Sunday, March 12, 2017

Cuba Beyond the Cusp of Change (Day 4b): Reflections on a Week Long Penn State Graduate Course in Cuba; We Get to Feel Like Cubans—The Saratoga Hotel Refuses to Let Me and My U.S. Graduate Students Enter their Lobby—The Cuban People are Owed the Apology

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

It is my great privilege to have been encouraged to design and hold a week long embedded course program through Pennsylvania State University. My thanks to the office of the Penn State Office of the Vice Provost for Global Prgrams, Michael Adewumi and Kate Manni, Assistant Director for Embedded Programs, for making this possible.  Thanks as well to  Scott Gartner, the Director, Penn State School of International Affairs, and special thanks to Claudia Prieto (SIA Academic Adviser and Student Services Coordinator) and Rachel Arnold (Assistant to the Financial Officer, Penn State Law/SIA), without whose help and encouragement this program would not have happened. Great thanks as well to our hosts in Cuba, the Centro de Estudios Martianos that went out of its way to enrich the course and the experiences of our students.

This is the first of a series of posts that will develop reflections both on the teaching of embedded programs in Cuba, generally, but more specifically as a way of documenting the way my students and see see Cuba today.  For many years Cuba and its political order was said to be on the "cusp of change" (e.g., here).  Since the start of normalization of relations with the United States, it is quite evident that Cuba has now moved beyond the "cusp" and into the realities of integration within a global system to which it has had both privileged access and been excluded over the last half century.  The re-adjustments in both respects will mark the trajectory of Cuban life for the next generation (compare here, with here).

I started with the embedded course syllabus (INTAF 597C Penn State SIA) and then will post reflections for each day of the journey through the course materials and within Cuba.  The hope is that this provides some food for thought respecting the necessary evolution of political and economic systems, and the constraints within which systems change or expend great energy to stay the same.

Links for full contents HERE.

This post considers our activities on Day 4 Afternoon--We  Get to Feel Like Cubans—The Saratoga Hotel Refuses to Let Me and My U.S: Students Enter their Lobby—The Cuban People are Owed an Apology.


One of the most interesting aspects of the tourist sector in Cuba is the extent of unwritten rules that effectively segregate populations within the heart of Habana Vieja on the basis of citizenship, ethnicity and social class.  That this is undertaken in a socialist society the core object of which remain old fashioned European Soviet class struggle produces an irony that is both tragic and telling for the state of the social and political organization of Cuba and the membrane that exists—on the Cuban side—between its theories of social class (applicable it appears when Cubans interact with each other) and the practice of social class that is performed at the doorways of every hotel and high status restaurant in the tourist sector.  

My students and I became unwitting actors in this space within which the contradictions of nationality, Marxist theory, socialist solidarity, and the management of a tourist sector grounded in the premise that tourists are a foreign element within the social space of the nation, who´s wealth might be extracted but around whose activities a membrane must be placed. That membrane is at its most effective when Cubans can see and feel it but where the tourist themselves remain oblivious.  That obliviousness is enhanced by the perception of undifferentiated interaction that is, to some extent, merely the way in which the membrane permits its appearance.

This post described the events and provides reflections on the state of class based ethno-cultural divisions that appear to be performed within and perhaps which describe the operational heart, of the tourist sector. The stage for this event that drove these insights home was the Hotel Saratoga—a sort of nouveau riche establishment that is meant to cater to those just an economic class below the fantasy that is being sold to them.

It is a creature of one of the tourist sector State Owned Enterprises—Habaguanex.  According to a January 2017 Babalu Blog
Habaguanex  S. A., the conglomerate founded by Eusebio Leal and administrated by the City of Havana Historian’s Office (OHCH), which in 2012 was at the epicenter of an anti-corruption campaign that shook the very foundations of the historic quarter, will disappear after being absorbed by corporations CIMEX and TRD Caribe, both belonging to the military consortium GAESA. (Reports from Cuba: Farewell to Habaguanex S.A., January 16, 2017 by Alberto de la Cruz , reporting ion an article By Pablo Pascual Mendez Piña in Diario de Cuba:Farewell to Habaguanex S.A.).
Habaguanex has been undone by a deep culture of corruption that appears to have permeated the enterprise--to the great detriment of the project of repairing and reserving the extradorinary beautity and historical significance of La Habana Vieja. (See, e.g., here).

The Cuba Travel Network describes the Saratoga Hotel in these glowing terms:

There are few hotels in Havana where the front door miraculously swings open (thanks to a deft doorman, naturally) – the Saratoga is one of those hotels. And that door has swept open for many notable guests since the historic hotel re-opened in 2005 including legendary guitarist Jimmy Page and pop phenom Beyoncé.

The Saratoga, voted one of the region’s top hotels by Condé Nast Traveller, is fast gaining a reputation as the hip place to stay in Havana and not only for its high-profiled clientele: this hotel is living proof that international standards for luxury can be met, maintained and even improved upon, in Cuba.

The elegantly curved building was originally constructed in 1879 and expanded between 1915 and 1925. Its location across from the Parque de Fraternidad (with a tree planted from each country in the Americas) and diagonally opposite the legendary Partagas Cigar Factory and the iconic Capitolio, has been a draw for over a century.

Behind the neoclassical façade, guests find an entire menu of services including a wine and tapas bar, the upscale Anacaona restaurant (grab the window table for unsurpassed people watching), and the Mezzanine Bar and WiFi area; the Deluxe Patio rooms overlook this inner courtyard.

Saratoga sets the standard for rooftop pools: from your chaise you’ll be treated to unparalleled views of the majestic Capitolio, Central Park and the Prado beyond. Cocktails at sunset are highly recommended here.

(Pix from Hotel Website here)

Well, that “front door miraculously swings open” only for those deemed worthy—it was slammed in my face and that of a small group of U.S. graduate students who had sought to enter the lobby to have drinks at their bar.  We had been touring that sector of Havana; I was dressed in clothing that looked enough like those of locals to raise no suspicion that I was flamboyantly foreign (the preferred state, it seems, for easy identification for purposes of protecting the membrane within which the tourist sector may be  managed and their money harvested).  We had just finished a tour of the Asociación Cultural Yoruba de Cuba, the meeting place of Afro-Cuban religious organizations. Ironically, the Yoruba Center sits directly next to the physical and abstract spaces that the Hotel Saratoga occupies, but which the Hotel appears unwilling to share. The Center provides a meeting place religious practitioners of what Westerners understand as Santería, a cluster of religious traditions rooted in the Yoruba based religions of Africa include many Afro-Cubans and poor people among their members and those who tend to utilize the facilities. None of these, in retrospect, would appear to be permitted to enjoy the delights of the Hotel Saratoga.

As we walked the twenty paces from the Yoruba Center to the front door of the Hotel Saratoga, we had not realized that we were penetrating the membrane that keeps antiseptic the lovely spaces reserved for the foreigner and that we ourselves would be viewed as foreign body attacking the self-conception of the beautiful—and the privileged—to whom permission might be granted to assume their place among this contrived and evocative elegance.  But that embrace hardened as we walked toward the door.  Within feet of entrance two Cuban gentleman barred the door.  They were not, it seems, in a mind to let us enter.  They demanded to know our business.  I responded that we sought to enter the lobby to enjoy its charms and drinks. This explanation was made in English and Spanish. 

Apparently nether my students nor I passed the perception test. Were were a collection of different races and ethnicity dressed for the weather but apparently not the sort of people that would add to the glorious imagery and class solidarity that the state agents guarding the door were instructed to look for. Without batting an eye, the lead gentleman, looked us up and down and then said, in English and Spanish:
“The Hotel is closed.”
I noted that the hotel did not appear closed that it in seemed, in any case, an awfully lively establishment for a closed space.  “Might all those people in the building now be squatters; perhaps we should call someone to investigate” I suggested.  The response was immediate and final. The gentleman went back to the door and shut it in my face. We had nowhere to go.


My students were confused and embarrassed. Mostly confused. I was surprised and amused.  Mostly amused. . . . and irritated. And then I became profoundly sad—sad for the way this small personal insult insulted the Cuban people in a more profoundly disturbing way; sad for the way that insult provided a revealing window on the tragedy of the revolutionary project as its thirst for harvesting tourist dollars lead it to betray its own fundamental principles of social justice; sad for the way that corruption at the top appeared so seamlessly to embed itself throughout the organization; sad for the way that the Cuban gentleman who barred my way was actually barring the way for himself, for his own people, his own nation, to the hard won fruits of revolutionary labor; sad for the way such behavior within the construct of the Cuban Revolution itself and on its own terms suggested the betrayal of the most basic of the Revolution’s own aspirations (aspirations built into the 1976 Constitution of the Nation). I wondered what Martí would say about this—about the way that  the Revolution itself appeared to bar the way, appeared to place the Cuban people—again—in a subordinate status, inferior to that of the foreigner.  I wondered what happened to Nuestra America (English here) and to the aspirations of regional solidarity, and to the bonds of friendship forged by interactions among people from all parts of the hemisphere.  I wondered as well what Fidel would say—to the construction of a social order built directly on class and ethnic hierarchy, and one in which the Cuban people were barred from the enjoyment of the fruits of their labors on behalf of the people and the state.  The vanguard party does itself little service through the creation of systems that indeed embed the very ideals of racist, nationalist and class based divisions Cuba diplomats are at plains to combat within international fora.

And as I walked away I thought—I have not been insulted because I was treated like a local and my students were dismissed as unworthy of reaping the fruits of foreign wealth.  The Hotel Saratoga's excellence appears to have been built on an embrace of class tourism--creating luxury perches from which richj foreigners might observe the local flora and fauna. Indeed, pictures from the web site appear unintentionally to underline that distance cultivated between locals and those lodged within the protective membrane that is the hotel.



 The Cuban people were insulted by this act of betrayal of the deepest ideals of the Revolution and its ideas.  It is to them that the staff and management of the Hotel Saratoga owe the most profound apology.  And it on behalf of the Hotel Saratoga—because they are likely indifferent to their obligations to their own people—it is on behalf of the people from other states insulated from these insults-- that I offer my own apology to the Cuban people  for the betrayal by this organ of the state of the most fundamental responsibilities that they owe to the Revolution, to the state and to the socialist project that their wok is meant to advance.

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