Monday, March 25, 2013

North Carolina to Washington DC: March 18-25, 2013

After a very short stopover in Charlotte, NC, to meet friends for lunch, Dan and I flew to Washington DC where our vacation was kind of put on hold while he met with ABA and State Department. As we were leaving for this March vacation, the State Department asked Dan if he would teach in Montenegro during the first week of April.  He agreed.  Then, just before arriving in Washington DC, the ABA sent Dan an email asking him if he would go to Ukraine from Montenegro.  In DC, we bargained the Ukraine reporting date down to April 28, and we decided that Dan will go to Montenegro without me.   In between business meetings, we caught up with friends and walked around Washington.  We stayed at the AKA White House and loved it.

Our first day in DC, we picked up the box of winter clothing that we sent at the start of our vacation and mailed our summer stuff back home.  It was really cold in DC, and the cherry blossoms were shut tight.

We met our friend Nini for dinner in Georgetown.  We met Nini in Georgia when she was the finance officer for ABA while Dan worked there.  She came to DC to continue her education at Johns Hopkins and now has a Visa to work in DC.

Tara, Dan's daughter drove up to DC to spend one day with us.  She took us sightseeing and we ended the day with the enjoyable play, "Mary T and Lizzy K" at the Arena Stage.  It is a play about Mary Todd Lincoln and her dressmaker, a freed slave, named Elizabeth Keckly.

On the weekend, we had a chance to spend time with Rana.  Rana is one of Dan's former students from his mediation courses in Cairo, Egypt.  She is pursuing her Masters Degree at the International Relations department of American University in DC.  Together we toured to the fascinating Museum of Crime and Punishment.  Ringling Bros & Barnum & Bailey Circus was in town so we braved the PETA protestors and enjoyed ourselves.  This is not the circus of my childhood.  It was amazing.

Me, Rana, Dan

Next stop: New York City

Monday, March 18, 2013

Florida: March 9-18, 2013

Our bad luck with weather followed us into Florida where it was abnormally cool.  Our first visit was to Uncle Phil and Aunt Ruth who live on one of the many canals of Homosassa Springs.  The first day Phil and Ruth took us and Molly out on their boat to see more canals and manatees.

Seeing manatees was a first for both Dan and me. We've seen them on TV, of course, but never been so close to real manatees.

Phil has a good eye for spotting manatees and the birds that live near him.  Eventually, we were able to see lots of manatees.  Many of them seemed to be napping and from a distance, they look like logs floating just under the water.  We were lucky and soon a group of manatees glided past us like silent submarines.  Manatees need water temperatures above 68˚F (like Dan) and the lack of sun didn't help the manatees.

 A manatee with scrapes and nicks sustained from boat propellers

Great Blue Heron

After too short of a visit, we continued on down the coast to Sanibel Island.  Sanibel is connected to mainland Florida by a bridge.  

Looking from Sanibel Island toward Ft Meyers, FL

I'd never heard of Sanibel Island until my friend Maia Tsinamdzgvrishvili told me in 2011 that she would be showing her work there in 2013. I promised her then that I would see her in Florida. Maia is a textile artist who lives in Tbilisi, Georgia, and I love her art.

 Maia, in her Tbilisi apartment, painting a design on silk

 The reception at Big Arts on Sanibel Island

Maia's one-month show was very successful.  She sold most of the pieces that she had on display.  She gave a master class on Sanibel and at the end of her time in the US, she gave another master class in Maine.  She also invited Dan and me for lunch one day and made us a fabulous khachapuri.

Dan and I did lots of wildlife sightseeing.  Sanibel Island's  J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge is home to several types of birds.  While we were there we saw Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, White Ibis ....... 

Tri-colored Heron

 Little Blue Heron                                                   Yellow-crowned Night Heron
Royal Terns
and more.  The beach was just a few yards from our rustic little room at Tropical Winds Motel and Cottages.  The last day we were on Sanibel, it was warm enough to lie on the beach for a few hours.  

The day after Maia's reception, we drove through Big Cypress Basin Park on our way to one night at the Hotel Redland in Homestead.   Just a little distance into the park, we saw alligators--lots of them just laying in the sun next to the road.  They gave me the heevy-jeevies each time I saw them.

Alligators have darker skin and their snouts are wider and more gradually rounded than crocodiles.  We also saw lots of birdlife feeding amongst the cypresses.

Great Egret                                                               Heron

Ibis feeding in the Cypresses

After our night in economically-depressed Homestead, we drove to Everglades National Park.  Everglades National Park was nothing like I imagined.  I expected swamps everywhere.  Luckily for us it was dry season, and there were lots of animals and birds residing within the park's boundaries.  When it is dry season, it is easier to see the animals because they are near the receding water holes.  Again, we saw alligators--lots of them.  They were snoozing along the walkways--surely there is a liability issue with allowing people to be so close to man/woman/child eaters.  I walked those paths very carefully and yielding to sleeping gators.

 Anhingas sunning themselves

 White Ibis (foreground), Wood Storks (tree), Spoonbill (flying)

Alligator resting on top of a turtle--imagine the turtle's surprise...

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Last Days in Havana, Cuba: March 9, 2013

Plaza de la Revolución and the image of Che Guevara (left) on the Ministry of Interior

The lighted images of Che Guevara and the other Cuban revolutionary hero that looks like Osama Bin Laden but is not loom eerily at night over Plaza de la Revolución and José Martí Memorial.  Beneath the lighted image of Che Guevara is the illegible slogan "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always).

Back in Havana, on Friday, March 8 at 10:30 a.m., there is a 21-gun salute in honor of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

We began the day with almost tourist-tourist like activities.  We went to a Rum Factory where we toured the rum cellar and tasted a couple of rums.  As US Citizens, we are prohibited from buying almost anything in Cuba especially cigars and rum.

The most expensive cigars at $31.80 each 

The bartender at the rum factory made us Cuban coffees with flaming rum.  When he poured the flaming rum into each cup, it was dark except for the flaming rum.  It was good, but a little difficult to make at home.
The building through the arches and in the distance is the U.S. Interest Section
A statue of José Martí holding Elian Gonzalez and pointing accusingly at the U.S. Interest Section
In the afternoon, we returned to non-tourist activities.  We visited the U.S. Interest Section.  We do not have an embassy in Cuba;  the U.S. Interest Section primarily issues visas to Cubans who are trying to travel to the US.

Prior to January 14, 2013, Cubans had to obtain permission travel, in the form of a "tarjeta blanca" (white card),  from the Cuban government.  The white card is no longer required, but of course, Cubans who wish to travel to the US need a visa issued by the American Interest Section.

A political affairs officer at the US Interest Section gave us an hour of her time.  During that hour she provided the following information:

1.  They issue 20,000 visas a year to Cubans in addition to considering refugee status for some applicants.  There are currently about 2 million Cubans living in the US.

2.  The US is the number one supplier of food to Cuba: soybeans, corn, chicken (legs only), wheat, Virginia apples, medicine.

3.  In order for a Cuban hospital to receive hospital equipment/medicine, it must demonstrate that it will not use said equipment/medicine as a weapon.

4.  The Cuban government is bankrupt, and therefore, unable to buy medicines and food.

5.  There is no freedom of the press.  Reporters who don't follow the government line go to jail.

6.  Just 3% of the population is connected to the internet.  Those connected to the internet must have government permission.  A fiber optic cable comes from Venezuela.

Then, we were allowed to ask questions:

1.  What does the embargo prohibit?

The political officer said:  The Embargo is actually 3 sets of laws and exempts food and humanitarian aid.  For more information, she surprisingly directed us to Wikipedia for the answer.
Wikipedia, paraphrased, says ( The United States embargo against Cuba is a commercial, economic, and financial embargo partially imposed on Cuba in October 1960 (almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution). It was enacted after Cuba nationalized the properties of United States citizens and corporations and it was strengthened to a near-total embargo on February 7, 1962.
Titled the Cuban Democracy Act, the embargo was codified into law in 1992 with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government continues to refuse to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights."[2] In 1996, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, which further restricted United States citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further by also disallowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba. In 2000, Clinton authorized the sale of certain "humanitarian" US products to Cuba.
The USA does not block Cuba's trade with third-party countries: other countries are not under the jurisdiction of US domestic laws, such as the Cuban Democracy Act. Cuba can, and does, conduct international trade with many third-party countries.
At present, the embargo, which limits American businesses from conducting business with Cuban interests, is still in effect and is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history. Despite the existence of the embargo, the United States is the fifth largest exporter to Cuba (6.6% of Cuba's imports are from the US).[15] However, Cuba must pay cash for all imports, as credit is not allowed.
So based on information from Wikipedia, it seems that the blame for the embargo can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Cuban, mostly Republican, Americans.  They created the embargo because their properties were nationalized when they or their relatives fled Cuba ahead of the revolution.  In many cases, Castro gave these abandoned properties to the servants that were left behind.  In a rather discriminatory practice US Citizens not of Cuban descent are prohibited from traveling freely to Cuba, but US citizens of Cuban descent do not need permission to travel to Cuba.

2.  Who is the plane bomber allowed to live in the US that Cubans keep asking us about?  According to Cubans we spoke with, those on board included the entire Cuban National Fencing Team and this guy brags that he got away with the bombing.

The political officer said:  Luis Posada Carriles escaped from Venezuela through Mexico to the US and was allowed to stay in the US because he proved he would be subject to torture in his home country of Venezuela.
Wikipedia says (  Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 was a Cuban flight from Barbados to Jamaica that was brought down by a terrorist attack on October 6, 1976. All 78 people on board the Douglas DC-8 aircraft were killed in what was then the deadliest terrorist airline attack in the Western Hemisphere. Two time bombs were used, variously described as dynamite or C-4.
Evidence implicated several CIA-linked anti-Castro Cuban exiles and members of the Venezuelan secret police DISIP. Political complications quickly arose when Cuba accused the US government of being an accomplice to the attack. CIA documents released in 2005 indicate that the agency "had concrete advance intelligence, as early as June 1976, on plans by Cuban exile terrorist groups to bomb a Cubana airliner." Former CIA operative Posada Carriles denies involvement but provides many details of the incident in his book "Caminos del Guerrero" (Way of the Warrior).[1][2]
Four men were arrested in connection with the bombing and a trial was held in Venezuela: Freddy Lugo and Hernán Ricardo Lozano were sentenced to 20-year prison terms; Orlando Bosch was acquitted because of technical defects in the prosecution evidence, and lived in Miami, Florida until he died on the 27th of April, 2011; and Luis Posada Carriles was held for eight years while awaiting a final sentence, but eventually fled. He later entered the United States, where he was held on charges of entering the country illegally but released on April 19, 2007.
3.  Who are the Cuban 5?  We have seen posters in restaurants and along streets for the Cuban 5.  It is always a subject that Cubans bring up when talking with us.

The political officer said:  two of the Cuban 5 are US citizens of Cuban descent.  Twelve were arrested on espionage charges for trying to obtain US secrets: five testified, two escaped, and five are currently in prison.
Wikipedia says ( The Cuban Five, also known as the Miami Five[1] (Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando González, and René González) are five Cuban intelligence officers convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and other illegal activities in the United States. The Five were in the United States to observe and infiltrate the U.S. Southern Command and the Cuban-American groups Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation, and Brothers to the Rescue.[2][3] The were part of "La Red Avispa", or the Wasp Network,
At their trial, evidence was presented that the Five infiltrated the Miami-based Cuban exile group Brothers to the Rescue, obtained employment at the Key West Naval Air Station in order to send the Cuban government reports about the base, and had attempted to penetrate the Miami facility of U.S. Southern Command.[3] On February 24, 1996, two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft were shot down by Cuban military jets in international airspace while flying away from Cuban airspace, killing the four U.S. citizens aboard.[3] One of the Five, Gerardo Hernández, was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder for supplying information to the Cuban government which according to the prosecution led to the shootdown. The Court of Appeals has, however, reversed the conviction on the conspiracy to commit murder, since there is no evidence that Hernández knew the shootdown would occur in international airspace.[3]
For their part, Cuba acknowledged, after denying the fact for nearly three years, that the five men were intelligence agents, but says they were spying on Miami's Cuban exile community, not the U.S. government.[4] Cuba contends that the men were sent to South Florida in the wake of several terrorist bombings in Havana masterminded by anti-communist militant Luis Posada Carriles, a former Central Intelligence Agency operative.[4][5]
The Five appealed their convictions and the alleged lack of fairness in their trial has received substantial international criticism.[6] A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta overturned their convictions in 2005, citing the "prejudices" of Miami’s anti-Castro Cubans, but the full court later reversed the five's bid for a new trial and reinstated the original convictions.[4] In June 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.[7] In Cuba, the Five are viewed as national heroes and portrayed as having sacrificed their liberty in the defense of their country.[8]
René González was released in October 2011[9] following the completion of 13 years of his sentence with a further 3 years of probation in the US. He was allowed to return to Cuba for his father's funeral on 22 April 2013, and a federal judge allowed him to stay there provided that he renounce his United States citizenship.
Leaving the politics behind, we returned to the Hotel Melia Cohiba to chat with our English teacher friends and get ready for our last dinner in Havana.  Our last evening turned out to be quite a surprise, even touristy.  We were waiting in front of the hotel watching beautiful vintage cars drive up.  This happens every evening because vintage American cars are often taxis.  This time, these classics were for us.  Our guides arranged for us to caravan to an elegant restaurant in these lovely vehicles. 

They all had yellow plates indicating that they were not government owned vehicles.  Riding in these cars was such a treat.  We all stopped in Plaza de la Revolución to try out sitting in the other cars and take photos.  Then, we were off.  Our caravan wound through a lovely Havana park and then to the Restaurant 3ra y 8.  As we alighted from our classic coaches, the waitstaff met us with cold drinks.  The entire evening was lovely and a wonderful way to end the week in Cuba.

Linda and Francoise, GV leaders extraordinare
And, that was the end. Saturday morning, we went to the Havana Airport to catch a charter back to Miami which also seems like a foreign country.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ciego de Avila, Cuba: March 5-7, 2013

Arriving in Ciego de Avila, we found that our entertainment for the evening had been canceled as Cuba was in mourning.  In fact, three days of mourning for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been declared.  We had a group dinner and returned to our hotel.

The next day it was still during the national period of mourning, but the center of Ciego de Avila did not appear to take notice.  There was a book fair and the mood was festive.

Children in José Martí  Square 

We visited the museum to learn about local revolutionary heroes and strolled around the town.  

José Martí, 19th century, is a Cuban National Hero.  He was a poet, philosopher, and the father of Latin American democracy.  After his death, one of his poems became the song, "Guantanamera".  The song was adapted by Pete Seeger.  There is a José Martí Square in every town.  

After lunch we were driven to the small town of Morón to chat with the D'Morón theater group and watch a performance. The performance was laugh-out-loud funny and one of the high points of our time. It was part circus acts, part slapstick, and some audience participation with a salsa lesson at the end. The theater was completely and lovingly renovated by the actors and theater workers.

Dinner was Restaurant Don Papa.  We had slow-roasted pork served with rice and beans, plantain chips, calabash, and a salad of shredded cabbage and tomatoes.  It was delicious and quite possibly the best meal we had in Cuba.  When we arrived some of the D'Morón actors dressed in their "mud" costumes were posing as statues.

With full bellies, we were bussed back to Ciego de Avila for the night.  

The next day, Ciego de Avila is still crowded with people attending the book fair.  There are lines of people waiting to enter bookstores and banks--we don't know why. 

Our guide shows us a "ration shop."  This is where Cubans can use the nonconvertible Cuba peso that is worth about 1/24th of 1 USD.  Every family has a "ration book" (libreta) and is allowed to buy a certain number of pounds/kilos of staples such as cooking oil, flour, beans, grains each month.  If there are children under 8 years old, the family is also entitled to milk, rice, and sugar.  These rationed items are purchased at a huge discount, but the ration does not last the entire month.   

Ration Shop
Egg Seller
Another currency in Cuba is the "CUC" which is the convertible peso.  It's value is equal to that of the  US dollar.  Dollars must be converted to CUCs.  The commission to convert US dollars is 13% while the commission scrape off on all other foreign currencies is about 5%. There are "CUC" stores from which imported items (appliances and furnishings) can be purchased at inflated prices.  

Window shoppers at a CUC store
About 80% of all Cubans are government workers of some kind.  The average government salary is the equivalent of about 19 USD/mo with professionals such as doctors making the equivalent of about 31 UDS/mo.  Each year 2-3 billion dollars in returned remittances are sent back to Cuba from family members living abroad.  Foreign remittances are Cuba's largest source of income.  

During our chats with residents of Ciego de Avila, we hear  again about the American embargo preventing shipments of badly needed medicine, the bomber of a Cuban airplane, and the Cuban Five.  The US does allow export of milk, rice, and chicken legs to Cuba.  

Some of the Cubans we spoke with were worried that with Chavez' death there would be an end to their relationship with Venezuela.  They explained that Cuba had a history of bartering doctors and other professions to Venezuela in exchange for receiving oil from Venezuela.  Venezuela had discovered that Cuba had been selling those barrels of oil on the open market.  Average Cubans were concerned that anyone who replaced Chavez would put an end to the barter relationship.

A privately owned vehicle (yellow license plate)
About a year ago the Cuban government laid off about 1 million employees so a little bit of free enterprises is now permitted to absorb those no longer working for the government.  The government has specified 181 professions in which it is permissible to be self-employed.  Some examples are button coverer, granite (not wood or concrete) floor polisher, dandy, English teacher....

In Ciego de Avila, it was possible to see some of these fledgling self-employment enterprises advertising their products. 

Around November 2012,  the government allowed Cubans the right to sell real property.  Informal (possibly real estate agent is not one of the 181 allowed self-employed positions) real estate agents will find buyers for a 10% fee to the seller.  Once there is a seller, a bank appraises the property, but the value is low.  The difference between the bank-appraised value and the perceived fair market value is surreptitiously paid to the seller. Prior to this loosening of laws related to real estate sales, selling a house was illegal, and elaborate trades of real property were required. 

"Se Vende Esta Casa" This house is for sale
Another woman told us a story of how she acquired her house several years ago.  At the time, she was 6 months pregnant and renting a house with her soon to be husband.  They concocted an elaborate scheme with the owner of the house to acquire ownership for themselves.  This is what they did:

She married the landlord.  Her name was added to the title of the property.  She and the landlord divorced (she was about 8 months pregnant at this point) and she retained the property in her name only.  For the property transfer from joint ownership to her sole ownership, she paid the bank about 3,000 pesos (unconvertible, I think) and also paid the landlord a pre-specified amount under the table.  Then she and the father of her unborn child married and they now live in this property.  

Divorce in Cuba is easy with no waiting period, and separation of property is not an issue for most people.  One person said, "When you have nothing, there is nothing to divide.  Half of nothing is nothing."

Thursday, March 7, we return by bus (no breakdowns) to Havana and the Melia Cohiba.  At Havana's Plaza de la Revolución and José Martí Memorial there is line of people signing the book of condolences for the people of Venezuela.