Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Even Communists Need to Relax on the Beach Sometimes

Remember that time I went on a trip around the world....like a year ago? Yeah, well I'm still not done writing about it. However, since I just went to Cuba, I've decided to take a break from the big trip and write about this one. Plus, I've had a huge number of requests to write about Cuba. I'm talking at least two or three people told me they'd like to read the Cuba post now. I feel I need to give the people what they want, so here's my trip to Cuba.

Viva La Revolucion

Me and Che

What year did the Cuban revolution begin? 

If you were to guess based on the number of revolution monuments, signs and rhetoric in Cuba....you would think this year. Turns out, it took place between 1953 and 1959 (or if you ask a Cuban, it started in the 1890s when the Cubans fought for their independence from Spain...and the US).

Yeah, we get it Fidel...there was a revolution

Fidel and Che in Revolution Plaza

He looks good in those shades

Long story short....they like to portray that there was a revolution and it was a good thing. But what do the people think about this revolution? Lets go to our man on the street, Matteo Levinstein.

Matteo, what are you hearing from the people there regarding their thoughts on the revolution?

Thanks Matt. I'm here on the streets of Havana where the average person in Cuba makes ~$25/month (yes per month). They have a bit of an inverted pyramid system here where more educated knowledge workers (doctors, lawyers, etc.) make much less than bar tenders and taxi drivers because of tips from foreigners (damn foreigners....can I say damn on air?). Apparently, doctors even expect tips because everyone understands that they have no money. I talked to one bike taxi driver for a while who was very well spoken, educated and spoke perfect English. I asked him why he drove a bike taxi (not that there's anything wrong with that) and he said that he could make more money this way. Back to you Matt.

Great work Matteo, but I have to as, "why does anyone become a doctor if they don't make money?". 

Great question Matt. Literally every single person has asked me this question when I tell them the circumstances. The answer that the bike taxi driver gave was, its because they love doctoring. 

The capital building in Havana is 12 feet taller than the US capital building.....but who's counting?

Well it's safe to say that a lot of the Cuban people are very frustrated by their government. It seems like they support the revolution that overthrew Batista. I guess this should be obvious given that he "suspended the 1940 Constitution and revoked most political liberties. He then aligned with the wealthiest landowners and began to systematically profit from the exploitation of Cuba's commercial interests, by negotiating lucrative relationships with both the American Mafia and with large U.S.-based multinational companies." Go America! But people feel Fidel and his associates quickly became corrupt after taking power, basically becoming the thing they had been fighting against 😱. Seems to happen a lot in Communist countries.

I'm getting word that Matteo is live with an interview of a real Cuban person.

That's right Matt. I just bought an ice cream from this very flamboyant gay man. He was very nice, but he is adamant that Communism is the worst word in the world. He pushed very hard that American liberals talk of their idealistic Communist society, but they have never lived the reality and just don't get it. He said that he was hoping to use all the money he was making and get out to country.

Santa Clause
Harsh stuff. Thanks Matteo.

The people of Cuba do get a number of things subsidized, including some small amount of food, education through college and healthcare, but it doesn't quite seem like things even out. However, Cuba actually has some of the best healthcare in the world and people travel from all over to see specialists there. 

Food ration book for Cuban people

The main reason it doesn't seem to be working out, is because the government doesn't keep up the infrastructure of the country. Everything is crumbling.



There is internet, but its only available if you buy a card and then use hot spots at various hotels which is incredibly slow and blocks many sites (i.e. American news sites). And cars are sooo old. I rode in cars from the 40's, 50's, 60's, 70's and probably nothing newer. Some of them are nice and are done up for the sake of vintage, but most are still in use because there are no new cars or they are too expensive.


OK, that's a good one

But can we take a step back for a moment and talk about the Cuban revolution itself? No? Well I'm going to do it anyways because I have the microphone. 

So, lets start at the beginning. The Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel, created the Castro district in San Francisco in the late 1970s by setting up a series of gay and lesbian night clubs there. What's that? Oh, oh Really? OK, I'm being told that the Castro brothers are actually not related to the Castro district in San Francisco. My mistake (it's lucky I have someone reading this in real time and making corrections for me).

The Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel, started the revolution with an attack on several military installation on the 26th of July, 1953 (July 26th flags and signs are everywhere in Cuba). This attack failed and they were sent to prison. But our story doesn't end there. After they were let out, they went to Mexico and trained for round two, where they met a doctor by the name of.....Ernesto "Che" Guevara. They took a yacht named Granma (no relation to my Grandma) to Cuba on November 25, 1956, and soon after landing, all but 20 of them were killed. Not a good start. But through guerrilla warfare tactics and some ridiculously lopsided battles (in the Battle of La Plata, 500 military personnel were captured or killed to three from the rebels), the rebels gained power and the US pulled their support of Batista and in January 1958 the rebels took Havana. Batista fled to the Dominican Republic and eventual got asylum in Portugal.

Train car from the battle of Santa Clara (Che's big victory)

Soon after the victory, Castro nationalized basically everything. $25 billion of private property transferred ownership to the government. Worried about the spread of Communism through Latin America, the US relationship with Castro quickly dissolved and an embargo was put in place which has now become the longest-lasting single foreign policy in American history. Hooray! There was also incidents like the Bay of Pigs where the CIA trained a bunch of Cuban exiles to overthrow the government and tried to play it off like it was just a naturally spawning counter-revolution. It was unsuccessful.

Plane shot down during the Bay of Pigs invasion

It's hard to read, but it says that the corpse of the pilot who was shot down during the Bay of Pigs invasion stayed in Cuba for 19 years because the US never admitted that they were involved in the invasion.

A large population of Batista supporters ended up in Florida and have a very significant voice in US policy (they support continuing the embargo). There have even been several incidents where they have flown over Cuba and dropped anti-Castro leaflets on the island. In 1996, the Cubans actually shot down two of these planes 😬.

After the US embargo, Cuba wasn't doing so well since its a small island and no one would trade with them. So, it started taking the help of the Soviet Union. Like a lot of help. Like $35 billion worth of help. And you better believe the Soviet Union kept track of every penny. However, back in 2014, Vladamir Putin, owner of Russia (thats the former Soviet Union), being the nice guy that he is, forgave all but $3.2 billion worth of the debt. Amazing! Sure, Cuba has $3 billion to pay back.

And the US-Cuba relationship has had all kinds of other fun events...like the Cuban missile crisis where the Cubans asked the Soviet Union to put a nuclear missile on the island to help prevent future invasions by the US similar to the Bay of Pigs. The US didn't like this and somehow worked it out with the Soviet Union.

History is fun!

But the good news is, I was able to broker a peace deal with the US, Cuba and Russia. I made friends with both a Russian and a Cuban guy and we took a picture together which I am sending to Donald Trump in the hopes of promoting world peace.

Bringing the world together

Shortly after this picture was taken, they beat me up, robbed me and left me for dead. Thanks Obama.

From the museum of the revolution

But I know what you're asking yourself now. What happened to our story's protagonists? Well, Fidel was president of Cuba until 2011 when he relinquished power to his brother Raul. He died five years later in 2016. Word on the street is that Raul is retiring next year, but nobody knows who is going to replace him. There is much excitement on the streets of Cuba.

And as for our old friend Che, he wasn't going to stick around Cuba and enjoy the spoils of victory. Well, he stuck around a few years until 1965 and then he decided he wanted to spread the revolutionary gospel to oppressed people of all nations. He went over to Africa and had mixed results getting the people of Congo and Algeria to rise up against their tyrannical governments. Then he went to Bolivia to start a revolution, but was hunted down by the CIA and killed :( 

In my extensive research on the subject, I have heard many versions of this story where Fidel and Che actually had a following out. Fidel wanted power and Che wanted revolution. Fidel was also more of a pragmatist and knew they needed to turn to the Soviet Union for help where as Che didn't want to be beholden to the Soviet Union. Some say Fidel sent Che away to these other countries just to get rid of him. The truth is....a secret which I will not tell you.

Che Guevara in disguise with no beard!!!

Che is the most revered person in Cuba and his picture is synonymous with revolution around the whole world. They even built him a big ol' statue at his mausoleum in Santa Clara, Cuba (should it be "big old"? "big ole"?).

We love Che, yes we do

Jesus Matt, are you done talking about history and politics yet?

Yes Matteo, I am. Sorry.

In Cuba, I also visited a tobacco plantation.

Killin it

Dried tobacco leaves...only the best

Rollin Rollin Rollin
I visited that plantation on a horse.

Thats what a horse looks like

And I also visited La Floridita; the bar where Hemingway drank lots of daiquiris.

Hemingway is hangin in the corner (don't worry, he didn't see me take the photo)

And there was lots of pretty scenery...

What is he thinking about?

Thats a good one

Cuba is surrounded by water

Don't worry. There's some nice expensive hotels if you're that type of person...

Even Communists need to relax on the beach sometimes (Ohhhhhhh he said the name of the post)

Cienfuegos is full of Neoclassical architecture


I think they have an arch in every country in the world

One of the coolest places that I went was in Havana and it was straight out of something you find in hipster Brooklyn....or maybe Burning Man. It was this huge warehouse with about 20 rooms filled with really awesome trippy art, DJs, bands, bars and about 1000 awesome people. It's called Fábrica de Arte Cubano (the art factory).

So this is art...


Damn hippies on their bongos

Some people just like to wear chicken outfits


The best part of the trip, though, was the people. Both locals and other tourists. This was probably benefitted by the fact that I didn't run into another American the entire time....not a single one. I think most Americans believe that you are no longer allowed to travel to Cuba. It turns out that you are...but its complicated. There were twelve categories that you were allowed to travel under to Cuba (religious, educational, etc.). Under Obama, everyone travelled under....blah blah blah. Bottom line is, they didn't ask me a single question when I returned.

Oh yeah, but I was talking about the people. So, I stayed in local families' houses that would even cook for me (these are called casa particulares). You can grab these casas through AirBnb or just show up. Since the average salary is $25/month and they can rent a room out for $20/night, there are signs everyone for casas. I was even able to speak some Spanish in these homes (I'm taking classes in NYC...in level 4...NBD). I was also a really nice guy and brought a bunch a thumb drives down to Cuba to give to my casa hosts because they use thumb drives to share movies, music, etc since they have no internet.

And I met a ton of amazing foreigners travelling through Cuba as well. I originally booked buses between the cities, but the bus stations were such shit shows that I didn't end up taking any of them. Instead, I always took group taxis. And they were full of very international crowds. The first one I took had the Cuban driver, a Greek couple, a French, an Austrian, a Russian, two Germans and me (yes it was a large taxi, but the point is about all the countries represented).

The inside of an international car

And once we arrived at our destination, these were the people that I would explore, eat and party with.


And everywhere you go in Cuba has too many mojitos and salsa!


The good news is, I brought back a bunch of cigars. The bad news is, I found out a lot of them are fake. So, if you would like to smoke a fake (or real) Cuban cigar sometime, let me know.

And I will leave you with this parting thought...no matter where you go in the world, everyone is glued to their phones.

🙄 Cubans and their cell phones...amirite?