This is the sixth post in a series about Cuba that starts here.
I was in Santiago de Cuba with my 82-year-old new best friend, Shirley, and the Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas.
We went to hear music, the ostensible reason we had flown over 500 miles in a Russian rust bucket of a plane with pilots who worried about funny noises. The music happened in a very decrepit but charming sort of open hall with cavernous ceilings and rickety benches for seating, if you could find a space to sit. The walls had peeling layers of old paint in different colors; I knew people in the states who would have paid big money to get that look.
“These guys are famous!” exuded Ed. “I can’t believe how lucky we are to hear them live!” I had never heard of the band and couldn’t tell them from the ones that preceded or followed them. Not that they weren’t great—to my unsophisticated ear they all sounded marvelous. There were no CDs or T-shirts for sale, and no posters I could take a photo of to help me remember who they were.
The next day we toured Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, a 17th Century Spanish fort. All I remember about that is how hot, hot, hot it was, and how I kept trying to find a sliver of shade to stand in while the guide yammered on about history.
We went to a (thankfully) shaded glen to listen to a priestess speak about Santeria, an African religion practiced in some parts of Cuba. There were endless gods and goddesses of wind, water, fire, battle, fertility, and so on. It was all very interesting but I forgot all of it by the next day. I have friends who can recite historical dates and names—in which year the artist Diego Blahblabla painted that Madonna with child in that old church in such-and-such a small city. But not me. If I hadn’t jotted notes each night in my hotel room I would never have remembered as much as I have here. And of course the great goddess Google has helped me reconstruct a lot as well.
We toured a primary school. Our guide explained that education was compulsory to 9th grade, so everyone can read and write. Well education is compulsory through 10th grade in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean everyone can read and write. There are things you hear on tours in other countries that are just best to keep your mouth shut about.
The guide told us about the Cuban emphasis on arts—painting, music, dance, literature. Everyone played a musical instrument, wrote poetry, or could illustrate a point with interpretive dance. Then there was the love of baseball. All boys played baseball and loved it. So much for women being full comrades. I figured there were at least a couple boys who did not love baseball and would have preferred to be ballet dancers. In my head I heard my friend Bette, the one who is married to a Cubano who has made documentary films about baseball, saying “They promote the arts and baseball because they are disciplines. They distract people from how hunger, and their lack of basic rights.”
Our guide paraded the children out onto the playground for us, where they sang a patriotic song and made a disturbing gesture very much like the Hitler salute.
We went inside and viewed an empty classroom, which had rows and rows of new computers. “These were donated by the Spanish government,” our guide said proudly.
This was when I forgot to keep my mouth shut. “So the kids can surf the Internet?” I asked.
“These computers are state of the art,” the guide continued, ignoring my question.
“Do you get a fast Internet connection?” I kept on, cluelessly.
“They have the highest memory capacity available in the world.”
Oops, I finally got it. There was no Internet. Nowadays Cubans can buy “access”—meaning the government blocks many sites and monitors what users look at—for $2 an hour, a huge expense for the average person who earns $20 a month.