Sunday, November 27, 2016

Cane Syrup

Isla de Vieques was the closest I ever got to Castro's Cuba back in 62 during the crisis.  Beautiful place back then even though it was being used as a bombing range and an amphibious exercise area.  It must be twice as beautiful now that much of it has been turned into a national wildlife refuge and the landing beaches into tourist havens.   I have a hankering to revisit, who wouldn't?  Balmy Caribbean breezes, latin music, PitoRico rum with lime juice, palm trees, sandy beaches, snorkeling,   Although I would not want to go back through the surf inside an AmTrac.  Or by C-130 either, the cattle had to be chased off the dirt strip that served as an airfield before take-off or landing.

And it was where I first heard the sweet songs of Celia Cruz also known as <i>La Cubanisima</i>.   Not this particular song perhaps, but many like it.


  1. As a Canadian, it was (and is) fairly easy to visit. Took my family there one cold February.

    I found the people friendly and the weather warm. (although it did get chilly at night).

    We went on the usual propaganda/museum tours. What was most annoying about the tours was that at our lunch stops we would inevitably have a band which would play music to us (no canned music there). Unfortunately, what we really wanted was to be left alone in quiet so we could chat about what we had seen that morning. But it would be economically difficult to simply dismiss the band without a tip (because it is clear that we were the "golden goose"). And it would be an insult to give the band the (small by our standards) tip without listening to them. So we reached an compromise with our tour guide / handler. The band would play their best and shortest number. We would agree that they were a fine band deserving of a tip (and they inevitably were fine bands), which was duly handed over. The band would then go to the other side of the restaurant where they could continue to play for the other patrons and we could analyse what we had seen and think about how it affected whatever things were on the afternoon agenda. (I have a very intellectual family).

    As far as Castro goes, the thing I noticed was that there were essentially no statues or images of him to be found. Lots of monumental images of Che and other Cuban heroes. But of Fidel himself, nada.

  2. December's "battles" piece will be Santa Clara/Yaguajay, 1958, in memory of the old tyrant...

    1. FDChief -

      I saw you had draft on that. Am looking forward to it. Hope I did not jump the gun on your battles piece by posting this?

    2. Not at all, Mike. I'd hoped someone would post about the Maximo Lider but figured I wouldn't have any competition in discussing the military side of the Revolucion...

      Which, BTW, is turning out to be surprisingly difficult. I'll talk more about it in the post.

      Complex subjects, Fidel and the fall of Batista. No question but that the sonuvabitch was a straight-up caudillo but with a twist, one that I think genuinely wanted to improve the lives of his countrymen. IMO the US handled him as clumsily as we could have; I think a smarter policy could have helped rein in the worst of his tyranny.

      Or maybe not. He was pretty clearly an autocrat of the Lenin breed as witness his policy towards the rival revolutionary groups like the DR within days of 1/1/59.

      In the end, for all that he DID do some good for his people it's hard not to lump him in with the Pinochets and Noriegas as just another Latin strongman...

  3. Ael -

    Hope those musicians got some grande gratuidad from you.

    I and millions of my countrymen envied you and all the Europeans that traveled to Havana. All those great Macanudo cigars that we missed out on, hand rolled by teenage senoritas. JFK reportedly got a shipment of a thousand Havana cigars before he signed the executive order against trade with Cuba. And what about Havana Club rum - the real deal not the Bacardi knockoff. So we hurt ourselves. For what? For internal politics? For Florida sugar growers? So much for trade sanctions. They are useless IMHO unless enforced against any and all sanction breakers. Just another case of Americans shooting ourselves in the foot. I understand Trump also did some bizness with Castro long before the sanctions were lifted.

    What part of Canada are you from. My mother's grandparents were wetbacks from the Maritimes. Her maternal grandparents originally from Nova Scotia eloped one night and snuck across the border into Maine after her father forbade the marriage. The wife and I visited once a few years ago to look for great-great-grandma's family farm in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia. But it had been turned into Greenwood RCAF base, in WW2 I presume. They did let us on base though and a young MP Corporal brought us to the old cemetery. He was just back from Afghanistan, very polite and very accommodating. My bride cadged his name, rank and serial # and wrote a thank you letter to his commanding officer. She also tried to fix him up with one of our granddaughters, but that never got off the ground. Mom's paternal grandparents were from New Brunswick. Alas, we have no family stories of their transit.

  4. Yes, the musicians were all very good. It turns out that decent guitar strings are very difficult to get in Cuba. We brought a number of boxes and sometimes tipped with strings attached.

    Cuban bars were very strange. When you bought a rum and coke, they only pored the coke into the glass. A bottle of Havana Club was on every table (right next to the salt and pepper shakers). You could add as much (or as little) rum as you cared.

    I made sure that my kids saw a cigar factory. People working on row upon row of desks rolling cigars all facing the manager's desk at the front It looked *exactly* like a typical school room. I explained to them that their industrial education looks a lot like an eighteenth century factory.

    I am from Western Canada (the northern prairies). Winters are very cold and very dark. A two week break in Cuba in February is wonderful. I am still angry at a previous Canadian government who turned down the Turks and Caicos islands offer of joining Canada a few decades ago. The stated reason was that we would have to pick up their medicare costs (for all 5000 inhabitants).

  5. Ael -

    I golf with Canadians January through March when I head south to the desert. No balmy breezes and palm trees like you get when you head to the Caribbean. But we have cacti, gila monsters and those reddish pink diamondback rattlers. There is a little trailer park in the desert filled with snowbirds and rainbirds from the Northwestern states of the lower 48 plus many from British Columbia and Alberta, even one Saskatoonian.

    Great people. But all elderly like me, and always complaining about American healthcare. They buy a short term health insurance policy to cover them while they are here, very expensive they say. Claim they are not eligible for US Medicare and not covered by the Canada Health Act while here. Which is counter to what I had heard about some type of cross-border care agreement. But maybe that is just for special cases or maybe just for short term visits?

    PS - How do they charge you for the rum if you do your own pouring?

    1. They don't charge for the rum, you paid for the coke.

    2. Amazing, it was over $20 per bottle last time I was in your fair city of Victoria.

  6. Canada is no different than the US. Medicare pays no benefits outside the US, and many "private" health insurance policies do not pay overseas, either. The US does have treaties with some countries allowing people receiving Social Security or the foreign equivalent, to buy into the country of residence's retiree social healthcare program. But that is for people who have established legal residence, not tourists or "snow-birds".

    The EU has cross border healthcare coverage for "necessary/emergency" care that grants citizens of member states traveling in the EU access in other countries on the same basis and cost as the citizens of the country being visited.

  7. FDChief -

    Ahhh - "Maximo Lider"! Isn't that a title he shared with Manuel Noriega? At least Benito and Adolph had the subtlety to forego the 'Max' designation in their honorific.

    Yes, the man became as bad as the man he fought against. Batista II? And he carried a grudge against America all his life. I guess who wouldn't after the CIA keystone-cops style attempts on his life. But all of those helped him both politically within Cuba and internationally. He should have written polite thank you notes to Allen Dulles et al. And at least one assassin, 'Marita Lorenz', ended up as his lover. I should be so lucky to have the CIA launching 20-year-old senoritas into my bed.

    1. Don't think that ol' Cara de Piña had the same nickname, tho I don't know enough about his standing in the country to know whether his cronies called him that. I heard him called "the chief" (el jefe) a couple of times.

      In all honesty, it's hard to see how Castro doesn't end up as just another caudillo. Part of my looking at places like the Philippines and Paraguay and Cuba really hammers away on what a goddamn awful colonial power Spain was. For pure savagery the Belgians were probably worse, for quantity it'd be the Brits, and for general incompetence the Portuguese...but in terms of "pretty much guaranteeing a completely shitty post-colonial experience" you've got to give the Spanish credit. Between the incompetent schlamperi of the Spanish monarchy and the ridiculously vicious socially feudal fucktardry of Spanish society it'd be hard to find a less salubrious sort of thing to impress into a beaten-down native population. That most ex-Spanish colonies are political shitshows is about the least surprising thing in the world.

      So to be even an "enlightened despot" would have been a hell of a stretch for Fidel.

      Mind you, given our track record with supporting despotic dumpster fires from Iraq to Chile I'm not sure that We the People have much to crow about...

  8. If I had to rummage around and find one thing to say good about Fidel it would be his farkling about in Africa. He was perhaps the one true ally that the ANC found to fight the white apartheid government in South Africa. While you can argue about the virtues of the ANC it is nearly impossible to ignore the vices of the apartheid state, and Castro, for all his other faults, gave real, concrete, military help to the black majority that were being uri, vinciri, verberari, ferroque necari in the RSA.

    So boo to the old bastard in general but he did the Right Thing at Cuito Cuanavale.

  9. Chief -

    You also gotta love Castro's "health care for all". And the Cuban doctors that worked for free internationally throughout Latin America and in Africa before Doctors Without Borders was even founded. The national sports culture. All those programs I believe were inspired by his buddy Che, AKA Doctor Guevara and not by Fidel. Che was also key in in Cuba's literacy campaign.

    But with the firing squads, and political prisoners, and the forced leveling of society, and the block wardens, over 10 percent of the Cuban population risked drowning to leave Castro's paradise. How many others were similarly disillusioned but were too busy surviving hunger and finding ways to feed their children rather than feed the sharks.

    1. Yep. An "enlightened" despot is still a despot, and ol' Fidel was never THAT "enlightened". He did some good for his people in the same way that a smart warden keeps the cons well fed and entertained so as to prevent riots in the prison yard.

      My question is; "what now". His brother Raul is barely younger than he was, and I don't know if there's anyone in the "next generation" with the same sort of mythical hold over power in Havana. As you pointed out, conditions in Cuba are dire enough that (assuming that the U.S. is smart enough to do what it did with the USSR and China and offer consumer goodies in return for "engagement") it's gonna be hard to sell this generation of Cubans on "revolutionary discipline" without the generation of the Sierra Maestra to hector them about the invidious Yanquis.

      (FWIW, one thing I'm finding all over the place in reading up on the revolution is how pernicious the effect of the U.S. sugar conglomerates was on Cuba. One thing that I suspect has helped ol' Fidel tamp down the spark of a new revolution is the long memory of how shitty the Yanqui dolla made Cuba back in the day. As those memories fade with the death of the Fidel generation I suspect that the end of Castroism won't be far behind...

    2. Oh, and I'm not so sure that there weren't a LOT of Cubans that were perfectly jake with the "forced leveling of society". Pre-Castro Cuba was a sort of Randite paradise, with a handful of very wealthy families and a LOT of poor people. I think seeing those richie riches get their conge' made a lot of Cubans OK with their poverty. On a RELATIVE scale they were doing better than they were under Batista.

    3. Well, if you stack Cuba up against, say, the Dominican Republic demographic statistics wise, Cuba comes out ahead in almost every measure.

  10. No doubt he was a hero to much of the Cuban population. And Che was a hero to much of the world including many Americans in the sixties and 70s.

    I used to wonder how their revolution was so successful in Cuba, but was such a failure in the Congo and Bolivia. But Cuba was ripe and ready to fall. Like you imply, a few grains of upper-class sprinkled on a cauldron of the down-and-out was just waiting to boil over.

    Batista was much worse than Fidel. It is claimed 70% of arable land was owned by foreigners - absentee landlords. The rest by Batista's plantation owner friends. Arthur Schlesinger was quoted on Cuba saying: "The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the government's indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice ... is an open invitation to revolution."

    Let's hope we don't end up that way.

    1. I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately as I read up on Batista's Cuba. And I don't think there's a genuine risk of a Trumpista coup. The "democracy" layered onto Cuba after independence wasn't even sturdy enough to be called a veneer. More like a thin coat of paint. Batista - and Castro - were the rule; Trump is an exception.

      But. I do worry that the next four years will see the "normalization" of two very Cuba-like practices:

      - The imposition of minority oligarchic (or fundie theocratic) policies thru ostensibly legal means, thus generating an increasing cynicism and disregard for the rule of law and, worse,

      - the widespread acceptance of open corruption.

      The latter, I think, will be exceptionally troublesome. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have encouraged far too cozy a relationship between private profit and public largesse. But Trump's whole business model is founded on grifting other people's money and IMO his most chilling pronouncement so far has been his imperial "if the President profits from it then it's not a conflict of interest". Brrr...

      Because one of the worst, most divisive parts of pre-Castro Cuba was the open, casual, brutal corruption. The Havana coppers even had a whole elaborate system they called "foraging" that hit every shitty little bodega and every butcher and baker up for a peso or a sausage or a loaf. It was that sort of blatant graft that hit every Cuban right in the wallet and made them hate their government right down to the beat cop.

      Between Trumpian graft and a "law-and-order-your-fucking-lives-DON'T-matter" approach to law enforcement...if you think public cynicism and anomie are bad now...

  11. News is saying Fidel (or his ashes) will be buried next to Jose Marti. That will cause a lot of gnashing of teeth in Miami. Wonder if his sister Juanita, who was turned by the CIA will be allowed to attend. Fidel reportedly once called her a 'counter-revolutionary worm'.

    The cemetery is in Santiago de Cuba less than 40 miles from Guantanamo. Here is an old article from 2007 stating that Castro never cashed the rent checks that the US Treasury sends for the Guantanamo lease.

    We only pay $4058 per month for that base. So figuring if Raoul finally cashes them after 57 years that would add up to less than $3 million. A bargain considering the base is 46.8 square miles or almost 30,000 acres. Not bad, a hundred dollars per acre over 57 years equals less than 15 cents per acre per month? We've been cheating the Cubans bigtime it seems. No wonder Fidel never cashed those checks, and no wonder he hated us so. But my head is swimming so someone should check those numbers. And there is probably some time value of money calculation I should have thrown in.

  12. I kind of chuckle over all of this. Batista was a despot. Corruption reigned supreme in his day. By the time he was toppled, some 70% of the useful land was owned by foreign interests, primarily Americans. The American based Mafia controlled Cuba's booming vice trade, and American corporations controlled Cuba's industrial output. Anti-Batista miscreants were publicly executed. In return for being allowed to rape the Cuban economy, the US provided military aid to Batista as an "anti-communist" program. Meanwhile, the general Cuban population suffered more and more.

    Is there any wonder as to why a revolution succeeded.

  13. At times, I wonder if the anti-Castro sentiment among Cuban Americans is similar in some ways to pro-IRA sentiment among Irish Americans. More emotionally and romantically based than fact based. Definitely, in the case of Cuba, fertile ground for American "Better dead than Red" mentality.

    1. I think a lot more of it was extreme bitterness and anger that Castro had cut them off from the sweet life, at least for the "first wave" of upper- and upper-middle-class Cubans who knew their fates were written as soon as the guerrillas rode into Havana. The elite families lost damn near everything and they were pissed about that.

  14. Two very interesting comments in this Atlantic Magazine.......
    First, by Richard Kornbluh, a respected observer of Cuban history:


    When you go back to the history of U.S.-Cuban relations and you see that really the breach in relations came over rhetoric, and thin-skinned U.S. officials—you know, we’ve got the most thin-skinned U.S. president-elect probably in the history of the presidency at this point. And somebody who loves to be a bully, and somebody who plans to bring new meaning to the expression “the bully pulpit” of the presidency. I am worried, because of Cuba’s defensiveness, and because Cuba refuses to be bullied, I am worried about how quickly the situation could deteriorate. I’m worried that it will, but hoping that it won’t.

    And second, by Editor in Chief Jeffery Goldberg:

    Fidel himself “reveled in his half-century confrontation with America, and, he knew, I believed, that it would be more difficult for Cuba to resist battalions of Yankee capitalist hoteliers and an invasion fleet of Fort Lauderdale-based cruise ships than it was to defeat the hapless landing party at the Bay of Pigs.”

    1. P.J. O'Rourke - who could be bitingly funny when he wasn't being an utter d-bag - wrote something to the effect that the Soviet Union collapsed because, as much as anything else, it's people got sick and tired of wearing Bulgarian tennis shoes.

      If the U.S. Congress had lifted the embargo twenty years ago Nike would be Cuba's biggest employer and Cohiba would be trading at 57 bucks a share on the NYSE.

      Sometimes our foreign policy is completely screwed by some vocal minority here in the States...

    2. One has to ask what, exactly, what we accomplished, other than imposing needless suffering on the population. After the fall of the USSR, Cuba posed no threat to to the US or our "allies", other than a refusal to fall prey to US economic imperialism.

      It's not clear what impact a Trump Presidency will have on US - Cuba relations. He has simply said he wants "a better deal" and identified human and religious rights as issues. Trump's competition for a "better deal" in Cuba, is China, which has a significant head start and has taken a path of mutual benefit versus Trump's America First. While some American hotel investments have worked out since Obama's thaw, it's been China that has landed the infrastructure, petroleum and tech business. And Cuban rum is flowing quite well to China. No way AT&T is going to get their hands on telecommunications again, after their previous system was used to monitor and undermine the Cuban government. If Trump plays his usual self, aided by his anti-Castro boosters, China may very well establish a nice economic beachhead 90 miles from Miami.

  15. Tanks Al for the link to The Atlantic article.