“Havana lies 250 miles straight south of Pine Island Sound. It’s a 2-day sail, if the wind is just right.” Denege Patterson
Last December, local photographer, Ron Mayhew, took a group of 12 Florida Pine Islanders to Cuba on a People to People Cultural Exchange Program tour. A passionate world traveler and brilliant photographer, Mayhew has been to Cuba many times and sees in the people “a grace and spirit” that he has found nowhere else in the world.
Under the rubble of a 60-year-old revolution, Mayhew’s fellow travelers find the grace and spirit of the Cuban people buried and bloodied, but still alive.
Everywhere in Havana, scaffolding stands, abandoned for many years, before slowly disintegrating, centuries-old buildings. Whether the intent was to restore or to renovate these old buildings, no action has been taken to do either. Scaffolding disintegrating into rust before the once elegant but now crumbling facades of an ancient city is symptomatic of a socio-political-economic system in suspension. It is a metaphor for arrested development.
Historian Denege Patterson, a member of Mayhew’s group and a trained psychotherapist, observed that Havana seems to exist in “a time warp, ending in 1961,” and she describes the people caught in this time warp as “showing a type of body language not unlike the ‘learned helplessness’ that psychologists once saw in dogs who had been electrically shocked and were afraid to come out of the corner.”
The “learned helplessness” is attributed by psychologists to the enforced dependence of the people upon their government for their very existence. Housing is government owned, and citizens shop with ration papers in meagerly supplied, government-sponsored shops. Workers receive government subsistence pay of $40 per month, but jobs are scarce and the government takes 80% of a worker’s income, which is doled back out to the people as free food, shelter, medical care and education.
As all housing as well as public buildings, roads and services are government owned and controlled, the government is responsible for their maintenance. The result is abandoned scaffolding, as well as universal disrepair, described by Patterson as “broken hardware and windows, lack of paint, broken tiles, tarnished metal, unrepaired shingles, grillwork, bannisters, etc. Safety appears not to be a priority in these buildings, nor handicapped accessibility, nor hygiene, nor pest control, nor any septic system that might eliminate sewer gas.
“Government-owned public bathrooms (such as in the airport, government art galleries, tourist stops along the highway, museums, and public areas) do not have toilet seats and no toilet paper or paper towels, and the sinks usually don’t work. An attendant hands out 4 squares of rough, tan-colored toilet paper to women who are expected to pay one peso (one dollar) for it.”
Not unlike the dogs that “are just about everywhere, sniffing around, checking out bits that may have fallen on the street,” the Cuban people “seem to be required to make do with what the government gives them…”
Reduced to absolute dependency, and perhaps afraid to bite the hand that feeds them, the people are effectively kenneled by their government. The entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic for which Cubans are universally admired, is stifled.
And yet, Patterson says, “in their metacommunication with one another, the people are beautiful and relaxed. They do not have air conditioning, so in the evenings they sit in their doorways where there is a breeze and they have conversations across the alley. Without television and Wi-Fi, their social life is much more oriented to daily contact.”
Like the light that glimmers in the windows of the ancient and beautiful buildings of Havana behind government scaffolding, Latin warmth still glows in the eyes of these people and their joie de vivre is irrepressible. The bus driver gives bear hugs and even the rehearsed answers of the government-trained tour guide are endearing in their eager innocence. Music to these people is a form of spontaneous combustion and they dance in the streets. On a tobacco plantation in Viñales Valley, a cigar roller draws the sweet smoke of the tobacco into his mouth with marvelously deep satisfaction, and on a rainy day in Havana, though the dance floor of the Cuban National Dance School is rain soaked, the students perform a Tchaikovsky ballet with “exquisite perfection.”
Don’t Post Me
The director of the Cuban National Ballet, a Cuban who grew up in NYC, was refreshingly candid about her frustrations with the government, but for the most part, people were hesitant. According to a Cuban psychiatrist, Patterson tells us, “a low level of depression exists among the population. The ones who aren’t totally resigned or surrendered to the status quo are extremely frustrated as indicated by body language and a noticeable ability to suppress their throats and tongues from saying any words of self-expression that they dare not utter.”
When preparing for this trip, participants were advised not to ask questions that might embarrass or discomfort people. Tempting an honest, “subversive” answer could endanger the person, proof of which is in the plea of one citizen: “Please don’t post me talking on Facebook because they will find out and come for me.”
It was difficult, therefore, to know whether the responses of the Cubans to questions posed by the Americans were mandated or were expressions of genuine conviction. When asked, “Does Raul and the government have the best interest of Cuban people at heart?” and the answer is, “Absolutely! Cubans have a plan,” we cannot be sure that the response is not a learned one. Even the sentiment, so emphatically and repeatedly expressed by the people, that “Cubans will not allow Americans to tell them what to do or open up to American ways until they are ready,” may or may not be a conviction inculcated by subtle and persistent government propaganda.
Possibly a truer answer to the question, “Are you glad the American people are in this country?” is the emphatic head nodding and dancing eyes that accompany, “You have no idea! The Cuban people have hope for the very first time. There’s not been hope for a very long time.”
Like medical care, education, even higher education, is free but without opportunity or freedom of expression, it serves no purpose. Patterson describes the body language of the Cuban people as “something like quiet desperation and a sense of resignation, and a sort of learned helplessness, which may or may not be reversible. Passivity is noticeable.”
Along with the prerequisite baseball game and visits to such American favorites as the Vegas-style Tropicana night club (of Sinatra fame), to Hemingway’s Finca Vigía, to 16th-century Spanish forts and memorials to the revolution, the Pine Islanders enjoyed a ride in a brand new bus (made in China) along a beautiful, but nearly empty 4-lane highway to a World Heritage site in lush Viñales Valley. For Denege Patterson, however, author of the scholarly book, A Tour of the Islands of Pine Island Sound: A Geological, Archaeological, and Historical Perspective (IAPS PRESS: Institute of Archaeology and Paleoenvironmental Studies, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida), the highlight of the trip was the afternoon she spent with archaeologists in the Cabinet of History in Havana.
The archaeologists are presently engaged in excavations of Ciboney Indian artifacts, and were eager to share their findings with Patterson and Paula Streeter, a docent at the Useppa Museum of History. The exchange of ideas in mix-matched shards of both English and Spanish went on happily for hours until, at a pause in the excitement, one of the Cuban scientists asked quietly, “¿Puedes ayudarnos?”
“Can you help us?” he had asked, and after a moment’s hesitation, Patterson asked simply, “What do you need?”
He needed radiocarbon dating of the Ciboney artifact he held in his hand. Without the help of radiocarbon technology to give archaeologists the approximate age of the artifacts they were discovering, no accurate analysis of their finds could be made.
Whether American archeologists will be allowed to assist is uncertain, but the histories of Florida and of Cuba have been interwoven at least since the European discovery of the Americas; like quarreling lovers, we cannot long be separated.
The Cuban people say that our coming gives them hope. In their eyes rises, in mute supplication, the same question asked by the archaeologist, who, cradling in his palm a precious artifact of our shared human history, lifts it from the water asking, “¿Puedes ayudarnos?”