Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I haven´t started writing anything yet, but the website for my blog while traveling in South America is

Monday, December 25, 2006

Last Thoughts

In blogging about my semester in Cuba, I’ve tried to stay as close to the truth the way I see it (as in, my opinion as to what is the truth) as possible. But I have left out some major thoughts on various topics. I want to write about these now that I’ve left the country. I might be acting overly-paranoid, but 100% freedom of speech does not exist in Cuba. One cannot publicly express negative opinions of the government if they want to live peacefully. Or at least, many here are too afraid of possible consequences to talk. So just to be perfectly sure I didn’t get in trouble with the Cuban government while still living in Cuba, I waited until now to express a few of my opinions.
First of all, I think the Cuban government is the most hypocritical ruler I have ever encountered. Exhibit A: Cuba has a communist economy. Cubans are paid more or less the same amount of money whether they work as a doctor, lawyer, or janitor, which is roughly 15 US dollars a month. Everyone has a chance. Except that most don’t feel they can live without cheating the system. The black market is a thriving business and almost everyone is involved it seems. I’m not saying this is anti-communist; it is simply an example of the failure of the “legal” economy in Cuba. It goes deeper than that. The government itself doesn’t believe they can survive in the economy either. The fact is, Cuba relies heavily on tourism from capitalist countries. Tourism is the primary source of revenue for the Cuban economy. In 2004, Cuba earned 2.3 billion USD from tourism, more than 1 billion more than any other revenue source. This is not Cuba’s fault. Tourists love Cuba because it is a tropical paradise that is so completely different from everywhere else in the world. The problem I have with the situation is how Cuba has reacted to their popularity. The Cuban system has begun to value its tourists so much it has assigned them a higher value. Cuban citizens have become second-class people compared to the capitalist tourists. I touched on this a little in a previous entry, when I mentioned the double currency (moneda nacional and CUC). I won’t go into it again, but just as a reminder, way more things can be bought in CUC. A more visual example is the health care system, which everyone says is superb. That’s true for the most part, but health care is significantly better for foreigners (as in, patients who pay). The hospital that specializes in foreigners looks like a state-of-the-art US hospital. In contrast, the hospitals for Cubans are scary-bad. They look like run-down barracks. The attention is still great I hear, and there are plenty of hospitals, but the difference makes it clear how the government treats guests. As another example, most hotels do not let Cubans enter, not even the lobby. Even if they can afford to stay in the hotel, they can’t. This can be explained as a way to keep guests safe from money-hounds, but it ends up discriminating against a whole country of people. I’m not sure that would fly in many places. And all this discrimination of Cubans in favor of foreigners is because tourists are the main source of Cuba’s money. Plus, this money earned seems to go to improvement of things for tourists! Go back to the hospital example for that evidence. To me, tourists are a representation of capitalism, from capitalist countries, spending money earned in a capitalist economy. Therefore, the Cuban government makes it quite obvious that it relies on capitalism, maybe even has an obsession with capitalism. And all at the expense of its people.
The economy and its effect on the people is the biggest hypocrisy of the government, but its manner in governing Cuba in general also strikes me as hypocritical. For instance, government was formed on the basis of freedom back in the late 1950s. Under Batista, there was a serious lack of freedom of all kinds, from speech to just plain living, and the revolutionaries wanted to create a better country for all Cubans. While there seems to be more freedom in Cuba these days, the government still governs in a very limiting way. Cubans can’t speak badly about Fidel or his government, so there isn’t much freedom of speech. Freedom of the press is limited too, or at least it appears limited to me. The government is never criticized in the newspapers. Instead, the front-page stories of the national newspaper are of important people who came to visit Fidel, or meetings that are happening. Privately, people say the only worthwhile use of the newspaper is as toilet paper. This is one way of keeping Cubans uninformed, and the other is the lack of internet. Cubans have intRAnet, which only goes to Cuban sites and Cuban mail, but it is supposedly impossible for the majority of Cubans to access full intERnet. Thus, one cannot reach internet news sites, nor can one research anything online. Another form of control is that the government practices ways of keeping the people mobilized. The biggest example of that right now is the practice of fumigation. This is a huge campaign to minimize Dengue fever by regularly gassing everything to kill mosquitoes. Houses are fumigated weekly, streets and cars regularly, and fumigation planes fly over the cities every now and then. Oddly, no one knows what is in the gas. First of all, this practice is horrible for people. Fumigators never wear masks and are breathing in this toxic gas all day long, every day, plus, residents have to breathe in the fumes once a week. Furthermore, the effect this will have on the environment is sure to be devastating. I’m thinking DDT. I’m not an expert, but I’m don’t believe it is effective in reducing the dengue risk because it doesn’t attack the source. All over the city, there are still tons of still-water pools that are perfect for breeding mosquitoes. I believe that this fumigation campaign is designed to mobilize the people for a random cause that will keep them preoccupied. With everyone worrying about fighting dengue, no one will think about their other problems. I don’t know, this is just my theory. My point in writing about all these lacks of freedom is, the Cuban government keeps their people under strict control by causing fear of voicing opposition and preoccupation with a worthless and harmful campaign.
These beliefs don’t lesson any of the good things I’ve written about in the past. It is only that these aspects of my life in Cuba affected me hugely, and my account of my semester is not complete without them. All in all, I had a fantastic four months. I learned a huge amount from so many different facets and I had lot of fun in the process. And I do love Cuba, even with all its problems. But hey, no one is perfect.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Cultural Education

As many are probably aware, Communism, or at least Cuba´s version, has its share of problems. And it´s a large helping. But one thing I do love of about Cuba´s communism is the accessibility of cultural activities. In the US, high-quality ballet is often reserved for the upper-class, and it is almost equally as hard to secure cheap sports tickets to important games. But living here, I´ve had the amazing opportunity to see world-class cultural stuff for just a couple cents, or nothing at all. Back in October, I think, Havana hosted the National Festival of Ballet. I went to two ballets (¨Swan Lake¨ and ¨Giselle¨) danced by the National Ballet of Cuba and choreographed/directed by Alicia Alonso. The Cuban ballet is supposed to be one of the best companies in the world, and Alicia Alonso was their most famous ballerina ever. She´s now in charge of the company and even has a perfume named after her. She and the company were so awesome, I can see why people think they are the best. The tickets were about 25 cents and it was the same price for wherever one sat, seating was just determined by how soon you bought your tickets. I like that, it´s so fair. Two nights ago I saw the national ballet again, this time for the inauguration of the FEU (federacion estudiantil universitario) congress. Alicia and co. put on a medly of three ballets for the students and public, totally free. The best part was, it took place in the University stadium. The constructed a wooden stage in the middle of the soccer field and the audience said in the bleachers. Definitely an interesting experience.
Last week, Cuba hosted the International Latin American Film Festival, and the whole city practically dropped everything to watch movies all day long. Every theater in Havana played movies from 10 am to midnight. Most were latin american movies, but they had others too. I saw a really terrible american film. I also saw the worst movie I´ve ever seen in my life. It was a german movie about a guatamalan orphan who sneaks into the US, joins the army to get money for school, and then dies by friendly fire in iraq. It was probably the most ADD film ever made. But the best part of the festival was that my friend gave me an extra ticket to the inauguration of the festival. We saw this great movie called ¨El Laberinto del Fauna (the laberynth of pan)¨. It was very magical-realism, which was perfect because Gabriel Garcia Marquez came!!!!! He is one of my favorite authors ever, and he sat about 20 ft away. He actually has a brother or cousin or son or something that lives in Havana.
Other than dance and movies, I´ve gotten to see a lot of live music. I mentioned earlier that there is music EVERYWHERE, and a lot of it is live. There are also a ton of concerts, many of them free or close-to-free. My favorite group I´ve seen is Interactivo. They are considered fusion, and totally jam-bandy.
Anyway, I´ve really loved having the opportunity to see so much of Cuban culture without having to destroy my bank account. Ít´s also really nice to know that these opportunities are %100 available to cubans as well. Way to go, communism (at least in this case).

P.S., I´m leaving Cuba in 3 days to go travel around. I´m probably going to write one or two more posts on this blog about Cuba after I leave, and then I´ll continue a travel blog on another website. Stay tuned for a link.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sports and Fights

I know I haven´t even mentioned it yet, but baseball is fricken huge in Cuba. You all probably know that already. It´s like a religion. But I haven´t said anything about it because there hasn´t been any games until Sunday, which was the first game of the inter-Cuba playoffs. I went, it was super-fun. First of all, tickets are only 1 peso, about 5 cents. And every ticket is for whereever you want to sit, there aren´t more expensive seats or anything. There are nicer seats, but to get those you just have to come early. Some people get to the stadium about 5 hours earlier! But seating is still regulated, because they don´t let you sit in any of the outfield seats until the infield seats are filled. It´s kind of weird, but we are in a socialist country. So when they open these seats, there is a mad dash to get the ¨best¨seats, the ones where you might catch a homerun ball. People are literally sprinting around the stadium. Of course, the game starts about an hour or two late, but it´s worth the wait. I don´t really watch much baseball in the US, but I think comparatively, these guys were really good and the game was really exciting. The game was Havana versus Santiago, the two best teams. Havana started off really strong, but then the pitcher lost his touch, was quickly taken out, and then Santiago got 4 homeruns in one inning. Havana never really regained their cool, and they lost the game 6-3. It was kind of weird because they seemed so seasoned and talented, and then they let a couple of runs shake them up. But my favorite part of all this was that every now and then, a couple fans would get into a heated argument/fight. When this happened, they would stand up to enhance their argument, then the people around them would stand up, and pretty soon the whole section of the stands would be on their feet, trying to see what was happening. It was like meerkats.

The other sporting event I attended this past week was a soccer game between the law school and the history department (my department). The University of Havana has teams and they play other schools occasionally, but it´s not as extensive a system as big universities in the US. But occasionally, they´ll have inter-department games in a couple different sports, like this week. ´The system is a little like intramural games, but with a bit more talent and seriousness. It was a decent game, but the crowd was crazy as usual. No one really cared about the outcome, I think they just like yelling and being belligerent. As a result there was two fights in about 15 minutes! In the first, my friend Feliz had literally just arrived, but immediately began screaming insults about the law school team. I don´t even know how it happened, but all of a sudden Felix grabbed a shoe and started trying to hit this law student in the stands. It was broken up immediately, but they still kept trying to go after each other. Very exciting. Then the game actually ended in a HUGE brawl on the field. I didn´t see how it started, but I´m guessing it was because this guy Armando was being a jackass. He plays for the law school, and he has a habit of telling everyone what to do. So this kid started pummeling him. And pretty soon, more people started fighting, I don´t know why. It was crazy. So this lasted for maybe 10 minutes and obviously, there was no more game, even though the score was 1 to 1.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dancing and it´s many joys

I know I already talked about dancing, but I want to say more because it really is one of my favorite parts about life in Cuba, and most likely what I´ll miss most back in the states. It´s just that dancing is such an integral part of ¨fun¨, from the day one´s legs start working until the day they stop. One explanation is that dancing is always fun and requires no money, perfect for Cuba. Almost every party I´ve been to has involved some sort of impromtu dance party, usually with a mixture of salsa and reggaeton. Everyone can dance to both because they´ve learned practically at birth. Also, were as in the US it can be seen as ¨uncool¨ to dance (especially for men), there is an utter lack of embarrassment. For instance, some of these dance parties have involved only 2 people starting to dance while everyone else watches, and many have not involved much alcohol. It´s a beautiful thing to see. I mean, to me dancing is the perfect expression of freedom and a surefire road to temporary happiness, so I hate it when people feel they can´t dance, and therefore shouldn´t. It´s like denying part of one´s inner human nature. I also love salsa because it is structural and traditional while at the same time innovative and surprising. Plus, there are all sorts of games you can do with salsa. For instance, there´s a dance called a ¨rueda¨. A group of partners stand in a circle, boy girl boy girl, and they are all dancing salsa with the same foot, same rhythm. As you know, the male is normally the leader while dancing salsa, so during a ronda, a male leader will call out different directions and the men will follow them, doing a particular dance with his partner or with someone else. It´s kindof like a latin version of square dancing, but way more fun (in my opinion), and way more popular with the youth in general. Also, there is a red-light, green-light version of salsa. In this one, there´s a group of dancers and one odd man out. The leftover person can call green, red, or yellow. Green means continue dancing, red means stop immediately, and yellow means switch partners. Since there´s an odd person, switching partners can get a little violent. What´s amazing to me, concerning this game, is that a pair can stop in the middle of a turn or something, and then naturally continue it whenever. It´s not easy, trust me. I´m actually not 100% sure this is a typical game, because I´ve only played it once, so don´t take my word for it.

Completely unrelated, I discovered a really excellent version of ¨telephone¨. It´s the same as usual except with every person you change the language. For instance, tonight we played it so that we switched English and Spanish for every other person. But you could do what ever language I suppose. Miss-translations happen way more frequently, let me tell you. Once we started out with ¨If you have a cold, eat a box of matches and rub your butt on the wall¨ and ended with ¨If you have the flu, put your ass on the toilet.¨

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More Nerdy Bio Stuff

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Before I get into the real entry, I want to write a quick disclaimer. Though this is probably obvious to everyone, the majority of the info I write in this blog is my opinion. It may be right, but it is still opinion and should not be taken as fact.
Now on to my weekend...

This weekend I went on another one of those ecology excursions, but this time we went as part of a group of Cuban biology students plus three professors. Half of them were in the same boat as us, earlier in their education and there to learn about butterflies and moths. The other half were in their last year of university and came to continue experiments for their respective theses. All in all, it was quite an experience, but only in a really great way. The experiment site was outside a town called Canasí, on the north coast about 45 minutes east of Habana. But we traveled by train, so it took us 2 ½ hours. The train is horrible, because it’s ancient and shakes you like bananas in a batido, but I had a great time. Trains let you see a different part of the countryside, the backside, and it was gorgeous. The strange thing is, the landscape is unnatural. Less than 100 years ago, Cuba was almost completely covered in forests, but during the reign of Batista (the president turned dictator whose last rule was interrupted by the Revolution), deforestation knocked out all but a few pieces. So this beautiful grassland is really a result of devastating destruction. Funny, because I keep on saying the countryside looks Jurassic, ie, completely untouched. To keep ourselves busy we taught each other kids’ songs from our youths. Our Cuban professors got a real kick out of “the song that never ends” and “the ants go marching” especially. They also taught us this great song that is kind of like the vowels song about apples and bananas that we have. This one is even better though, and it’s about a skeleton: “Estaba la cadavera / sentaba en una butaca / vino la muerte le dijo / porqué te has puesto tan flaca?” That’s the original, then you change it for each vowel, ie: “Estebe le cedevere / sentebe en ene beteque…” It sounds hysterical. I’ll teach it to anyone who asks when I get back! So then we got to the town and had to hike for about 45 minutes to get to our campsite. The best part of this was we had to cross a big river that went up to our chests, carrying our packs on our heads. Our campsite was just a break in the forest on a cliff that was right next to the ocean. A lot of the coastline in Cuba is rocky, and so was this one. It was really beautiful, I’ll try to add some photos of it. So once we got there, our two main missions were to run an experiment of moth id and to collect eggs, larvae, and food for butterfly experiments. We were going to also go butterfly hunting, but the weather was cold (actually, only like 70 degrees at the lowest, but we had goosebumps…yikes) and rainy, so there weren’t any butterflies out. The moth experiment was at night, and basically we just sat watching a hanging white sheet in front of a light to identify moth species and quantities. Cuba has an incredible number of species of almost everything, and a lot of endemics, so this experiment was a little more exciting then it sounds. Every now and then, a moth would appear that no one had seen before, so there was a fairly good possibility that we had discovered a new species. This happened probably 5 times in one night. Now how often does that happen in the US? One of the professors actually has a species named after him, and he’s probably no older than 35. During the day, I helped one of the older students work on his experiment. His specialty is a butterfly called “skipper” that have split off from the butterfly family. The adults are fairly well-known, but not much information exists about the eggs or larvae, which is his area of study. We just hiked around in the woods looking for the plant that skippers lay their eggs on, while getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I might have Dengue. Just as a side note, did you know that there is a plant in Cuba that can kill you? Seriously, it is that poisonous.
Well that’s about all I have to say about camping and studying bugs. It was probably the most fun trip I’ve had here, despite the bad weather. I just really liked the company, in general they were more my style than the history/philosophy students as a whole, though I love my friends in that department too.

Slightly Boring Entry About Music

Although I’ve only barely mentioned it, music is a humongous part of life here. It can be heard anywhere you go, from every direction. There are a couple very different types of music here that are really popular. First, there’s salsa. Though I’ve heard the style originated in the Puerto Rican communities in NYC, a lot of Cubans say they are the only one’s who do it right. Within this genre, there are a couple of different forms. My personal favorite is called “son”, which was made famous all over the world because of the Buena Vista Social Club. It is a really traditional, even ancient, form of salsa. Actually, most if not all of the songs from Buena Vista were written long before those men played them. You can hear this kind of music all over the country, especially from live bands in restaurants and such, because it is played with acoustic instruments. Usually, a son band consists of a guitar, a smaller three string guitar called a “tres”, claves, bongos, and singers. I’m not sure if this guy is considered son, but one of my favorite musicians here is Polo Montañez. In any case, both he and son are way more popular with older Cubans. Among the youth, Reggaeton rules. You’ve probably heard a little reggaeton before, from people like Daddy Yankee who sings “Gasolina”. It’s sort of a Latin American version of hip hop, with Reggae and Salsa influence, and a persistent heavy beat. At first, it all sounds the same, but then it kind of grows on you. I’ll bring some of the better examples back with me. My favorite so far is this song called “Caperosita,” which is “little red riding hood”, by Clan 537, a Cuban pop group. Anyway, people love to dance to this music. I would say Salsa and Reggaeton are the two most popular forms of music, but a lot of people are interested in Techno, Rock, and Hip Hop, especially the more underground variety in the US like Kweli, Common, etc. Basically, music is a huge pastime because all you need for fun is a couple records and a few people and you’ve got a dance party!