By Karen Lee Wald
via CUBANEWS and Cuba-Inside-Out (google group)
For some time now I have been planning to review some recent books on Cuba. What made me hesitate was that two of the books were written by people I know; by people who support the essence of the Cuban Revolution, and had valid experiences there that should be passed on to others — BUT, each of the books had some points I strongly disagreed with or considered inaccurate or misleading, and frankly, I didn’t know how to handle this.
I’ve decided to just plunge in – knowing these reviews won’t be all I want them to be – because I just got another book that I REALLY want people to read (Keith Bolender’s “Voices from the Other Side”) and if I don’t start reviewing all of these books, warts and all, many of you will never know about them.
So here is number 1 of what I hope will be at least 4 book reviews. Remember there are a lot more really good things in this book than I have noted here, which you will have to read the book yourself to find.
Part 1: REVIEW OF JEANNE LEMKAU’s Lost and Found in Cuba
The first thing to recognize when reading this book is that it is primarily about Lemkau’s “change of life”, not about Cuba.
But I am not going to review that book for Cuba-Inside-Out – which I realize is a disservice to Lemkau and her book. My expertise is Cuba, not life-changes in women, as fascinating as those may be and as well-written this part of the book is. So I can only focus on the specifically Cuban aspects of this book, which unfortunately means I will have to dwell on some of its shortcomings as well as its often startling naivete stemming from her lack of knowledge about many aspects of Cuban life.
She tells us this, and acknowledges throughout the book what her personal focus – and biases – were. In fact, Lemkau explains from the start that she “first visited Cuba on a whim”. The opportunity arose as part of a week-long educational exchange focusing on health care in 2000, sponsored by the National Peace Corps Association and the Friendship Force.
That Cuba would host or even accept such a trip might seem strange at first, given Cuba’s knowledge that the Peace Corps was used for everything from trying to instill pro-US attitudes in otherwise hostile people in developing countries to outright spying for the CIA.
But as a Cuban friend pointed out to me decades ago when I was uneasy about the opening of Cuba to tourism, “In order to influence people you have to risk being influenced.” In any case, the trip was allowed to take place.
Lemkau tells us she was lured as much by “the prospect of spending a week in the company of other former Peace Corps volunteers” as the chance to learn about Cuba’s health care system, having spent two years of Peace Corps service in Nicaragua during the early 1970s – augmented by half a dozen trips to Central and South America over the subsequent decades.
(Which one has to wonder about, since that would presumably cover the years of the US-backed Dirty Wars and Death Squads in that region, which tortured, mutilated, disappeared and/or slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Central and South Americans. Lemkau doesn’t tell us what she thought of all this, whether she took a stand against it, ignored it, or was a part of it. One would of course hope for the former.)
At the time of her trip to the island, she was a psychologist and professor of family medicine. “But of Cuba,” she tells us candidly, “I knew little more than that it was a Caribbean island that had been taken over by a revolutionary Fidel Castro when I was still learning fractions in grade school.”
Although she was a professor and researcher, she didn’t find time to read the many books and articles recommended as preparation for the trip. As a result, “I was an empty slate ready to be written upon by the raw experience of Cuba”.
This would explain a lot of the seemingly contradictory expectations, analyses, conclusions and behaviors which abound in the book. Without this background, it would be hard to understand how someone could be simultaneously so experienced and naive, so much against what the US government policies and practices have done and are doing to the Cuban people, yet still so suspicious of a “communist government”.
The result is that in every chapter you see her respect for what the Cuban Revolution has accomplished scrambled with remarks and attitudes that reflect her biases. Perhaps this strange mixture is possible because overriding all this is her sincere affection and concern for the people she met.
Lemkau’s first trip to Cuba-(incidentally this occurred at the time my son, whom I raised in Cuba while I was working there as a foreign correspondent, was completing his medical school education) included “seven days of hospital and home visits, meetings with health professionals and state officials, city tours and private explorations” during which she says she “tried to bring Cuba into focus”.
Not an easy task, given the combination of her lack of information and deep-rooted biases. Yet with a refreshing honesty, she admits: “but it seemed as if I were looking through a pair of glasses with the wrong prescription. Drawing any conclusions proved to be difficult; the mix of the foreign and the familiar was too baffling.”
Her experience in other parts of Latin America gave her a good basis for comparison. She noted similarities between Havana and other Latin American capital cities, “but the misery was missing. I saw no tar paper shacks with squalid dirt floors, no children sleeping in cardboard boxes in the streets, no emaciated babies with sad eyes, no walls topped with barbed wire and shards of broken glass to protect palatial homes.”
But it didn’t prepare her for the contradictions, both real and imagined, such as “Well-stocked “dollar” stores mixed with sparsely-supplied bodegas. Images of Che Guevara interspersed with likenesses of Abraham Lincoln…”
“[…] Puzzling contradictions pervaded my view of the health system too: dilapidated hospitals but superb health statistics, universal access to medical care but serious shortages in medicines, paltry salaries but enthusiastic physicians-all within a cultural motif that, at least on the surface, emphasized the collective: “!La revolución somos todos!” [We are the Revolution]”
I couldn’t help but recall the popular Cuban joke that describes the US’ inability to effectively spy on its Caribbean nation and understand it. According to the story, the US President (Ronald Reagan, when I first heard it) sent someone to go to Cuba to make an assessment of its current situation-presumably so the US could decide on its next plan of action.
The spy was given lots of money, highly sophisticated technology, everything he would need. And after some time wandering around Cuba, he returned to Washington to make his report. “Well, what are your conclusions?” the President asked him. “Sir, I’m sorry to say I don’t have any conclusions” the spy admitted. The outraged president stormed: “We gave you all the time, money and equipment you could possibly need! How could you possibly come back here and say you don’t have any information?!”
The spy, still hanging his head, explained: “Well, you see, sir, it’s like this:
In Cuba, there is no unemployment. There’s no unemployment, but nobody works. Nobody works, but everyone meets their production quota. Production quotas are all filled, but there’s nothing in the stores. The stores are empty, but everyone is happy. Everyone is happy, but everyone complains. Everyone complains, but they all go to the Plaza to cheer the Revolution.
“So you see, I have lots of information-just no conclusions.”
This seems similar to the situation Lemkau was in. In the best of circumstances, a casual visitor-even one who spends considerable time in Cuba-can see and hear many things (a lot of them contradictory), but has little way to make heads or tails of what she/he is seeing and what she is told.
Moreover, if the researcher does not have the support of the relevant authorities in the field she wants to study, she/he won’t have access to much of the first-hand data and will have to rely on second-hand reports, apocryphal stories and anecdotes. That almost guarantees that some of the information subsequently will be flawed or misleading, not through any intention of the author. What is amazing about this book, then, is not how much she got wrong (here and there) but how much she got right.
And all this in the midst of undergoing life-altering changes in her perspectives, priorities and career.
Lemkau wanted to learn about Cuba’s much-touted healthcare system and followed up a group visit with several extended stays. Unfortunately, she did not have the kind of background, credentials or contacts that would make the people in the international section of the Health Ministry [MINSAP] willing to risk opening doors for her to see everything first hand.
Cubans have been burned so many times by people who claimed to be friendly, open-minded and objective and turned out to be writing supermarket tabloid type hit-pieces against the revolution that many are now reluctant to trust foreign reporters and researchers.
Lemkau had good intentions. She just had no way to prove it. So she got the classic stall: no one ever told her she couldn’t do her research. She just never got the green light to go ahead and do it.
In those circumstances, she chose to just go ahead and see what she could see.
To be fair to Lemkau, I should acknowledge that officials in MINSAP have too often opted out this way – perhaps typical of people in their position. I found this all-too-familiar description in a Sue Grafton mystery novel: “He stared at me with that blank look all petty bureaucrats assume when they calculate the probabilities of getting fired if they say yes.”
To be fair to the officials who never approved her research, I should explain that Lemkau unknowingly had already done a number of things “wrong” from their viewpoint by the time she contacted MINSAP. She was in Cuba, to begin with, on the wrong kind of visa. You are not allowed to do research or reporting on a tourist visa (just as you are not allowed to work in the US while on a tourist visa).
You are supposed to prepare a resume, a letter explaining your project, and send that to the appropriate ministry in Cuba via the Cuban Embassy or, in the case of the United States, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. Ideally, if possible, you would accompany those with letters of recommendation from other people in your field already known to the Cubans. And then you wait. And wait. And wait.
It definitely helps if you have someone on the island who is already interested in your research and can make sure that the appropriate ministry, agency, university of even the Friendship Institute or Church council lets the Cuban Interests Section know they will take responsibility for hosting you and helping you organize your research.
Lacking this-as Lemkau did-it’s hit or miss.
Second, in addition to being sponsored and having the proper visa, you are supposed to follow all other Cuban laws, rules and regulations. That includes housing. You don’t have to live in a hotel-you can live in a guest house (many ministries and agencies have these, including Public Health, Education, ICAP, the Association of Small Farmers, church groups like the Martin Luther King Center, Casa de Carino and others).
Or you can rent a room from a private homeowner who is legally licensed to do so-which means they pay their monthly fee and make sure your documents are presented to immigration authorities.
Lemkau, probably for lack of information, missed doing the right thing. From her description, time after time she ended up being housed, fed and guided by people who were living outside the law, although she apparently didn’t realize it at first.
Sometimes, the people who took her under their wing were good, honest people who were working to improve people’s lives within the revolution, and wanted the world to know about all the good things they were achieving despite incredible obstacles and hardships. Other times, they were outright hustlers, and more experienced readers will wonder why she didn’t realize it sooner.
All of this combined to deprive Lemkau-and subsequently her readers-of much of the information she would have gotten if she had won the trust of the MINSAP officials who would not only have guaranteed her more access to health care facilities and information, but could have corrected some of the misinformation she was given.
But despite that, Lemkau was able to observe a great deal, and if sometimes she too-willingly believed some spins and distortions, her own generally good instincts allowed her to also come away with much that is positive.
Her perception of Cuba’s health care system hits the nail on the head from the outset, as she observes: “Although flawed and struggling, the Cuban model of health care, based on the radical notion of health as a fundamental human right, offered an alternative vision of the possible, beyond the provision of medical care based on wallet biopsy and insurance coverage with which I was more familiar.”
As a US citizen, she encountered the obstacles set by her own government which still apply to most citizens and residents of the United States, and is therefore worth quoting extensively.
Returning to Cuba was no trivial matter.
As part of the general ban on commercial transactions with the country, citizens of the United States are forbidden by their government from travelling there; although technically, spending money and not travel itself is forbidden.
The travel ban, a key component of the trade embargo that has governed U.S.-Cuba relations for half a century, was designed to squeeze the Cuban economy and provoke the collapse of the Castro regime. Two Castros and eleven American presidents later, the embargo still stands.
Exceptions to the travel ban for educational, journalistic, and humanitarian reasons have been variously allowed under different administrations, typically requiring advanced application and “specific license,” a document issued to the approved traveler prior to departure. In contrast, research travel is covered by “general license,” and requires no advanced application.
For general license, one must comply with the requirements of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The traveler must be a full-time professional whose travel transactions are directly related to non-commercial research, with a full work schedule in Cuba and substantial likelihood of public dissemination of findings.
Under an obscure 1918 regulation that forbids “Trading with the Enemy,” anyone who returns from Cuba without a specific license can be charged and fined unless they can demonstrate to immigration officials their eligibility for general license. The intimidating, after-the-fact nature of this assessment has deterred many a prospective traveler.
Lemkau didn’t tape her interviews or even take notes during the time of her conversations, preferring to write from memory afterwards to make her friends and acquaintances feel more comfortable. This also leads to two potential problems: did she understand correctly? Did she remember correctly?
The author gives you the flavor and her perception of what was going on. It may not all be factually correct, but it makes for interesting and informative reading. At one point she writes that her Cuban host told her he had received a new refrigerator as a reward for having participated in the many demonstrations demanding that Elian Gonzalez be reunited with his father.
Certainly, that is the impression she came away with.[“a small Soviet refrigerator that Norberto had earned by participating in State-sponsored demonstrations for the return of Elian Gonzalez, when the six year old had washed up on Florida shores” she reported somewhat inaccurately.]
Is that what her host said? If so, he was giving her inaccurate information. The Cuban government was not handing out refrigerators or other domestic appliances to the hundreds of thousands (eventually millions) of people who took part in the marches and rallies for Elian.
Nor would it have needed to. People were genuinely outraged at the idea of a small boy who had lost his mother at sea being kept from his father – with whom he had a close, loving relationship – because rightwing idealogues in Miami and Washington wanted to keep him there for political reasons.
It is certainly true that for other events – May 1 International Workers Day, for example, or historic events like the 26th of July – some people may turn out because it is expected of them; because they want to make a good impression at their workplace, in their neighborhood, their school; or simply because it’s a change from the routine.
But with Elian, there was a deeper, emotional aspect that people throughout the country shared. (80% of Americans polled also felt that the boy and his father belonged together, regardless of the politics, it shoud be noted).
Does that mean that Lemkau, or her host, were lying? No, more likely it was a misinterpretation.(Remember, her Spanish was spotty and she wrote her notes later, summarizing what she had heard and seen). Or her host, Norberto, may have told her that , assuming she knew how the process worked.
He may or may not have explained at greater length that workers received “bonuses” at their workplaces for being overall good workers, fulfilling and overfulfilling production quotas, doing voluntary work, helping others, performing civic duties ranging from neighborhood cleanup to taking part in demonstrations. But what she took away from this conversation was that he got the refrigerator for demonstrating.
(The fact that she missed the larger explanation is evident in another section of the book when she assumes the many consumer items found in another apartment were an indication that the family received help from relatives abroad, not realizing that an alternative possibility was that they had earned them at their workplaces).
If not having enough in-depth information led Lemkau to misinterpret or simply miss points from time to time, the biases she brought with her caused her to reach other dubious conclusions or to too-hastily accept what others told her. We see this when she accepts and reports as fact the suspicions of some of the people at the Catholic Church’s leprosy sanatorium regarding government spying on them.
Is it possible that some of their suspicions were correct, that some of the people they pointed out were in fact government security agents? Of course. What’s more debatable is whether she should have reported all their fears and conjectures as absolute fact.
But the rest of Lemkau’s book more than makes up for these occasional misinterpretations or acceptance of statements that may not have been wholly true (especially given that she was generally surrounded by people living on the “outside” of the revolutionary process).
Her getting to ride through Pinar del Rio on horseback, talking with people in the countryside, may not have achieved the specific goals she was seeking, but they give us a wonderful view of a part of daily life few people get to see.
And since she complemented her experience with that of her husband, who along with the rest of the group was able to see what she missed by going off on her own – the reader gets the best of both experiences.
“He had toured the school attended by Rosa’s children…he had seen state of the art solar panels providing energy for basic school equipment – a television, a computer and lights, ‘green’ technology being used throughout the country, even in one-room school houses with fewer than a half-dozen students….
“We had each enjoyed our separate excursions, his within the guidelines of the tour group, mine in collusion with Silvio the rule bender….the thrill of riding horseback among the mogotes, the lovely openness of Rosa and her family… a landscape of unforgettable splendor. Clearly life outside the rules – por la izquierda – had its rewards.”
Although I often flinched at how far -and how unknowingly – Lemkau was treading outside the rules, her candid description of this, and her reactions when she found out, provide an interesting counterpoint to the attitude of many visitors to Cuba who prefer staying out of hotels and registered bed-and-breakfasts, away from government-sponsored tours.
It was only at the end of her adventures in Pinar del Rio that Lemkau asked Silvio, who organized her away-from-the-group activities, about the “financial and legal logistics”.
He told her that he was driving her around illegally and was regularly fined by the “policia” for “consorting with tourists”. But he shrugged that off saying the fines were more than offset by what he was paid.
She then learned that the man who rented her the horse, and her guide, and the people she visited were all paid – illegally – by Silvio – who kept a portion of what she paid each. Even Rosa, who fed her lunch, had been paid illegally or as Silvio put it “por la izquierda”, a common way for Cubans to refer to doing something we might call “under the table”. Lemkau humorously commented: “To use the expression ‘by the left’ to refer to clandestine and forbidden activities struck me as perversely funny in a country already leaning so far left as to topple over.”
But later at the private but registered “casa particular” where she and her husband stayed , she learned more, when her hostess “said there was something she needed to discuss with us…..”
She requested that Jeanne and her husband tell Silvio they’d arrived a day later and paid half of what she was declaring, because he was also “the inspector for her rental and what she had to pay him depended on her income. Cheche cooked the books,” she concluded.
Which is something to keep in mind when we read of private renters, owners of private restaurants, and others who work for “cuenta propia” complaining about taxes, inspections, and other “government harassment”.
Encountering lepers and the Catholic Church
For me the weakest pat of the book were the chapters where Lemkau was recounting of her experience with (and through the eyes of) the Catholic nuns who care for lepers in a small sanatorium outside of Havana and the famous (or infamous) Dia de San Lazaro when religious zealots walk, hobble, crawl (sometimes whipping themselves) to the shrine of Saint Lazarus in the hope of some miracle cure for themselves or loved-ones.
The writer seemed to take in stride some of the behaviors that made me shrink back in horror, and the acceptance of them by the priests and nuns. Moreover, because her experience did not lead Lemkau to question anything the priest and nuns told her, she reported it all as fact.
So these last few chapters are filled with questionable or inaccurate (to me) information and attitudes, and a good dose of paranoia — somewhat lessening the positive aspects of describing an event that, although heavily reported in US media, may still be unknown to some readers.
Lemkau somewhat tempers this with her admission that “my apprehensions about state surveillance in Cuba and OFAC prosecution in the United States [she lumps these together] were proxies for other fears, fears of gambling the safety of my nailed down life for something more.” Would that others who find themselves highly critical of some aspects of life in Cuba could be so self-analytical and perceptive.
If not all the details of what is lacking in Cuba always coincided completely with life as I knew it there, the overall conclusion – that the US blockade is hurting the people of the island tremendously, and should be ended – certainly does. It’s a conclusion that almost everyone who gets to know the people on the island arrives at, whatever their views of socialism, communism or Fidel Castro.
Hopefully, readers can glean some of this feeling themselves by reading Jeanne Lemkau’s book -something I highly recommend — and will be motivated to join her and the Latin American Working Group to overturn an archaic policy that after 5 decades continues to hurt the people of that island.
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