you are contemplating a trip to the island in the the next decade. The stories ring true for me (I will have further reflections once I have the chance to be there myself and think about how it relates to my own encounters), and while it is not the peak of optimism, it is balanced and fair. Lynn is not coming at travel from the swoop in and swoop out tourist angle--she is traveling on a budget--not like a Cuban, mind you, but she bargains for her accommodations and food, and she is not above going hungry, or walking away from being taking advantage of. Her story made me think that it was possible to get through the trip without necessarily becoming horribly ill. The book tells some wonderful stories about people who are making do in a climate that is forgiving, but with very little available to them outside of what is actually grown and made there. The world in Cuba is decidedly not flat.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cuban Sandwich

1 baguette
2 Tbs. yellow mustard
1/4 lb. baked ham, thinly sliced
1/4 lb. roast pork, thinly sliced
1/4 lb. provolone cheese, thinly sliced
10 thin dill pickle slices

Slice the bread horizontally in half, leaving 1 edge intact. Lay the bread open and spread each side with the mustard. Divide the ingredients evenly among the slices of roll. Start with the ham followed by the pork, cheese, and dill pickles. Bring the tops and bottoms together.
Heat your panini maker or sandwich press. Butter each side of the press. Place the sandwiches inside, press down and grill until the cheese is melted and the bread is flat and browned, approximately 10 minutes.
Cuba, land of great rum drinks, also has this classic sandwich, with pork cooked two ways, highlighted by the tang of vinegar two ways (the mustard and the pickle) and the crunchy and chewy harmony of the bread. Sublime.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bacardi and the Long Battle for Cuba by Ted Gjelten

The story of the Bacardi family is a great one, and if I hadn't been getting ready to go to Cuba, I would have passed right over this book. I have been musing about why Cuba became the land of newly created culture that it has spread to the world, and one of the reasons might be found in the Bacardi clan. They were a family that had fierce loyalties--to Cuba, to their family, and to independence. The last half of the book is about how while they supported revolution in Cuba, they did not support communism, and the family had to leave Cuba, which embittered that generation.

What did they do that was so ground breaking? It was simple and brilliant. They took the technique that was being used to produce vodka, whereby the distillation was run through a charcoal filter to take off the rough edges, and they applied it to rum. And it worked like a charm--the rum they produced quickly became wildly popular, known as the best. And they were able to produce the same quality and flavor again and again. That sort of quality control was not known in rum production and they managed to do it and do it well. The family was entirely hands-on in their approach to their factories--they visited the factories and were concerned with the working conditions and the lives of their workers. Even at a time when it was not the culture to do so. They had some luck in the whole unhappy unraveling of Cuba, in that they had expanded outside the country, and therefore had a business when the whole business climate there imploded. Great saga.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Isla de Cuba

Cuba is the melting pot of the Caribbean. Why did this happen? How did it happen?
The prevalence of native Americans? The Spanish? The relative late arrival of slavery? The French? The privateers? The gold? The mob? What combination of factors led to the creation of a culture that seamlessly melds the best of the cultures presented to it, and produced food, drink, music and dance that came to symbolize 'joie de vivre' to generations of Americans and Europeans?
In New Orleans we had a similar mix--slavery, mixing of cultures and races, equal parts French, Spanish, American, and African--and yet what evolved there was a culture that is entirely different--a musical tradition all it's own, as well as a cuisine--so melding, but less African, more European. What allowed the African influence to shine through so exceptionally in Cuba?
Nothing I have read to date really explores this--I have read both fiction and non-fiction, and while Jamaica and Haiti grew mammoth amounts of sugar cane, relying on slaves to farm it, this culture came late to Cuba-exiled from Haiti, looking for another stopping off point. What about this made Cuba what it is?
I hope to learn more about that.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Called the classic Cuban cocktail. And intricately meshed over time with Cuba's complicated history with Bacardi and rum production. The history of the Mojito is entwined with the Caribbean's privateering past. Off the coast of Cuba in 1595, when Pirate Captain Francis Drake and his band of men were pondering whether or not to seize the Aztec gold stored in Havana's royal treasuries, they were also busy battling scurvy with citrus-based drinks. Before Captain Drake could set out on his attempt to sack the city, King Philip II was able to warn his governor in Cuba, leaving time for the city to prepare. Pirate ships appeared on the horizon, and Havana braced itself for the worst, Captain Drake suddenly sailed away after firing only a few minor shots, much to the amazement of the inhabitants. But as he sailed away from the richest port in the West Indies, the Captain did not leave without impacting generations and generations of the Cuban civilization. It was around this time that one of his subordinates, Richard Drake, invented the cocktail known as the Draque, Drak or Drac, a concoction that he introduced to all the Spanish ports he was able to conquer and seize.
Initially created for 'medical purposes' (some would say it still maintains that role), the Draque was made by combining aquardiente (a crude, or less manufactured forerunner of rum), sugar, lime, and mint. On one occasion, during one of the most massive cholera epidemics ever, narrator Ramon de Paula describes: "Every day at 11, I consume a little Draque and I am doing very well."
It was during the mid-1800s, around the same time Don Facundo Bacardi Masso established the original Bacardi Company, that the aquardiente in the Draque was replaced with rum, and the drink was unofficially called Mojito, from the African word "mojo", meaning to place a little spell.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Growing Old

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
And may your song always be sung
May you stay forever young
Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young.

Joyeux Anniversaire, Tucker.
You are leaving your teens behind you.
May you retain your love of ballads,
may your dramas be fewer.
May you enjoy your love of life,
and continue to draw people into your sphere who bring you joy.
The 20's are a tricky decade, and I wish you a wonderful day, year, decade, century...