Leaving Cuba

Havana, Cuba: I leave Havana for Santa Domingo with more questions than answers.  Our hosts with the CDC had been sincere and gracious.  The delegation had been open handed and welcoming.  We had all learned a huge amount in a relatively short period of time.

Some things just did not add up, but perhaps it really did not matter that much one way or another.  Take tips in the tourist trade.  It is easier to believe in virgin birth than that tipped workers pool all of their tips.  First, let’s be clear – there is nothing good about tips – period!  Employers should pay a fair wage – customers should demand that that is the case and accept that when they pay for a meal or whatever that part of the surcharge is providing labor with its just due.  Why in a communist society are they even talking about tips at all?!?  Search me.

In theory then if the customer were forcing workers to take tips, then why wouldn’t there be a system of equal sharing?  Pooling all tips would be a dream come true, and certainly that is the rap we heard continually.  In truth even if something between a piece and the whole pie ends in a tip pool, the effort alone is a huge accomplishment compared to the practice in the States.  But, why then were we constantly being hustled for tips by individual workers?  And, why if we were led to believe in more than one location that all tips were going to the Cuban cancer fund, were we not making a direct contribution from our delegation to the fund, and eliminating the middleman?  One of the union officials in Matanzas in fact had been frank at lunch with me off to the side and said, “hey, everyone loves money, we do the best we can” or words to that effect.  Sounded right.  I can totally believe that.

Take the cab drivers we met the first day.  Even conceding that they made a $35000 contribution to the state’s cancer fund, 150 drivers working every day and making tips would sure come up with more than $1.00 equivalent in tips for the day, and the simple math means that it did not all go to the cancer fund.  So, why gild the lily?  It’s overkill.  The effort enough is cause for applause, so why take it to a point where it erodes the earlier hope and admiration by stretching past credibility.  As I said, more questions at the end than answers.

Cuban society has much that speaks to all of us.  It is refreshing to not be constantly barraged by advertisements and commercials.  One feels safe on the street.  There are lots of security patrols.  People are friendly.  There seems little racial discrimination. We spent a couple of hours the last day walking through the beautiful and excellent Museo de Bella Artes, and then walked over to the old governmental palace, which is now the Museo de Revolution where from floor to floor one can trace the heroic period when the “bearded” ones came down from the Sierra Maedras and chased Batista out of office. 

And, Havana is an elegant and beautiful city in its own special way.

I will have to puzzle this out for a while.


Orange Ranch

Veradero, Cuba: Deep in Matanzas Province our delegation recreated the experience of the Venceremos Brigade of more than 30 years ago, when hundreds, if not thousands, of left leaning folks made their way to Cuba to provide voluntary labor to help bring in the sugar harvest, create the new economy, and save the revolution.  This time though we were on a citrus plantation, or what my grandfather and father in Orange County, California would have called an “orange ranch.”

We listened at considerable length to the manager of the orange operation extol on the size of the operation (40000 hectares or close to 100000 acres – a big fruit stand indeed).  It took us a while, but from his telling it seems that there were over 12000 workers before the collapse of the soviet bloc and pretty much full production on the land.  Now, ten years later, there are 7500 workers approximately with only about half of the acreage in citrus, some 20000 hectares, and the rest in a bit of everything from cattle to whatever.  Interestingly, he claimed that the production was now more than the records that they had achieved in those days with 60% of the workers and half the land.   Answering questions, it put it simply – they had been inefficient and the events of the special period forced them to make changes in technology and become more efficient.

To the grave disappointment of many of our delegation who had heard or read otherwise, the manager had to bring the news that there was nothing particularly organic about this operation expect for their understanding that Cubanito – their marketing brand in Europe – was going to have to change over time to meet the demands for organic fruits in the high end of the market.  The simple, straight story, similar to the day before – so similar that our great translator, Eddie Brown, pulled my shirt sleeve and nodded after the manager answered the question, that it was the same as what I had gathered at the hotel, was that this operation was also part of the foreign investment cycle.  It seems that the Israeli’s supplied the agricultural credit loans that allowed the Cuban’s to plant and harvest and then pay off the loans after the oranges were shipped and sold.  Cuba is barred from regular ag loans, so one can only cringe at the rates that they may be paying the Israeli’s for their help here.

My grandfather, Erdman Rathke, was a foreman on an orange ranch in Orange County when oranges were what that part of California was about.  My dad often told us about going into the groves and helping put out smudge pots when a freeze might threaten the crop or for one thing or another.  I can remember when we used to visit my grandparents going out in the groves near my Uncle Woody and Aunt Lee’s place, which seemed little more than a clearing between the rows of trees.  The smell of citrus and the sweetness of the fruit as it comes of the tree create a special connection with the soil that lingers for a lifetime.

Now that grove is a subdivision and has been for several decades and my uncle’s name graces a street on the land where ranch houses were grown.  Now one can also drive, as we did some years ago, along the coast parallel to Pueblo on north to Tampico in Mexico through mile after mile of orange trees as far as the eye can see and wonder whether anyone in the US, much like Cuba, will be able to compete.  Now specially designed tractors drive through the spaces between the trees, shake the designed fruit off the trees, and quicken the harvest and reduce the labor in California and Florida.

But, now in Cuba, we were still going row by row by hand with long, plastic sacks for the oranges, trying to make our tonnage and get some sense of work in the fields that is fast passing by all of us, exepct for the low cost of labor here and the high cost of technology and fuel.  It’s still all in the wrist when you are picking oranges, just as my grandfather taught and my father, and even I knew, you twist them off and keep both hands moving towards the tree to fill the sack and catch the truck to dump the load.  Over and over and over again.