Some Thoughts on Osama bin Laden and Luis Posada Carriles

5 05 2011

Cuban poster showing George Bush and Luis Posada Carriles metamorphosing into Adolf Hitler

Osama bin Laden was the mastermind of a terrorist network that, amongst other outrages, hijacked two airplanes and flew them into the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, killing 2752 victims. He spent the last nine and a half years in hiding, latterly in Pakistan. To some Islamic extremists he was a hero.

Luis Posada Carriles was the head of an anti-Cuban terrorist network that, amongst other outrages, planted a bomb on a Cuban airline flight from Venezuela in 1976, killing 73 people. Despite attempts by both Cuba and Venezuela to extradite him for that crime, he remains at freedom in the USA., where he is a hero to some extremists in Miami.

USA armed forces tracked bin Laden down to his hideout in Pakistan and, without even informing the Pakistani Government of their plans, murdered him. Despite myself shedding no tears for his demise, US triumphalism, as demonstrated on our TV screens in the hours and days after bin Laden’s death, is not a pretty sight.

Can anybody imagine the US Government reaction if Cuban special agents were to track down Posada Carriles in Miami and kill him? At the very least there would be attempts to apply further economic sanctions against Cuba. It’s not hard to imagine the episode being used as an excuse to launch bombing raids on the island or even an invasion.

Yet would there be any difference between the two? I cannot see any. Would there be any legal or moral justification for either act? I think that Cuba would have the greater moral justification, in the light of the USA’s refusal to extradite Posada Carriles. Pakistan would have been happy to cooperate in extraditing bin Laden. The last thing that the USA wanted, it appears, is a trial for bin Laden, whereas Cuba and its people would relish the prospect of a trial involving Posada Carriles. Both trials would have been very revealing about the murky activities of the CIA.

Neither act would have had any legal justification in international law. But then the USA, which does not even recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, seems oblivious to international law, or to morality. It does what it does because it can. It can do so because of its size and power.

We live in an unequal and unfair world. The USA can launch invasions against other countries; can kidnap people in other countries and imprison them without trial; and can murder people in other countries. Cuba, on the other hand, has to put up with the USA occupying part of its territory, where it runs a prison camp in which people are held without trial for years on end; with a US economic blockade which each year is condemned by almost every country at the United Nations; and with the US spending $20 million each year on activities to undermine its Government and promote “regime change”.Despite all of this, the USA seems to think that it can lecture Cuba on human rights; and describes Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism”.

The cold, hard facts of life are that it is not international law which governs the behaviour of the world’s governments; nor is it morality. It is power: military, economic and political. That is why China does not receive too many human rights lectures from the USA, whilst Cuba does.

Set against this backdrop, the survival of Cuba’s revolutionary Government, after 52 years of US opposition, which has included sponsoring an invasion, terrorism, sabotage and an economic blockade, is all the more remarkable. The people who have suffered, of course, are the 11 million people who live on the island, including the relatives of the 73 victims of the Cuban airline that was blown up above Barbados in 1976. In the meantime, Luis Posada Carriles is free to enjoy his liberty and lap up the adulation of the extremists who appear to dominate Miami politics.

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La Lupe

1 05 2011

Whilst I was in Cuba I became acquainted with the music of La Lupe. My friend had first heard her late one night on a Santiago radio station and had been stunned by what she heard. When she saw a disc of hers on a stall in Havana, she bought it as a present for me.

La Lupe was born in Santiago de Cuba in 1939. As a teenager she moved to Havana with her family, where she began singing at a club in Vedado called La Red, which is still there today. According to her obituary in the New York Times from when she died at the age of 53  in 1992: She bought her own club, but after difficulties with the Fidel Castro Government — “Castro take my club, my money, my car,” she told Look magazine in 1971 — she emigrated to the United States, and settled in New York in 1962.”

In New York she began recording, first with Mongo Santamaria and then Tito Puentes. At the end of the decade Puentes dropped her for Celia Cruz and La Lupe then began a solo career. Her style was extraordinary, described by Newsweek in 1969 as: ”Like Eartha Kitt and Janis Joplin with plaintive echoes of Edith Piaf.”  Watch the video above, from a 1971 US TV show, of La Lupe doing her own inimitable version of “My Way”.

However, by the second half of the decade her career was on the wane. According to a 2008 article in the Guardian: “…after a series of tragedies she became a devout Christian, vowed never to perform again and died in poverty and obscurity in her early 50s. “

Some readers may already be familiar with La Lupe. Apparently she is a gay icon in the Spanish speaking world. A gay bar in Madrid is named after her. In 1998 the Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar used her song “Puro Teatro” on the soundtrack of his film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”. For anybody not familiar with her, I urge them to search online for her music and to read more about her.

The fact that it is now possible to hear her music and buy her records in Cuba is evidence of how things have slowly changed there over the last two decades or so. At one time anybody who left Cuba for the USA was referred to as a gusano (worm) and listening to their music was considered counter-revolutionary. Now it’s easy to hear artists like Celia Cruz or Issac Delgado, who turned their backs on Cuba and forged successful careers in the US.





Studying Spanish (2)

24 04 2011

Quintero Campus of Universidad de Oriente

At the end of December I went out to Santiago de Cuba with the intention of studying Spanish for three months at the University of the Orient. I have previously described my trials and tribulations in getting my student visa and actually finding out where the classes were (here).

I was assessed as being at an intermediate level and was placed in a class with two retired Italian guys, who had been studying for a year and a half already. They were both studying four hours per week, each Tuesday morning at the Quintero campus of the university. I wanted to study for more hours, so it was agreed that I would have one to one tuition on a Thursday morning as well.

The teacher was excellent, very patient and very enthusiastic. We had an air-conditioned classroom, with a modern computer, that did not work. The teacher had one course book, of which she was a co-author, but no other copies for the students. There was a whiteboard, but the pens barely worked and it was almost impossible to read anything that was written there.

This continued for the next two weeks, during which we were joined by two other students, a young guy from the Czech Republic and a young woman from Germany, who was studying psychology as part of an exchange programme. We were then advised that our teacher (the only good thing about the course) was leaving us to go and work in Venezuela for a year.

We then had a new teacher, in a different campus (Antonio Mella), new classrooms (we didn’t have a regular one, but had to meet outside the office each morning to be advised where we were studying), a new course to follow (but still only one copy of the book) and were joined by two new students, young Canadian women who were studying there on an exchange programme. The new teacher was equally as good as the last and the good news was that the new classrooms sometimes had blackboards instead of whiteboards and the teacher had some chalk.

The two Canadians were part of a group of about twenty and were the only two who had been assessed as advanced. This meant that I had progressed from intermediate to advanced level in three weeks. I had not been aware that my progress had been so spectacular.

The Canadians were doing two hours per morning, from Monday through to Thursday, so I had to change from a two-day week to a four-day one. The other students came when they wanted to, which ranged from once in two months for the Czech guy, to twice a week for the eldest Italian after he had been absent altogether for a couple of weeks. I was the only student with a 100% attendance and punctuality record, but as nobody kept any record of this, nobody will ever know.

After two weeks of the new arrangements, our teacher advised us that she would now only teach us on Mondays and Wednesdays; we would have a different teacher for Tuesdays and Thursdays. This new teacher was also very good, but worked to yet another course book (of which, of course, there was only one).

Did I learn much in my three months? Because the course did not actually start until January 18th, I only studied for about eleven weeks. It would be impossible to spend that long in a Spanish speaking country and to attend that many lessons and not improve my Spanish speaking skills. I have widened my vocabulary and learned some new grammatical tenses.

However, after that many lessons I would really have expected to have learned a lot more. I think that something as simple as having my own text book to follow would have helped me greatly and enabled me to learn more. For me to learn a language I need to see it, hear it and say it. However, without a text book and often without the ability to read from a board, one of the three senses was not being utilised. I would gladly have paid the cost of a book. It would also have been good not to have had two changes of teacher and to have followed the same course.

However, despite all of its shortcomings, my intention is to return in October and resume my studies. Studying in a Cuban university, with its lack of resources and poor organisation, is a challenge. However, the staff are very enthusiastic and very keen to help you learn. It is a great opportunity to learn what life in a Cuban city is really like.Santiago de Cuba is a great city and I cannot wait to return.

A friend of mine is studying Spanish at the university in Havana. His course sounds very different – properly structured; the students have books; and they are expected to attend classes. So if studying the language is your primary purpose, Havana would probably be best. For me, I will stick with the chaotic yet relaxed ways of the Oriente.





Where to Go in Santiago de Cuba

17 04 2011

I have previously written (here) about the difficulty in finding out what is on, entertainment wise, in Santiago de Cuba. I’ve since had my attention drawn by John Abbotsford to this web-site: http://promociones.egrem.co.cu/ , which has details of who is appearing in some Santiago venues.

In order to assist future or potential travellers to Santiago, I thought that I would list the main places of entertainment in the city. It’s not a comprehensive list for the whole city, but does include all of the main places. I hope that people find it useful.

Live Music

Casa de la Trova, Calle Heredia

A great city centre venue, on two floors. The main room is upstairs, with a wooden balcony overlooking the street below. Live music every night, normally son bands. Admission normally 5 CUC. Mostly tourists.

Downstairs is a smaller room where they have bands playing in the afternoon. Next door is another room, where older singers sing boleros from about 11am onwards.

Casa de la Musica, Calle Corona

Another great city centre venue. More like a night club, with air conditioning. A band – either son or salsa – and DJ most nights, although Saturdays and Sundays it’s DJ only. Saturdays is for youths. Admission normally between 3 and 10 CUC. Mostly tourists, but a few more Cubans than Casa de la Trova.

Patio de Artex, Calle Heredia

One block from the Casa de la Trova, a single storey venue in an old city centre house, with the music in the patio behind. Live bands mornings, late afternoon and evening. Admission normally 2 CUC in the evening. Normally son. More of a mix of tourists and Cubans.

Has superb bolero sessions on a Saturday afternoon, between 2.30 and 5pm. Admission free. Various singers, often from the big cabaret venues.

Patio de los Dos Abuelos, Plaza de Marte

Another venue with son and salsa bands playing on the patio. Live music every night. Admission 2 CUC. Same kind of mix as Artex.

Casa de las Tradiciones,Tivoli

A really great venue. A traditional style house, with the band playing in the front room. The audience – a good mixture of locals and tourists – sit on up-turned barrels or rocking chairs. Some great son bands. Admission 2 CUC.

Bar Claqueta, Santo Tomas (next to Rialto Cinema)

An outdoor venue with son bands and a DJ. Admission 2CUC.

Casa del Caribe, Avenida Manduley,VistaAlegre

An excellent venue in the leafy Vista Alegre district, in a grand old house. The stage is to the side of the house, in a courtyard surrounded and sheltered by high trees. There is a statue of murdered Grenadian socialist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Music most nights. Each Sunday afternoon from 4.30 until about 7pm is a rumba (traditional Afro-Cuban style) session. Hardly any tourists. Tourist admission 1CUC. Well worth visiting.

Salon del Son, Enramada

Decent son and salsa bands in a nightclub type venue. Priced in CUP. Mostly Cubans. I’ve been there twice and both times the waitress tried to rip me off, which has rather put me off of this venue, particularly as when I mentioned it to other people, they said that the same had happened to them – both Cubans and non-Cubans.

 

Cabarets

Cabaret is a popular entertainment form inCuba. This can range from a few singers and dancers with a compere, to a magnificent floor show with dozens of dancers and an orchestra.

Tropicana

This is situated about 4 or 5 km from the city centre. Should cost no more than 5CUC in a cab. An immaculate venue built in the 1990s, when tourism was taking off. The cabaret is situated outdoors. A huge show that lasts about 2 hours, with a full-size orchestra playing in the background. Admission is 20CUC  for foreigners or 30CUP for Cubans on the door.

The travel agencies offer trips from  the Santiago hotels for 37CUC, which includes transport, admission, half a bottle of rum and two cans of cola for each couple; and a small plate of cheese, ham and olives for each person. If there are two or more of you, it’s probably cheaper to do it yourselves.

After the show there is music and dancing in the cabaret area. There is also an adjacent discotheque, which I have not been to, but my understanding is that you pay an additional entrance fee (5CUC); it is open until 4 or 5am; and it is full of hustlers.

El Congreso

In El Caney, about 4 or 5km from city centre. I have not been there, but have heard mixed reports. A cabaret followed by a disco. Priced in CUP. Some say it’s good, others say that it is a very young crowd with occasional trouble.

El Piano

On the road to El Caney, opposite the hospital. About 3 or 4 km from city centre. Small show followed by disco. Priced in CUP, although when I went there (which was after 1am) they wanted me to pay admission in CUC (5).

Hotel LasAmericas, Avenida de lasAmericas

A small show in the gardens of the hotel, later repeated inside the disco. From memory, it is 5CUC admission with a couple of drinks included.

 

Discotheques

In the UK the word discotheque fell out of popular usage more than 20 years ago. We now refer to such places as nightclubs. However, in Cuba they still have discotecas. I am not a big fan of them. The music is nearly all reggaeton. The DJ generally does not interact with the crowd, but instead sits behind a booth whilst what the dancers see is a big video-screen. However, these are some of the discotecas inSantiago:

Café Santiago

In the Hotel Melia Santiago. Big queues at weekends. I tried to get in once, but the queue was too long. I think that admission is 5CUC – I’m not sure if that includes any free drinks or not.

Hotel lasAmericas

Opposite the Melia Santiago. Cabaret show followed by DJ. 5CUC admission (includes three drinks). Loud, smoky, full of jinateras (Cuban girls looking to hook up with tourists)

Tropicana

See cabaret section above

Club Iris, Calle Enramada

Near to Plaza de Marte. Small club, mostly Cubans. Admission 2CUC.

 

Cinemas

Cine Rialto, Felix Pena

Cine Capitolio, Avenida Victoriano Garzon

Cine Cuba, Enramada

The above cinemas are in surprisingly good condition. Admission 2CUP. Mostly Spanish language films, but also some English language with subtitles.





UPDATE TO LETTERS TO THE MANAGEMENT

13 04 2011

 

Back in March I reported on the weekly letter of complaints published in the daily newspaper Granma (here). One of the complaints that I outlined also appeared as a letter in the other Cuban daily paper, Juventud Rebelde, who publish a regular column entitled “Acuse de Recibo” (acknowledgement of receipt).

This particular complaint was from a man named Manuel who had gone into a pharmacy in Pinar del Rio province and had had to queue for 55 minutes before being served. During this time there was only one assistant at the counter, despite several pharmacists being visible at the back, doing other activities. One had come out to chat with a friend. Another had come to the counter, but left when her pen would not work. During the 55 minutes the telephone rang continually but nobody answered it. When he asked whose responsibility it was to answer the telephone he got a dismissive answer.

On 29th March Juventud Rebelde carried a column entitled “Si no fuera por Manuel…” (if it was not for Manuel…). This reported that an investigation into Manuel’s complaint was carried out by the Director General of the Pharmaceutical and Optical Company of Pinar del Rio, in conjunction with the provincial Director of Health. They interviewed Manuel and held meetings with the staff of the pharmacy.

The outcome of the investigation was that the administrator of the unit was found to be responsible, because although she was not there at the time, she was responsible for the insufficient control measures and lack of organisation that had led to the events in question. As a sanction she was given a lower position and reduction in salary for a period of six months.

The Technical Director of the pharmacy was found to have been negligent in allowing there to be only one assistant on the counter. It was she who had come to the counter to chat with a friend and then disappear again. She was given an inferior post for one year.

The assistants were not sanctioned. A programme was undertaken to discuss with all of the company’s employees in the province about how such behaviour affects the quality of service.

The author of the article thanked Manuel for his original complaint, which led to these remedial measures being taken. He asks: if it were not for battlers like Manuel, would anything have changed?

I would suggest that if all Cubans who were subject to unsatisfactory or indifferent service were to write to the newspapers, they would need very large editions indeed. However, it is good to see that at least in one place something was done about it. Let’s hope that the message is spread more widely.





Things I Will (and won’t) Miss about Living in Santiago de Cuba

9 04 2011

 

View over the city from the Pico Turquino ice cream parlour

After three months living in Santiago de Cuba I have returned to England. I thought that I would compile a list of the things that I will (and won’t) miss about living there. Here they are:

Will Miss

  1. Waking up every morning with the almost certain knowledge that it will be a warm, sunny day
  2. Panaderos passing my front door from 6.30am onwards, selling fresh bread, often still warm
  3. Carratilleros coming past my door each day selling vegetables and exotic fruit such as pineapple, guava, mango, papaya, coconuts, bananas, oranges, tamarinds, zapote and grapefruit.
  4. Street cleaners in the street outside every morning from before sunrise (my street in the Reparto Santa Barbara neighbourhood had better cared-for houses, road and pavement, and was cleaner, than my street at home in England).
  5. Children playing in the street
  6. Copelitas (small ice cream stands) selling cornets in flavours such as strawberry, orange/pineapple, mango, guava, chocolate, coconut and vanilla, for 1 CUP (£0.03)
  7. The Pico Turquino ice cream parlour on the top floor of an 18-story tower block, with superb views over the city, selling combinations of ice cream and cake – five scoops and a slice of cake for 12 CUP.
  8. Las Noches Santiaguerras (see post of 11th January), where every Saturday and Sunday night the Avenida Garzon is closed to traffic and there is live music, dancing, food and drink stalls and open-air restaurants, all priced in CUP.
  9. The bolero (a genre of tragic love songs popular in Spanish speaking countries) sessions in the Patio de Artex every Saturday afternoon.
  10.  The rumba (an Afro-Cuban musical style) sessions in the Casa del Caribe late every Sunday afternoon
  11.  A trip on a lorry to nearby Siboney to spend the day on the beach
  12.  Watching Santiago play baseball, particularly when it is an important game and there is a conga group   playing  in the stand
  13.  Saturday nights in the Casa de las Tradiciones, where a band was always playing – in the front room of what was a house – whilst the crowd, a mixture of locals and tourists, seated on up-turned barrels and rocking chairs, danced and enjoyed themselves.
  14.  Maniceros selling cones of hot peanuts for 1 CUP.
  15.  Tamarind juice for 1 CUP per glass in the market in Enramada.

 

Won’t Miss

  1. Endlessly searching for cheese in the shops
  2. Powdered milk
  3. Shaving in cold water
  4. Washing dishes in cold water
  5. Things that creep, crawl and fly (such as flies, cockroaches, mosquitoes and lizards) and want to share your house
  6. Sudden unavailability of  items in the shops
  7. Barking dogs
  8. Slow internet access
  9. People repeatedly saying “taxi” to me as I walk through the city centre




HAVANA

5 04 2011

 

As always, it was a pleasure to spend my last four nights in Cuba in the capital city of Havana. It was much warmer than when I had arrived there in December.

The last time that I had spent a few days in Havana was in July 2010. It was interesting to see what changes had occurred since then. Like in Santiago, there was a huge increase in the number of cafeterias selling food and snacks, mainly from the front of people’s houses. Similarly, a large number of new sellers of pirate CDs and DVDs. Interestingly, it’s not only foreign films and discs being pirated in this way, but Cuban ones as well. By licensing the sellers, the Cuban Government is effectively colluding in defrauding its own film and record producers.

There seemed to be a number of new casas particulares (private homes offering bed and breakfast); plus some new paladares (private restaurants), including a very smart looking one in the heart of Centro Habana, in San Rafael, named San Cristobal, which I shall try out on my next visit.

There seemed to be a big increase in the number of taxis – and the touts operating on their behalf; and an even bigger increase in the number of bici-taxis, who were keen to get tourist customers. This is different to before, as most of them were not licensed to take tourists. I made a couple of journeys using boteros (collective taxis). My understanding was that these too were not licensed to take tourists, but they did not ask to see my carnet, so for all they knew I was a tourist. This is a cheap and effective way to travel around the city – 10 CUP (less than £0.30) for journeys within the central zone; 20 CUP for outside.

It was interesting seeing the contrasts between the capital and the second city, Santiago. In Santiago we had been looking for an insect spray – one made in Cuba – for three months, but had been unable to find any. In Havana it was everywhere. In Santiago I spent much of my time unsuccessfully looking for cheese. Again, in Havana it was easy to locate.

However, to my dismay, the copelitas (small ice cream stands) selling 1CUP ice creams seemed to have disappeared. Two that I always previously frequented – one in Calle Obispo, the other in San Lazaro – have gone. I only saw one in four days – in San Rafael. My comment in my post of 22nd January that “Cubans must eat more ice cream per head than any other nation in the world” should be changed to “Santiaguerros must eat more ice cream than the citizens of any other city in the world”. There were houses selling cornets for 3CUP, but far fewer than in Santiago.

In my street in Santiago, between 6.15 and 7.45 each morning, there would be at least four people coming along selling bread (see my post of 8th January). In Havana there were none. This may explain why in our casa, on two days out of four, we were given stale bread for breakfast (Cuban bread, like a French loaf, lasts less than a day). Each day in Santiago we would also have a dozen or more carratilleros (guys pushing wheelbarrows or with a horse and cart) selling fruit and vegetables come by. We saw none in Havana, although the markets seemed to be well-stocked.

The two cities are very different, with different attitudes, different words and slang; and different economies. My advice to any traveler to Cuba would be to try and visit them both.