Sex, Drugs, and Public Health

April 2, 2018

Número Cinco

Filed under: Uncategorized — cbmosher @ 7:58 am

Final Thoughts on Cuba



The Revolutionaries are dying out. Tourism has eclipsed agriculture as a major revenue source. The life blood of Cuba – music – got a transfusion from the Rolling Stones. Even amid the recent anti-NRA backlash, Cuba was a powerful undercurrent. And the island’s birth rate and child mortality rate made me simultaneously flash back to Bolivia in 1970 and flash forward to the world I won’t live to see.


I. Politics –        Raul, Fidel’s brother, has said he will retire from the presidency in April. Three of the most famous (still living) stalwarts of the Revolution are going with him. They’re all over 85.

            Who will succeed him? Anti-Cuba fanatics here in the U.S. continue to label the government a “repressive dictatorship.” While everyone we spoke to in Cuba scoffed at this catch phrase, there’s no doubt that leadership since 1959 has been a one-man show. Nothing unusual about that in Latin America. A sharp Paraguayan lady named Beatriz one lamented “why is it that we Latin Americans always tolerate strong men for presidents?”



            But Cubans have not embraced the Castro family un-critically. What the Cubans told us about the brothers: they are effusive in their love and admiration of Fidel; derogatory about Raul. He has not connected emotionally with the Cuban people and has simultaneously rankled hardliners by saying that Cuba needs younger leadership and by his détente with Obama and the U.S.

            How it works:

The president is elected by a Council of State.

That Council is formed by the National Assembly.

The Assembly is composed of one member for every 20,000 Cubans, elected by local (municipal) and regional (provincial) voting.

At the municipal level, membership in the Communist Party is not required to be nominated.

“Assemble to nominate delegate (date & place)” Sign on neighborhood building

Interesting to note that Raul’s son is not eligible to become president because he did not get elected to the National assembly.

Also interestingly, Raul’s daughter, Mariela, a well-known LGBT activist, could be eligible. But she says she’s not interested. “Who do I want for the future of the country? I have no idea. In all those I look at, I see virtues and defects – including my dad.”



II. Cigars –        It was a family-owned tobacco farm. After 1959, the government took it over. The brothers got wages, usual benefits (health care, education, literacy) and can keep about ten percent of the crop for their private (although clandestine) sale. Tourists stream thru their farm and populate the surrounding agricultural zone of Viñales.

This brother hand-made cigars from broad, cured leaves. He discarded the central “vein” of each leaf. “Too much nicotine in there,” he explained. They recycle that part as an organic insecticide. Cubans exuded pride about their organic farming initiatives. We saw organic farms in several areas, including the city. But this one – the Finca Agri-ecológica– in Viñales, was large.



III.  Beaches –              On the southern coast, the sea is blue, sandy, warm. A stark contrast to the brown, foaming waves that battered the Malecón.


All beaches are public. Cubans and tourists shared. Tourism booming.

But the Sonic Attacks!!

We explored the exterior of the US embassy (still cleaning up post-hurricane). We experienced no symptoms. Saw no anxiety from embassy employees.

There have been reports that the Russians had used sonic attacks in the past. Required investigation. So we went to their embassy.

Symptoms experienced there were of questionable veracity. A few more Cuba Libres may help.

But more professional investigators came up with a plausible explanation. Computer scientists from Univ. Michigan found that similar high-frequency signals like those recorded in the US embassy can be elicited from security systems which use ultrasound. Signals from such motion detectors can become audible if another near-by U-S device induces interference. The inaudible 32 kHz signal then becomes an annoying high-frequency “tinny” sound of 7 kHz which matches the Cuba recording.

“Cuba is the Safest Country for Tourism.”This pronouncement by the International Tourism Fair in Spain, January 2018.

Is it safe in Cuba for the same reason it was in Paraguay during the 1970’s? A populace terrified to break the law in a Police State with torture chambers and the inclination to drop dissidents from airplanes? Where you can’t go a block without seeing police, as in Argentina, Uruguay, Northern Ireland?

Actually, the only cops I remember seeing in Cuba were directing traffic around an accident and occasionally pulling over speeders on the divided highway. Saw less police presence in Cuba than in downtown Seattle.


IV. Cars –        On his explorations, Steve found some of those who maintain Cuba’s iconic but aging fleet. Some had garages:

Others worked in the streets:

My vote for funkiest:

And, after a Tropical Depression sucked some of the heat and humidity from the air, our favorite convertible:

V.  Music –      We heard it everywhere. Jazz, Rumba, Son, Salsa, Rock. Felt as though music might be more important than food to Cubans.

In 2016, the Rolling Stones scheduled a concert in Havana. There were beaucracratic barriers, but as Keith Richards said, “the Rolling Stones can do things governments can’t.”

The Obama – Castro détente resulted in the first visit by a U.S. President to Cuba since the Revolution. It was scheduled on a day that conflicted with the Stones’ planned concert. So Mick and Company moved their performance date.

Keith again: “Basically, Obama was our opening act.”

Crowd estimate: a half million.

Explains the Sticky Fingers decals on many cars.

Our host, Abel, played for us the “Havana Moon” video. Then he returned to his Hollywood westerns with Spanish dubbing. “Isn’t that stuff prohibited?” we probed. “How do you get news, sports, movies from the U S on government-controlled TV?”

His smile sparkled. He pulled out a small electronic device. “El Paquete,” he introduced us to the plug-in that he (and much of Havana) gets delivered every week by street entrepreneurs.

No Iron Curtain here.




VI. Art –       In addition to music, art is ubiquitous in Cuba. As with all art, some of it was good. They sell it on the streets and in studios. The most fascinating venue was the Fábrica de Arte, a re-purposed factory where we had an espléndido dinner (Happy B’day to one of us), then explored the internal labyrinth. The place throbbed with some primal Latin music. Young Cubans, dressed chic, exuding cool, strolled around us, drinks in hand.





VII.  The Yummy Revolution-

                                           What we expected: rice, beans, water

                                           What we got:  lobster, wine, crème brûlée

The wave of free-enterprise enthusiasm sweeping the island spawned paladares– restaurants catering mostly to tourists. As mentioned in Número Dos, our friends had given a favorable review to one of these near our B & B. And the restaurant nestled into the Fábrica de Arte had served food as tasty as you’d mouth-dissolve in any upscale U.S. place. With prices to match.

But these were somehow – – – disappointing.  I was looking for something different. Something – – – Cuban.

On a night of warm Havana drizzle, we were led by a Bouncer-bodied maître d’  into a room of pristine white walls hung with sensuous paintings by local artists. Beneath the sultry gazes of painted girls with naked breasts and ebony-muscled musicians, we settled into a table. White cotton tablecloth, gleaming stainless cutlery, a candle.

A young waiter with slick black hair, wearing a starched white shirt and black slacks, trembled a little while striking a match to light the candle. Then, careful to approach us from the left, he handed us, one-by-one, large, professionally printed menus.

A half-dozen Appetizers; entrees of beef, chicken, seafood; even a couple of vegetarian options; a wine list. Most dishes were what you’d find in Europe or the U.S., translated into Spanish. The lone traditional dish: Ropa Vieja (more tasty sounding if not translated). “Old clothes” is shredded beef.

“Sorry, Señores,” sheepishly. “Only the pasta you can not have. Everything else.”

We had to ask.

“There is very little gas today,” his dark eyes moistened like a schoolboy awaiting discipline. “Enough to cook the seafood but not enough to boil the pasta.”

No importa,” we tried to reassure him. And ordered Chilean wine. He bowed awkwardly as if it were his first time and backed out of the room.

“Love it. Not enough gas for pasta.”

“Clearly it’s not that they can’t afford it. The paint in this place, based on prices we saw in the government store, is worth a small fortune.”

Our waiter re-appeared and cradled the bottle in his French-cuffed arms for Steve’s approval.

Then there was a struggle.

Corkscrew, foil wrap, bottle, cork, all too confounding. Our poor waiter, his lips pressed together so tightly I thought they’d bleed, flailed to maintain dignity as the process frustrated him.

“Have you ever opened wine before?” Steve disarmed his question with a laugh.

The Cuban kid imprisoned within starched cotton and a façade someone had taught him, relaxed enough to laugh in reply. Steve pulled the cork – slowly so the kid could watch – then handed the bottle back to him so he would be our waiter again.

In the gleaming dining room – mimicking the cold sterility of some upscale Miami place – the food tasted like in the States. But beneath the vibrant eyes of the paintings that watched us, attended to by a waiter who was now a friend, the experience had become, at last, Cuban.

As we rose to leave, a waitress brought us each a paper flower. White, of course, but obviouosly, thankfully, hand-made.

On an afternoon of glaring sun, enroute to the Oriente, our guide told us we’d stop at what he promised would be a “wonderful restaurant.” The road meandered thru thick green hills, where the cows and horses outnumbered cars, houses were sparse, crude and unpainted, and the roadside vegetation grew taller than our vehicle.

The restaurant was someone’s farmhouse, unpainted, chickens running free. Raw wood tables on the packed-earth in front of the house, a thatched roof above for shade. The kitchen was a wood-fired grill outdoors. The bathroom was a latrine. Family members, aged between ten and seventy, attended us wearing simple dresses, faded, threadbare.

We requested beer to quench (and to avoid potential dysentery from water). The menus were hand-written, mis-spelled and food-stained pieces of paper. There were, as I recall maybe four choices.

Those who had the lobster, served in this most primitive of settings, burst with uncontrollable praise about its flavor for days thereafter.

As I observe the enthusiastic efforts of these budding entrepreneurs, I can’t help but see the same spirit in what Cubans created during the pre-Revolution days and have reproduced since in Miami. Then I compare this behavior to that of to other Latin Americans: Paraguayans, Haitians, Bolivians. There appears to be a strong gene for Capitalism in the Cuban chromosomes.

“The future of Cuba must include some private enterprise without ever abandoning the accomplishments of the Revolution.”

                                                                        This young museum docent



VIII.  Racism –                        Fidel addressed the legacy of slavery head-on. He saw overt racism as a direct conflict with his goals. He passed policies to desegregate beaches, parks, work sites and social clubs and outlawed all forms of legal and overt discrimination, including discrimination in employment and education. Political representation by Afro-Cubans doubled. We met black-skinned physicians and other university graduates. However, toward the end of his time, Fidel admitted that full social integration was elusive:

“We discovered that marginality and racial discrimination with it are not something that one gets rid of with a law or even with ten laws, and we have not managed to eliminate them completely in 40 years.”

The poorest sections of Havana were, disappointingly, the Blackest. BTW, researching the demographics of Cuba is frustrating. The percentages are all over the place. Folks whom we would call African-American might fall into the “White” or “Mulatto” categories in Cuba.

But I never sensed the alienation and anger there from dark-skinned folks as we do daily (even if subconsciously) here in the U.S.

Center: the Orthopedic Surgeon we interviewed



IX. Sexism –        we met women who were veterinarians, physicians, entrepreneurs. Cubans were proud to point to their record on equal access. The recent election resulted in over 48% of the National Assembly being women.



X.  Z P G –        “I worry about our future,” Alex told us. He is an Ob-Gyn doc who drove us to eastern and southern parts of the island. “Our birth rate is falling dangerously close to our death rate.”

Cuba death rate:  7.29 per 1000

          birth rate:   11.02 per 1000

          Pop Growth Rate:  0.14

Birth rates generally far exceed death rates in “Developing” countries and Growth Rates exceed 1.0 . I observed one of the major factors for this phenomenon in Bolivia in 1970 where the Public Health physician in charge had been unsuccessful at getting women to accept birth control. They had multiple pregnancies with the associated serious medical complications.

However, the child death rate was 50% by age 5. Adult children care for their parents in old age (no Social Security, Medicare or pensions in Bolivia), so women were having five or six kids hoping three would survive to adulthood.

He approached this issue from a Public Health perspective. Vaccination of children resulted in lower child death rates and, soon, more little mouths to feed. At which point women knocked on the hospital door, seeking birth control.

I suspect similar mechanisms (in addition to social / religious pressures) drive birth rates in other “Developing” countries where a projected 900 million more will be born over the coming ten years. While in “Developed” countries, where pensions, social safety nets and health care are much more accessible, only an additional 56 million are projected.

Zero Population Growth, which Cuba is rapidly approaching, is primarily a characteristic of “Developed” countries like Iceland, Finland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Japan and others.

The U.S., on the other hand, looks like this:

            Death rate – 8.38 per 1000

            Birth rate – 13.83 per 1000

            Pop Growth Rate:  0.75

Which would be Okay, I suppose, if we would feed and care for that population. But an estimated one in eight U.S. residents do not have enuf food. This in a country with a whopping 40% of food waste.



XI. More Revolutions –        Fascinating to note the roles of two Florida-based characters in the recent March For Our Lives. Emma Gonzales wore a jacket plastered with slogans when she spoke in D.C. Prominent on her right sleeve was the flag of Cuba. And Marco Rubio took to the microphones to tell the kids that he didn’t support their efforts. Is the Cuban expatriate population finally abandoning it stance of vitriolic hatred toward their ancestral island? If so, the Cuban Revolution, which has continued to be fought in the U.S. for the past 59 years (long after the shooting stopped), is coming to its conclusion just as the last Revolutionaries fade from the scene.


“History will absolve me.”

                                                Fidel   Oct 1953




XII. Punchline –          Ironically, Cuba now looks more like a “Developed” country in spite of its crippled economy (thank you, Embargo):

  • full-scope social safety net for heath care, education, food, shelter

  • literacy rate of 99.7%

  • approaching Z P G

  • burgeoning small-scale entrepreneurship available to the population

  • societally addressing Racism

  • societally addressing Sexism (48.8% of National Assembly is women)

  • gun-death rates comparable to the Netherlands and Britain

While, also ironically, the Trump-led U.S. is decaying from its previous “Developed” status:

  • deteriorating social safety nets of health care, pensions, public education

  • literacy rate of only 90.4 %

  • Capitalism that has degenerated into all-consuming Greed and the shrinking of the Middle Class

  • Racism rampant and denied (see Obama Presidency)

  • Sexism continues in many sectors including Tech and Politics (only 19.6 % of congress is women)

  • Out-of-control gun violence

  • Food waste in the face of hungry citizens

Looks to me like the 242 year-old Idea that has been the U.S. peaked in the decades between WWII and the end of Vietnam and is deteriorating into two populations: a small ruling class of the wealthy with no loyalty to the U.S. (either in paying taxes or in locating its manufacturing), and a poorly educated (and increasingly poor) populace – – –

while Cuba’s 59 year-old Idea, resilient in the face of economic bullying, shows the world a Socio-Economic model for the Future.

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