Cuba: An Introduction

Esto No Es Cuba

 

For years we dreamed of visiting and exploring Cuba. Starting in Havana with its rich cultural and historical heritage, we were planning to travel in the interior of the country as well and see authentic Cuban life in rural villages, away from the big city and the touristic resorts. This plan didn’t work for various reasons.

Before sailing to Cuba, I read a thick book: Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and I couldn’t help but admire Fidel Castro’s struggle against military dictator Batista and Imperial America’s interests and presence in Cuba in the 1950-s. Castro, Che Guevara and a  handful of rebeldes hiding in la Sierra Maestra started a movement that grew and spread and sparked a full scale revolution which overthrew an unjust cruel regime and implemented social and agrarian reforms in the early 1960-s. To us the Cuban Revolution, like the French Revolution (and any other revolution) was, and still is, the greatest event in any country’s history.

Che Guevara graffiti on a wall in Havana

Che Guevara graffiti on a wall in Havana

 

In Cuba, we were expecting to find „the accidental eden„: a country small and isolated but independent and dignified; a land unspoiled by big industry where all crops are organic and the food is healthy; a defiant welcoming people that stood undefeated and proud so close to an imperial giant. We wanted to show to our children that an alternative is possible and can work for an entire nation. An alternative to capitalism, consumerism, globalization; a whole different system organized around principals of equality and simplicity, where people were not reach in possessions but nevertheless educated, healthy, and happy.

We didn’t find that country and our romantic expectations all burst into pieces in just a few days.

Instead, we found a ruined place with building crumbling over their residents and streets resembling war trenches; dirty stores with almost no merchandise inside; people begging for a dollar or a T-shirt or a roll of toilet paper or anything at all, with tears in their eyes and no pride left in them, cheating, stealing and prostituting themselves to survive another day full of incomprehensible misery, afraid to speak out their indignation; a dysfunctional system that has abandoned its citizens in deplorable state to fend for themselves; and a government implementing its rule with police force, propaganda and cruel restrictions to basic human rights.

 

A street in Havana

A street in Havana

We arrived in Havana on July 24, just in time for the big national holiday: the anniversary of the Moncada assault 26 de Julio, but we didn’t see any organized celebrations and festivities.

The first Cubans we met were the immigration and border officers, a doctor, the dock masters, and a drug dog who one by one boarded our boat upon arrival. They all, except the dog, asked for propina (a tip) in a way we couldn’t refuse. One guy even returned our five dollar bill and said he couldn’t accept less than twenty… They also „liked“ our big garlic which they spotted in the galley and of course took some of it. This unpleasant situation lasted for a few stressful hours. One by one various officials boarded Fata Morgana and extorted American dollars from us. And this is the „normal“ procedure for all boats arriving in Cuba.

In the next few days we met more Cubans. We noticed that those who were corrupted like the border officials, or those who had relatives in America sending them money and things, managed somehow to live comfortably, but the ones who were trying to lead more honest life and had no relatives outside of the country,  lived in complete misery, even though employed.

The Cuban doctors, teachers, drivers, janitors all receive a ridiculous state salary, the equivalent of about 10 to 20 US dollars per month which cannot cover basic expenses like food, electricity bill, water. And pensions are even less.

 

Tita, 82 and Roberto, 83 in their downtown Havana apartment. Both retired. To survive, they collect fresh water and boil it at night, selling it in plastic bottles to neighbors the next day. ( The municipal water in Havana is dangerous to drink if not boiled)

Tita, 82 and Roberto, 83 in their downtown Havana apartment. Both retired. Tita’s pension is about $ 8 per month. To survive, they collect fresh water and boil it at night, selling it in plastic bottles to neighbors the next day. ( The municipal water in Havana is dangerous to drink if not boiled)

In Cuba, there are two currencies: the Cuban peso for the Cubans and the convertible peso (CUC) for the tourists, which complicates the crippled economy further and is insulting for the population. The convertible peso’s value is almost the same as the US dollar. 1 CUC costs 24 Cuban pesos. There is also food stamps for the population (as if the entire population is underprivileged or in a state of emergency, which they pretty much are). This is the only country in the world that distributes food stamps to its citizens outside wartime, which get them a small ratio of basic products like rice, beens, eggs (if there is any),flower, sugar, and salt but this is not enough to get by. And they cannot afford anything „fancier“. A bottle of 1.5L orange juice costs 1.5 CUC. One beer is 1 CUC. One bread is 3 CUC. So they are pushed to resort to alternative ways of providing for the family.

A truck driver makes about 360 pesos or 15 CUC per month. So, he will steal the truck’s fuel and sell it, as well as most of the load, property of the state. Thus, often, the goods don’t get to the stores and nobody wonders why. A construction worker makes about the same salary as the truck driver. So he will steal construction materials and sell them. Thus, buildings and roads are falling apart often killing residents, the whole infrastructure is crumbling, and nobody wonders why.

 

We tried to find and buy bread. This is the local panaderia, bakery. All they had was galletas, dried hard bread.

We tried to find and buy bread. This is the local panaderia, bakery. All they had was galletas, dried hard bread.

But if Cuban people today are stealing and cheating and prostituting themselves, it is because they are pushed to do so in order to survive, not because they are inherently bad. It is the last consequence in a chain of consequences. And in the base of the chain is, with no doubt, the American embargo.

In the years after the Revolution, as a response to a massive nationalization of American business and assets in Cuba, United States placed an embargo which prevents American companies from dealing with Cuba, as well as US citizens from traveling  to Cuba. It also sanctions non-US corporations trading with Cuba. Thus, during the Cold War, Cuba’s economic survival mainly depended on trade and assistance from the Soviet Union. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Cuba was left hanging in thin air, alone. And the US embargo is still on.

 

A Cuban Girl

A Cuban Girl

The embargo is cruel, unjust, hypocritical, and simply ridiculous. Its stated reason for still being in effect after half a century is the lack of democracy and human rights in Cuba. At the same time, USA has supported and even helped to implement cruel dictator’s regimes in the region: Pinochet in Chile, a bunch of dictators in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, and many many others. Instead of helping to liberate the Cuban people from communist oppression, the embargo is causing poverty, famine, and suffering among the population.

But the embargo is not the only reason for the present malfunction of the communist regime in Cuba.

In such a deplorable economical state of affairs, a political system based on principals of „equality“ cannot function at all. Pretty much everyone is „equally“ poor. And in such an environment corruption on all levels easily takes root. The entire communist idea, the principals of the Revolution, got corrupted long ago and today the poor Cubans we met are placing the blame for their dire situation entirely on the Cuban government who seams has abandoned them, or more precisely, keeps them as slaves. „What do you think needs to be done?“, I asked a man (whose name I cannot mention here) after he invited me in his house with dirt floors and no windows which he shares with his daughter and four grand children, to show me how Cubans live so that I can show the world. Getting very close to my face, with an intense look, he answered: “ Fusillar a Castro“ (Shoot Castro).

A poor Cuban household in Jaimanitas, near Havana

A poor Cuban household in Jaimanitas, near Havana

Later that day we witnessed an arrest further down the street in Jaimanita, a small village near Havana where marina Hemingway is. An army jeep full of soldiers quickly appeared and  stopped in front of a house and all people walking up and down the street suddenly disappeared. The soldiers ran in the house and pulled out four middle aged men with handcuffs. Someone explained to us, the arrested were organizing something against the government, but one of the many „chivatos“ (traitors) who are all over the place betrayed them. We don’t know what happened to those men.

It is evident that a great change is needed for Cuba, if not a new Revolution, and fast. The country, like a small ship that has sailed a long way across storms and sharp rocks, is now sinking, but the captain is not letting an SOS signal keeping the passengers away from the life-rafts. And on the American ship, a humongous cruise boat near by, people are watching the spectacle and having a party.

 

A Cuban Man

A Cuban Man

 

 

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The Star Of The Sea

In the beginning of this journey, 9 months ago, many asked us: What are you going to do about money? Many still ask us the same question. We ask them back: What do we need money for?

Sure, it’s a joke. We all need money for so many things. But if you think about it, we need a lot less money than most of you guys out there asking the question, just because we have less needs than you, and we also have a plethora of alternative ways to get what we need without money. We don’t buy stuff (clothes, shoes, furniture, gadgets, electronics, etc.) simply because we don’t have much use for them, nor space on the boat where to put them. The things we really needed in the beginning after we got the boat were: fibreglass, paint, water pumps, marine toilets repair kits, engine parts, filters, insulation for hatches, buckets, fishing gear, electronics, and charts. For these we did spend money from our savings but hopefully we will not have to buy them too often from now on. Other than that, we are all set.

We don’t pay rent. We drop an anchor somewhere close to shore: it’s free. We don’t have an electricity bill: we have solar panels. We don’t have a car: we have bicycles. We don’t have to pay for freshwater: we collect rainwater or we fill our tanks at the docks for free, and we even have a watermaker which produces freshwater from seawater. We don’t work and we don’t pay taxes.  We fish, we barter, we volunteer at farmers’ markets in exchange for  fruits and vegetables, we even volunteer at museums for free access to art! Everywhere we go, we find a way to „survive“ almost without money.

It has been 3 months now since we last entered a store to buy groceries. We get enough food for the four of us from the Stock Island food bank where we work as volunteers once a week for 2-3 hours. I give a tour to people who come for food and Ivo works in the back unloading crates and arranging them on the shelves. This is one of a very few choice-pantries where people walk through and choose the food they need, which is a much better option than getting two bags of groceries half of which they don’t need, like in most of the other ready-bags pantries.

A mother and a girl are choosing groceries at the SOS food bank

A mother and a girl are choosing groceries at the SOS food bank

The Star of the Sea Mission, or SOS for short, is truly the best food bank we ever came across, providing food, clothing, and services to underprivileged low-income families and individuals in Key West, serving over 90 people per day, providing 57, 000 pounds of food bags per month. Located in a small building on Stock Island, it reminds me more of a home than an institution. There are a few small rooms in the front: an office, a reception room, and a small store. In the back there is a big warehouse with lots of stored goods inside, and a huge backyard populated by well fed chickens, with wooden tables under a big tree where the workers rest and eat lunch and where trucks come and go. Lunch is usually prepared by Lobster Bob for everybody: a big meal with salad and desert.

Lunch time in the back yard of SOS food bank

Lunch time in the back yard of SOS food bank

People sign up in the office, wait for not more than 5 minutes in the reception room, and then go in the „store“ where they get to choose two canned goods from this rack, one item from that rack, one meat item from the freezer, two salads from the fridge, two breads, two deserts, two drinks, etc. It’s like shopping, only there is no cashier at the end. And some people take a looong time to choose. No hurry.

A volunteer at SOS food bank

A part-time volunteer at SOS food bank

These are low-income senior citizens, low-income families, and homeless families and individuals who can come once a week, any day, any time, as the SOS is open 5 days a week from 10 am to 5 pm. That is why there are never long lines of waiting people. Most of the other food banks we have seen operate in a church basement for a few hours once a week and people are forced to wait forever in stuffy waiting rooms.

But what makes this particular food bank so wonderfully unique in my mind is the staff, the people who work there.

Donna Knull runs the place since 7 years now.

Donna

Donna in the office of SOS food bank

„Some people resent feeding the homeless… They don’t like looking at them let alone feeding them.

I worked 16 years at a hardware store. Then I retired. But couldn’t stay at home doing nothing; I cannot not work. So I started volunteering here. And became director-manager. I wanted to do something I felt good about. To wake up in the morning and be happy to go to work. And here I got so much more back than I have given as a volunteer. This place made me compassionate and understanding of others.

I remember in the beginning, there was this homeless person who came for food and irritated me. We were giving ready-bags back then. She got the bag, looked in it and shoved it back at me, I don’t eat this! But now they don’t irritate me any more, and she is still coming every week. Now I give her a hug when I see her.

I see people walking the streets, sitting in parks, with dirty clothes and backpacks, and I recognize them. I know who they are and I feel good about myself for being able to help them…“

Raquel is second in charge. She receives people and deals with the files. Raquel came from Cuba in 2005.

„I came with my son, a two-year-old baby, in a tiny 12 feet boat. I would never do it again…

We were thirteen people in that boat. It took us three days and there was no food. It was so scary, water everywhere. At some point water started coming inside the boat. The men started putting things in the hole to block it. We managed to get to a small uninhabited island and then the boat sunk. My husband, who was already in the United States, came to pick us up and now we are here…

First, I worked in Orlando, housekeeping. Then we moved here. We lived on a houseboat for three years. I didn’t like it, it was hard…

I started working at the food bank. Not for money, I like to help people. I feel I do something important. Now we have a home. Only when you have a home you realise you can help others who don’t.“

Then, there are the permanent full-time workers: Chris, Lobster Bob, Louis and his girlfriend, and other guys who came from difficult situations: homeless, alcoholics, ex-convicts. Some came through offender programs, others just needed a safe place and a fresh start. For them, The Star of the Seas is truly a home.

Louis and his girlfriend both work as full-time volunteers at the SOS food bank

Louis and his girlfriend both work as full-time volunteers at the SOS food bank

“ This is my safe zone, says Louis who is on parole and needs to serve community hours. I used to drink a lot and get into trouble, and they would arrest me and put me in jail. But when I am here, I know I cannot be drunk, because these are the rules, and I work, and I get food and clothes. I know here I will not get into trouble. It’s my safe zone. Even after I finish my community hours I will keep coming and working here. I love it.“

For many, the food bank is a midway home, a sort of a purgatory, where they get ready for a better life. And Donna loves working with them. They even installed a tobacco machine where everyone can roll a cigarette any time, because, they figured, this will make everyone happier and will prevent people from stealing.

Lobster Bob, full time volunteer and community cook

Lobster Bob, full time volunteer and community cook

Chris is the soul of the place. With a German accent, Chris can tell you loud stories and jokes all day long. He was the first one who gave us a tour when we first came to pick up food and he thought us how to arrange the bread on the shelves, how to walk people through, how to treat them and be careful and all.

Chris, resident, full time worker, and   the "soul" of SOS food bank

Chris, resident, full time worker, and the „soul“ of SOS food bank

And finally, there are the part-time volunteers, mostly retired ladies and gentlemen who come to help once a week, or people like us who like to give back to those who have given them so much. Thank you, Donna, Rachel, Chris, and all you guys at The Star of the Sea Mission! You have made a huge difference for our family!

 

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