Eternamente Cuba

Last December, the US State Department announced that after 50 years, it would reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba. Following this, it is expected that the US would also end its trade embargo and the prohibition of its nationals from visiting that country. Responding to this announcement, Al Jazeera reporter Paty Culhane wrote, "I think you're going to see American businesses trying to flood into Cuba now, trying to get in on the ground floor."

The mad rush has already begun.

This announcement immediately triggered my search for cheap fares to Cuba. I wanted to get there before Starbucks, McDonalds, Subway, et. al. disfigured the landscape. I had seen this done to my favorite Mexican colonial cities San Cristobal de las Casas and Oaxaca, with billboards designed to get a market share of tourist dollars by pandering to the parochial culinary tastes of North American visitors.

In Cuba, the itinerary I had in mind did not include hanging out on the beaches of Varadero drinking piña coladas all day and trying to get a tan.  Enough people have told me that the beaches in Las Filipinas are the best. I was born with a tan and I did my drinking in college. A quadruple bypass in the 1990s put an end to my imbibing ways, save for an occasional glass of vin rouge or should I say "vino tinto."

Instead, my interest in Cuban history, its people and culture defined my itinerary. I stayed in no-star casas particulares (private residences renting out rooms), rode public buses and other means of transport (bici-taxi, horse-drawn carts, old cars masquerading as taxis, etc.), ate street food and dined in the Cuban version of turo-turos.

And here are some of the sights I saw:

 A poster of the Castro brothers (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

A poster of the Castro brothers (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

One of the most difficult tasks of leaders who have held power for a long time is to hand over the reins to his/her successor. In Cuba, this was done smoothly. Apparently, Fidel had no problems with his brother, Raul, now president of Cuba.

One of the few photos of the Castro brothers outside the Partido Comunista de Cuba building in Santiago de Cuba -- so unlike my 1967 visit to China when the photos, posters, quotations, pins, etc. of "the Great Helmsman" were all over the place.

 A statue of Che Guevarra (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

A statue of Che Guevarra (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Che Guevarra’s statue in his mausoleum in Sta. Clara where he displayed both his genius and audacity by defeating a Batista regiment with only 300 men. This was the last great battle before the July 26 Movement marched into La Habana in 1959. Che was killed in La Higuera, Bolivia in1967, and his remains were transferred to Sta. Clara, Cuba in 1997.

I actually saw more photos, statues, etc. of Ernesto Guevarra de la Serna, aka El Che, than Fidel or Raul Castro during my three-week stay in Cuba.

 Local elections (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Local elections (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Last April 19, Cuba had its local elections. The names, photos and qualifications of the candidates were posted outside the polling precincts weeks before the actual voting. Yes, Cubans do have a choice on who will represent them. The polling booths were guarded by students like the young girl with a blue scarf seated in the background.

 Public market (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Public market (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

A couple of years ago, President Raul Castro allowed small agricultural producers to cultivate private plots and sell their produce directly to the consumers. He also encouraged them to organize marketing cooperatives, which bring the produce to public markets such as this one in Santiago de Cuba.  There appears to be an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.

 Sunday market (Mercado Sandino), a populist version of Salcedo Legaspi markets (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Sunday market (Mercado Sandino), a populist version of Salcedo Legaspi markets (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

To me, the more interesting markets were the "Sunday markets" called "Mercado Sandino," a more populist version of Manila's weekend markets in Legaspi and Salcedo Villages. All kinds of food and crafts are sold by cooperatives and individuals. This one in Sta. Clara even has a beer truck selling beer at US $0.07 a pint, but you have to bring your own container. It was quite festive.

 Moros y Cristianos (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Moros y Cristianos (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Many agricultural cooperatives have their own space in the cities where they sell their produce daily. Quite often, they also have small eateries. I sampled the food in Guateque Campesino in Santiago de Cuba: The ubiquitous "Moros y Cristianos” (rice and beans), pinwheels of bananas, a small tomato salad and "pescado ala Viscaina;" all for US$2.00. I later befriended the chef and had an interesting discussion on Cuban cuisine. The following days, I ate in the same place for free.

 Sandwich vendor (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Sandwich vendor (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

A food stall during the Mercado Sandino in Sta. Clara. The woman sells roast pork sandwiches for US$0.30 each. Not a bad deal and the sandwiches were good. I seem to have a cast-iron stomach and have no problem eating street food in different countries. 

 Cuban musicians (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Cuban musicians (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

In Cuba, one is never far from music. Early Sunday afternoon, this musical group played dance music at the town square in Sta. Clara to an appreciative crowd. The party went on late into the night.

 The author (right) salsa dancing (Photo courtesy of Chibu Lagman)

The author (right) salsa dancing (Photo courtesy of Chibu Lagman)

With music, dance can't be too far away. A field trip of students with their teachers and parents in Trinidad ended in an impromptu street party. One of the teachers even got a tourist to do the salsa with her.

 The author in a 1949 Pontiac (Photo courtesy of Chibu Lagman)

The author in a 1949 Pontiac (Photo courtesy of Chibu Lagman)

Antique car collectors will love Cuba. Cars such as Studebakers and De Sotos, now out of production, still ply the streets of La Habana. Javier, the owner of this 1949 Pontiac let me drive his car around the block after I told him that I owned a 1969 Pontiac Firebird when I was in college. He asked how I got the car and what I liked about it. It was a gift from my brother (actually a bribe so I would put an end to my overstay in UP). But what I really liked was the stereo tape recorder, which played "MacArthur Park” while I held my girlfriend’s hand.

 Coche o calesa (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Coche o calesa (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

The horse drawn carriage is called "coche." They are not an uncommon transport outside La Habana. There are other unique means of transportation such as the "bici-taxi" (bicycle taxis somewhat similar to our pedicabs) and the "moto-taxi" (you ride in back of the motorcycle driver who usually provides his/her passengers with a helmet).

  Señora Gilda and Señor Vilo (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

Señora Gilda and Señor Vilo (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

There is a middle class of sorts in Cuba like this couple Señora Gilda and Señor Vilo who owned the casa particular where I stayed in Sta. Clara. They rent out private rooms to tourists. Electrical appliances such as air conditioners, refrigerators and TV sets are quite common in the homes of the Cuban "middle class."

 A young boy (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

A young boy (Photo by Chibu Lagman)

This young boy in Trinidad tugged at my shirt and asked to have his photo taken. How could I refuse? Cuba, according to a recent report by the UNICEF, has successfully wiped out child malnutrition. Its rate of child mortality is even lower than most developed countries including the US. Similarly, it also wiped out illiteracy. No doubt it is a poor country, but it chose to funnel much of its meager resources into social investments, in particular in education and health services.

Back in North America, the three questions I am frequently asked are: First, what did I not like about Cuba; second, have they really wiped out inequality; and third, will the renewal of diplomatic relations with the US result in a flood of Cubans seeking residency?

My answer to the first question: The one thing I didn’t like in Cuba are the jineteros (literally, horsemen or jockeys; colloquially, hustlers plying the tourist trade). They are persistent and unavoidable. Their existence is really an unfortunate and dysfunctional byproduct of tourism. I've met their counterparts in the Spanish Steps in Rome, around Las Ramblas in Barcelona, the Latin Quarter in Paris and more frequently, when I lived in Ermita. I was often mistaken for a Japanese tourist until the local jineteros backed off after hearing my loud and resounding "tangina mo."

To question two: No, they have not wiped out inequality. But in Cuba, inequality is based not on property but on privilege. I reached this tentative conclusion after talks with a wide variety of people and my own observations. Hesitantly, I was told that some members of the Communist Party are "more equal than others." My informants were equally quick to add that this does not include top Party leadership but is limited to mid-level or lower-ranking Party members.  It reminded me of my former Chinese mainland students when I was still teaching in Canada. They admitted to me that their parents were either in the army or were members of the Party.

Question 3: Cubans are the only people who can immediately request for residency once they reach the US. There is now a proposal to do away with this provision in the immigration regulations in the US. To be sure, there will be some who will seek residency. But I’ve also met Cubans who had no such desire [to immigrate to the US], and even more interesting is that this is common among those who have been to the US.

Señora Gilda, my landlady in Sta. Clara has a sister who lives outside Miami, Florida; she and her husband stayed with the sister for a month. She described the US as "una jaula de oro," a "golden cage" where material goods are available but where one lives in isolation from others. She also mentioned the high crime rate and the high cost of health services (free in Cuba). Above all, I suspect what she missed most was the sense of community she enjoyed with her neighbors and friends in Cuba.

Coincidentally, the first person I had a conversation with in Cuba was also the last person I talked to before I flew out of the country. Odalys who manned the information booth at the Jose Marti International Airport asked me if I was able to do all the things I wanted while in her country. Pretty much I said, but I wasn't able to attend another Pablo Milanes concert. I wanted so much to hear him again sing that beautiful theme song of the movie "Memorias de Subdesarollo" (Memories of Underdevelopment), which he authored and popularized. She hummed a few bars (“Eternamente …”) as I walked away. I turned around to wave good-bye; she did the same and yelled "Regresate !!!!"


Chibu Lagman taught Latin American Studies at the University of Alberta and at the University of the Philippines.  A "Latino de Asia," he still commutes between Manila and Abya Yala (the Americas).