Dispatch #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 ecological
preservation fronts. The casual visitor is impressed by how well this last bastion of communism seems to work for all its citizens, how despite the embargo there is food and health care for everyone and no visible misery as there is in Haiti or the pseudo-democratic dictatorship in the adjacent Dominican  Republic, none of  Jamaica’s lootin’ and shootin’.  But Cuba  also has, as the USSR did,   an entrenched and nasty totalitarian bureaucracy that any philanthropic initiative is going to quickly run up against, so my advice is to move slowly, and see Julian Schnabel’s movie,  “When Night Falls.” If you're thinking of doing anything on this island, it's a must-see. Not only because it gives you a look behind the revolutionary facade, but because it's a work of unmistakeably Cuban genius.  

           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 cultural
misunderstandings that coming from a open society and being an American, with all the bells that sets off,  you can expect to encounter and even to inadvertently precipitate.  I went to see a couple who are fairly well-connected members of the Havana intelligentsia. Marco is in the music business and had a long ponytail and seemed like a hip, laid-back guy. I had brought letters and presents for him and his wife Consuela from mutual friends in Montreal and we had exchanged e-mails and they were all set to help me hook up with the architects and ecologists I needed to see. Consuela e-mailed that she could put me together with a friend of hers at the national aquarium who is supposed to be Cuba’s top marine biologist.  

         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 afternoon. 
          I arrived at two the next day, and Marco had done nothing. He had called the number I gave him and been told Ernesto Luiz doesn't work here. He's a freelance. He works at home. Jose felt uncomfortable asking for his home number. You don't disturb a man in the afternoon, because you don't know who he could be sleeping with, he explained. 
         But this was no problem. All we had to do was go down to the headquarters of Patrimonio Architectural,   at Mercaderes No. 116, in the small quaintly and touristically restored section of  old Havana. There we were given the number of  Alina Ochoa Aloma, an architect involved in the Patrimonio’s master plan for the rehabilitation of Havana who had coauthored a catalogue of the city's 400 most important Cuba Moderne buildings. Luckily, she was in. We went to her heavily wired and barred apartment in a crimey part of Miramar and she drove around with us for several hours, showing us the best stuff, which is in Vedado and  Miramar.  
          The Cuba Moderne buildings in Havana are  the most interesting thing we saw in Cuba. The colonial buildings in old Havana are wonderful, but this stuff  is unique.  It is the foremost flowering of this type of architecture anywhere, and has to be one of the most exuberant architectural outpourings of the twentieth century. There are a few fabulous Deco buildings in Rio, a few more in Miami, Spain had some good examples but they were destroyed during the Civil War.  But nothing that has such flair or seems so wild and avant garde, even today, 50 to 80 years later. This is purely Cuban. The same creative energy as the son music which  flourished around the same time. 
         Many of the buildings are in extreme disrepair. Saving them is unquestionably a worthy project, I thought, but where do you begin ? In the case of many buildings, if they aren't restored in the next ten years, it will be too late. Already the concrete and brick and  wood of some structures is so blackened with mildew, coated with algae, and ravaged by tropical rusts and smuts and insects and microbial detritivors that  they are deliquescing into something decidedly more organic.  They have been left to decay, completely unmaintained, for 50 to 80 years because they were regarded as decadent. The people who  commissioned them were the very ones  the revolucion overthrew and drove to Miami, and after the revolucion there were far more urgent priorities than keeping them up, like housing and educating and treating  the people. But these buildings are eminently worthy of UNESCO World Heritage designation, which the viceregal structures of old Havana have already received. Securing this designation would be a good first step in getting them the recognition and attention they deserve. 

         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 and Alina
innocently, what's going to happen after Castro ? Suddenly the atmosphere in the taxi I had hired for the afternoon became very tense. Everybody shot nervous glances at each other.  Here they were, two Cubans who were meeting for the first time---     three actually, including the taxi driver.  "Quien sabe ? Who can say ?" Marco finally ventured.  Later he told me, “This is not a question you ask among strangers.  For all I know if I had said what I hope will happen and started in on Fidel, that woman could have denounced me—  because maybe her career is stagnating and she wants a promotion. Or the taxi driver could have report our conversation to the authorities.” 

      After 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. 
     This is what I mean about the paranoia.

 Ecological Prospects

               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
particular interest : the extreme east, the extreme west, and dead center. The extreme east, the former province of Oriente, the head of the crocodile [which the island resembles], has extraordinary biodiveristy. There is a great mountain chain that runs from one end of the crocodile to the other. In the east it is called the Sierra Maestra. This is where Castro started his guerilla war against Batista. The access to the Sierra Maestra is from the city of Santiago de Cuba. There are primeval forests of 250-feet-tall bamboo in the sierra. No light penetrates them. On the Pico de Turquillo you will find feeding on plants, the freshwater snail Boymita made famous by my uncle Carlos.  


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