First EmbrACE Column: What is ‘home’ for ordinary Cubans?

This is the article which was published through the International Faculty Magazine EmbrACE. It is the first column on Cuba, more will follow throughout this academic year.

It was hot, stuffy, and my sweaty clothes were sticking on my skin. But I made it, here I was: In Havana, Cuba. Finally my dream came true and I was backpacking around the island for the next four weeks. And here I was at my first destination. I was sitting in a taxi which brought me from the airport to my casa and I looked20141215_140433 around. It felt like a journey back in time as it seemed like the city fell into a sleeping beauty-like sleep in the 1950s. The cars were old-timers, the houses probably used to be beautiful back in the day but now their fate was in the hands of decay. Although I had known before what Havana looked like from pictures online, I had regarded them at home with a sense of nostalgia and romanticism. But now, as I could actually see the reality, I was kind of shocked. Even the worst “slums” in Europe were in a better state than those houses. And we were in Centro Habana, not in the suburbs. What kind of people lived there, I wondered. And what kind of life do those people live?

What you should know about Cuba is that it is not that easy for tourists to find out how ordinary people live. Tourists are not allowed to spend the night at private houses and instead they have to stay at official casas particulares which are private houses who rent out rooms. The landlords have to register you and let the authorities know immediately where and for how long yo20141215_095706u are staying. Another problem is that even though you are technically staying in a house of a local, there is a class system in Cuba despite its claim to be communist. Ever since the country opened up for tourism in the 90s, there are two currencies in Cuba. The tourist currency, the peso Cubano convertible (CUC) is 25 times more worth than the peso Cubano, or moneda nacional. So basically all Cubans who work in the tourist sector and have access to the peso convertible are automatically significantly richer than ordinary Cubans who are paid in moneda nacional. That is why all the casas I lived in were absolutely gorgeous inside and the families that hosted me were comparably well off. Which means that they had luxurious goods such as a TV, toilets with running water, and if they were extremely lucky even a car.

One day, I actually had the chance to catch a glimpse of what life for ordinary people looked like and what their homes appeared from the inside. A friend of mine had to come by to his family’s house in order to drop something off. He asked me if I wanted to join him, and I saw my chance of seeing the real picture of Cuban life. The apartment was in an ordinary neighbourhood in the centre of Havana, so basically as destroyed as all the other houses. My friend opened the door and I had to hold on my breath. The apartment was so tiny that it did not even deserve to be called an apartment. In fact, it was one room. And this room was everything. In one corner, the kitchen was located. The same room also consisted of the bedroom and the living room, although it has to be noted that the bed was the couch at the same time.  And of course, the din20141215_120453ing room was also squeezed in in this ‘apartment’. It was tiny, but also very cosy. The elderly couple, let’s call them Mercedes and Ricardo in order to protect their identities, were thrilled to welcome a German girl in their home. Especially Ricardo was happy as he was excited to analyse Germany’s performance at the previous world cup with me. Mercedes started to make coffee immediately and there was no question of me and my friend leaving again any time soon. They both asked if I had eaten or if I was hungry and I was amazed by this warm welcome. Then Ricardo told me a bit more about their lives. He, as a retired teacher gets $10 pension, and his wife Mercedes, a retired librarian receives $8. At once, my face started to freeze and I was in shock. I know that people in Cuba do not have to pay rent, that health insurance and education is for free and that people get food stamps. But regardless of this support, how can people live with $18 per month? The prices in Cuba in supermarkets are actually quite high, especially imported goods are very expensive. Everyone I met in Cuba was aware of this unfair system which means that taxi drivers make more than four times more money than ordinary Cubans per month.

Anyways, this encounter , and I was also quite emotional about it. I asked myself how I would cope if I were in their position. These two lovely people also deserve a lot of respect in my opinion. I was amazed to see that people who lived very simple lives were that generous and caring towards strangers. Even though they do not have a lot they immediately offered me coffee and even food. And what also struck me was that they seemed quite happy with their simple lives. Their home was very warm and cosy and it seems like they had made the best out of their situation.

The more time I spent in Cuba, the more I saw that we should not let ourselves be misled by outer-appearances. Although the houses in Havana, and Cuba in general are in an awful state from the outside, there can be real treasures in the inside. And yes, even those “ruins” for some are actual homes to many people. And of course the big question I asked myself was, what determines “home” for me personally? Do I need a TV, laptop, big apartment, and big variety of food, pretty house from the outside and inside to be happy and to feel at home? Luckily, my four weeks in Cuba helped me to answer these questions for myself.

 

Cuba article picture  image

 

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Happy new year

Dear readers,
It might look like it has been a bit quiet for missioncuba lately, but this is certainly not the case! I am very proud to announce that the first issue of EmbrACE has been published, which is the faculty magazine where I am writing a column on my experience in Cuba. Of course, I need to share the article I wrote with you, my lovely readers. The topic of the first issue of EmbrACE was “home”, and therefore I wrote on what ‘home’ means for ordinary Cubans.
We are now currently working on the next issue where I am of course also writing on Cuba. I will keep you up to date about it. Also, I gave my first lecture as a Cuba “expert” at The Hague University of Applied Sciences where I discussed with International Public Management and International Law students whether Cuba is a socialist dream or failed project. We also talked about the mistakes which have been made and how they could have been avoided. I will also try to get the slides online for you with some explanations.

I cannot believe that it has been one year since I ended my travels. The year has passed way too fast, and Cuba is still in my heart. I still follow it closely, and I have also come across some new interesting articles and documentaries which I will share with you.
And of course, I did not finish telling you about my personal travel story! Slow is smooth and smooth is fast (Phil Dunphey, Modern Family). We will get there!

I hope that you will still bear with me, and I am excited to start my second year as a blogger!

Forever yours,

Cins

First TEDx in Habana!

I do not know how I managed to miss this, but as soon as I stumbled across the news I immediately had to share it wit20141225_143336h you guys.
Two years after the application, on November 15th 2014 the very first TEDx event took place in Habana. TED, or TEDx talks are known all over the world for the inspiring talks on various issues. From political topics to societal issues as well as medicine and technological inventions which are shared with the audience and usually  through livestream people from all over the world can watch the event.
In the Netherlands, the country I am currently living in, TED talks occur quite regularly in university cities. But in Cuba, this is a new development. Especially the fact that US-American speakers, as well as Cuban speakers were invited to share their ideas.

Very often, people think that due to Cuba’s political and economic isolation, there is no vibrant art and culture scene in the country. This is simply wrong. Music and dance culture is a fundamental part of Cuba’s life, as well as art20141225_165855s. If people think that street art is something which only belongs to hip cosmopolitan cities, then they are wrong. I remember very well the amazing street art that I saw in Santa Clara. Having said that, the official TED blog describes
The theme: “inCUBAndo!,” or “InCUBAte.” The talks and performances all encouraged the audience to think outside of the box in some way and push their expectations of what Cuba can and will be. “I didn’t want every speaker to give a TED-style talk,” says Levin. “I wanted to give TED a Cuban flavor.” *

The lineup of speakers was very diverse. From a speaker on LGBTQ rights in Cuba, another speaker on organic farming in Cuba and the risks of farming with pestizides, and many more. The event also included dance performances and music, of course.

A very nice quote from the promo video was the statement of an elderly lady who was also giving a talk. She said “Obviously, I have love for my homeland Cuba. But I want to reach out to the whole world!”

Watch the promo video of the first TEDx Event here

You can also watch some of the talks on youtube or here

I wish I could have been there to see the talk myself, but unfortunately I missed it as I went to Cuba around 1 month after the event. Too bad, but let’s hope that there will be many more TED talks in Habana!

*TED Blog, “The first TEDx in Cuba: An event in Habana, two years in the making,” Dec 2014, retrieved from http://blog.ted.com/the-first-tedx-in-cuba/

Picture retrieved from www.cubadebate.cu

Cuba’s connections-culture

It is hot. and stuffy. SO hot. The air condition is not working. I am at the Viazul bus station in Baracoa, waiting for my bus to Santiago. Just as the girl told me, I came earlier and talked to her. Because apparently, there is no more seat available in the connection from Santiago to Havana. But, she told me not to worry. She wrote on a little piece of paper, folded it and wrote a name on it and closed it with tape. She told me to give this message to the person in Santiago and then I would get a seat. So now I am here in Baracoa, waiting in the heat and bored. What could be in the message? Maybe (it was a male name on the message) he was her lover or ex-lover or something and still owed her a favour? Or she had walked into him and saw him committing a crime or even a murder or him cheating… and now she is constantly threatening him and asking him to do stuff for her…. who knows, who knows. Heat and boredom make one creative, I know. As always, my day had started quite early again as I wanted to be early at the Viazul station. I spent my morning trying to look for coffee everywhere. But -surprise- the supermarkets were even more empty than usual. There was literally nothing. Even the guy who usually sells fruit didn’t have anything this time. He told me that due to New Years people were not working and thus there were no products available.  People sent me from one shop to an other. “Oh, try and ask Jose, he might have some…. tell him I said hi…. He lives at street xyz around this and that corner”. Ah, Cuba. Nothing without connections and family relations or something. But still, I gave up in the end. My host Ana laughed hard and said “La gente no quiere trabajar!” (People don’t like working) and I added “No se como los cubanos pueden vivir si no hay nada en las tiendas!” (I don’t know how Cubans can live/survive if there is nothing in the shops). She laughed again and added “Tu no lo puedes imaginar!” (You cannot imagine what it’s like). Even if you have money, doing groceries is always an adventure.

Anyways, I said goodbye to my lovely hosts which was quite emotional. I really felt so comfortable at their place and I had a great time. I had to promise Ana and Ricardo to come back with my boyfriend and they said that we should come to Cuba on our honeymoon if we get married on day. I laughed pretty hard. (As a 21-year old people think it is a normal age to get married in Cuba). Then I took the Bici taxi and got to the station where I am now sitting on the floor in the shadow. A couple is playing cards next to me on the floor, another couple is sharing some food. I am getting quite emotional. Why is it, that Cuba is mainly a destination for couples, and not so much for individual travellers or groups? My journey could have been so different otherwise.

Finally, the bus driver arrives and asks us to step in. And my 15.5 hour journey to Havana begins….

Picture: Las batallas solo se ganan dentro de una sociedad collectivista.
Battles can only be won within a collective society.
I think that this quote fits the content of this blog entry pretty well as I am explaining how people rely on each other and connections in order to survive in Cuba. luckily, as Cuba is a collective society this works out pretty well. In capitalist societies however people rely more on themselves and don’t help each other out that much.

The end of Cuba’s ration book?

One of the great achievements of the Cuban revolution was the introduction of the ration book. This policy was common in Europe during the wars or times when food security was threatened. It lists necessary food items that people will get paid by the state. The amount per person is also set by the government. These products include vegetables, oil, beans,milk, and of course, very important for Cubans: coffee. During my travels in Cuba, I met a lot of people that lived from less than $10 pension a month. Of course, rent, health insurance, education and necessary services are paid for by the government. However, $10 per month would not be possible to cover the costs for groceries. For this reason, the ration book system is still absolutely necessary in order to ensure people’s decent living.

There are rumors now on the streets in Havana that the days of the ration book might come to an end, however as it does cost the state a lot. With the economy becoming more open, this system might come under threat.

Knowing Cuba quite well, I can say that change is happening in Cuba on a very slow pace. I doubt therefore that the ration book, as well as other socialist policies will be cancelled any time soon. I do not understand the whole hassle that is being made and I believe that the spread of such rumors can also be done intentionally in order to fasten the pace of change. I do not believe that it is the interest of the government to spread such statements and I can imagine that upper class Cubans (especially those who are employed in the tourist sector and therefore have access to the tourist currency CUC) benefits from introducing these discussions in order to confront ordinary Cubans with their possible future.

The vast majority of people I met in Cuba is in favor of the social achievements of the revolution, such as universal health care, free education, and of course- the ration books. We should not forget that for Cubans these socialist values are already entrenched in their culture and way of life and therefore I believe that it is impossible to abandon these practices in the next 10, or 20 years to come.

This video by BBC made me write my response to these rumors and I definitely recommend you to watch it. It is an interview with a couple that relies on the ration book and it also takes you to the “shop” where you can get your monthly rations.

Buena Vista Social Club @ White House !?

Today, on October 15th 2015 the Buena Vista Social Club will be performing at the White House in Washington on the occasion of the Hispanic Heritage Month. The Cuban ambassador, as well as President Obama will be present among many other important guests.

Flashback: In 1998, Compay Segundo, the craggy country singer who emerged as the front man of the band, traveled to Miami with other Cuban musicians to perform at a Latin edition of the MIDEM music conference. The artists were received by Cuban exile protestors, and during the concert the hall had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat.*

It is not new that music can connect people. I do remember how every time when there is an event on the fall of the Berlin Wall the Scorpions song “Wind of Change” i20150105_123434s being played. And there is no more powerful symbol of Cuban resistance and the Cuban lifestyle than the songs played by the Buena Vista Social Club. Everywhere you go in Cuba, especially in the touristy spots, you can hear the sounds of the songs, singing about revolution,victory, and resistance. These songs are surrounded by the touch of nostalgia that you can find everywhere in Cuba, but also the sign of resistance- We are still here! No matter what happens, we will survive! Hasta la victoria siempre!
And this is also a message of the band- they are all pretty old already and doing their farewell tour. But now, playing in Washington for the US President is probably a huge achievement for the group.
Who would have imagined 20 years ago that this would be possible one day?
Music is a way to connect people- and I believe that it is great that Cuban music is now being brought to Washington. It will help to get an understanding of the two cultures and through culture (music, language, etc.) the two countries can get closer to each other. As long as tolerance and acceptance are the basis for it. No one should feel as superior.

I am curious how Obama is going to react, but I am certain that he will love the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. I mean, who doesn’t love it?


* Extract Retrieved from Judy Cantor-Navaz, “Buena Vista Social Club to perform at White House,” billboard, October 13, 2015, read here

Further Reading:
Jim Acosta, “First on CNN:White House to host legendary Cuban Musical Art,” CubaSi, October 12,2015, read here

The pasta struggle

I was at the end of my third week in Cuba. And yes, although I love rice with beans and fresh fish, I began to miss Pasta. I am one of these people who could eat an entire bucket of pasta every day, therefore I felt like a drug addict in rehab. I had given pasta a try in Santa Clara and Santiago already, but it had been awful both times. Watery pasta, no salt, no taste. Disgusting.
While I took a nap on the balcony in Baracoa, I dreamt of eating a bowl of pasta aglio olio, al dente, and delicious. I couldn’t help it anymore, I had to try again.
So there I was, sitting in a Cuban pizzeria, so a veeeeery cheap restaurants where Cubans, not tourists eat, and I looked at the menu. About 1/4 of the menu which contained pizza and pasta had a black mark next to them, meaning that they ran out of it. I ordered pasta con pescado, pasta with fish. Yeah well, that was also not available. So I ordered espaguetti with tomato sauce. Yes, I was desperate.  The restaurant was really interesting. It was very simple, the doors and windows were open but AC was on, there were about one billion flies inside, the TV was on, still some cheesy christmas decoration… and Cuban families enjoyed their pasta.
After a while, I had my pasta with a nice beer. And my dreams were crushed by reality again. Note that Cuban cheese (queso criollo) is horrible. And the watery pasta and sauce without any herbs or spices, salt or pepper just tasted like nothing. There was also no salt or pepper on the table.
Anyways, I ate it, but I decided to let it be and to continue eating typical Cuban food, which is perfectly fine. Good news: The whole menu cost $30 MN ($24MN=1 Euro). And my beer alone was $18MN. So basically $12MN for the pasta, approximately 26 cent.

20141217_141218  my $7MN Pizza in Cienfuegos…. No comment.

You could technically survive in Cuba for almost no money in terms of food. If you are however a gourmande like me, then eating in the casa is probably the cheapest option.
But you can probably guess what the first food I had back in Europe was….. 😉

I wish I could be more like Baracoa

Good morning 2015.
I woke up on the morning of January 01 2015, without a hangover. Wow, this was a new feeling for me.
I got up quite early, had my 4 cups of coffee and fantastic breakfast made by Ana and went to the bus station to get my viazul Bus ticket. I walked there and it was actually really nice. The sun was shining and I was excited. I had made the decision to spend my last five days in Cuba somewhere near La Habana, but not in the city itself. I hadn’t forgotten about the traumatizing Havana experience. I wanted to give the city another chance, but still I did want to be on the safe side this time and have a casa rather outside of Havana but near the beach. My final choice were the Playas del Este again, but the “Cuban” part, not the mass tourist spots. I chatted with Ana about it, and of course she knew someone who had a casa in Guanabo. Alright.
From Baracoa, I would have to catch a bus to Santiago which takes four hours, and then another bus to Havana for another 14 (!) hours. I decided to do the bus trip during the night of course.
I arrived at the Viazul bus stop and talked to the lady. Bad news: She managed to get me a ticket to Santiago, however it seems like there was no spot available from Santiago to Havana. We talked for a bit. She was my age and seemed pretty cool. Then, she smiled at me and said that she was going to help me and that I should come back earlier tomorrow. She said that she would call in Havana and that she would try to get a spot for me. For some reason, I didn’t really mind and started walking back to the city. Well, worst case scenario would be that I had to sleep at the bus station in Santiago. How exciting! 😉
I took a nice walk at the ‘Malecon de Baracoa’ next to the rough waves which clashed against the cliffs. I loved this. Salty air, the sound of the clashing waves. I breathed in and closed my eyes and thought about how much I loved this place, when suddenly heavy raindrops reached my head. Two seconds later, the rain got insanely heavy and the water fountains fell heavy 20150101_143143on my head. I started to run and tried not to slip- I was wearing flip flops. I ran towards the city center, but the rain kept getting worse. Most people escaped under roofs of houses, and I decided to do the same. So, we stood there and waited. Ten minutes later, Baracoa was filled in sunshine again and the smell of rain and heat mixed again. Despite of the sun, the sky was still alarmingly black with aggressive clouds. It was hot, stuffy, humid, but I was amazed. Baracoa doesn’t follow any rules. This city embodies the rebel, it does whatever it wants. Soaked and wet with my clothes sticking on my skin, I wished I could be more like Baracoa.

hiking in Cuba more popular than ever

Nature lovers, grab your hiking equipment and start exploring the beauty of the island.
The German online newspaper Der Spiegel has published an article on hiking in the Caribbean and it also took Cuba into consideration. During my travels in the country I also took some smaller hiking trips myself. But I met some people, really brave ones, that actually even went further even went hiking on the El Yunque in Baracoa and of course, the Topes de Collantes region between Cienfuegos and Trinidad.

The article is in German, you can find it here.

It recommends the following hiking areas:
> Sierra del Escambray (this is the mountainous region where the first revolutionary revolts started. It was the main area where the revolutionaries lived: in the woods and the mountains.)

>Lake La Habanilla and the national park Topes de Collantes (I wrote a blog entry on it:Topes de Collantes, or: I love Cuba )

Picture: Retrieved from Der Spiegel article, taken by Martin Cyris

Welcome back, or: adieu l’humanité

Dear readers,

It’s been a while, but I have returned from my well deserved vacation. Well actually, I cannot really call this vacation as I spent six weeks working as a slave in a factory in order to earn money to pay my tuition fees. Of course this work was not comparable to factory work in Bangladesh for instance, but still I had to work my ass off during different shifts and in unbearable heat- temperatures went up to forty degrees even in South Germany. Anyways, there are also some things I want to point out, although I know that this blog is supposed to be about my observations about Cuba. Often, the media portrays Germany as the European country which stands for growth, justice and fairness. And again, I would like to remind you that economic growth also has its downsides.
In the company I worked for, Continental, there were two types of employees. On the one hand people like me who were directly employed by Continental itself and who got paid nicely per hour. I as a student had an extra benefit as I get my taxes back. Anyways, the second type of employees is the problem. They are called Leiharbeiter in German, or subcontracted workers. They do exactly the same jobs as the directly employed workers but they on the other hand are paid the minimum wage (in Germany that’s 8,50 Euros). And of course this does not cover health insurance, taxes, etc. yet.
I’ve spoken to lots of these people and heard sad stories that have touched my heart. One of my colleages has three children and works for a subcontractor and in total he has been working for about ten years for Continental. According to the law they can only work for 18 months straight at one factory and then they have to switch to another one, so basically they keep being pushed from one company to the other and end up working for the same companies basically.  I have to say that this way of achieving “growth” makes me sad. Germany’s unemployment rates are low and the level of productivity is really high, especially in the automobile industry. In 2014, Continental has achieved 34.5 billion euros of profits.* This is INSANE. For the last few years, Continental has refused to employ new people directly, but instead it has met the demands for growing productivity with subcontracted workers.  I have observed the same issue in my vacation job from the year before where I worked for the German Post. And the German government is watching this phenomenon, unwilling to force the companies to take action. This is outrageous, and I refuse to praise like everyone else Germany’s position.

A totally different issue I would like to address. I see myself as a political blogger. Born and raised in Germany and having lived in different countries in Europe, I see myself as European citizen rather than a German citizen. And I have to say that I am truly ashamed. I am ashamed to see refugees die on our shores, die in trucks on the highway, die on walls that are being built within Europe only because our politicians fail once again.

I am ashamed to see racist comments and people responding with hate and disgust towards those people that are in need. THE WEST HAS CAUSED THESE PROBLEMS. With wars in the Middle East and supporting extremists with weapons. The Islamic State did not appear out of nowhere. Libya did not become a ‘failed state’ by coincidence. The mess is the responsibility of the world and the mad humanity we have become.

I am ashamed to see refugee shelters burn in Germany. And I would like to point out one thing. If you are one of these “I don’t want to sound racist, but….”- people who say things like “they know what they are getting themselves into by stepping into these boats….” or “they are taking away our jobs….” then STOP READING THIS BLOG NOW. UNFRIEND ME ON FACEBOOK. SEND ME HATEFUL EMAILS OR WHATEVER. That’s all I want to say.

I hope you guys had a great summer. And sorry for drifting off topic. I promise that the next posts will focus on Cuba again.

Cheers.

Cins

  • read their annual report from 2014 here

some pictures of the nice part of my summer in order to end this pessimistic post in a positive way, though:

DSC_0096_1  DSC_0215_1

Kosniak Waterfalls, Slovenia                               Plitwitze National Park, Croatia

DSC_0290_1 Krka National Park

DSC_0384_1 DSC_0386_1

Kupari, next to Dubrovnik: still destroyed by the Yugoslav Wars which took place there in 1991

  • note: the featured image is retrieved from Reuters.