#7: A Preliminary Report on the Philanthropic Possibilities of Cuba
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|A Preliminary Report
on the Philanthropic Possibilities of Cuba
by Alex Shoumatoff, based on his visit to the island March 19-26, 2001
Cuba is rife with philanthropic possibility on both the architectural and
I quickly encountered here the same high collective paranoia I have found in other police states-- in Beijing, the erstwhile USSR, Mengistu's Ethiopia, Stroessner's Paraguay. Everybody in Cuba is a potential informant. That is how you get brownie points, how you rise in your career, how you survive : by ratting out your companeros. E-mail to and from the island is monitored. This could be why I haven't gotten the detailed proposal, with sites and dollar estimates, that one scientist is supposed to e-mail. He probably had second thoughts, realizing that he could be setting himself up for a tongue-loosening session with the secret police and maybe even a prison sentence for treasonous passing on of information to the enemy.
I offer the following personal experience as an example of the sort of
As I went into Marco and Consuela’s once-grand but now decrepit apartment building, the old man sitting on the entrance steps, repairing shoes, undoubtedly took note. He had probably been doing this for years, repairing shoes and reporting any unusual visitors to some apparatchik in the secret police, who passed the information up to his boss if it seemed important enough. Soon after I sat down in the couple's livingroom, Marco started really trashing Fidel. I've always admired Castro for kicking out the Yanks and being a persistent fly in America's ointment. Here I was at long last in Cuba, the last relict stand of la revolucion. I’d brought Jorge Castaneda’s biography of Che with me. But Marco and Consuela obviously had a more jaded view of la revolucion, having to live it every day, trying to raise their family of four on $25 a month (which I was making at the time in less than a minute, writing five words for Vanity Fair; there’s a disparity for you, one for the next section I want to put up on this site, called Disparities and Comnnections) even in a socialist society where housing, health care, education, and many of the other basic necessities are taken care of. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its patronage, coupled with the ongoing U.S. embargo had made the last fifteen years unbearable for the average Cuban.
As I left,
Marco agreed to call Ernesto Luiz Rodriguez, the main champion of Havana's
Cuba Moderne architecture, and to try to set up a meeting for the following
Even in their crumbling state, they are incredibly avant garde, which produces a sort of cognitive dissonance in the viewer that somehow, to me at least, echoes the cognitive dissonance of the whole society, the tension between its relaxed tropical and its repressive totalitarian aspects. They're like a funky, surreal exercise in future decay. The fate of these buildings, I realized, is completely tied to what is going to happen after Castro. If there is no abertura or rapprochement with Washington or lifting of the embargo or influx of foreign capital (including even perhaps the Miami exiles who originally owned these buildings coming back to claim them, a far from unimagineable scenario), but more of the same, these treasures are probably not going to make it. I can’t see how the transition to the next stage of Cuban history is going be anything but very chaotic and violent. Despite the grumbling about Castro, there is a strong feeling among Cubans that they were not colonized by Spain, America, and the Soviet Union and have not suffered 40 years of socialist deprivation only to be recolonized yet once more, this time by the Miami Cubans. "Castro is a clever bugger," says a Canadian film-maker who has visited the island many times. "He'll get up before his people who have been bitching for weeks and in a few minutes he'll have sold them again on his ferkakate revolution and there will be tears streaming down their faces. No one has been able to get rid of him for a reason. Who's left on the island ? The poorer, browner Cubans, who know that when the oligarchy comes back and globalization takes over, they'll be no better off. It's this lower class fear of being totally disenfranchized that keeps him in power. They know what's happened in Russia.”
So this train of thought, my concern for the buildings, led me to ask Marco
this gaffe, Marco's attitude toward me became noticeably more guarded.
I could hear him thinking : Who is this gringo journalist ? Is he
CIA ? What's he really after ? Who does he report to ? What do I say when
I am called in and asked who is this gringo Shoumatoff ? He
told me after we had dropped off Alina back at her place, that he
wasn't going to fall for my typical journalistic set-up, trying to
get him to say something that would get his permit to travel abroad revoked.
An invaluable resource with an encyclopedic knowledge of island's natural history is Julio de la Torre, an exile who lives in Connecticut. Julia is one of the de la Torres, Cuba's most prominent family of naturalists. He is also an opera singer and a world-class authority on owls. In the seventies he used to come after dark to the Marsh sanctuary in Mount Kisco where I was the resident naturalist and call the screech owls out of the trees to the delight of local children and parents. Now he has Forrestier's disease, a degenerative disease of the bone and cartillage, his spinal chord has calcified and he is "unable to walk more than a small budget of steps a day." But he is still so brimming with zest for life that it is hard to get a word in edgewise.
Julio gave me this overview of the island's terrestrial ecology. “There
are three parts of