THE LITTLE COUNTRY THAT CAN
Photos courtesy of Laroye Aña
Architecture is one of many avenues into the heart of a people. I remember my first impression during my 1991 book tour of London’s streets. They told me the story of empire, of exploitation of subject people under the colonialism allowing the massive upward accumulation of wealth that would make those orderly streets possible.
On a recent vacation in Cuba, mostly in La Habana, I glimpsed a city in which a great many of its streets are a photographic negative of London, streets that resemble the bombed-out streets of Lebanon, Iraq, and Gaza, streets that bleed from a 61-year-old economic war that is every bit as deadly and destructive of a country and its people as any shooting war; and just as decay is a slower form of combustion, so economic war is just as savage. It just takes a little longer.
This statement by Bruno Rodrigues Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign affairs, speaking to the UN General Assembly in 2011 sums it up:
“The direct economic damage caused to the Cuban people as a result of the…blockade exceeds a figure of 975 billion dollars, estimated at the depreciated U.S. dollar value in comparison with the gold standard.
“Article 2(b) and 2(c) of the Convention of Genocide of 1948 define ‘serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group’ and ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’ as acts of genocide….
“The objective pursued by the blockade [is to]…weaken the economic life of Cuba, denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease…monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation, and overthrow of government.”
Although many of my readers have made more frequent visits to Cuba than my own single one, (under the “family visit” provision) and will have had far more telling experiences than I, I can’t help wondering why not one of them has ever described this devastation, nor have they shared details of its human toll: a population that manages to live on an average salary of $27.00 a month. That includes its doctors, which currently have sent a brigade to Italy to deal with the pandemic du jour. Cuba has medicines to treat thousands of possible cases of COVID-19.
Cuba is a society blessed with a phenomenal degree of connectivity, the fruit of a vital culture consisting of art, music, dancing, and song as its main expressions. No one is homeless in Cuba, there is no opioid crisis, there is not the hopeless despair one sees in a country hollowed out from within. Because the forces attempting to hollow it out and defeat its revolution, codified by the Toricelli Act (1992; and the Helms-Burton Act (1996) come from without.
In contrast to the dereliction of many of its buildings, in La Habana one sees an amazing reconstructive effort underway, certainly in the prime tourist centers of Plaza de la Cathedral, and Plaza Vieja especially, where one finds a curious array of museums including an automobile museum, a Simon Bolivar museum, a firemen’s museum, a museum dedicated to the history of rum, and the one I found most spectacular, a science museum dedicated to the 19th century life and discoveries of von Humboldt whose Renaissance mind occupied itself satisfying its curiosities about meteorology, geography, and air chemistry among many others. He collected over 70,000 botanical specimens from all over Latin America. The amazingly rich variety of Cuba’s unique vegetation, which triggered von Humboldt’s imagination with its beauty will never desert the Cubans, no matter how damaging 61 years of the U.S. blockade has been to its economy.
The state of the art museum occupies a neatly restored colonial palace, each exhibit designed to engage the viewer actively, and there are occasional mock ups of the instruments von Humboldt favored for his explorations. How was this museum financed despite the U.S. blockade? By the German government. It displays all the fastidiousness one finds in any Goethe Institute. La Habana’s main museum, Las Bellas Artes, rivals any museum in the world for the richness of its modern art collection.
Ever since 1982 when UNESCO declared La Habana a world heritage site as having the most colonial buildings left standing in all of the Americas, various creative ways have been discovered by some of the 186 vs. 2 countries which routinely oppose the U.S. blockade to circumvent its strictures. We see some of those results in the revitalized Habana of the Plaza Vieja district, and the efforts of the State itself capitalizing on tourist revenue. One of the most noteworthy developments is the repurposing of Nuestra Señora de Belen, whose convent and church have been reconfigured into senior housing with 18 apartments, a swimming pool, a physiotherapy center, and an ophthalmology clinic.
One unforeseen result of the the U.S. blockade has turned Cuba into a living laboratory of the kind of de-growth with which, if we are to realize a planetary future, we must engage in worldwide:
•universal health care (Americans might get ideas if that continues.)
•transportation by horse and human pedaling in Habana which increases as one ventures into the agricultural districts to the East.
•city center banned to traffic.
•bookkeeping and inventorying by hand, a skill which may come in handy when power fails.
•scarcity of fossil fuels.
•dearth of material goods, which stimulates creative ingenuity, and eliminates “shopping” as a palliative compensation for depression brought on by government-originated depression.
•active programs of education and general literacy.
•and despite deprivation, no one is homeless in Cuba, no miles and miles of tent cities, there are no opioid or suicide crises, and no traffic jams.
(For a full bibliography and timeline up to 2011 of 117 U.S. initiatives to stifle Cuba, see Rodolfo Davalos-Fernandez: Embargo or Blockade: the instrumentation of a crime against Cuba, Havana, Editorial Capitán San Luis, 2018.)
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Note: The Bay Area is now on full “shelter in place” order after earlier orders on Sunday saying that people over 65 should self quarantine.
Travel is restricted except for essential needs — food.