CUBA, Visit of the New York City Labor Chorus
Beginning on April 17th the New York City Labor Chorus spent an extraordinary week in Cuba that none of us will ever forget.
We gathered at JFK airport to take the weekly charter flight to Havana. This flight is open to all Cubans with family living in Cuba and to groups with a license from the US State Department to travel to Cuba. We fell into the latter category, since we had a license for a cultural exchange. Our experience at the airport was the low point of the week, fortunately it just got better and better from there.
At the airport we spent an inordinate amount of time in various lines – to check in, to get a seat assignment, to check our baggage, etc. Fortunately, my terrible knees qualified me for a wheelchair, and I was whisked from the baggage check area to the gate in grand style, only to wait for a couple more hours for our flight to be called. When it was (45 minutes late), we were carried by bus from the gate out to the plane, which was parked half a mile from anything else. Those of us with disabilities were lifted up by a winched-up truck, so we didn’t have to climb stairs, a pretty amazing experience in itself!
The flight, which was scheduled to last three hours, was actually longer than that; we were supposed to land at 6:30, but we landed about 9:30. This meant we were too late for our “welcome” dinner. Our two busses to arrived at the Hotel Nacional about 10 PM. Most fortunately, the hotel staff met us with big trays loaded with mojitos! After finding our lovely room in this charming old hotel, my roommate Barbara Barnes and I ate sandwiches we had brought with us and went to sleep.
When we awoke, we discovered we had a very wonderful view of the harbor from our hotel room. I took quite a few pictures of the view and searched for the swimming pool (which we actually couldn’t see from the room, as it turned out). Each morning we had a buffet breakfast courtesy of the hotel, after which we boarded our busses.
First we traveled to Friendship House, the headquarters of ICAP, Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos (the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the People), the largest international solidarity Non Govrnmental Organization (NGO) in Cuba. It is the organization with which many U.S. groups work to create people-to-people exchanges with Cuba.
ICAP also has a travel agency, Amistur, that promotes the specialized tourism to their country with programs that follow the suggestions of the clients. They receive more than 200 specialized groups a year.
ICAP gave us our orientation to Cuba, with a couple of speeches and films, after which we had lunch at their café, preceded by the inevitable mojitos. The piece de resistence of the lunch was guava ice cream. Friendship House is lovely (see pix).
Following the good lunch, we went to rehearse at the Bertolt Brecht Theatre. Conditions there were less than ideal – the only lights were on the stage and the only seats were in the audience. We couldn’t read our music, so we had to get up and move all the seats. By the time we got everything rearranged, instead of three hours, we had about an hour and a half for our only rehearsal of the week. Then, many of our members had little or no concentration. It seemed a disaster in the making.
We had to hurry back to the hotel because many chorus members had arranged to attend a seder being held by a local Sephardic congregation. So Barbara and I figured we had enough time to take a quick swim before dinner.
Those of us who weren’t seder-bound made our own dinner arrangements. Elizabeth, the guide on Barbara’s bus, suggested a “house” restaurant, one, as the name suggests, run in a house or apartment. She made the reservation for us at a place called Piso Quince, or Fifteenth Floor. It was indeed a lovely 15th floor apartment with a view of the sunset over the bay. As one of the earliest arrivals, our table got its choice of entrees and we all chose lobster. It was quite good, the service was excellent and the sunset was glorious - a great experience to start off our week in Cuba!
The next morning we set off for the Plaza Vieja (Old Square). There were lots of things to see – the Basilica where we would sing later, the ancient aqueduct that brought water into the city, the workshop school that teaches trades to young people, etc. In the square itself there were several museums, but my knees were unhappy so instead of the museums, I sat at an outdoor café, watching a group of tiny children being led in play by some caretakers in the center of the square. I also watched quite a few other interesting people, notably a group of medical students from the United States at an adjacent table.
After a couple of leisurely hours, I joined the rest of the chorus for lunch at a restaurant, Santo Angel, across the plaza. We were serenaded by Ventus Habana, a female wind instrument quartet.
On our way back to the Basilica, we purchased little things like bookmarks, refrigerator magnets and hats. I started on a long search for coasters from Cuba.
The basilica and monastery of San Francisco de Asis (Saint Francis of Assisi) were built in Havana at the end of sixteenth century (1580-91) as the home of the Franciscan community, and were altered in the baroque style in 1730.
The church was used for worship by the English during the years in which they ruled Havana. When it returned to Spanish rule, they chose not to use it as a church. It is now used for concerts. Attached to the Basilica is a bell tower.
At the Basilica, we met the National Chorus of Cuba, a group of professional singers. Initially we were intimidated, especially after we heard them sing. They were terrific. However, when we sang “La Bayamesa,” the Cuban national song, and the “International” in Spanish, they were charmed and amazed. By the time we got to Rockin’ Solidarity, they were eating out of our hands. Although we could not achieve their level of professionalism and pure sound, we do have a charm of our own. All my photos of the National Cuban Chorus and of us were taken by Jesus, who’s just a demon with a camera.
Following the concert, we bussed back to the hotel, where we were once again responsible for our own dinner. Barbara and I went swimming and then had a sandwich at a café adjacent to the swimming pool.
Another early night was welcome, as the bus for Matanzas was scheduled for 7:45 the next morning. Our first stop was at the beach at Varadero. Varadero is a resort town in the province of Matanzas, one of the largest resort areas in the Caribbean. It is also called Playa Azul, which means "blue beach" in Spanish. It is above all a tourist resort town, boasting more than 20 km of white sandy beaches. The 1990s brought the start of a hotel building campaign, mostly 4-star and 5-star resorts. Many of the hotels are operated or co-owned by foreign businesses. As international tourism opened up, the local population expanded with the arrival of people, some in key economic positions, from other parts of Cuba.
At the beach, my friend and bus seatmate, Kathy Goldman, scattered the ashes of her long time friend and companion, Jessie Cagan. The water was incredibly clear and beautiful; Kathy was surrounded by friends and Jessie got a good send-off. The majority of the chorus either swam or just walked around the lovely white sand beaches and many had no idea about Kathy’s purpose there.
After that, we had a really good lunch at a restaurant just above the beach, where I had the only good white wine I found in Cuba, the main drinks being beer and rum. The area between the restaurant and where we were to meet the busses was filled with little shops selling souvenirs. I started looking in earnest for coasters and even asked others to look for them as well, with no success here.
The busses whisked us back to Matanzas, the capital of Matanzas province. It is famed for its poets, culture, and Afro-Cuban folklore. It is located on the northern shore of Cuba, on the Bay of Matanzas, 56 miles east of Havana and 20 miles west of Varadero. Matanzas is called the "City of Bridges," of which there are seventeen crossing the three rivers that traverse the city. For this reason it was referred to as the "Venice of Cuba." It was also called "La Atenas de Cuba" ("The Athens of Cuba") for its poets. Matanzas means "massacre."
In Matanzas we met Coro de Camara de Matanzas, the regional chorus, at the Evangelical Theological Seminary.
Seminario Evangelico de Teologia was established in the city of Matanzas in 1946 as an ecumenical training center. It is governed by a Board of Directors elected from the three establishing denominations - the Cuban Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian Churches. Representatives from the faculty and administration also serve as members of the board.
The seminary provides high-level theological education to prepare students for full-time ministry in churches and other Christian service endeavors throughout Cuba and elsewhere. Students representing more than a dozen Protestant denominations have completed studies at Matanzas Seminary.
The seminary provides high-level theological education to prepare students for full-time ministry in churches and other Christian service endeavors throughout Cuba and elsewhere. Students representing more than a dozen Protestant denominations have completed studies at Matanzas Seminary.
Jana, our director, noted that the Matanzas choir sounded remarkably like the National Chorus of Cuba, so she asked the director about it. He explained that all choral directors in Cuba receive their training at Weimar, in Germany, so they employ the same techniques of direction. Their sound was clear and pure – no vibrato at all – and really lovely. They did sing one spiritual, and the director anxiously asked Jana over and over if they did it “right.” She finally suggested that they might loosen up a little!
After that, we returned to Havana. Barbara and I jumped in the pool and again ate at the little café, before going to our room to pack up for our trip to Pinar del Rio and Viñales. I have to say that by this time, my hydrotherapy had worked on my knees, which felt much better. So much better, in fact, I was considering that a miracle had happened!
The road to Pinar del Rio was relatively long, and Jesus used it to fill us in on a wide variety of things Cuban. Jesus seems to have an eidetic memory, remembering everything he’s ever heard, and thus was able to give us many facts – more than I could possibly remember, although I tried!
At my request, he gave us detailed information about the Cuban health care system. The system has three levels: the primary, or local, level, the secondary level consisting of regular hospitals; and the tertiary, or research (or specialized) level. The primary level consists of neighborhood health clinics, staffed by doctors who know each constituent, supplemented by nurses and other health professionals. Each neighborhood clinic keeps extensive records on each constituent. Also each local neighborhood has a Committee in Defense of the Revolution, which knows everyone in the neighborhood. If any patient is given medication or some other kind of health directive, a CDR person might be asked to check on them to see if everything is going ok. This is a sort of well-person level, designed to keep everyone on a more or less even keel.
People may be passed up to the next level for a variety of reasons, among them diabetes, AIDS, or pregnancy. Pregnancy needs to be followed more carefully than regular conditions, such as allergies, etc., as do diabetes and AIDS. Local health care professionals can watch these conditions, but they do have thousands of patients and sometimes cannot follow them as closely as closely as required. In that case, patients are referred to a district hospital, where they need to turn up for regular appointments.
The third level, of course, is for the most serious level of diseases. I can't remember how many facilities he said Cuba has for this level of care.
The main tenet of the system is universality. Everyone has the right to "free" health care and access to any and all needed services. The system of neighborhood doctors and nurses who know their constituents means that those who wish to ignore their therapies don't get left alone. They are reminded by social workers from the clinic, or their local CDR rep or even neighbors. This is to help reduce the numbers whose conditions might rise to level two.
Right after the revolution, it was decided to train more doctors, so they set a system of medical schools all over the country. If an area has no specialists in any particular type of medicine, they use recorded lectures of the foremost experts in the country, and these CDs are sent where they are needed. Then when doctors want to specialize in one of these types, they are sent for practicums (residencies?) where the experts are. Classes are held in the local clinics, where basic medicine is taught. In this way, many doctors have been trained.
There is an international brigade that goes to other countries in need of doctors. Cuba sent soldiers to flight alongside freedom fighters in Angola, and a brigade of doctors was sent along with them. These doctors treated Cubans and Angolans - no matter on what side they fought. Ever since that time, Cuba has sent doctors to help out (in many ways like Doctors without Borders). Cuba had 800 doctors in Haiti at the time of the earthquake and sent many medicines and more health care professionals immediately.
Cuba trained a lot of ophthalmologists, who did a lot of cataract surgeries until there were only a few Cubans each year who needed it. They then offered to help other Latin American countries, principally Venezuela, which sent hundreds to Cuba for the surgery. Eventually the Venezuelans who came to Cuba for surgery filled up all the hotels and all the flights, so no tourists could come. Then Cuba proposed sending ophthalmologists to Venezuela to perform the surgeries -- it was cheaper all around, and Venezuelan ophthalmologists were trained at the same time. Now Venezuela is more or less caught up and the Cuban doctors have come home.
He also told us about the fish farms as we passed them on the highway. Cuba's reservoirs or man-made impoundments contribute the bulk of the country's inland fish production. The importance of reservoirs as major inland fisheries was recognized as early as 1959 when possibilities of their development were tested for the first time in 13 reservoirs with 14 million meters of water. Since the 1960s, as more and more reservoirs were created for agricultural purposes, added emphasis has been placed on the development of their fishery resources. Today, in addition to two large, six medium and 228 small reservoirs, there are numerous small impoundments contributing the bulk of inland fish production.
Known for eating everything in its path, and even for stinging people, the African catfish (Clarias gariepinus) is feeding debates in Cuba while at the same time it is filling family dinner plates. The species was introduced in Cuba in 1999 with the aim of raising the fish in freshwater tanks. But the torrential rains of 2001 and 2002 from hurricanes Michelle, Isidoro and Lili spread the fish throughout the country. Since then, they have gained a negative image. They are popularly seen as ugly and 'disgusting' because 'they eat anything,' and as frightening because they can move on land, making use of their rigid fins. The worst charge against them is that they are killing off other species, endangering the ecological balance. 'But the filet of those fish is good, and we should think about how to raise them in the farm’s ponds. That would help contribute to greater availability of food,' said Raimundo García, head of the project at El Retiro.
Jesus also answered questions about insurance. As we paused at rest stops along the highway, many of us drank pina coladas and mojitos. Some were concerned that our drivers might be drinking and driving. So I queried Jesus about insurance. He said everyone who rents or owns a car in Cuba had to have insurance. From whom do they buy insurance? The government. What happens if there’s an accident? The government reimburses the rental agency. Who is the rental agency? The government. Bus drivers, Jesus said, have to have more insurance than anyone else and be better drivers than anyone else. Penalties on bad or dangerous driving by bus drivers are higher than for anyone else, he said. Our bus drivers, he assured me, were drinking “virgin” pina coladas or mojitos.
Insurance is available for many things. For example, farmers can insure their crops. The government wants keep farmers in business, since their work is vital to the interests of the country. One bad season, one season with two or three hurricanes, must not be allowed to wipe out any farmer, lest the country go hungry.
Jesus also talked about all the flora of Cuba. He showed us some trees that have red bark. He said those are called “tourist” trees, because they turn red in the spring and summer. He also told us there are approximately 54 kinds of palm trees in Cuba. One is called “pregnant palm,” because it has a fat area halfway up the trunk.
In connection with a discussion of housing, Jesus slyly mentioned that Cubans are famous for having invented “silent sex,” because most young couples have to live with their parents for a few years before they get a place of their own. Cubans can get a mortgage (from the government) and build their own house, usually in a place where there are already a few houses, a clinic, a shop, etc. Jesus never explained how a family goes about getting an apartment in a high rise (which he and his family have).
I just can’t remember all the wonderful things Jesus told us, although I have tried. He really made the trip more interesting than it already was.
So we arrived at Pinar del Rio replete with knowledge. Pinar del Rio is the capital of its province. Inhabitants of the area are called Pinareños. The city is located in a major tobacco-growing area and is a centre of the cigar industry. Many of the province’s people are descended from people who were brought from the Philippines by the Spanish to work tobacco plantations.
Tourism is also an important part of the province’s economy. Though the town of Pinar del Río has some places of cultural and historical interest (such as the Cathedral of San Rosendo, a 19th Century construction), most attractions are to be found in rural or natural settings. A major destination is the Viñales Valley.
Pinar del Rio is home to one of the island’s premier baseball teams, the Tobacco Growers, which won the Cuban “World Series” this year over the Ciego de Avila Tigers in Game Six. We were unable to see a game because they were on hiatus between the playoffs and the national championship. [They don’t call it a “World Series”]
In Pinar del Rio we met with a group of middle-school children, who sang to us, and we sang to them, under the auspices of the local ICAP leaders (see pix). A salsa band also played, and we had a great time. Soon after the singing was done, we were back on the busses on our way to the only restaurant in the area capable of seating 60+ people. We had barbequed chicken (mine was great; Barbara’s was underdone) and the white wine was vinegar – I had learned my lesson. Beer for me after this!
Getting back on the busses, we headed for the Viñales Valley, a karstic depression. Karst topography is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite. The valley has an area of 1K32 km2 (51 sq mi) and is located in the Sierra de los Organos mountains. The conspicuous cliffs rising like islands from the bottom of the valley are called mogotes. Jesus called them “hillocks.
Tobacco and other crops are cultivated on the bottom of the valley, mostly by traditional agriculture techniques.
Viñales is a major tourist destination for hiking and rock climbing. The local climbing scene has started to take off in the last few years with many new routes being discovered resulting in an increase in local tourism.
Before European settlement, the area was the home of a remnant Taíno population swelled with runaway slaves. The area was colonized at the beginning of the 1800s by tobacco growers from the Canary Islands.
The area has been protected by constitution since February 1976, and declared a national monument in October 1978. The Viñales Valley has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since November 1999, for the outstanding karst landscape and traditional agriculture as well.
Attractions in Viñales include the nearby caves (Cueva del Indio, Cueva de José Miguel, Cueva de Santo Tomás) in Valle de Viñales National Park, which were refuges for runaway slaves. There is also a cave that doubles as a nightclub. A particularly interesting cave is the Cueva de los Portales, beside the Río Caiguanabo, where Che Guevara set up his staff headquarters and dormitory as commander of the Western Army during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Casas particulares (private residences that have been tailored and licensed to operate as bed and breakfasts) offer accommodations to visitors year-round. There are also three three-star hotels located a few kilometers outside of town, one of which was La Ermita, where we stayed overnight.
We got a police escort through the twisting, winding road up hill and down dale. And naturally, we stopped at a rest stop, where many handicrafts were sold and piña coladas drunk. It was a lovely site, overlooking one of the two picturesque hotels in the region and the beautiful Viñales Valley. Many pictures were taken.
Our busses descended into the valley, drove through the very picturesque town and then up to our hotel La Ermita. It occupies a site overlooking the valley on several hillsides. We had one whole wing surrounding the swimming pool, where we all gathered as soon as we could put our luggage in our rooms and change into our suits. A nice poolside bar kept us in our happy mood until we went to change for dinner.
Dinner was on an open-air terrace overlooking the valley, where we watched the sun set. Breakfast was served on the same terrace, where we watched the sun rise to color the valley. We had to hurry, of course, since we were catching the busses back to Las Terrarazas, and then to Havana.
One of the main destinations for nature tourism in western Pinar del Río province is Las Terrazas Community, where a project combines sustainable development and tourism in the mountains. This ecotourism center is situated in an area of around 5,000 hectares, in which a project of sustainable rural economy is being developed, based on the rational use of its natural resources for tourism as a major way to revitalize the zone's economy and improve the people's standard of living. The buildings in the Las Terrazas Community have been designed to blend with their surroundings.
Las Terrazas is situated in Sierra del Rosario, one of Cuba's natural strongholds, which was designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1985. It was conceived as a miniature city, with basic urban facilities and an architectural style harmonizing the buildings with the landscape and surrounded by the natural beauty of nearly 800 plant species and more than 70 species of birds, many of which are endemic. Its beautiful white houses with colorful roofs are surrounded by ponds and gardens.
We enjoyed a lively exchange with several salsa-type groups in the community center, after which it was great to walk down a steep hill and pass through the homes of several artisans who made woodcuts and prints and carved claves and delicate bird-mobiles. Later we ate lunch at a hilltop restaurant, joined by one of the bands, Hermanos Morales. They sang while we ate.
As storm clouds gathered, we rejoined our busses at the foot of the mountaintop for the return trip to Havana. On our arrival, we were taken to the Martin Luther King Jr Center, located next to the Iglesia Bautista Ebenezer (Ebenezer Baptist Church) where an Easter Friday service was in progress. At the conclusion of the service, the church youth group, Generacion con Proposito, performed. Then it was our turn. When we sang “We Shall Overcome,” the whole congregation rose, joined hands and swayed back and forth. Many in the chorus were in tears, moved by the show of solidarity.
Two members of SEIU (Service Employees International Union, I believe) handed out union caps to the young people in the group. There were many hugs and more tears of joy.
But soon the busses took us back to the hotel. Members of the chorus Board went to the home of the uncle and aunt of Cuban-born Mariana, who recently joined the chorus and had done all our Spanish introductions for us. Her husband Bob is a long-time chorus tenor, Board member and major organizer of our trip. As the Board bookkeeper, I was also invited.
The house was lovely and had a beautiful back patio with a fountain, where we gathered. There was food and drink (I stuck to beer) and an Afro-Cuban band in the Santaria tradition to celebrate the birthday of Ione Foote, a long-time chorus and Board member. It was just amazing – an evening none of us will ever forget! Even my photos don’t do it justice!
Meanwhile, Barbara and three other members went to a restaurant located in the home where Mariana was born, which by all reports was very good.
By the time we finally made it back to the hotel to check in after our return from Las Terrazas, I was totally exhausted. It had been a long week, packed with so many exchanges and encounters that I was unable to put one foot in front of another. I decided that I was going to have to miss the next morning exchange, with the Cuban National Trade Union. Those who went said it was as great as all the others, but my morning, spent on a chaise longue by the pool, was just the respite I needed.
When the group returned to the hotel, Barbara opted for a quick dip in the pool, after which we had sandwiches and salad at the café and then left for the Orden Tercero Theatre to have an exchange with La Colmenita in Old Havana.
La Colmenita (the Little Beehive) is the National Children’s Theater Company and has grassroots origins as a family and neighborhood-developed and supported program. The goal is to build self-esteem and social responsibility among young people through participation in the performing arts. La Colmenita has traveled internationally to more than 10 countries, including Germany, Japan, France, Argentina, Panama and Chile, as an Ambassador of Goodwill of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It has been favorably received with its outstanding performances like “La Cucarachita Martina” (“Martina, the Little Cockroach”), which was what they performed for us.
To broaden access for all children, La Colmenita reaches out to include youth with physical and mental disabilities. Rehearsals take place after school to facilitate the integration of the children who attend special schools. Children with limited mobility are coached and supported by their able-bodied co-workers. Although most children choose to join the theater groups, some children are referred to the group as a form of therapy.
Local communities of children and parents have now developed La Colmenita groups all over the island to include10,000 children. La Colmenita is supported by Global Exchange’s Cuba Program. Global Exchange is a nonprofit human rights organization working for political, economic, environmental and social justice internationally.
After the conclusion of this inspiring exchange, we had a little extra time before we had to be at John Lennon Park, so our guides decided to take us to a huge covered open-air market. There was almost every kind of handicraft you could imagine available in this huge market, and I set off up and down the aisles looking for coasters. After only one long aisle, I hit the jackpot, finding a fellow who made coasters out of the lids of old cigar boxes. I bought a set each for Barbara and myself and set off to find a nice place to rest. On the waterfront, where men were playing dominoes and there were several refreshment stands, I enjoyed a beer with Mariana and Bob until we were called back to the busses.
John Lennon Park on that hot afternoon, with chairs set for us and for honored guests in the audience, was a fitting conclusion to our week of cultural exchanges. We had our photos taken sitting beside the statue of John Lennon on a park bench. We sang “Imagine”, as well as several more songs that had become our standards for the week; then we listened to a group from the Mariana Gonitch Singing Academy (who were very badly miked but totally valiant). In the audience was Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, who served as Cuba's Permanent Representative to the United Nations for nearly 30 years and later served as the country's Minister of Foreign Affairs, from 1992 to 1993. Alarcón has served as President of the National Assembly of People's Power since 1993, and because of this post, is considered the third-most powerful figure in Cuba. He now spearheads efforts to free the Cuban Five and is a familiar figure to US citizens who have been involved in Cuba solidarity work.
Following this exhilarating but exhausting day, we headed to Cathedral Square where we had our farewell dinner. We had taken up a collection as a “tip” for our two guides and two bus drivers – intrepid souls that they were – so we celebrated them. We also celebrated our equally, if not more, intrepid director, Jana Ballard; our wonderful accompanist Dennis Nelson; our fearless leaders Barbara Bailey, Bob Greenberg and Mariana Gonzales. We took photos of each voice part (I missed out on the bass section somehow) and enjoyed the end of our tremendous week in Cuba. It is a week in which we learned many things and a week we will never forget.
We had to check out of the hotel that night because early – too early for most of us – we had to grab a bite to eat and board the busses for Havana International Airport. This airport makes the one in Temple, Texas, look good. It is spacious and there is a snack bar, but other than about six rows of hard chairs and large customs checkpoints, that’s about it. We waited for our plane, which this time arrived in a timely fashion – after all, it had to pick up passengers in New York for the return flight to Havana that afternoon.
We arrived more or less on time at JFK and although we had to wait in a very long line to go through customs, it moved reasonably rapidly and our luggage received no scrutiny by customs officials. I was very happy to see Dan again, having missed him a lot, and we made it back home without incident. It was a very calm end to an extraordinarily eventful week. I look forward to a time when the blockade will be ended and we can welcome our friends from Cuba to visit us here in the US!