War and Voodoo in Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba lies on the southeastern coast of Cuba, a port close to the former Spanish colonies in Mexico and Latin America.  It quickly became an important city and remains Cuba’s second largest.

José Martí and Fidel Castro are both buried there.  Older readers might be interested to know Desi Arnaz was born there; younger ones might recognize native Emilio Estefan, husband of  Gloria.  Rum fans might be interested to know Barcardí started there.

Visiting on a cruise ship, once again we were limited in what we could see [but thankful to see it at all].

A history buff, I was interested to see San Juan Hill [actually Kettle Hill close to San Juan Hill also under attack], where Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders achieved military acclaim 1 July 1898.  I was interested to learn the Spanish officers were experienced and their men were generally better equipped than the U.S. forces.  But their defensive positions were not well-designed, and American Gatling guns carried the day.  The Americans, including black Buffalo Soldiers, had five times as many casualties as the Spanish.  Our guide attributed the American victory to our naval forces, but I think that might only be said with respect to the entire war, not this particular battle.

For a far different experience, we were taken to a community theater / cultural exchange  where a Haitian-linked dance company performed traditional Vodou [Voodoo] dances.  We had seen a world-renowned dance company perform in Havana.  This was much more amateur, but we still enjoyed it and found it very interesting.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 19 December 2018

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Old American Cars in Cuba

1952 Chevy, Havana, 2018 looks to be in better condition than mine in 1966

Alie asked why there were so many “hot rods” in Southwest Florida.  I replied that many men who were teenagers in the 1960s remember when it was cool to take a twenty year-old car and “soup it up.”  But most couldn’t afford to do it.  Many, now retired, can afford an homage to their youth.  The same age group has a particular nostalgia for the automobiles of the 1950s, an era when the car companies made styling changes every year.  You could not only tell a Chevy from a Ford, you could tell a 1956 Chevy from a 1957 Chevy.  Those Chevys and Fords are still on the streets in Cuba.

Cuban officials will say it is because of the U.S. trade “blockade.”  They are mostly right. After Cuba started seizing private property including farms and factories from American owners, President Kennedy imposed an embargo.  [Am I cynical to believe the execution of several hundred “counter-revolutionaries was not enough reason?]  The embargo, however, did not apply to automobiles.  In retaliation however, Fidel Castro prohibited the importation of North American automobiles.

The Cuban state controlled almost everything, but private ownership and sale of used cars was still possible.  Today, these old cars are a monument to the ingenuity of the average Cuban citizen.

Parts were no longer available when cars were damaged or needed repairs.  Cubans call today’s vehicles “United Nations” cars because inside they have parts from all over the world.  Diesel fuel is half as expensive as gasoline in Cuba, so most now have diesel engines, often from Hyundai.  Soviet Union Latas and Volgas, which were not as reliable, were dissected for parts.   In some cases, parts were fabricated on site.

There are an estimated 60,000 classic U.S. cars in Cuba, fifty percent from the 1950s and the rest from the 40s and 30s.

When the embargo began to be relaxed, U.S. automobile aficionados salivated at the thought of getting their hands on the cars.  But reality has intervened.  At auction, a Chevrolet Bel Air with original parts might fetch $50,000.  The same “U.N.” car from Cuba would be unlikely to fetch more than $5,000.

Classic cars do it all in Cuba: personal use; taxis; and public transportation.  Tourists love them, especially the taxis in Havana that have better maintained bodies and interiors.  An hour tour costs about fifty U.S. dollars and is often in a convertible, perfect for taking pictures.  While taxis for Cubans are restricted to certain routes much like a bus, tourists may take them on a negotiated basis.  It is good for the Cuban economy and is certainly good for the drivers in a country where the average income is between twenty and thirty dollars per month.

BBC reported last year the state has modified its monopoly on new cars sales.  Formerly, permits to buy were issued only to a few privileged officials, artists and athletes.  Permits were traded on the black market for cash.  Raul Castro has now opened permits for non-U.S. cars to the general public.

My’52 Chevy “Jennifer” in 1966

However, the state still has a monopoly on sales and sets the price.  According to the BBC report, a Peugeot 508 listed at $29,000 is available for $262,000.  But others sell for less, and the government says profits will be used to develop public transport.  Considering the Cuban average income, it is hard to imagine there will be much profit — but, of course, Cuba is socialist, not capitalist.

Dates of our visit: 12 to 19 December 2018.

Click on photos to enlarge; click the back arrow to return to the post.

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Outside Havana: Cienfuegas and Trinidad Cuba

Hello world.

We were fortunate our cruise stopped in three Cuban ports and that we were able to take a bus to a fourth town, Trinidad.  Most cruise ships from the U.S. just stop in Havana.  As is typical with a cruise, we only had a cursory exposure, but it was more than we were likely to see otherwise.

After arriving in Cienfuegas, a port on the southern coast, we took a bus to Trinidad which still has many colonial era buildings and then returned for a brief tour of Ceinfuegas.

We don’t have WIFI but there is a mojito that makes communication easy.

In Havana, one of our guides said Cuba has “no rich people; no poor people.”  But there are different degrees of prosperity under those terms.  In the countryside, we were much more likely to see people using horses and donkey carts rather than motorized vehicles.  There had been no beggars in Havana, but they were common in the other towns.  We were told we were safe in Havana, and we were.  But approaching Cienfuegas and Santiago de Cuba later in the trip, we were warned about pick pockets, urged not to wear “bling” and told to keep close track of our cameras and other belongings.  As far as I know, none of our group had any problems.

In typical tourist fashion, we visited a large colonial home [now a museum] a lace shop, a church, a Santeria temple, a pottery and a bar that featured cancharía, a drink made from honey, aguardiente, and lemon .

Probably the item that most caught our attention in the home/museum was a jar and stone water filter kept under lock and key.  The owners gave the key to only their most trusted slave because they were afraid they might be poisoned.  Spain did not abolish slavery in Cuba until 1886.

Alie was intrigued by the temple and its altar showing a mix of Catholic and voodoo religions.

As always, we both enjoyed our encounters with local people.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 17 December 2018

Next week:  Cuban Cars

The week after next: Santiago de Cuba, Teddy Roosevelt, Fidel and other warriors

P.S.  I apologize but feel I must inject a political commentary.  U.S. cruise ship travel to Cuba has since been banned.  It makes us sad to read there are already [less than a month later] food shortages in Cuba.  We hope the issues will be resolved soon for the sake of the Cuban people, but aside from the current problem, Cuba has to reform its economy and learn to feed itself.  Even last December, when we asked about a line of Cubans in front of a building, we were told they were lining up because the store just got apples.

Although I am not informed enough to say U.S. policy is correct, the cruise ship ban is not about the Cuban economy.  One news report said there were 20,000 Cuban “doctors” in Venezuela.  Cuba does rely on sending doctors out to obtain foreign currency, but the U.S. does not object to doctors — Cuban secret service forces are keeping the Maduro Venezuelan dictatorship in power.  

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El Morro: There’s not one, not two, but three.

morro in Spanish is just a headland, promontory or  or a small hill.   But a non-Spanish speaker visiting the Caribbean could be forgiven for thinking it was something else.

Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro, known locally as El Morro, looms over the entrance to Havana, Cuba’s harbor.  Built initially in 1589-1630, it was designed by Italian Engineer Battista Antonelli who also designed the fort in Cartagena, Columbia.

Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del at the entrance to Havana’s harbor

Columbus landed in Cuba on his 1492 trip.  San Juan, Puerto Rico was founded by Ponce de Leon in 1508, and the Spanish took control of Cuba by 1514.  Santiago de Cuba was founded in  1515 and Havana in 1519.  But the Spanish didn’t find the wealth they were seeking until Cortés took Mexico in 1521 and Pizarro took Peru in 1533.

Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and San Juan were all on the route  back home from Spain’s Latin American conquests.  Pirates, privateers and rival governments were all hoping to take a share of that wealth when it sailed to Spain.

Therefore, there is not just one fortress called “del Morro” in the Caribbean, there are three.

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca [also known locally as the Castillo del Morro] in Santiago de Cuba was started in 1590 as a small fortification and then enlarged between 1638 and 1700.

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca protects Santiago de Cuba

Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan Puerto Rico was begun in 1539 and expanded under the direction of engineers Juan de Tejada and Antonelli in 1587.  It is the largest and had 450 cannons.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan

The fortresses were not one hundred percent effective.  English pirates captured Santiago in 1662 and destroyed part of the fortification.  But the Spanish were successful holding off attacks in 1678 and 1680.

The British captured Havana’s Castillo De Los Tres Reyes in 1762.

San Juan’s Castillo San Felipe del Morro was never taken.  It repulsed the British in 1595 and 1598, the Dutch in 1625, and the British again in 1797.  It was bombarded by the U.S. in 1898 during the Spanish-American war but not taken.

Today, tourists invade the three “el Morros” bringing wealth this time, not watching it go by and taking only pictures.

Dates of our visits:

Havana — 13-14 Dec 18

Santiago de Cuba — 19 Dec 18

San Juan — 30 Jul 13 [also in 2011 and 2005]

Coming next week: Cienfuegas and Trinidad, Cuba.

Coming July 5: Old American Cars in Cuba

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Will the real Havana please stand up?

Havana

It is human nature to see what one expects to see; magicians rely on that.  It is human nature to give in to confirmation bias, interpreting new experiences in a way which reinforces already held beliefs; politicians rely on that.

Looking out from our ship’s cabin our first day in Havana, I saw a run-down, almost roofless warehouse.  Walking on the sidewalks, I observed the lack of maintenance.  Most buildings other than those in principal tourist areas needed paint and repair.  With ingrained objection to totalitarianism, I saw the results of fifty years of centralized state planning.

On the other hand, a 25 year-old liberal friend from the U.S. visited last summer, rejoiced in the kind people she met, and bought into the idea that all Cuba’s problems were brought about by the U.S. blockade, the term the Communist government uses for the U.S. embargo.  [Churchill said “if you are 25 and are not liberal, you have no heart.]

After four days in Cuba, I decided neither of us was exactly right, and neither of us was exactly wrong.  Most of the world continued to be open to trade during the embargo; there are other vehicles on the road besides the carefully preserved 1950s U.S. vehicles.  New air-conditioned Chinese-made buses, however, were only for tourists. That dilapidated warehouse was actually the old customs house pier being renovated for a new hotel.  We met some very kind and friendly people who were anxious to talk to us.  A fellow passenger who had been there less than twenty years ago said those same people would have been afraid to talk to anyone then for fear of being reported to state security forces.  A guide told us a student preparing for the university lists ten choices of study, but the government decides which one the student may pursue based on what professions the ministry feels are most needed.  Miguel Diaz Canel, who came into power after Raul Castro, cracked down on unauthorized art shows.  There is no free Internet, and only a few television channels are permitted.  People can start businesses now – but only in their own house or a rented house.  People can own their own home – but only in a government-maintained building.

Havana has a population of roughly two million; we were told four million tourists visited in 2017.  Change will occur on both sides as eyes are opened.

Havana grew up because it has a large protected harbor on the Gulf Stream which took Spanish treasure ships from South America to Spain.  Five forts protected the harbor which spreads out from a narrow entrance like a huge bottle.

Cristo de la Habana by Jilma Madera, 1958, restored 2013

High on one side is Christ of Havana, a 1958 statue about fifteen meters high.  While we stood looking at it, a Cuban said, “Christ is Cuban.  The fingers of one hand are ready to hold a cigar and the other a glass of rum.”

Alie was unable to negotiate the steep cobble-stoned entrance to El Moro.  She sat in the shade and struck up a conversation with a man sitting there whom she took for a driver of one of the antique cars used as a taxi for tourists.  When I returned, the man went to a nearby stall where he was selling posters, came back and gave her a small key chain shaped like a maraca.  “Un regalo de corazon,” he said as he turned to me — “a gift of the heart.”

We were assured we could walk the streets without fear at night.  We did, and found the streets crowded with Cubans out to enjoy the restaurants and music clubs.  Walking down the “street of barbers,” however, Alie commented she did not understand how people could eat in the restaurants with the stench of sewage in the street.

We attended a performance of Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, a world-acclaimed dance company and walked around “Fusterlandia,” a fascinating community of artists that grew up around the home of Fuster, a primitive artist who works in tile.

There were many contradictions I have yet to figure out.  However, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” wrote Mark Twain, and I suspect more than just the visitor is changed.

Scroll over photos for captions; click to enlarge.

Dates of our visit:  13-14 December 2018

Next Week, Cienfuegas, Cuba.

P.S.  Since I first wrote this, the U.S. has stopped cruise ships from going to Cuba.  I am of mixed emotions.  The horrible government in Venezuela survives with the aid of Cuban security forces, a secret police modeled on the KGB.  On the other hand, there will be much less mingling of views among Cubans and U.S. tourists;  the ones who will suffer most will be like our bus driver who was able to make more money driving tourists than he could as an engineer.

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José Martí, A hero for all parties

Travel is a wonderfully educating.  I had heard of Latin American revolutionaries  Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín but was unfamiliar with José Martí whose large statue and monument are on Havana’s Revolution Plaza opposite portrayals of Castro’s revolutionary heroes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.  I was intrigued when told that virtually every town in Cuba has a statue or street honoring Martí.

Jose Marti

Born in Havana in 1853 to parents from Spain, he was a poet, journalist, and revolutionary against colonial Spain.  He died fighting Spanish forces in 1895.  He is a hero for Cubans of every persuasion.  He was a hero in pre-1959 Cuba, to Cuban exiles in the U.S. and even to Communist post-1959 Cubans.

Prompted to read his biography, I still do not hold myself out as an expert.  But I came to the conclusion that by dying in battle without having to rule or implement his ideas, there was never time to find out he had feet of clay — he is a hero because all can find something to like in his idealistic writings, but he never had to make them real.

Lest that seem too cynical, I hasten to add he appears to have been a genuine man who lived a heroic life of service, who was exceptionally honest and believed that genuine consideration should be given to all points of view.

He opposed slavery when it was still part of Cuban society.  He was a republican who sought to create a free, colorblind, classless, non-sectarian, educated society open even to the Spanish after they were defeated.

He seems to have practiced what he preached: “Our life on earth is essentially only an obligation to undertake to do good works.”  He imagined a society in which Cubans would work selflessly for each other.

Exiled to Spain, he spent years in Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela and the United States.  In the United States for 15 years, his infatuation for the country that rebelled against England turned to dismay as he observed social strife and many calls for the U.S. to acquire Cuba.

He strongly opposed the dictators he saw in other Latin American countries, saw protectionism as favoring a few over the masses, and favored the right of the individual to work to accumulate savings.  But he worried about exploitation by the greedy.  He was much in favor of freedom of speech.  But he never clearly developed a plan for economic development.  He espoused “drafting” teachers for schools and distribution of wealth, and saw laziness and selfishness as crimes which could be prohibited or limited by legislation.

Dates of our visit: 13-14 December 2018

P.S.  One of his poems is the basis for the seemingly omnipresent patriotic song Guantanamera.

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Celebrating “Discoverers’ Day” at the VLA, New Mexico

A bunch of U.S. cities decided to stop celebrating “Columbus Day” on October 12 because the arrival of Europeans was devastating for First Americans.  That is silly; all history including that of pre-Columbian  First Americans is a history of clashing cultures and conquest.  But last October, Alie said we might be better served with a Discoverers’ Day honoring all who reach out to make new discoveries.

Alie suffered to some degree from altitude sickness from the time we entered Colorado weeks before.  So we settled into Sorcorro, New Mexico at a lower altitude to see if she would improve before we went to the Balloon Fiesta. [Click here to see my report on the Fiesta.]

Thus by chance we visited the Very Large Array [VLA] radio telescope complex 50 miles west on the federal Columbus Day holiday.  It was a fitting place to be on our newly declared Discoverers’ Day.

The VLA is operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a facility of the National Science Foundation.  27 disk-shaped antennas capture unseen light in the form of radio waves.  Radio waves can travel billions of miles unobstructed by dust clouds in space or the earth’s atmosphere.  Each antenna gathers signals so faint they can be obscured by the presence of an operating cell phone on the site.

Each antenna is 82 feet [25 meters] across and powered by motorized drives that move the 100-ton dishes to keep them pointed exactly on a cosmic source for hours at a time.  The waves are funneled to super-sensitive receivers, and a supercomputer merges the 27 views into a single powerful image.

Antenna Assembly Building [The Barn] for maintenance with an extra antenna.

The 235-ton antennas and pedestals move on double railroad tracks to four positions in a Y formation.  In their closest formation, they are six-tenths of a mile apart.  At their furthest, they are 22 miles apart.  Close in they have a wider field of view; further out they zoom in on finer detail.  The views from these four locations are again combined to give clear images of objects such as galaxies, black holes, and infant stars.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 8 October 2018

P.S. The VLA is out in the desert 50 miles west of Socorro, high, flat, far from cities and surrounded by hills to limit electromagnetic interference.  There is nothing else to see unless you want to go to Pie Town, and Alie was unwilling to drive another forty miles away from Socorro just for me to add a slice of pie to my waistline.

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