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Calgary/Cuba Exchange - Diary

SYNTAX Newsletter #2 August 1990

Calgary/Havana 10th Anniversary Exchange, Phase 2

Images of Che are everywhere. They are always two-dimensional, whereas images of Marti are usually in white marble. I only remember seeing one image of Castro, at the entrance to an artillery training school.

Brian Dyson and member Annette Ruitenbeek visited Havana June 3 -17 to install the second phase of the Calgary/Havana exchange program. Members will remember that Cuba sent an exhibition of four graphic artists to Calgary in July,1989. The material that Brian took to Havana represents a retrospective of Syntax's first ten years of programming and cultural activism. We hope to tour the exhibition across Canada beginning in the fall of 1990, and to present the work at Truck gallery sometime in 1991. This edition of the Syntax newsletter is published to inform members about the trip.

We got off the plane in Havana around 5:30 p.m. There was nobody to meet us. Did they know we were coming today? Communication had been hopeless through the entire planning stage. Passports were returned from the Cuban Embassy the day before we were due to leave, sans visas. Luckily we had booked the flight and hotel through Magna Tours, so we were given tourist visas with our tickets; "Not to be used for other than tourist purposes" it said. What kind of tourists arrive in Cuba with three large flat files full of exhibition material?... but we were waved straight through Customs.

We took a cab to the hotel and checked in. We met the hotel P.R. person ("My name's Fidel... without the beard.")

"We have to contact a friend in Vedado. This is his address, but we don't have his phone number. Could you call directory assistance and try and get it for us, please?"
"Sorry, this isn't possible."
"Do you have a phone book?"

Havana's last phone book was published in 1979. Apparently they are preparing a new one. Phone numbers are assigned to street addresses and cannot be traced by tenant. The directory was non-existent. We settled in, went for a walk, and then waited in the hotel bar. If nothing happened we would take a cab to Umberto's studio in the morning. Shortly after midnight, in the middle of a game of Scrabble, Umberto strolled in. He had been told that we arrived at 1:15 p.m. (the actual departure time from Toronto), and had met the plane with an official car, but we weren't on it. He was on his way to meet a plane from Toronto which arrived at 1:15 a.m. and decided to check the hotel first.

Our third day in, things start to come together. We're still a bit perplexed about how things work here. I turn on the TV... a nicely styled plastic veneer job with push button tuning. Channels 1 and 3 are Cuba's broadcast channels. TV Marti, a U.S. propaganda broadcast bounced off weather balloons, has been a non-starter. Cynically named after Cuba's great educator and national hero, Jose Marti, the station has been effectively jammed off the air by the Cuban government.

Channel one is broadcasting news. Two talking heads behind a desk, with a pleated blue drape behind. "Commercial break." A promotion for CubaExpo, a one-time international trade exhibition now turned into a theme and amusement park. Very slick. Computer graphics. Hugo Montenegro-style sound track. Next, a helicopter tour of the highlights of Cuban geography, a cross between "Lifestyles..." and "Hinterland Who's Who". This was followed by a promotion for a daily early morning international-style black-and-day-glow-spandex aerobics show, then back to the talking heads. Its hard to get a handle on this... is this the tourist channel we've heard about or what?... Let's try channel 3. . . there he is, Our Man in Havana himself, compañero Fidel, somewhere in the country side, expounding to a gathering of all the regional cells in that area, each represented by its own flag. He's standing in 30°+ weather in his double-thick fatigues, with no shade whatsoever, promoting socialism as the only option for the Cuban people. We watched for 45 minutes, quite mesmerized by his power, his sincerity and his stamina, and had to move on to something else. He may have been talking for hours already. He may talk for hours yet... he looked tired - no, not tired - perhaps a bit worn out, perhaps a bit discouraged, as are many Cubans. The Soviet press has recently been critical of Cuban economic policy, following their own easing of restrictions on individual economic initiatives. The revolution is over 30 years old. You get the impression that the leadership is in some kind of time-warp. The urgency of the propaganda seems to want you to believe that the revolution happened a few scant years ago. They seem to us to be embarrassing and outdated cliches. Meanwhile life creeps on at a snail's pace of lethargy, non-commitment, indifference, disappointment and dissatisfaction... or is it just the heat?

We were seated in the "front yard," an 8 ft. square concrete pad on the corner of a busy intersection in Vedado, shaded by a large tree which also provided a little privacy. The conversation was halted from time to time as large tucks and buses roared by, belching out fumes which hung in the heavy, humid air.

We were drinking fine rum with ice and nibbling on a 2 Ib. wedge of Edam cheese, bought earlier that day in one of the diplomats' "dollar shops" in Miramar, the embassy district of Havana.

"You have to realize," said Marucha, head of Fototec (the Cuban national photography centre and archive), "that life in Cuba is a little surreal."

Her son, a musician and member of one of Havana's best young jazz groups, rolled out of the front door in Bermuda shorts and roller skates, and headed down the block.

Marucha said "We have a lot of musical instruments, and stereo, VCR and photographic equipment in the house, so we installed these decorative wrought iron grills on all the windows. It took ages to flnd someone who could do it, and cost a lot of money, and then the week after they were installed, the police department moved into the house across the road..."

"Tsst! Tsst!" This irritating but effective way of getting someone's attention is used frequently by all Cubans. We were first introduced to it by the money changers who hung around the square in front of the hotel, or cruised the main streets of Old Havana, offering five times the official rate for American dollars.

"Tsst! Tsst!" one time too many. "I'm not your goddam dog!" I yelled, spinning round to confront the intrusion. I found myself facing a middle-aged man who was offering a credit card that Annette had dropped a few paces back.


School kids make lots of field trips. Schooling up to grade 9 is mandatory, and education is free through university level.

If you don' t speak Spanish, it's rather difficult to casually gather information in Cuba. Most of the people we encountered who could speak English were the money changers. Most were blunt and irritating. Some were very friendly and eager to talk.

I learned that the caretaker of a 100 suite apartment block earned 5.50 pesos a day, "not enough," he assured me. Like all Cubans, he works every second Saturday.

Miguel, a young distiller who worked at the Havana Club distillery earned 211 pesos a month. He engaged me in conversation to practise his English. He also spoke German and was teaching himself French. Into his second week of annual vacation, he was returning home after picking up his daughter from day-care. He complained that he paid to have her taken care of, but she hadn't been fed and he had to take her to a friend's house to get her some lunch. He also spoke of minor police harassment for talking to strangers. He said that he was a socialist, but in the last three years things had gotten pretty bad, and things had really taken a dive in the last 12 months.

Doctors earn 400 pesos a month, but have a horrendous workload. On top of their regular case loads they are all assigned 120 families which they are required to visit seven times a year.

Alfredo ("I'm a journeyman electrician" he lied) had been hanging around the west end of Varadero beach all afternoon with three soggy American dollars in his swimming trunks, looking for a mark. We liked him. He was very open and friendly. He came by the garden a little later, carrying 4 beautiful shells which he offered as a souvenir of Cuba. He then produced the dollars and asked me if I would go to the dollar shop two blocks away and buy him three pairs of Chinese cotton sport socks at 95¢ US a pair. He was delighted with them. He was sure he'd be a hit at the disco that night!

My experience of Cuba kept returning me to Poland, which I visited in 1979. The lethargy, the cynicism, the crumbling infrastructure of the city, the domestic economy - modeled after the soviet system - with the same problems of production and distribution, the same checks and double checks on all transactions.

The only thing that seems to move with any urgency or purpose in Havana is the Guagua (pronounced wawa), the public transit bus. These are single deck, red and yellow, beaten up but mechanically efficient vehicles. The drivers are like kamakazi pilots. The buses have limited seating, being usually so full that it's more efficient to provide maximum standing room. Places are still reserved for soldiers injured or handicapped in the revolutionary war against Batista. They have three doors: one up front for entry and deposit of the 10 centivo flat rate fare in the little coin chute; and two others, amidships and at the rear, for getting off. Usually, people just crowd on through any door, but if they don't get on by the front door they casually pass their fare forward through the bus until the person nearest the coin chute deposits the fare for them.

The ongoing myth about Havana being serviced by pre-50s Chevrolets is partly true. Although in recent years many Ladas have been imported from the Soviet Union, these old beaters still operate on quite a large scale. Breakdowns usually require a new part to be machined from scratch, using the broken part as a template.

Havana has a three tier taxi system. The tourist taxis are only available at tourist hotels and charge American dollars. Only tourists can use them. Regular taxis are for anyone fortunate enough to flag one down whose driver agrees to take you where you want to go. Usually, if it's not on a lucrative route, you're out of luck. The other taxis are the peso taxis, which are the beat-up Chevys mentioned earlier. They drive popular main roads, picking up anyone on the way for a one peso flat rate, until the car won't hold anybody else; then, after dropping the last passenger off, they turn around and do the same thing on the way back into town.

Queuing up for shoes in a large department store. Choice is limited. This is not a consumer-driven society.

Apart from the guaguas and the traffic on the Malecon, the coastal highway skirting the north shore of Havana, things move at an unhurried pace. Street life is leisurely. People stroll, or sit and chat. Work proceeds. . . having to queue for everything seems to set the pace. In our experience, race and class problems don't exist. Fashions are by no means extravagant, but are more colourful than what seems to be available in the stores, especially among the young. There are very few eccentrics and very few drunks. There are lots of kids. People are confident, open and talkative, but definitely not extrovert. Some men display machismo, and some women display a tight-fitting coquettishness.

There are two economic systems in Cuba which generally are mutually exclusive. There's the regular peso economy and the U.S. tourist dollar economy. If you enter Cuba on a tourist visa, you're pretty well locked into the dollar economy. You are allowed to patronize any public space, but the exchange rate, being one to one, makes changing dollars to pesos rather pointless. The five for one black market exchange rate seems attractive, and is more reflective of the peso's true value, but choices and quality in peso restaurants, bars and stores are so limited and so bad that you tend to stay in the dollar economy.

There is something a bit unsettling, and definitely embarrassing about sitting in a restaurant, spending $30 U.S. on dinner for two, being served by indifferent staff who watch you blow (what represents to them) so much money on the best of their domestic food supply (as bland as the food preparation is). You know damn well that they're going home to a scant rice- or beans-based menu, perhaps augmented with a bit of chicken or fresh fish, if it's available, and they make it to the counter before supplies run out.

Casa de las Americas, the official presenter of the Syntax Exhibition, is located at the west end of the Malecon.

There is an annex close to the building called the Galeria Haydee Santamaria which offers a changing exhibition program. Haydee Santamaria was with Castro in the Sierra Maestra and founded Casa de las Americas after the revolution. The exhibition was installed by Hugo, a friendly Chilean who has lived in Cuba since 1979.

The Thursday night opening was very casual. Hungarian wine was offered and about 50 people attended. Among the people we met were Jose Bedia who was leaving for a three month residency at the Banff Centre the following Sunday. Jose has an exhibition at the Walter Phillips Gallery until July 8. He recently represented Cuba at the 1990 Venice Biennale.

He spoke of a problem in securing Canadian travel visas for his wife and young child. We offered to help, and met him at the Canadian Embassy the day before he left. Fortunately, the visas had been approved when we arrived. The feeling seemed to be that he might defect if his family traveled with him, but everyone (including Jose), thought the idea was ridiculous.

Umberto lives on the ground floor of an apartment building. Originally, his space was a store, surrounded on two sides with picture windows. He painted the glass white on the inside. Consequently, he has no daylight - but since he stopped painting years ago, it didn't seem important. The lack of light also meant he could not grow plants, but he offset this with organically shaped ceramics and a couple of large fabric wall hangings which he made a few years ago. The space is well furnished with large contemporary couches and many carefully selected antiques. He also has more home entertainment equipment than I've ever seen in one place. High-end stereos, VCRs and such seem to be very popular in the arts community. However, for dinner he could only offer spaghetti and a small tin of anchovies, with fresh mangos to finish.

His life is split between his apartment and his design studio, about ten minutes walk away. He and Rene Asqui (who was also in the Calgary show), share the space.

The studio has a reception area, and a work area about the size of Syntax's design space. When they are training students, there may be four or five people working there. Because of shortages and low-level technology, they prepare type for posters by photographing alphabets from Letraset catalogues and cutting out the letters. They are then positioned and pasted down letter by letter.

The studio is rented from a private landlord, who lives upstairs, presumably at government-regulated rents. All public buildings (as well as private property abandoned after the revolution) were taken over by the state. Rents on state-owned property are paid over a period of twenty years or so, and are then rent-free. Tenants who move to an upgraded space pay the difference between the appraised values of the units.

All museums are admission free. Entire floors or sections are closed at times, due to insufficient staff on any particular day. Some of the museums we visited were: the Museum of the Revolution, in the old presidential palace - a very thorough presentation of the Castro-led struggle complete with heroes, martyrs and relics, reflecting Cuba's Catholic heritage. The Museum of Education, outlining the literacy campaign and assassinations of volunteer teachers; the City of Havana and Colonial Museums, containing European, British, and American artifacts from the period of colonization; the National Ceramics Museum, containing a beautifully displayed collection of world class Cuban ceramic art, in an old fortress on the waterfront; and the National Museum of Fine Arts, containing works from all periods of Cuban history including 18th & l9th Century European works and a dynamic contemporary young painters survey.

Because the original Cubans were wiped out by the Spanish, no indigenous culture remains. We were told that there is no strong craft tradition in Cuba because of this. Influences are African (primarily in music) and Hispanic (primarily in architecture).

Artisans do exist in the country, who build shelters or baskets or hats, etc. from natural materials, but these items, as admirably made as they are, tend to be strictly utilitarian.

Very few early archeological sites have been uncovered.

Rumba Saturday. All participants wear the traditional white cotton. A fashion show was presented at intermission. The clothes may be available at La Maison, a boutique in the embassy district of Miramar.

We attended the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, and Sabado de Rumba (Rumba Saturday), presented by the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional, a structured presentation of the roots of Afro-Cuban music which eventually turned into a free stage for anyone who wanted to dance or sing.

We also saw a couple of bands in the hotel bar which were very good. The bar was rather cold, and the patrons weren't very lively, but the musicians worked very hard and appreciated a response, calling for requests and spinning toms from table to table so everyone could participate. But things usually closed down by midnight.

Nightlife exists but it's not exactly a throbbing scene, considering that Cuba gave the world the rumba, cha cha and son. There's a big carnival procession of elaborate floats and music in July, along the Malecon, when everyone lets loose. They were building the viewing stands while we were there. Too bad we had to miss it.

The traditional Cuban shirt has square-cut tails and is worn outside the trousers. It has a vertical row of pleats down each breast and four pockets. Everyone wears them. They are mass produced and made of polyester, but craft factories have been set up to produce versions in cotton which are turned out individually on sewing machines. These also contain pleating on the pockets and shoulders.

Women's dresses are also produced in the same way, containing pleating and embroidery, again, in natural, undyed cotton fabric. There is no popular low-cost version of this style, but they are seen from time to time, usually at public events. I have no idea where the style developed, but the embroidery on the women's dresses suggests they are Spanish in origin.

Fact File.

Basic foods are rationed and subsidized to ensure fair distribution and affordability.

The agreement with the Soviet Union for the purchase of sugar at 4 times world market price has recently ended.

Cuba's debt on capital borrowed from the Soviet Union became payable in 1986.

Castro nationalized small business in 1979, "to prevent the exploitation of workers".

In 1961, not only America, but the Organization of American States (O.A.S.), with the sole exception of Mexico, enforced a trade embargo on Cuba . Most O.A.S. states now maintain diplomatic relations.

The primary goals of the revolution - adequate housing, education and healthcare for all citizens, have been realized brilliantly.

Pre-Revolution Illiteracy rate was 23% compared to 3% today.

Infant mortality rate was 4.67%, compared to 1.33% today.

The proposed 10 million ton sugar harvest about a decade ago fell short by 20%. The government acknowledged responsibility, conceding that failure was because the workers were not involved in the planning process. As a result, "People Power" offices were set up in every community to give input into national policy.