••• The International Writers Magazine: Cuba
I buttoned up my denim trucker jacket and thought briefly of the pleasant tropical climate back in Havana. Not that it had been much better there.
Murals in the Jungle
Dust swept up and gravel crunched as the old military transport truck that had probably been on the island since before the Revolution, battered its way up the rustic mountain road. The chill of the morning air cracked across my face like a whip.
The winter storms had been doing a number in cooling off the island. Still I thought this was better than being back in Washington where the city was frozen over in an abnormally harsh winter. I tried not to think too much of home. I only had one more week on this mysterious and intriguing island, and had made a resolution to live in the moment. The loss of my iPhone, which had been lifted by a truck stop pickpocket on the road to Matanzas, made the task that much easier. Though I wouldn’t have the convenience of listening to any of my rap or punk albums, it was a small tradeoff. Joe Strummer, David Byrne, and Q-Tip would have to wait. The flogging mountain winds and the Latin vibrations of local musicians on Havana’s streets and paladars would be all I’d need to hear.
“Aquí! Aquí!” our driver barks out.
A small community of terra cotta roofed buildings that round the brim of a series of grassy hills. In the valley below there is a small lake of some of the most pristine royal blue water that shines like a trove of diamonds. We have arrived in the main village of Las Terrazas.
||Las Terrazas is a small commune hidden in the lush green foliage of the Sierra del Rosario. Leagues away from the slums of Old Havana, the commune is a wonder to behold. A Marxist gated community when you think about it. There is a wait-list for residency here, and spots rarely open up. My student visa though allowed me to get a firsthand look at what I came to see as a tropical workers’ utopia. A place that Karl Marx imagined an ideal society would look like when he penned the Communist Manifesto.
We were greeted by the locals, who fed us a hearty midmorning meal of fried plantains, tostadas, and some of the best coffee I’ve ever imbibed. Our brunch, you could call it, is complimented with conversations with the locals. They know right off the bat that we’re Americans. Maybe it’s our attire. Maybe it’s our mediocre broken Spanish that gives us away. Maybe it’s our dumbstruck awe that hasn’t worn off since we first touched down on the cane field airstrip a week earlier.
Few Americans have been this way before. At least in the past fifty years. Since the 1960s the U.S. Embargo on Cuba has prevented most Americans from ever making the trip beyond the Sugar Curtain. That is all about to change. Let’s hope for the better. Months prior to my excursion, President Obama had announced a thaw in U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba. The island would slowly but surely be opening up to Americans. I had attained my student visa only a couple months prior. Little did I know that I would be seeing this strange country in quite possibly the most crucial point in its history since the Revolution itself.
The people are hopeful about this new relationship. At breakfast the locals are open to speak with us about this hope that they have for a better relationship with the States. One based on equality, understanding, and new opportunities for both our cultures. However, their enthusiasm is tempered by a sense of caution. Duality, mixed feelings, from what I’d seen this seems to be the typical flavor of Cuba.
Exploitation at the hands of the developed world was the crucible that allowed the Cuban Revolution to be forged. The hope of establishing a more democratic government on the island was what fueled Fidel and Raul Castro in their guerilla campaign to overthrow the U.S. backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. The Revolution brought about new hope for self-determination for Cuba and its people, who had long suffered under the yoke of colonialism.
|All good intentions aside things haven’t worked out quite the way the Castro Brothers and their comrade, the Argentine Marxist mercenary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, had envisioned them. While Marxism has been beneficial to the Cuban people in terms of their top-notch health care and education systems, there still are many problems. Food shortages, unemployment, no protected free speech (even as we talk openly about our shared hopes for the future). The effects are felt most strongly in the island’s cities. The poverty and crumbling infrastructure that I witnessed in Havana were a truly disheartening sight. The kind that’d make even the most open-minded lefty tourist say “Socialism Sucks!”
||Here in Las Terrazas, the Revolution has had a positive impact. There is plenty of food to go around, housing is stable and well structured, hospitals are clean, and every comrade plays their part “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” from the doctors to the bakers to the teachers to the artists. This is the sunny side of Castro’s Cuba.
Also the revolutionary government’s greatest public works project spans before our gaze. Thousands of acres of rich green vegetation shroud these misty mountains. Sierra del Rosario has been reborn as part of a government-led reforestation program aimed at returning Cuba’s environment to pre-colonial levels. The government’s reforestation program has led to forests covering almost a third of the island at the start of the last decade. The program is a point of pride for the people of Las Terrazas, and is seen by the Cuban people the island over as a triumph of their national spirit, Kilometers away from the poverty and decay of Havana. Truly a telling sign of the Cuban peoples’ mixed feelings for their government.
We didn’t come to Las Terrazas just for leisure. There’s work to be done. The commune’s people have taken us in, and we shall play our part in the community before day’s end. We load back into the transport and hit the road again, traversing further the beaten mountain path until we arrive at a compound of long blocky cement buildings deep within a thickly wooded forest a few kilometers above the village. The simple remote structure is a grade school, the most vital institution in the community. The pride of Cuba.
The Cuban population is one of the most highly educated in the world. Illiteracy has been virtually stamped out. Students are taught a variety of skills both creative and practical, math, science, music, art, history, literature, and language. Teachers play an important role in the lives of their students both in and outside of the classroom. In Las Terrazas this is no different.
Before any Americans rush to judgment and treat the Cuban people like they are incompetent, just step back and know that that guitarist serenading you over your meal, that fruit vendor shilling out mangos and bananas at the public market, is probably just as well educated as you (if not better educated). This really made the benevolently racist lamentations of a rich Republican white lady on our tour, seem that much more ridiculous. Several days earlier she cried about wanting to save the Cuban people from their poverty during our trip through the slums of Old Havana. Everyone is equal in this camp. We work best when we acknowledge one another’s humanity and capabilities. Which is what we came here to do. To join together with the students and their teachers and play a part in the reforestation project.
|While we stand out in the school’s courtyard waiting for the teacher’s instructions, I watch as a gang of young boys play a makeshift game of baseball with a stick and a tennis ball. The ugly triteness of the gray blockhouses is lightened by a series of murals. Familiar faces adorn the building. Portraits of Fidel, Che, Raul, Cienfuegos painted in confection bright colors that the children would find appealing are accompanied by the standard revolutionary slogans Vas Bien Fidel and Hasta Siempre.
||This scene takes me back to my earliest school days, when I was the age of the young ballplayers, and the walls of my school were colored with murals of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin. Our teachers taught us that these men were the reason for our nation’s existence, and that they were the original champions of freedom and liberty that we were told were the centerpiece of American cultural identity. I can’t help but wonder what Che and Fidel mean to these young boys. How they learn about them? What are their thoughts on them? How are young Cubans taught to regard their country’s Revolutionary Founding Fathers?
After a quick conference with the teacher, a friendly fellow with curly black hair and mocha skin named Alejandro, and took us on a tour of the facilities as we head out to the edge of the forest. A long fallow patch of dirt halfway between the school and the treeline awaits us. The puttering engine of a beaten old pickup truck comes to meet us in this spot, a bouquet of tiny trees no thicker than sticks in its bed. Alejandro throws me a shovel and tells me to pick out a tree. We pull on our heavy utility gloves and get to work.
While we shovel loads of rich damp soil so brown it’s almost black I comment on the murals to Alejandro. From his defined but still youthful appearance I guess he’s about my age, twenty-six. We talk about school. I mention the murals to him and of how they remind me vaguely of those adorning my own grade school in suburban Wisconsin. Alejandro laughed and told me that he found the lives of the great men in his country’s history intriguing as a kid.
We share a common bond. History was both our favorite subject in school. Knowing where we came from was what governed our lessons. The ideas that our founders had fought in our country’s revolutions. The nations that they had created, and the ideologies that governed them. F is for Fidel…F is also for Franklin. C is for Che…C is also for Constitution. I asked him then how they learned about Fidel, Che, and the Revolution.
“The Revolucíon was the most important event in Cuba’s history,” he says, “Fidel and Che started a great experiment that we are still carrying out today.”
What Alejandro lays out is the backbone of Cuba’s education system. The continuation and expansion of the principles fought for in the Revolution. That was what I had learned about Washington and Jefferson. That’s how the United States regards its Revolution. The start of a great experiment in the rights of man. We have common ground, but this seems like a pretty standard way to begin. Could there be more to Alejandro’s side? I ask him what Fidel and Che mean to him.
“They were like us. They were men,” Alejandro says trying not to go into too much detail.
At first I’m stumped by his vagueness, but after I ask him what he means he gives me a small spot of clarity.
“They were men who did important things for Cuba and its people, “ he says. “We are taught that they were great men who were guided by noble principles…but they were men nonetheless. That’s something you figure out the longer you live.”
His words conjure up thoughts of history lessons from my early days. Young students in powdered wigs, tricorns, blue wool waistcoats, and ruffles playing the parts of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Research reports and presentations of what made Ben Franklin and Patrick Henry figures who embodied our national heritage. Memorizations of the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ Men who we were told were great. Who stood for noble principles: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. How American students were taught to view our Founding Fathers.
Our lessons also taught us another side to these great men. Our teachers didn’t ignore the fact that our nation’s founders were slave owners. The same men that dedicated their lives to the expansion of liberty and freedom held other humans in bondage. In their time these rights that Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin fought for were only meant for landowning white men like themselves. We were taught too that our founding fathers were great men, but men nonetheless. We still admire George Washington. We still admire Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin (who later in life became a full-fledged abolitionist and an early civil rights advocate, might I add). Even as we understand their flaws, which are too big to ever be dismissed.
Growing up in the 90s our teachers also told us about how the Cuban people suffered greatly under communism. How Fidel Castro abused his own people, locked them up in jail, and let them go hungry. It was well meaning. This was a troubling time for Cuba. The Special Period (where food shortages caused social unrest), Elian Gonzales, and support for leftist insurgencies, which we were told were terrorists. Events that shaped how many Americans viewed Cuba.
There still are many problems that Cuba faces. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara no doubt will be remembered by history in a complex manner. A fate that all men, even those who have accomplished great good, will never be able to outrun. But young Cubans still express genuine admiration for Castro, Che, and the Revolution. Alejandro included, who tells me that while his country’s revolutionary founders might be flawed, they set into motion in Cuba their own experiment in the rights of humanity. Not too different from our American Revolution, but from a more socialist angle, and a flawed one at that. I never thought that this was the response that I would get. Alejandro’s response was based in national pride, but delivered with a zeal of candor and contemplation.
Like I said, don’t mistake Cuba for some Caribbean North Korea. The Cuban people are well aware of the flaws of their founding fathers (even if they’re not always able to speak openly of them), and at the same time they work to continue their revolution (maybe reform it) in the hopes of forming a more perfect union. Our paths just happen to have converged that day outside of this mountain commune school, where murals of Fidel and Che cut through the rich green foliage of the forest, and young minds are molded. We’re two countries founded by complex men, who were both revered by their countrymen to this day, and hope that together we can improve the vision that these founding fathers have laid out for us.
After the trees had been planted, and our hands are sullied with dirt, we loaded back on the transport, and were driven to a small canopy on the road outside the village. The wafting aromas of roasted pork that had been bathed in citrus and garlic filled the air, and a band of surplus jacket and beret-clad musicians are tuning their instruments as we enter this café. Our labor has made us work up a hefty appetite, and now we sit down to share a meal. One of the most powerful displays of humanity.
The band strikes up into a rousing rendition of ‘Oye Como Va’ and the bartender crushes mint and pours rum for the mojitos. Large bowls of stewed black beans and rice, and fried yucca are passed around the table, and Cubans and Americans converse on equal grounds. We talk about home, our families, our studies, and what the future has in store for us both on the island and once we return stateside. Alejandro tells me that he has family in Miami, which he had visited on several instances through his possession of a special visa. He tells me that he plans to return to the island after his trip. There is much work yet to be done. There are young minds yet to be shaped. He has hopes that Cuba can do better.
I share that same sense of cautious optimism that my own country can do better too, and that the U.S. and Cuba can come together. Until that is worked out, we have this meal, this music, this rum, this jungle, this community, and our shared historical bond that we were not aware of until that afternoon. The path is not easy. Like the twisting mountain roads and thick jungle it can be a confusing and disorienting course to navigate. That is why we have come together here today. To look to one another for guidance, even as we draw on the lessons that we have taken from the past.
© Benjamin Schick October 2018
schick.benjamin144 at gmail.com
It was heating up on the balcony. Laurant, laboring on a homonym, was trying to finish his sentence but a desire to crawl back into bed with Tahimi kept returning to his mind. It was 12:30 pm and she was still asleep. He was up since nine.
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