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Cheryl's Trip Report 

Trip Report on Afro-Cuban Culture Trip

July 21-30, 1995

By Cheryl Musch

In the face of the continuing U.S. embargo, my landing in the Havana at José Martí International Airport was a spiritual moment in my life. Tourists arrive daily from Spain, Britain, Canada and Argentina, but U.S. citizens are forbidden to spend dollars in Cuba. I went on a Global Exchange trip to study Afro-Cuban culture--to hear Cuban folklorists, artists, historians, to experience the religious rituals and dance of Santería and Palo (which is similar to voodoo), to visit museums, and to learn about the current political and economic situation in Cuba.

In Havana, we began to build a basis of understanding of Afro-Cuban culture that would prove invaluable for the rest of the trip. Participating in rituals laced with rum, gunpowder, drumming and wild dancing allowed me to enter Cuban homes and lives. In the Atar‚s neighborhood, we met an 80-year-old woman, still the leader of the rumba dance, with long painted nails and an aura of feminine sensuality. In her home, we saw the results of an active and impressive neighborhood association. This independent organization focusses on community development by providing home improvement including painting, restoration, and retiling floors.

Non-governmental organizations such as this one have blossomed in Cuba due to a lack of economic resources. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries, Cuba has been in what they've termed a "special period." One Cuban described this "special period" as wartime conditions without the war. Monthly food rations have been scaled back to the basics. Each month each person receives about 6 pounds of rice, some beans, sometimes some pasta, a little salt, sometimes about 7 eggs or a little bit of meat. Cooking oil, which was previously available, is no longer, and soap and dairy products (except for children under 7) are unavailable. We were told that children did not previously beg on the streets, but now they ask for a dollar or soap.

Prostitution has also become a growing problem in Cuba. Young women who are intelligent and trained to be professional doctors or lawyers have chosen prostitution because earning dollars from tourists pays much more than what they could make as professionals, if they could get a job in their fields.

After spending a few days in Havana, we flew to Santiago de Cuba. Santiago has the highest percentage of Afro-Cubans in the country. In Santiago, we attended the first carnival held there in 5 years. We watched yards and yards of costumes made of the same fabrics--bright orange, black and orange stripes, and nautical anchor patterns--(apparently the fabric made available for costumes) as different groups from Santiago danced in the parade. Later, we joined dancing in the streets and drinking from huge vats of beer provided on the corners for pennies.

In Santiago, we also visited museums which focussed on the revolution--the Moncada Barracks, Frank Pais' house, and the farm from which revolutionaries left for the attack on Moncada. At the Museo de Lucha Clandestina (Museum of the Underground Struggle), we had a wonderful meeting with the Circulo de Abuelos, a group of seniors who told us of their experiences during the revolution. In order to support the revolution, they had sewn uniforms, donated food, and did whatever they could to help the revolution succeed. This meeting was particularly poignant because these Cubans, as others we met on this trip, expressed their complete support for and faith in their government.

The absolute high point for me on this trip was going to Guant´namo for the commemoration of the anniversary of the 26th of July movement. (On this date in 1953, Fidel Castro led a group of young revolutionaries on an attack of the Moncada Barracks. Although the attack was not successful, it is the nationally commemorated date which marks the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.) Around 100,000 people gathered for this event, surrounded by flags, billboards, and banners proclaiming the spirit of the revolution: "Ahora Podemos M´s" and "Socialismo o Muerte." For the past several years, Fidel has put in an appearance at this event, but has not spoken. This year he gave a short (only about 45 minutes!), concise speech much of which addressed the U.S. trade embargo.

The message many Cubans want communicated to people in the United States is to work to end this trade embargo. They point out that they are a small country who threatens no one. An end to this embargo would allow the government to purchase items with minimal shipping expenses. (Currently they contend with hefty shipping costs, importing from points much farther away than Florida and Louisiana.) It would also allow Cuba to increase income earned from their thriving tourist industry.

The Cuban government uses the tourist industry to bring hard currency into the country which is then used to buy essentials. The tourist apartheid that has resulted from increased tourism is one of the things with which I had the most difficulty. My motivation for going on the trip was to learn about Cuba from everyday Cubans. But, hotels, stores, and restaurants functioning in a dollar economy did not allow Cubans (except those employed in the tourism industry) to enter. A woman on the trip who went to dinner at a friend's house could not have him accompany her to her room to get some things for his children. Rather, he was detained in the hotel lobby. At a tourist store in downtown Santiago, they unlocked the door when a foreign tourist's face peered through the window. Otherwise, the door remained locked to keep out Cubans without dollars.

In the face of these difficulties, I found the spirit of the Cuban people and the revolution very much alive. The economy is pulling out of a difficult time, there is support for the Cuban government and its policies, and there is a real spirit of doing what one can individually and collectively for the good of the country. A group of seniors in Havana who work on a collective garden really crystallized this for me. They acknowledged that they were getting older, but could still do their part to support their country. They work daily on a garden which provides fresh lettuce, onions, peppers, green beans and other produce to two homes for the elderly and three local hospitals.

August 11, 1995

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