Thursday, May 22, 2014

Americans Going to Cuba: Part Two.. the Ethics of...

"Cuba is very communist and drab"
After saying the above, no e-mails reached home. 
If you have ever known a Cuban-American born in Cuba, chances are they hold a huge grudge towards Fidel Castro. If you live in Florida, especially South Florida, you've most likely known a handful of spiteful Cuban emigres. The grudge has merit. Fidel, Che and Camilo roused thousands of peasants out of the countryside and into the cities, chasing Fulgencio Batista out of the country and into the United States, and many wealthy, or at least comfortable citizens had their property seized and re-distributed amongst the peasants. If you've ever read Machiavelli, you might remember his warning that if you take a man's property he will never forgive you. He'll hold a grudge and plot to kill you for taking his shit for a much longer time than if you took his wife or daughter. So how did the Cuban Revolution fuck things up for American travelers looking to explore a communist country?

              It's easy to list:

1. Lots of pissed off people washed ashore in Miami.
2. Many of them worked their asses off and became politically influential in America.
3. Russia decided to bankroll the communist-led island.
4. A Soviet-aided communist country 90 miles from Florida was way too close for comfort for many Americans in the paranoid 1960s, especially if the Soviets were going to store some bombs in Cuba.

5. A strategy of making people miserable through sanctions until they overthrow their own failing government is a popular political tactic in American politics (North Korea, Soviet Union in the 80s-90s, Iran, Iraq, etc.) It hasn't worked, yet... Russia fell apart with a little bit of our help, but much of the Soviet Union's failure stems from reluctant Soviets not enthused about being Soviet at all for 70+ years...

             The reasons behind the embargo and ban of American travel to Cuba stem from the above, but isn't the Cold War over? Yeah--but millions of pissed off emigres are still alive and voting. That's what it really boils down to. But something that many emigres don't realize is that Castro, in a really shitty way, was attempting to end the exploitation of Cuba's peasantry that had gone on since the days of the slave trade. I mean, consider Cuba's history. Europeans took slaves from Africa, dumped them on the island to cut sugar cane with other enslaved natives from the island. Those materials were shipped back to Europe, processed into consumer goods, and then some of those goods went to buy more slaves. The cycle went on for centuries. And Cuba, all the way up until the ousting of Battista, was never an island of fairness. A large portion of Cuba’s population toiled like slaves in the sugar cane fields from the days of Columbus to the 1950s, cutting sugar that provided a significant percentage of worldwide demand, while the tourism and gambling industries, run by United States mafia families, lined the pockets of Batista and organized crime bosses. In other words, government corruption resulted in Cuba’s national income going into the pockets of non-Cubans and a few government officials, rather than investing in the welfare and infrastructure of Cuba, caused the poor to become poorer. So to a majority of the Cuban population, revolution sounded awesome. Just ask an actual Cuban in Cuba, not an exile.

           Now let's think about all those Cuban-Americans holding a grudge. It sucks that your property was taken away. It wasn't the right way to go about fixing Cuba's historical problem of being exploited, but American politics have essentially led Cuban-Americans with influence, be it a vote or money or power, to make things worse in every aspect.

Getting around the embargo or "supporting Castro":

           Again, I'll bring up that girl I dated whose mom's boyfriend pilfered rum and cigars from old ladies bringing them back from Havana at MIA. That girl's mom preached to me that by simply visiting Cuba and spending a dollar I was "funding the regime." The philosophy of the embargo, therefore, is to drain the regime of money until it falls apart. But whose idea is this? Who is still pushing this idea in politics? The fact that the U.S. government neglects to remove both the embargo and the travel ban against Cuba are direct results of roughly one million Cuban exiles with heavy lobbying power, many of these exiles lost their vast land holdings to Castro and the people.The Fanjul brothers, Alfy(Democrat) and Pepe(Republican), yield a great portion of such influence. Castro seized their grandfather’s sugar plantations, and these two brothers fled to America. Alfy and Pepe now own the Flo-Sun Sugar company, the sugar producer responsible for much of the Everglades’ pollution, as well as Bacardi Rum Company. Because these two men had to rebuild their family fortunes from nothing, they continuously lobby to punish Cuba’s government as well as its citizens--those who lack the means or desire to escape. To assure that this will happen, the pair donates excessive amounts of money to both Democrat and Republican presidential candidates to assure that decisions regarding Cuba be decided in favor of the Fanjul agenda—an agenda aimed at making sure that communism not be funded from the Fanjul’s government-seized family sugar.
A dude buying a pet bird. Probably my favorite photo of the whole trip. 

When former vice president Al Gore announced his plans to require sugar companies to clean-up the Everglades, Bill Clinton received a direct phone call from one of the Fanjul brothers reminding the then president of the Fanjuls’ campaign contributions. The reception of this call interrupted a famous cigar-dildo incident between the president and Monica Lewinsky. Sponsors of the 1996 Helms-Burton Law, the law that tightened the embargo on Cuba and allowed Cuba-Americans to sue foreign companies that use or invest in nationalized properties, also received sizable campaign contributions to politicians to assure the law passed. And, because the Fanjul’s cover both sides of the political spectrum, they always get their way. As a favor to Cuban-exile constituents, President George W. Bush closed down a number of travel agencies that specialized in providing travel licenses for Cuba. Some exiles argue that tourist dollars that go to Castro would bring the lives of Cubans to a higher level of comfort, so by depriving Cuba of tourist dollars the people will suffer and starve, realize it's Castro's fault and revolt. They might also starve or die from a lack of medicinal needs, but exiles hope for a more utilitarian outcome of democracy for all. Realistically, all the embargo does is cause Cubans to consider the following: Is it worth finding a way to America to start over and see how capitalism will either enrich or add misery to my life? Or is it worth living in the culture I was born into, one that is all I know and satisfies me? 

The way by which individuals influence U.S. foreign policy regarding Cuba has another impact that far outweighs economic punishment. The Cuban-exile constituency, because its majority resides in Florida, can determine the outcome of a presidential race. This is due to Florida’s swing-state status. Cuban exile constituents, at times, influence world history. George W. Bush, for example, won the election against Al Gore by 537 votes. Bush can thank the eighty percent of Cuban-American exiles that voted for him. Regardless of political party, United States foreign policy, up until the election of Barack Obama, focused on punishing Fidel Castro. And Obama himself can't escape criticism by Cuban-American politicians, like Marco Rubio, for attempting to change our relationship with Cuba even slightly. Rubio criticized Obama for shaking hands with Raul Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. Rubio can swear up and down that the "regime" supports terrorism in Cuba and abroad, but this is really about keeping the political sentiments of aging Cuban exiles to remain pro-Republican. It's a huge number of people, but they are aging, dying people. The Latino vote in 2012 voted by a large proportion Democrat. So is it really about terrorism or communism? Or is the embargo and the argument to keep it alive anything but political agitation? 
Pop into the local library to peruse the reading list...

Sure, Cubans get to ready plenty about America! 

Should old people or politicians stand in the way of you going to Cuba? No. They are not making an argument that ethically reaches for the "good" but rather for their own self-gain and narcissistic attempt to strike back at the government that hurt them. It's not your problem. If you are kid with family threatening to disown you if you ever return to the motherland.... Go and don't tell them, but read the points below as well. 

Now let's turn this argument toward the ethics of being IN Cuba. There are a whole handful of sad realities that come to life once you are there.


               Why would someone be willing to have sex with a, quite often, ugly motherfucker? For money, duh!

              Maybe in Amsterdam one could argue that the women selling their bodies really want to be there. I'm not going to argue that all prostitutes are in their position against their will or that, psychologically, they aren't really choosing to prostitute themselves when they say and actually believe they are. One could, after weighing their options, decide that prostitution suits them, but if you consider the economic situation in Cuba it's hard to argue that the girl in the above photo really wanted to be spending time with that old fart from Germany. 

             I shot the above photo at a Los Van Van concert. It cost about $35 to get into the show, and then drinks and food were pricey as well. The girl gets to go to a show that costs her more than one month's salary at a typical state job. She gets to drink. She gets to eat far better food than what is rationed by the state. But the ultimate price is determined by the sex tourist. She has to fulfill his whims. Male prostitutes have to fulfill whims as well. It is not uncommon to be approached by a young woman or man offering their "services." At one beach in Trinidad, Cuba, a young woman asked me if I wanted to "take a walk." After I declined she took some other guy on a walk. She took him to a bathroom and came walking out minutes later. She then came up to me a second time wiping her lips and asking if I had change for the 5 CUC note the man had just paid her. I know someone might read this and think, "Awesome, a $6.50 blow job. But it's not awesome. 

            But what ultimately got her here? The embargo. Cuba might have thrived had it not been for the embargo. Rations might be larger for each individual. Last time I checked this was the per person ration: 2 lbs dried beans, 7 lbs rice, 7 lbs sugar, 20 oz. canned fish, 10 loaves of bread, one bar of soap, and a pack of cigars (only if born before 1964). Not much. Jobs might more adequately afford consumer goods from around the world. Instead, the average Cuban makes around $20-$60 a month. A bathing suit costs half a month's salary. Food that is not provided through rations must be purchased with CUC, not the peso that the citizens are paid by the state. How do you get CUC? Sometimes you get them by prostituting yourself. 

            Granted, there are plenty of people I've known in America that are willing to fuck a date as long as the date paid for a fun night out, but this situation is drastically worse. Sex tourists from the entire globe look at Cubans as ripe and desperate. If you wanna bang a prostitute, go to Amsterdam--state regulated, STD tested regularly. You'll be less of an asshole. 

            Of course, politicians and exiles will point to prostitution as a sad reality that is a result of the "regime's oppression" when, really, they helped make conditions bad enough to compel a country of well-educated young people to go this route. Prostitutes are not going to "become so miserable they revolt." 

Apartheid: This topic sounds weird even to me since "apartheid" brings South Africa to mind, but because we stayed in the tourist hotels it was obvious--whiter the skin, better the job. In the official tourism industry of Cuba, where the major hotels and resorts funnel huge tax revenues for the government, it is quite obvious that lighter-skinned Cubans are getting the tourist industry jobs that make CUC tips in addition to their government wage. So basically, you can be a light-skinned Cuban working in a hotel making an average of CUC 300 a month in tips while an educated surgeon in the country-side has to make a basic living off of state wages $60- $80? and rations. That surgeon probably has his own hustle going on, but I am just pointing out some of the inadequacies in the system. Within this system, in addition to tips, is also the system of "a la izquierda" or "from the left"--an underhanded exchange when a local offers you something in trade (lobster dinner, cigars, rum) for a consumer product they can't easily get in Cuba (baby stroller, camera, shoes). Everyone with something to trade participates in this black market swap meet. This skin-color thing is also just a weird hang-up I have heard about from some Cubans, especially exiles. There is this lingering belief about blood being more pure if your skin is whiter as opposed to darker. Of course, this too is an idea perpetuated by some of the old exiles in the States, but it has penetrated the Cuban tourism industry as well. I wouldn't doubt that a number of Europeans and Russians helped fuel this idea, considering that the Russian word for black person is simply "nigger." 

            Anyway, this is something to think about. If you go and stay at a resort in Cuba, you are essentially supporting this framework, and, to give some credit to the angry exiles, the bulk of your money IS going straight to the "regime." Instead of getting that pristine beach vacation at a Cuban resort, perhaps seek out the home-stays. By staying in the home of a local, more of your money is going to them. They most likely under-report their income to the government. Many paladares do this. They often are limited in the number of tables and chairs they can have in their restaurant to assure that the evils of capitalism don't corrupt the good communist within, but most owners of paladares and home-stay accommodations pay off the officials whose job it is to enforce these regulations of how many tables or beds you can have in your business to look the other way. By seeking out these local services you are doing two things, you are assuring that you are not fueling economic discrimination as well as fueling a black market economy that will enrich the lives of everyday Cubans who can't live off of rations or their salaries alone. 
For some, the only way to get an extra couple of bucks is begging around the hotel bars.

Drugs: Drug dealers appeared to be the one type of local allowed into the tourist hotels. I'm guessing they pay off the officials there to kick locals out of tourist areas. If you go to hotel bar or lobby to have a drink, there are most likely high end prostitutes and drug dealers in the crowd. It was pretty obvious in just about every hotel bar I remember in Havana. Again, why one would go all this way to simply get fucked up is beyond me, and I can't imagine what penalties or laws there are for foreigners using or possessing illegal drugs. The only reason I even bring up this topic is that the drug industry is yet another way for locals to defy the economic situation. If you don't have someone sending remittances from the USA or a legitimate job in tourism making tips, I guess drugs are an option for making lots of money. I'm guessing the dealers don't pay much mind to who buys the drugs, but I find it absurd that one go all this way to such a unique and interesting place just to partake in such complete, utter bullshit. 

No Sex? No Getting Fucked Up? No Pampering? Why Go? 

              I think most people that find this article are most likely the adventurous type not looking to get their dicks wet or spend thousands of dollars to remain isolated on a resort, but who knows... For an American to make their way to Cuba, legally or illegally, there isn't much more motivation than to use their time there as a learning experience. So many people mention the stupid old cars and "how cool it is that they still drive on the streets!" Yeah, your granddad that drove that Chevy isn't going, and once you get their you'll realize those cars barely contain any original part, inside or out. 

             What? You think they chose to keep old cars running forever because they wanted to? They did it out of necessity. Under most hoods are garden hoses and other improvised "parts."

             It's different for someone from England or Germany or Japan maybe. But for an American, a trip to Cuba is an opportunity to witness the influence of American foreign policy, good or bad depending on who you talk to, in action. If you aren't a people person, maybe it's not for you. Talk to the locals. Many are interested in American affairs they learn about. I must have been asked about Obama a thousand times... always with enthusiasm too. Most Cubans understand our race relations better than many Americans do. Use the Cuban surveillance system to your advantage. In other words, there is no reason to fear violence or robbery in Cuban cities. If someone wants to invite you into their home, follow along and see what a real Cuban home is like. One guy gave me a few school books for elementary students, and the propaganda on ever page is fascinating. As a gesture of appreciation, I gave him the CUC 15 I had in my pocket. I'm sure he knew what he was doing when he asked my job and offered to "give me some old books." If you see someone doing something interesting, ask them what they are doing. Ask them about their memories of the Revolution. Ask a lady on the street about her job or her feelings about an international news topic. 
 There is something to be said about reusing Bic Lighters and Cuban ingenuity in general. This fellow figured out a small business by using insect spray as lighter fluid. Disposable lighters become refillable. 

    Palm frond broom. Sure, you can say that this is an emblem of poverty due to the "regime." You can also rethink how resourceful you are. Thinking like a Cuban, in Cuba, might help you rethink your spending, which might leave you with more money for traveling.       
Cuban skateboarders. Or, as they call them, "rafts." 

Ultimately, I'm tired of working on and editing this post. I'll wrap up by saying, don't let some passionate schmuck stop you from going and seeing the real Cuba. A Cuba revealed by endless walking, people watching and friendly conversation. You'll see that not everyone yearns to build a raft and float across the "cemetery without crosses" as Castro calls it. You run a handful of risks going there as an American, but if you can go and want to badly enough, then fuckin' A get going. I think the tourism industry has taken the "see how other people live" part out of many vacations. Cuba is one of the best places to do just that. 

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