Only 90 miles or so from Miami but much more a foreign flavor. Only recently opened for foreign visitors by Obama who reversed the Bush embargo in 2009. Embassies appeared in 2015. Any US citizen can attend any professional meeting in Cuba but a visa must be obtained. Unclear what hoops must be jumped through to just be a tourist.
On December 3 – 7, the International symposium on altered consciousness and brain death was held. The very gracious Dr. Calixto Machado hosted us. We stayed at the Habana Librae, the enormous hotel where the meeting was held. The hotel advertised Internet access but it never became available.
The meeting was interesting. It was mostly about the Jahi McMath situation and brain death. I’ll pass on comments regarding that as Michael Kuiper has summarized the daily activities for CCM-L.
My interest really lay in the awesome collection of vintage automobiles that filled the streets of Havana. Mostly 50s and 60s cars, many converted as taxis to show tourists the city. We did an hour and a half tour in a 1955 Chevy convertible. It was fascinating (see photos later).
Our aim was to see “old Havana” and we did. Old Havana was named a notable historic city centers by UNESCO in 1982. Restored areas of Old Havana features styles from Baroque and neoclassical to art deco. It reminded me of parts of New Orleans a bit was very scary in some respects. Not terribly safe to walk about. Over 28,000 people currently live in unstable dwellings that could collapse without warning. USA Today recently reported almost 4000 building collapses from 2000 to 2013. In 2016, Havana has a shortage of over 200,000 dwellings. Havana officials are using mostly tourist revenue to solve these problems.
The people of Havana are exceedingly friendly and helpful to foreigners, including Americans. The food in restaurants is always excellent and there is virtually no violent crime. It’s safe to walk anywhere. There are no guns. Interestingly there are also no McDonalds, Burger King, Wendys or any other fast food place.
However, Americans are discriminated against within the economic system, No one in Cuba accepts any credit or debit card from any American bank. It’s cash and carry. American dollars are subject to a 10% tax when converted to Cuban Pesos, plus a 3% service fee. So converting an American dollar will get you 87 cents. However, one Euro will get you 1.14 Cuban Convertible Pesos, but when you go to convert dollars to Euros, the exchange rate at the airport is awful. I changed 700 dollars and got 550 Euros. So you get stiffed coming and going, exchanging anything.
You know me; I’m always on the lookout for interesting knick-knacks. One of my wife’s friends begged her to bring back some Cuban cigars for her husband. I could have cared less. All cigars smell like dead cats, but I tagged along to the cigar shop just to see them. On arrival, I noticed a decorative (empty) humidor box with Che Guevara’s likeness (smoking a cigar of course) on it in high-resolution porcelain (see photo below). I looked at it for a long time while my wife purchased a box of ten cigars for what amounted to US$100. Yes, ten bucks per cigar, and there were much more expensive ones available.
By the time I got back to our room, I was obsessed with it and had to have it. I went back and paid a bundle for it. It now graces my mantle. Note in the video also some female (very female) stick figure single cigar holders. I would have bought the entire collection but I ran out of money and had no way to get any more.
Che’s likeness is everywhere in Cuba, many next to Fidel. Che isn’t really a very high-end role model, but I kept my mouth shut about both him and Fidel.
Now for some interesting history about both Fidel and Che. After it became apparent that Castro was a bull blown “Communist” and was quickly aligning his new society after that of Soviet Russia. After the disastrous “Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961, Castro’s paranoia became exponential and he became convinced the Kennedy would follow this attack up with much heavier weapons, including nuclear arms. Castro begged Khrushchev to send arms for the protection of Cuba. Khrushchev saw this as an opportunity to place nuclear weapons in the Western hemisphere, under the nose of Kennedy who he considered a weak sister following the poorly planned and executed Bay of Pigs and the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Khrushchev didn’t think Kennedy was decisive enough to do anything about it. So off they went, as the Cubans worked to build bases where these weapons could be housed, all quickly spotted by U2 planes. The rest of this is history.
But what isn’t so clear is the nature of Castro’s fervor to revolutionize the world by violent means. Following the Cuban Revolution of 26 July 1959, Che became Castro’s right hand man for the spreading of the gospel of revolution to other Latin countries. Che was actually a physician but never did anything medical after becoming radicalized by witnessing the sorry plight of Latin America at the time. Che trained the Cuban military forces that repelled the Bay of Pigs attack and was central to the negotiations that would have brought nuclear weapons to Cuba. He wrote a seminal manual of guerrilla warfare. Che became convinced that most of the woes of the world were a direct result of Imperialism and capitalism (Americanism) that required a violent world revolution to counter it.
Che left Cuba in 1965 to foment revolution initially (and unsuccessfully) in the Congo but ending up in Bolivia where American CIA quickly captured him assisted Bolivian troops and summarily shot without fanfare. Following his death, Che rose to the position of a revered and reviled historical world figure and his likeness with the star beret was cited by the Maryland Institute of Art and “the most famous photograph in the world” (pretty doubtful But it’s up there in the top 20 maybe). Time Magazine named him as one of the top 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
However, Che was also an advocate of brutal violence to create a utopian world that would quash any dissent, an anti-imperialist Marxist and outspoken anti-capitalist whose image has been made an idealistic commodity not unlike that of Robin Hood and Don Quixote. Che was involved in hundreds, maybe thousands of executions of those opposing the Revolution in several South American countries. Che openly despised the United States and everything about capitalism and a Republic governing system. He was very interested in starting a nuclear war with the Imperialists (us) and probably would have worked it out had the missiles from the USSR had actually been delivered to Cuba (diverted by Kennedy). The whole point of those missiles were to be used against “enemies”. He was a brutal Communist agitator and all of his history is filled with death.
So for what it’s worth, I have a really interesting portrait of him that continues to fascinate me. I also acquired a pastel painting I’ll frame this week. You’ll see it in the film.
Interesting trip that will become clearer as you watch the video below. A collection of some of the photos I took.
Enjoy if you have an interest.
D. Crippen, MD