All of this came back to me when a member of the class of 1954 e-mailed me the following report he sent to his class newsletter about the trip he recently took to the Castro brothers’ workers’ paradise, Communist Cuba. What follows is what this EI graduate wrote just this past week, in August of 2012:
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
I know that some of you have strong opinions on Cuba, but I didn’t go as a political analyst, I went to see and photograph the architecture and I was impressed by the concern for historic preservation and the success of the restoration program in Habana Vieja. I went legally on what is called a general license for full time professional research. I could have gone on my own and I intend to go again, but I went with an educational tour group of mostly teachers and got to see many places that I wouldn’t have on my own which included Santiago. So I got to see some of the rural areas by bus and boat. Of course the tour guide worked for the government, but I found him to be very candid in his answers to our questions regarding the successes and failures of the revolution and I learned a lot about how the country is actually governed which doesn’t seem all that different from our own. In my opinion all governments infringe on personal freedom. I was very impressed with the achievements of the literacy program and the totally free education system through college and graduate school. I spoke with Cubans and was told that the free health care system is excellent. The country is poor and struggling, but this is mainly due to the U.S. embargo. My conclusion is that Socialism is alive and well in Cuba and the U.S better forget about regime change.
I spent a day on my own wandering around Havana before the tour group arrived and stayed in Havana another week after they left. The architecture of Havana amazed me. Unlike most cities in Latin America, the variety of eclectic styles from the Spanish Baroque, neo -Gothic, neo -Renaissance, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco are very authentic and sophisticated. Havana and Santiago were filled with tourists from all over the world. It is absurd that U.S. citizens are not allowed to go there. I was not aware of any military presence and found the local police to be very friendly and helpful unlike the police and guards armed with sub-machine guns on the streets of Mexico and Guatemala. There are no restrictions on where tourists can go in Cuba. As always on my travels I roam around the non-touristed neighborhoods and back alleys to see how people live and photograph street life, people at work and at play as well as buildings. I did notice that every shop and every home had a picture of Che Guevara ( a hero of mine too) on the wall and not Castro. I didn’t see any homeless emaciated dogs or beggars on the streets as in all other L. A. countries, but surprisingly I was constantly approached by beautiful young prostitutes. I was told that prostitution is illegal, but that the police ignore it. I took over 2000 photographs and it’s worth a trip to Cuba just to see the 50s cars. The poorest people will spend their last cent restoring one and resourcefully keeping it running. Did I just say, the poorest people? Yes there are rich and poor just like anywhere else, but not to the extremes as in the Capitalist world. And of course the music is everywhere, in the streets as well as the clubs. I went to several of the most famous clubs in Havana and Santiago where I danced and even took Salsa lessons. My most memorable evening was New Years in the central plaza of Santiago with hundreds of scantily dressed Cubans wildly dancing to live music under a spectacular display of fireworks. Certainly not an oppressed people. Go.
If anything, this man’s comments reflect how a supposedly educated individual, who became a successful architect, is nothing but one of the thousands of political pilgrims who, since the early days of the Bolshevik Revolution, went on solidarity tours, saw paradise, and came back to report in glowing terms on the great benefits of communism. Somehow they missed the real picture and did not see any evidence of the Gulag in Russia, the prisons in China, or the oppressive police-state conditions in Cuba. The story, for those interested, is best told in Paul Hollander’s classic book Political Pilgrims.