Thoughts on the Eve of Returning to Cuba

Tlatelolco, Mexico.

Later this morning I’ll be off to Havana via Interjet, a Mexican airline which flies regularly to Cuba. “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned:” It’s been nine months since my last time down, in December 2015. I’m looking forward to seeing whatever changes have taken place. I’m hoping to spend another three months, and plan to post regular reports of things done, places seen and people met.

Each time before I go, I try to post some final thoughts before leaving for the island where my impressions are altered or corrected by Cuban reality, as they always are. What follows are rough notes, and not in order of importance. I hope you’ll find them of interest. I’ll have to look back and the and see what actually happened. Will also plan to post some first impressions as soon as I’m settled in. Probably not until Sunday.

First-hand observations

It’s amazing how different Cuba is from a distance. That’s why it’s so important to actually GO to Cuba and see it for oneself. It’s also why Washington imposed, and continues to maintain, a travel ban on US citizens and residents.

The Obama administration has modified the ban, but it is still on the books. Vacationing and going to the beach remain violations of US law, even if not vigorously enforced, for now.  Basically, Washington just does not want people from the US to see the country first hand, because, warts and all,  it is so different from the hostile and tendentious image we’ve been fed ever since the earliest days.

You know: Cuba is a dictatorship. There are no human rights. Everyone is spied on. There is no Internet, and so on. The last example I saw was in that otherwise-objective piece about Cuba’s success in fighting the Zika virus which the main AP reporter in Cuba, in today’s  Washington Post .

When I started following Cuba most closely, in the late 1990s, the problem was the lack of information, and most of what we got in the dominant capitalist media was tendentious and hostile. That’s still largely true, but, with the change toward a more formally normalized diplomatic relationship, that’s changed somewhat. Now we’re overwhelmed with information in the dominant media, and some of that is not unsympathetic, or downright friendly.

For example, the current issue of  WESTWAYS , the magazine of the definitely NOT leftist Automobile Club of Southern California (AAA). It’s cover art and main headline is HOLA CUBA. The issue has eight full pages without advertising and it’s all presented in a friendly, encouraging tone.

If we can get it scanned and posted, I will share it. It must be very popular because, after standing on a waiting line and presenting my club membership, they were only willing to give me two copies. Who will be the lucky Cubans who get them?


In Los Angeles, I more and more try to avoid driving. The driving culture has degenerated terribly, the streets are very crowded, and so on. I’ve begun to wonder if I can or should give up driving completely, but haven’t taken the plunge yet.

In LA, for example, I often walk to the markets and back with my groceries now, and they are each about a mile or so away from where I live. I’m 72 years young, by the way, but I really like getting away from the house, the phone and the computer. It’s good exercise and I feel relaxed, though often pretty sweaty, when finally I’m back home.

Mexico City is far, far worse. The local Metro system, is older but far superior in its routes to the lovely one we have in Los Angeles, and reasonably priced. But for someone not familiar with the Metro and the city, Uber, which wasn’t here during my last visit, amazed me with its efficiency.

The friend I’m staying with here is  Peter Gellert , whom I met in the US in the 1970s. He moved here forty years ago, gave up his US citizenship and became a legal Mexican citizen, 100%. Here he works as a translator and is an activist in Mexican and solidarity movement politics.

Yesterday we walked down to the street, and summoned an Uber car on his smartphone. A nice, new car arrived in under five minutes, driven by a 62 year-old retired government worker who can’t afford to not work on his pension. This Uber car took me to an engagement with a friend, and another took me home later, in comfort and quiet.

Up til now, I’ve not yet learned the Uber system in Los Angeles, but I am certain that I will now. And will learn how to use a smartphone as well. I’m not a Luddite, but have avoided learning some of this modern technology. Though my crystal ball isn’t as clear as it was when I was 20 and 30, I found a lot go ponder in the current issue of the London ECONOMIST, in its cover feature,  Uberworld .

The structure of world transport, and of the working class which drives it, is changing. While it’s not all for the better, there’s a something I think we can learn from this new system. Just sayin’…

There’s no Uber in Cuba, but an interesting multi-level system of state-owned, cooperative, private individuals both licenced and not, bicitaxis and hitch-hiking. Hitching is quite widespread in Cuba, and is entirely safe. (It seem to help being a pretty young woman.)


Same is true for those smartphones which I’ve been avoiding up to now. Last year, when I was in Cuba at the time of Pope Francis’ visit, the Cubans set up a wonderful media center for all the accredited journalists.

One day I noticed a woman talking into a smartphone which she had posted on a tripod. She was broadcasting, online, LIVE, though a hand-held personal cell phone. I’d love to be able to do that! I promise to pick up this skill as soon as I can.


US blockade against Cuba still very much in place

While the Obama administration’s decision to normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba was a good thing, which we can all appreciate, Washington’s goals toward Cuba and its revolutionary government haven’t changed. Not one bit.

So long as the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the Torricelli law of 1992 and the Helms-Burton law of 1996 remain on the books, the official foreign policy of the US government can be summarized as “over throw the Cuban government and restore capitalism there.”

And let’s not forget Guantanamo, the military base and torture camp Washington has occupied for over a century. Cuba doesn’t cash the “rent” checks Washington sends Havana every year (well, they DID cash the first one in 1959, but none since then…)

There’s no way to briefly summarize just how the US blockade functions, but a comprehensive summary can be found at the report Cuba presented to the United Nations General Assembly last year. It was adopted by an overwhelming majority, with no abstentions and only two “no” votes: The United States and Israel. It’s Resolution 69/5 of the United Nations General Assembly:

“Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

Where I’ll be staying

This time I’ll be staying in a new  casa particular  for the first time. I’ve been there and seen it, but haven’t stayed there before. It’s conveniently located in Vedado. And, hey, WOW, my new landlady is coming to pick me up at the airport! That’s new, and different, and pleasing. It will cost $25 CUC per day. I have a private room and bath, air conditioning and adequate privacy.

Local news sources

In Los Angeles, I take the LA TIMES and the NEW YORK TIMES in print every day. They do provide a wealth of information, but are edited with a fiercely pro-capitalist slant.

Those Sunday New York Times ads offering apartments for sale in New York City for as much as $50 million dollars and those thousand dollar dresses (I don’t wear them and wouldn’t buy one for anyone I know) are part of a kind of cultural psy-war on the population.

Who wouldn’t want to have these things, but what’s wrong with YOU if you cannot afford one? And these papers are overwhelmingly filled with advertising.

Back when Gerardo Hernandez of the Cuban Five was living in the US federal prison in Victorville, California, I used to print the Cuban papers out for him every day.  Granma  and  Juventud Rebelde , and sometimes  Trabajadores , and even the humor newspaper  P’alante  could be downloaded from their website, and Gerardo was able to get them. Among his other talents, he’s a cartoonist as well.

Cuban newspapers are much smaller, due to their limited resources: eight pages for the daily editions and 16 pages for JR on Sunday, and Granma on Friday. And not one word of commercial advertising. The Cuban papers of course have their own slant, a Cuban revolutionary perspective, but very little fluff and filler.

Since Gerardo went home, I have only occasionally looked at the print editions, and even less frequently printed them out. Now I’ll be glad to see what Cubans see every day. It takes a lot less time to get through them and their counterpart US dailies, but sometimes it seems there’s more information in the Cuban papers.

My favorite Cuban magazine is one aimed at teens and young adults,  Somos Jovenes  (We The Youth). CubaNews has presented English translations of some its articles over the years. It takes up issues of burning interest to young people, as well as historical themes. They try to to show the continuity between the the country’s struggles to defend its national sovereignty, and the challenges of today’s young people. Among these are gender, sex, sexuality, violence against women, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll as well as big political themes. Here are some samples I’m very proud to have brought:  Somos Jovenes in English translation

Unlike the way people in the US (and here in Mexico) who have the money, can have high-speed Internet access for a low price 24-7, in Cuba I have to go out to an Internet access point, either an ETECSA office or a WiFi point, which are growing rapidly across the country.

In the US, I don’t watch TV at all, but in Cuba the national newscasts in the evening and early afternoon presents a succinct summary of the days’ important events, from the Cuban leadership’s perspective. I’ll miss Amy Goodman’s  Democracy Now , which I prefer to listen to than watch.

The spectrum of political discussion has widened considerably in recent years with the explosion of the Internet. Many individuals for and against the government have blogs. Hostile ones, like those of Yoani Sanchez, touted all over the world by opponents of the Cuban system, in some ways predominant.

I’m not aware of many pro-revolutionary blogs, those which actively defend the revolutionary process against its critics. Perhaps the best-known is Iroel Sanchez’s  La Pupila Insomne , which vigorously defends the revolutionary process. Singer Silvio Rodriguez and historian Esteban Morales also have actively revolutionary blogs.

LGBT issues  Journalist Francisco Rodriquez Cruz is a militant gay rights activist, whose day job is as a journalist at the weekly  Trabajadores . There are other gay activists, but Paquito, as he’s usually called, is the best-known.

Marijuana, Cannabis, Ganja

Cuba has a very tough, law-and-order approach to marijuana, but with many countries, especially in Latin America, moving toward legalizing or decriminalizing the substance, will this have any effect on Cuban thinking?

While federal law continues to define marijuana as a substance with no redeeming medical value, Washington has just begun to expand research on its possible medical utility. And now most US states have made it legal under varying conditions. My home state, California, is set to legalize it for all adults without any medical necessity having to be cited. It’s a multi-billion dollar business.

When people from the US come to Cuba, some will naturally want to bring it with them. Anyone who does this at present would be crazy, but it is a subject about which I wonder if there will be some evolution in local thinking. Alcohol and smoking (in Cuba they call it “tobaccoism” are recognized today as public health problems, along with obesity and etc.

Medical uses of marijuana 

I’m someone with multiple documented medical diagnoses, including Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, Myelodysplasic Syndrome, which are blood cancers, obesity, hypertension, sleep apnea, a torn miniscus and tendonitis. In recent years, I have found some relief through the use of occasional small amounts of the edible forms of marijuana, for which I have the required medical recommendation.

Naturally, I didn’t bring any along on this trip, though from what my host tells me, it’s virtually completely legal here in Mexico City in small quantities for personal consumption.

Volunteer opportunities 

If your Spanish is good enough to translate, CubaNews is always looking for people willing to translate materials from the Cuban media in Spanish into English for the broader world world.

We can’t pay you in anything but gratitude, but there’s lots of that, and I promise also to send books, pamphlets and magazines from Cuba to those who’d like to help bring these Cuban ideas out to a broader audience. I’m guided by a great deal of curiosity.

There are innumerable things I’ve been wondering about and looking to see how the city has changed, if the culture is being affected by the growing number of people from the US who have been visiting, what new stores and restaurants have popped up, and so on and on and on.

My bottom line is that given the immense obstacles the Cuban Revolution faces, it’s pretty much of a miracle that it’s still here every day. Thanks to an imaginative leadership, and solidarity in various forms from many sources. Cuba is still with us.

Given recent negative trends in Latin America, this is all the more the case. US policy and Washington’s policies are the biggest factor limiting Cuba’s growth, development. The blockade makes all of these problems worse in and of themselves, and limits the country’s ability to confront its demons, some of which are home-grown.

Please remember this:  When I was 20 and 30, I was a very self-. righteous young activist. I thought I had all the answers. Today, I know I don’t even have the questions. Cuba, to me, is, as Captain Hugh N. Mulzac titled his memoir,  A Star to Steer By.

It’s not a model to be copied, but an example and an experience to be studied and learned from. Some of its successful experiences can help people elsewhere to learn how to build a better world for themselves and their children.

It’s now 2:00 AM Saturday morning. I have to put my stuff together and get ready to go to the airport in the morning. I’m sure there are important matters I’ve forgotten here, but readers will remind me of them. I still have to shower, shave, dress and then try to stay awake for the next few hours so I can get to the airport on time later in the morning.  Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read these thoughts. Your reactions will be of interest. I encourage you to share them. I’m very tired now.

Walter Lippmann edits CubaNews.

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