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Category Archives: Cuba
In a sidebar titled Health without Wealth the Lonely Planet travel guide to Havana gushes about the impressive achievements of the Cuban health care system. Not to just pick on Lonely Planet, Michael Moore in his documentary Sicko presents Cuban health care as greatly superior to American health care—at far less cost.
As a self-employed person with four kids I’ve naturally had trying moments dealing with health insurance bureaucrats in the United States, not to mention figuring out how to pay for coverage. My personal view is that anything other than a single payer medical system is ultimately unworkable, and we are nuts to interpose health insurance companies with a profit motive between ourselves and our medical needs. Tying health insurance coverage to employment is also crazy in my opinion.
So I’m no fan of the American health care system. Before leaving for Cuba, I tried to figure out how health care could be as good as some sources indicated in a third world country with material shortages so bad that soap, toilet paper, and analgesics (such as aspirin) are in short supply. I would love to be able to report that the Cuban health care system is as good as Michael Moore says it is—but it just ain’t so.
My family has two premature kids (Julian and Katie Rose) and we’ve had four high-risk pregnancies. So I was very interested to visit the high-risk pregnancy ward shown in the photo in Trinidad, Cuba. I brought a duffle bag of baby clothes and Tylenol to Cuba. After giving these to the director, I was able to look around and snap a few photos.
If you look at the photo, you’ll see that things are reasonably clean (not apparently true of all Cuban hospitals). However, there are no medications, no IV drips, no monitoring equipment and not even a thermometer. The ward provides iron bed frames, you bring your own sheets. The only thing on offer is bed rest.
None of my children would have survived in Cuba.
It seems true that Cuban medical schools produce numerous doctors (many of these trained physicians are exported to Venezuela in exchange for oil). It’s free for Cubans to visit a doctor, but there’s a grave shortage of anything one of these doctors might prescribe.
In the Moore film, several 9/11 clean-up workers who were dissatisfied with their medical care were invited to Cuba to be treated “like average Cubans.” In fact, these workers were taken to one of the exhbition wards in a Havana hospital reserved for the elite, or for foreigners with hard currency.
There is some medical tourism to Cuba (particularly from South America) and the clinics available to foreign tourists are clean, with doctors and nurses waiting for tourists to show up. But these are not the facilities the average Cuban sees. Nor are even the most basic medical necessities available in drug stores, making the fancy asthma inhaler purchased cheaply at a Havana drugstore in Sicko quite a miracle indeed.
In a CNN interview, Moore suggests that people should get off his back regarding the Cuban segment in Sicko because the success or failure of the Cuban medical system is not as important to his premise as the success of health care in Canada, France or the United Kingdom. He’s got a point, but Sicko is a film that cost nine million dollars to make and has taken in more than twenty-four million dollars. Moore was snookered or is lying, or both—and it’s just business that he is sticking to his guns and not admitting he erred.
The Cuban government boasts of preventive care, longevity, and low infant mortality rates. It’s hard to place much faith in claims of preventive care in a country in which smoking is rampant, and more-or-less officially condoned. The claims of longevity are essentially unverifiable and based on statistics from a government that is notorious for its propaganda machine. The low infant mortality per live birth rate is probably a skewed statistic, with a built in bias because of the practice of aborting all fetuses with any signs of trouble, and because of the way live births are counted. (My daughter Katie Rose, born at 24 weeks gestational age, probably would not have counted as a live birth in Cuba.)
It’s great that there is universal health care in Cuba, and it is also great that there are so many trained doctors available. It must be incredibly frustrating for these doctors not to be able to provide even the most basic health care needs because of material shortages.
Related story: Fifty Years after the Revolution.
I don’t know very much about this old woman. I photographed her in Las Terrazas, Cuba—part ecology preserve and part Potemkin village attempting to show off the “wonderfulness” of Cuba 50 years after the revolution.
I don’t know much about her, but it seems to me that the lines on her face and the look in her eyes comprise a map of her life. She has seen many things, not all of them happy.
This is a fisheye shot looking down the staircase in the Edificio Cuervo Rubio, an art deco apartment building at Calles 21 y O in the Vedado section of Havana, Cuba across the street from the Hotel Nacional. Like most of the housing stock in La Habana, this gourgeous building has seen better days. But the elegant design of days gone by remains, and it is in far better shape than many other apartment buildings I photographed. There’s a marble statue in the lobby beneath a circular shaft heading up to the roof; I’ll be posting a photo at some point.
If you look carefully, you can see a chained bicycle at the bottom of the spiral staircase.
Exposure data: Nikon D300, 10.5mm digital fisheye, 15 seconds at f/20 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.
In Cuba, posing for tourist photos is a desirable profession—and a good way to get convertible pesos. All it takes is to be “sweetly picturesque in rags” and official permision. The government license comes with a special plastic ID card that savvy photographers make sure is tucked out of sight when they take those “authentic” photos of Cubans. Of course, almost everyone will pose for you on the black market even if they are not licensed.
You can see that this Lonely Planet cover model found in La Habana Vieja may be sitting down; but he is not resting on his laurels.
I shot this view of the Malecon in Havana, Cuba from the small bluff that the Hotel Nacional sits on. (More about the Hotel Nacional later.)
The two minute exposure gave the clouds a chance to spread out and show their colors in the moonlight. This exposure would have blown out the Malecon itself in the foreground of the photo, so I used a layer mask and a gradient to combine in a darker version shot at 20 seconds.
You can see a row of people living their life along the Malecon sea wall. But the long exposure has “flattened” them in some strange visual way—so even the people seem to be merely accessory to the landscape.
This is a fisheye shot looking up from beneath the bell tower stairs at the Revolutionary Museum in Trinidad, Cuba.
At the entrance to the empty museum, I asked the guard—who had been sitting out in the plaza—whether I could go up the tower before I paid my one C.U.C. (convertible peso) admission. I had no interest in another set of rooms filled with memorablia from the revolutionary era. I did want to climb the tower. But when I got the to point shown in the photo there was a barrier across the stairs. So I went back down and asked for my money back. The guard came up and removed the barrier, asking me to be sure not to ring the bells.
The view in this photo has definite shades of Escher, but stay tuned: Playing with the image is in my plans.
Museo de la Revolucion, formerly the Presidential Palace. View this image larger.
Prologue to a Revolution
On a humid and unseasonably hot day in March of 1957, forty-two men armed with sub-machine guns, carbines and automatic pistols crammed into the back of a small delivery truck. Two other vehicles, a Buick sedan and a Ford roadster, each with four armed men in shirt sleeves, accompanied the van. The assault on the Presidential Palace was on.
Inside the dark and hot van the men debated about contemporary art. One was a painter of realistic scenes. Another painted only abstracts. Comrades in revolutionary arms, they could not agree about the goals or methods of painting and bitterly fought the academic battle between realism and modernism. Another pair of men played chess on a small set by the dim light filtering in through the crack between the rear doors, with onlookers kibitzing in whispers.
At the Presidential Palace, dictator Fulgencio Batista waited in the Salon de los Espejos (the Hall of Mirrors), reading The Day Lincoln was Shot by Jim Bishop to pass the time. Brutal tyrant and pawn of the American crime syndicate, Batista knew the attack was coming, if not exactly when (he expected a night assault). In the corrupt climate of Havana it was impossible to keep a secret, and an informer had given the outlines of the conspiracy away in the torture chambers of Batista’s secret police.
Salon de los Espejos (Hall of Mirrors). View this image larger.
Through sheer shock and surprise, the first wave of the assault overpowered the guards at the gates of the Presidential Palace and proceeded up the marble stairs to the Hall of Mirrors on the second floor. But Batista had fled to the upper reaches of the Presidential Palace, sealing the way behind him. Meanwhile, the guards regrouped outside the palace. Most of the rebels died on the marble stairs of the Presidential Palace. The blood ran down in streams into the neighboring park, where bullets chipped nearby buildings and accidentally killed an American tourist. Of the thirty-five men who made it into the palace, three made it out alive.
By the way, Fidel Castro had nothing to do with the assault on the Presidential Palace. At the time, Fidel was doing his guerilla thing in the mountains listening to the news on his scratchy short-wave radio. “Comrades,” he announced, “Something big is happening in La Habana.” He later deplored the action as a useless waste of human life.
The Granma Memorial
Today, fifty years after Fidel toppled Batista from power, the elegant Palacio Presidencial, with interior decoration by Tiffany, has become the Museo de la Revolucion. Inside the Museum of the Revolution there’s no sign of the brutal struggle that raged on the symmetrical marble stairs beneath the Tiffany dome. But out the backdoor is the second half of the Revolutionary Museum, with artifacts from the revolution treated with the reverence normally reserved for relics associated with holy saints. Here you’ll find the delivery van the rebels used in their attack on the Presidential Palace, each bullet hole lovingly coated and painted to preserve them against the oxidation that is normal to the climate.
Preserved bullet holes in the delivery truck. View this image larger.
You’ll also find an entire ship preserved behind glass. This is the Granma, the boat that brought the Castro brothers, Che Guevara, and other revolutionaries to Cuba from Mexico in 1956. Purchased for $15,000 from an American couple, the Granma left Tuxpan, Mexico with 82 men and a cache of arms.
It was a terrible trip, plagued with confusion about which way to go, sea-sickness and overcrowding. The engine broke down, and needed an overhaul at sea.
Arriving later than expected, the Granma missed the expected rendezvous point, and landed in a swamp. The beached Granma was spotted by a government plane, and the expedition was betrayed by the party’s guide. The few survivors tried desperately to stay alive. Guevara attempted to extract water from a puddle with his asthma apparatus. Castro, alone with two of his men, sucked sugar cane stalks and hid in a cane field for several days.
It is nothing short of a miracle that from this inauspicious beginning came a successful revolution. Miracles are associated with beatitude, and beatitude with holy relics. It fits the pattern to see the Granma at the Revolutionary Museum, polished to the nines—one of the few things in Havana with fresh paint that isn’t deteriorating—sitting under a crumbling roof near the bullet-pock-marked delivery truck, the tank Castro used during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and other relics. The truth is that the level of organization shown in both the Granma expedition and the assault on the Presidential Palace was pretty Keystone cops. Woody Allen had it about right in Bananas.
Che and Camilo
The exhibits in the Museum of the Revolution start on the third floor, in the former Presidential suite that Batista fled to when the rebel assault came. Behind glass cases you’ll see documentation of the incredible brutality of the Batista regime, and detailed diagrams of the battle plans of various rebel operations. Some cases include guns the rebels used, the boots they wore, and the radios they used. Captions are in Spanish and (very) fractured English.
In one open room there’s a life-sized diorama of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos in the Cuban jungle. I had the feeling that if the technology had been available and affordable this would have been animated with the sounds of the jungle and distant Batista aircraft bombardment, smoking pistols and all, like something Disney would do.
Diorama of Che and Camilo in the “jungle”. View this image larger.
Castro seems to have had a penchant and knack for converting his military commanders with prestige that might rival his own into martyrs. It’s well known that Che went (or was sent) to Bolivia, where he was ambushed. What are purportedly Che’s bones now rest under a monument near Santa Clara, Cuba.
Che’s visage is a visual constant in modern Cuba, and each year a new Che calendar is seen everywhere. The hagiography of both Castro and Che benefits greatly from the great photography of Alberto Korda, Castro’s staff photographer; although Che does not rate highly in my book as pin-up material, apparently there are those that think otherwise.
Camilo is less well known outside of Cuba than Che. One day in Havana I witnessed long lines of school children and soldiers marching down to the harbor to drop white flowers in the ocean in memory of this martyr, one of the most important revolutionary warriors, dead more than fifty years.
The story I heard in Cuba was that Camilo had been ordered in 1959 to fly to return with a traitor [presumably Hubert Matos]. Camilo disappeared without a trace, despite a massive search for any trace of the hero or his plane.
You don’t have to be a student of Jungian archetypes, Bruno Bettelheim on fairytales or the purges following the Russian revolution to recognize this story as familiar and inherently implausible. As Hugh Thomas puts it in Cuba, “Speculation about Cienfuegos’ death has continued. …No doubt this is one of the many matters that history will elucidate…”
Why the continued emphasis on revolution?
A revolutionary government that has been in power for fifty years is oxymoronic, and one has to ask oneself about the point of this particular example of Orwellian doublespeak. The label may have made a little sense during the years when Castro had the world’s third largest standing army and was attempting to export revolution to other third world countries. But now the continuous epithet of “revolutionary” applied to the authoritarian government in Cuba, along with the hagiographic iconography of the revolutionary generation, can only be seen as an attempt at justification for the regime’s existence and an attempt to rationalize the failures of the society the regime has spawned.
Cuba is a beautiful country with warm, welcoming and educated people. It’s also a land of contradictions, a place of food shortages and bread lines where vast acres of fertile land lie uncultivated.
Cuba is a banana republic with a back story of gangsterismo and an overlay of dysfunctional Stalinism.
As an American, I feel bad about missed opportunities—and the substantial role that ignorance, avarice and greed have played in America’s long relationship with Cuba. On the other hand, it’s clear that the problems in Cuba run far deeper than the American embargo.
This is a panoramic view of Havana and its harbor taken from the huge statue of Jesus that overlooks the city. I stitched together 18 captures using Photomerge in Photoshop CS4 to create this panorama. The level of detail that it shows is best appreciated in a larger size.
Related story: check out this panorama of San Francisco and the Golden Gate.
Across the street from the Cuban capitolio nacional under a dark and crumbling arcade a mother and two daughters watched me. She asked me if I wanted to take their photo. I wasn’t very interested, but snapped a few frames to be polite. Then I offered her a little money.
“No, no,” she said. “Buy my girls some milk.” Before I knew it I was a milk scam victim.
The scam was well organized. The mother marched me into a nearby store, they produced one bag of powdered milk for each of the girls, I paid ten times the market cost of the milk, and girls and mother (if indeed she was their mom) swiftly disappeared with the milk. All this took place a breakneck speed before I could stop to think.
This occurred on my first day in Havana. I was hot, tired and disoriented. I probably would not have fallen for the ploy later in my trip. I also might have remembered that Cuban children seven and under are entitled to subsidized milk as part of their rations, and that inexpensive powdered milk is widely available for older kids.
It’s hard for me to turn down anything that involves kids—which is probably why I didn’t just say no. But I also think the story of this milk scam is interesting in terms of the social corruption it implies.
I’d suppose the store split the proceeds with the mom, with the store getting the lion’s share. But this occured in a store right across from the capitolio. There’s a pretty big police presence, and it is hard to imagine they don’t know what is going on. So there’s a chain of graft and corruption that goes up from my milk scam towards the top of Cuban society. Every Cuban has some kind of racket going on the side, because their salaries from the government in combination with rations are simply not enough to survive on.
I’d like to believe in the best ideals of socialismo, but this kind of thing makes it hard indeed. Very, very sad.
The dome of the capitolio nacional is a landmark that can be seen from many parts of Havana, Cuba. The building sits between Centro Habana and Habana Vieja (the partially restored old city).
The area immediately surrounding the capitolio nacional is a locus of tourist scam activities. Jinteras (female escorts) ply their trade. Boxes of counterfeit Cohiba cigars are sold as supposedly swiped from the factory in dark rooms across the street from the capitol. In all fairness, I was badgered by people whispering “Psst! Want to buy a cigar?” everywhere I went in Cuba—so it is not just the capitol area that is awash in these counterfeits.
The capitolio nacional was built by American-backed strongman Gerardo Machado in the late 1920s. In tribute to those who kept him in power, the exterior mimics the capitol building in Washington. Inside the building, you can wander the aisles of the senate and house of representives chambers. My sense is that there was never any serious attempt at bicameral representative democracy.
Today, the capitolio nacional is mostly an empty tourist attraction. You can see in my photo of the Salon de los Pasos Perdidos (Great Hall of the Lost Steps, so named because of its acoustic properties) that someone waxes the floor and keeps the place clean. A large diamond used to sit in the entrance hall to mark the zero point for all Cuban travel distances. The diamond has been replaced with a facsimile. Rumour has it that the real diamond sits in Fidel’s office.
Exposure data: Nikon D300, 10.5mm digital fisheye, two exposures (0.25 of a second and 0.6 of a second) combined in Photoshop using layers and masking, each exposure at f/13 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.
This is a back staircase in the rundown Palacio Ferrer in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Built by sugar baron Jose Ferrer Sires, the Palacio housed one of the leading families of Cuba’s colonial sugar oligarchy in great style.
Today the dilapidated Palacio is a so-called cultural center, although the only evidence of culture I could see was a much worn piano, probably last tuned at about the time Fidel took power.
Exposure data: Nikon D300, 13mm, six exposures combined in Photoshop using masks and layers with exposure times between 20 seconds and 1/2 of a second, each exposure at f/22 andf ISO 100, tripod mounted.
Night comes to El Malecon, the boulevard that runs along the ocean. Old Havana glimmers in the distance. Soft light and surf spray in the air soften decrepitude. Lovers meet, music plays. You’d never know this isn’t the good life.
Exposure data: Nikon D300, 65mm, 30 seconds at f/11 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.