April 21, 2014 by jewish journeys

Cuba (not Kewba, but Kooba); it sounds wrong the way most of us say it.

So many thoughts after an extraordinary nine days in Cuba.

I have travelled to many places over the past years especially since I began Jewish Journeys over 10 years ago. Recently, with my new role as Executive Director of World Habonim Dror, the journeying continues. This journey had nothing to do with either of the above. It was not supposed in any way to be existential travel where my thoughts are focused on trying to understand the meaning of every meeting, the nuance of every Jewish community, the light thrown on what I am trying to learn and teach. And yet it turned out to be possibly the most profound piece of existential travel I have ever done.

Why did a Caribbean holiday with Orly become an ongoing discussion with her and with myself about, well, about almost everything?

There are words and phrases which have accompanied me for many years on these journey of mine. Journeys about trying to understand what I care about, what I believe in (and why), what it is that people are looking for, what is good in society and what is bad. In Cuba we face, Solidarity, Socialism, Communism, Capitalism, Revolution, Racism, Identity, Consumerism, Advertising, Logos, Religion, Sustainability, Community, Art, Aesthetics, Music, Professionalism. And this was supposed to be a Caribbean holiday!

I felt both drawn to what has been created in Cuba and pained by what has been created in Cuba. Amazing people who have built lives which seem very rich with meaning and joy and poverty, terrible poverty. The music and dance, beautiful, but   something missing all the time. Was it genius? And if it was, perhaps genius needs to be sacrificed for the more basic requirements of life to be fulfilled? Is the need of a society for its Beethovens, Mozarts, Freuds, Einsteins, just a bourgeois longing which ought to be replaced by community solidarity?

The classlessness of Cuban society is pretty amazing, but does classlessness have to mean decay and a falling to pieces of almost everything?

The questions around aesthetics are torturous: If the choice is between beauty and utilitarianism, what do we choose? How can people live without beauty? Equally, how can we live without education, health, food for all, as a basic right?

In Cuba there is health care, but little in the way of medications. In Cuba there is universal education, but it seems as if for most people this ends with a very rudimentary level of knowledge.

Life is hard for people, but a visiting Agronomist from  UNFAO (the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) told me that prior to the Revolution many people were starving and today nobody starves.

There seems to be little motivation among people, but can it be that the only way to motivate people is to reward them with more than others? Can it be that having more is what motivates us? Do I have to accept that is the only way we move society forward because if I do, then I have to say goodbye to a big chunk of who I am.

Cuba made me confront my past and in some way I felt at times as if I was doing penance for growing up in South Africa. When I saw the memorial in Cienfuegos for the Cuban soldiers who had died fighting with Frelimo in Mozambique, with UNITA in Angola and with SWAPO in what today is Namibia my memories of the 1970s came flooding back. Orly and I stayed in one of our Casa Particulares in Trinidad with a black family in pretty tough conditions. Was my insistence on staying there in some bizarre way connected to my South African guilt?

Of course we could have avoided some of the angst if we had stayed in hotels, but the experience of staying in Casas Particulares in Vinales, Viega Havana, Playa Largo (one of the places in the Bay of Pigs where the CIA-trained troops came ashore in 1961), Trinidad and Cienfuegos meant that this became an intimate experience for us. It is easy in a hotel which is based on ‘servers’ and ‘served’ to make a fuss about how little pressure there is in a shower head. It makes sense to have a bit of a fit when you discover that even after you returned the omelette with ham in it, after you had insisted on a cheese omelette (sin carne), that what they did was to remove almost all of the ham. But when the cheese omelette is served by someone who is working so hard just to survive, you realize that the empathy you feel with him is greater than the indignation that you feel at the almost pathetic attempt to cover up a mistake. How important is it that my vegetarianism is respected in comparison with the issues of survival my waiter faces?

Slogans cover the walls. From the mouth of Fidel and occasionally Raoul. Pictures are of Che more than anyone else (and my memories from 1972 and my gap year in Israel on a Jewish Youth leaders programme come flooding back with the Argentinians and the Uruguayans constantly chanting “Che, Che Che Guevara”). It was wonderful to believe in 1972 in Revolution (here of course it is Revolucion), Solidarity and all the other words which cover the walls; but the slogans now are fading having been painted many years ago. Che is long gone; Fidel is dying slowly in Cuba; Raoul is a feeble alternative and is slowly making changes. The once feared CDRs  (Committee for the Defence of the Revolution) in every neighbourhood are becoming irrelevant.

The most important question: would I want to live in a Cuba? Absolutely not. Never.

Does it feel good today to be back in the world of rich and poor, of marketing and logos, of buy, buy, buy. No, not at all. So, what to do?

There must be another way. There have to be ways to motivate people other than personal gain. In truth that is why I moved to kibbutz all those years ago, but we are not what we set out to be in the kibbutzim of 2014.

Perhaps I will find the answer in this work with the wonderful – motivated and ideological young people I now work with? Perhaps this is why I work with them?

Some more from Argentina next week. Answers? Probably not. Sad really. Or human?



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