ACORN Community Organizing Ideas and Issues International Personal Writings

Havana, Cuba: The notion that one can have constant virtual companeros and companeras as one travels the road and drives the work forward has a certain strange attraction.  God knows it helps to have company on the road!  There is a certain comfort to believing there are fellow travelers among us on the journeys of our work and lives, isn’t there?  In fact we often overstate the numbers to create the allusions of masses in motion with us even if we can only see a small few from day to day, so the search for other venues — even virtual — to move us all seems worth some effort in moving people froward.

So we will try this “blog” thing for a time and see what develops.  Years ago I did something for quite some time called the “chief organizer reports,” which were a daily staple on our radio stations, KNON in Dallas and KABF in Little Rock, and even before that when we were a smaller band I used to file similar “chief organizers reports” as we were growing on a weekly or monthly basis to keep people up to date and let them try to find a way to share in the experience and contribute constantly to the growing excitement of our work and world.

In short I see these notes as a part of that tradition even though with some differences.  With written reports one can see the staff, leaders, and members and try to imagine their interests and reconcile what one has to say and wants to say with some of what they might want to hear.  In radio it was much, much harder because there was a constant sense of speaking into the void and too often into an echo where one can only hear one’s own voice and other than that — silence — which was the reason in fact that after many years I simply stopped doing them.  I had been an organizer way too long who thrived on working with people to enjoy a medium where I could not seem to feel the connection.  In moving forward in this new direction I wonder if it will be a mixture of the two experiences.  On the one hand feeling like I will really know some of the people who might share an interest in this journey and being totally clueless about the rest of what moves people to read — much less respond — to these daily notes.

Whatever?  We take these small steps in no small part to see what lies around the corner, so with this brief introduction, let’s get to it!

I write this first report from Havana.  Yes, the famous Havana — Cuba behind the blockade!  I am here as part of a bilateral commission looking at the state of developing labor law and unions in Cuba.  I am also interested given the ruined state of the Cuban economy in trying to understand here, as in so many other places, how people are able to piece together a living as part of the informal economy, or what many of us know as contingent labor in the United States.

Having spent most of yesterday simply negotiating the passage ways between the pre-dawn of New Orleans, where I call home, and then through Miami International in one tedious line after another, to finally arrive mid-afternoon in Havana, I can not say that I know much of anything about Cuba yet other than how to sort and match the early impressions with what I had read or wondered.   The Malecon is every bit as beautiful and literally breathtaking when the stiff breeze comes off the ocean against a bright afternoon blue sky, as the National Geographic pictures one had seen only months before.   Indeed there are streets full of vintage American cars, particularly Chevys and Oldsmobiles, but they are vastly outnumbered by other, even new editions, from elsewhere, so they seem novel, but more in a California car-club way than a standard way of life manner as one had somehow expected.  And, as expected, the buildings in Centro are a study in rusting wrought iron and decaying stucco and plaster as the architecture is literally crumbling around the streets that are also in a state of confusion between pavement and rubble, but there is more rehab and construction than one might have imagined and there are signs of pothole repair even in the back streets.

The most powerful recognition though is the lack of commercialization.  Billboards advertise political slogans here, not merchandize and modern convenience.  There are very, very few stores in the neighborhoods.  Fewer restaurants.  There are things being sold for sure, just not in an accustomed way in the normal marketplace.

One also is frankly surprised by the majesty of the city.  It is stately and elegant in a way that one did not quite expect.

And, of course even though one understands intellectually the impact of a blockade, being on the other side of the line produces a different recognition of its reality.  There is no hot sauce or tobasco for your eggs in the morning — of course neither are there really eggs without a huge struggle.  We were staying in a hotel owned and operated by the CTC — the Cuban labor federation.  There is no menu.   There was simply a choice of what one might want between fish, beef, and pork with the standard fare — which was altogether adequate for us, but gave more than a sense of how hard one it might be compared to the standard fare.

Impressions.  Only that.  As we dig in to the program today and throughout the week, we will get a better sense of what impressions harden into truths or seem foolishly naive on deeper inspection and understanding.