Smokin’ Hot is Pretty Cool

Smoking hot at Etna

August 9, 2017

Heat has followed us this whole trip; it’s been in the upper 90s every day.  Rome, after all, has been hotter than New Delhi.

But I awoke to a new “heat” this morning—we’re docked off Mount Etna, the largest and most active volcano in Europe.

Some of the most famous volcanos are in Italy, part of the “belt of fire” that extends east from here into Turkey.  Etna is probably the best known certainly since Vesuvius, which in 79 AD buried Pompeii.  We’ll see that in a few days, too.. There’s also a potentially devastating explosion waiting to happen in Naples from a “young volcano”.

The trip took us to 6000 of the 11,000 feet (and to temperate temperatures, thankfully). The mountain is obviously the highest thing around, and rises from sea level.

We stopped at the site of an explosion in the mid 19th century, I believe, which left a variety of cones (big cones are caldera, usually where the explosion collapsed the area).  Our guide told us that the cone explodes gas and ash, and the lava flows come from fissures; usually the fissures are a one-time phenomenon. Sometimes the cone will throw larger stones, called bombs. He showed us a variety of the rocks, from the dust and ash to the lava.

We drove later to a lava flow, dating from the early 1990s.  He explained how the lava flow perpetuates itself; as the upper layer cools and solidifies the lower layers stay warm (over 2500 degrees) and flow underneath, eventually breaking through and resuming their flow until eventually cooling and generally stopping.  In the case of this particular lava flow, the nearby US Air Force base sent in helicopters with bombs to alter the path (kind of like setting counter fires).  It’s on youtube, and I do have to say that seeing the explosions and flows (we had a talk afterwards on the boat with visuals) are pretty spectacular.  We’ll have other chances—the island of Stromboli, and later, Vesuvius and the Pompeii ruins.

The boat talk was by a government agent who’s part of the monitoring of “momma Etna”, which once had the traditional cone shape I associate with volcanoes (Fujiyama anyone?), but in the 20th century has gotten new craters—including “big mouth” (a more colorful name than South East u) and the eruption of new craters has continued in 20th century—even in the past year, new craters have emerged,  a phenomenon never observed this quickly anywhere else in the world.  He said explosions can be violent, with fragments of ash and gas which are blown downwind and ash covers everything.  I remember when St. Helens blew in the 80s, we had to wipe off ash from our cars.  Here in Italy, he said, cleanup is slow. Dust can spread and make visibility difficult, roads slippery, and air bad to breathe.  Lots of “hills” we saw were baby craters at lower elevations.  A 1669 eruption reached 10 km, down to the sea.

When we asked him about living in a volcanic area, he noted that only one of the modern explosions threatened a city on the slope, and the slow progress of lava took 5 weeks to reach the village, allowing everyone to move anything they wanted—except their houses.  Interestingly, there’s no volcano insurance available in Italy, though there are some government funds

He said the “heat of pyroclastic (look that up in your dictionary) flows killed people in Pompeii.” Not the explosion, which is a product of the water vapor buildup from the intense heat.  Other gases include carbon dioxide and Sulphur oxide, which can leave a residue of yellow on the top of the mountain, looking at first glance like snow.

In all, it might have been smoking hot, but it was a pretty cool experience!

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A pupi day in Siracusa

August 8, 2017

I had a pupi day in Siracusa (read and see why)

We’ve sailed nearly a hundred miles north to 37 degrees north of the equator, the port of Siracusa in Sicily (translated Syracuse, though the one in New York is the Orangemen, here, the city uniform is green).

If I were to single out one thing we’ve seen as symbolic of Siracusa, it would probably be the church, since it incorporates many of the historical trends that explain this island.  The original site housed a   Greek temple, and the enormous Doric columns serve duty today as pillars for the church.  The city was founded by colonist from Corinth (in Greece) and is a reminder (for me) that Greece was a civilization, rather than an empire.  Unlike Rome (which copied a lot of Greek customs, changing the names of the gods, but not their duties—the temple of Athena here, partly reconstructed, became the temple of Minerva when the Roman rulers replaced the Greeks), Greece seems to me best understood as a series of related cities ranging from Asia Minor into the western Mediterranean, Siracusa being a case in point.

In addition to incorporating the columns into the church, subsequent Norman conquerors incorporated crenelated tops into the building.  And of course, later Italian (and Spanish) rulers built more traditional items into the architecture.  An earthquake in the 1690s resulted in a magnificent baroque renewal, making the façade a delightful expression of that architectural style.

Another church on the square has a Caravaggio (I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of him; his work in Malta was from his short stint as a knight. He apparently got into a scuffle and was kicked out of Malta, fleeing to Siracusa long enough to create another masterpiece). The church is on the spot where Santa Lucia was martyred–she was a 21 year old brutally killed for being a Christian.

We had a free afternoon, so after bringing Carolyn back to the boat, I took the on and off bus, determined to see what else I could in the city.  Although it has been in the upper 90s (35 or so to Europeans who measure in Celsius), I was determined to see the outdoor architectural ruins and the archaeological museum.  The museum was a real treat, with a surprising amount of locally-found artifacts from mostly the Greco-Roman period (that was, after all, over a thousand years!), but the ticket taker urged me to hurry to the coin collection, which was closing in half an hour. I’m glad I paid heed, since the coins took the entire first floor, and served as a substitute introduction to history of the island. Every ruler issued coins with his picture on it, from the tyrant Dionisius to Victor Emmanuel (who was the first king of reunified Italy in the mid 19th century).  It would have been fun had I had several days to try to put together the various tribes who conquered the island—including the Arabs (who probably converted the temple of Apollo to a mosque, only to have the Normans repurpose it to a church). Half an hour was scarcely sufficient to get acquainted with the history of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies and the other predecessors of the Sicily of today.  Perhaps I’ll have a chance in the next few days as we cruise up to the straits of Messina.

Our program director, a Florentine, gave us a few extra treats today.  One was an introduction to a Granite (shaved flavored ice), but one of the cultural attractions of Sicily is a kind of puppet show, and there is a puppet maker and museum, that he took some of us to visit.  We saw the puppets being made, talked with the cast, and saw a play in Italian which pitted good and evil.  When asked if they could come to the United States, the puppeteer quipped that he “can’t bring the Moors.”

Incidentally, puppet in Italian is pupi, pronounced just like you think.  My 10 year old grandson would probably giggle.

It was a pupi day.

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Daze and Knights in Malta

7 August 2017

It seems appropriate that Carolyn and I started this trip to Europe in Malta, because our last trip here was four years ago, when we ended in Rhodes, since one of Rhodes’ claims to fame was in January 1523, when the island fell to Suleiman the Magnificent, who allowed the Knights of St. John to leave the island,while keeping their weapons, relics, etc.

Ironically, the Knights ultimately wound up in Malta, contributing to at least two things most associated with Malta: the Maltese Cross and the Maltese Falcon.  The Maltese Falcon, perhaps most associated with Dashiell Hammett and Humphrey Bogart, was really part of the history of the Knights and Malta.  After wandering around the Mediterranean, seeking territory—anything from Rome to the other properties of King Charles V of Spain, including, at the time Tunis and Algiers, where the Knights helped Charles in his battles against the Turks, the order reluctantly settled on Malta; the price was one hunting falcon a year, hence, the real Maltese Falcon.

Of course, the Knights brought with them the 8-pointed cross of the Order, and their pugnacious disposition to both defend the faith (and incidentally, to do hospital work; the Order started performing medical assistance to the Crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land as part of the crusades.  The militant medicine men carved quite a niche in the Mediterranean as a self- financed international organization that fed on warfare and (depending on your point of view) piracy, seizing Muslims ships, selling the captives into slavery and confiscating the cargo (a mirror image of what the Turks were doing).

One of the pivotal military points in the battle between Islam (and especially Suleiman) and the West, occurred in 1565, when Suleiman, then an old man, mustered nearly 50,000 of his finest soldiers and determined to put an end to the predators on Malta. The last straw, according to one of the books I read (but not mentioned by our guides), was the Knight’s seizure of one of the personal ships of Suleiman carrying cargo gathered by the harem, including his favorite wife, for sale in Venice.

The western victory marked the apogee of the Ottoman empire.  Combined with the loss of the Turkish navy in the battle of Lepanto (to which the Knights contributed ships and men) in 1571, the turn of the Turkish tide had begun.

Thus began about a 250 rule by the Knights of the island of Malta.  As you might imagine from the narrative, living in this neighborhood required fortification of the harbor, and one of the distinctive features of Malta even today is the incredible array of fortresses guarding the Grand Harbor in the town named for the grand master during the siege, Valetta.  In the period of their rule, perhaps the most stunning building—as you might imagine—is the cathedral of St. John, a magnificent baroque construction distinguished with Caravaggio’s only signed (and largest) painting, the beheading of John the Baptist.

The Knight’s rule came to an end in 1798 when Napoleon landed and conquered the island, ending the rule of the Order, abolishing slavery, and confiscating church property (to help pay for his futile campaign in Egypt (which included the destruction of the French navy at Aboukir Bay).  The conquest led to an uprising, which invited Britain to help overturn the French, and at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, Britain acquired Malta as a colony; it remained so until 1964, when it became independent.  In 2004 it entered the EU as the smallest and least populated country, with about 450000 citizens.

Between the Knights and the British, the island acquired a lot of palaces—the president’s palace, across from the hotel we stayed at, was built by one of the Knights, then became residence of the British governor, and now houses the President of the Republic of Malta. While English was until recently one of the official languages, Maltese (the language of the people) predominates.  It has roots in Arabic, as does the country before the 13th century.  Indeed, the town of Mdina, another walled city that was the capital of the country, is a medieval fort on a hill; the Knights, being seagoers, sought a city with a harbor, and built Valetta and the other cities on the coast.

The location—“a north African desert with a European civilization’—at the crossroads between East and West and Europe and Africa has made it a potentially important trade entrepot  or naval base.  For the British, it was the headquarters of the Mediterranean Fleet, important in the 19th century with the development of the Suez Canal, the route to India, and the effort to keep the Russians contained in the Black Sea—not to mention the need for coaling stations.

That location prompted what the Maltese call the “second great siege”—during the second world war.  With the entrance of Italy in 1940, Malta began to get bombarded the next day.  Astride supply lines to North Africa, it intercepted Axis supplies and thus was subject to bombardment and blockade.  The island is limestone, which meant a lot of air raid shelters, some of which were built below existing early Christian and Jewish catacombs.  One of the catacombs was a cave where St. Paul was supposedly incarcerated after being shipwrecked on the island and converted folks to Christianity, making Malta (in the Maltese telling) one of the earliest Christian countries (a claim that has to discount almost a thousand years of Arab and other occupation, however; there were several ethnic cleansings).

The Daze comes partly from the beauty of the sea (the land this time of year is hot and dry), and the visit to Hagad Qim, reputedly the oldest free-standing stone building in the world.  Archaeologists think it was a temple, around 4000 BC, with fi arrangements rather like Stonehedge or Cahokia, with holes for the equinox and solstice.  There were also some interesting statues found, now housed in the archaeology museum, including the “Venus de Malta.”  I saw it.

I wonder, as we are about to sail for Sicily, if the ancients would have been ready to predict the solar eclipse later this month. I wouldn’t be surprised…

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Remember the Maine? I did…

“Remember the Maine” was a slogan coined by the “yellow journalists” of the 1890s to encourage American intervention in the (second) Cuban war for independence from Spain.  During that struggle, the United States government sent the battleship U.S.S. Maine to monitor conditions here. In February 1898, a mysterious explosion (probably caused by coal dust in the bunkers) sent the ship to the bottom of Havana harbor.  The resulting furor led to the Spanish-American war, and the addition of the Philippines as a colony, and Cuba as a protectorate to the American empire.

While my “remembrance” started last night, the full exploration (insofar as four hours can be “full”) had to await the final half day of classes for the Faculty Development trip.  It was another morning well spent.

The first speaker, a Canadian born lawyer, who admitted being a left liberal (possible in Canada; one of our guides at Bissett was a self-proclaimed socialist), talked about his business, as part of a major (1500 partner ) law firm, advises business who want to enter the Cuban market.  He literally regaled us with examples, good and bad, of companies that had tried to enter the market without fully understanding the Cubans.  One Canadian company, he told us, had done its homework and concluded its business was absolutely essential to Cuban, and believed it would have no trouble negotiating favorable terms.  It hadn’t realized that the Cubans do their homework, too,  have a strong sense of purpose and plans, and wound up getting Cuban, not Canadian terms. He noted that the Cuban government can sometimes accept ideas if you present them politely and persevere and were patient, citing the eexample of a Canadian company that had an idea; Canada practices socialized medicine, with free care, but up to 18 months wait for some surgeries.  The company proposed bringing patients with their doctors to use underutilized Cuban hospital space— and to everyone’s surprise, the Canadian company had its plan approved.  He admitted that doing business in Cuba is difficult, but can be fair;  the large population (relatively), location, and lack of corruption are uncommon in this area; as he noted, “Money doesn’t talk.”  He said Cuba has not nationalized without compensation; the sticking point for American companies is that Cuba offered to pay based on the company’s own previous tax valuation, and the State Department has urged those companies to hold out for full repayment.

In thinking about what he said–the preparation, persistence, politeness, and perseverance (you don’t talk business before the third meeting, and don’t presume you know what Cubans need), may well be a clue for doing business with anyone other than Americans, who he said, tend to be too aggressive in international business.

As a Canadian, he has some advantages, having lived here for 25 years; Canadians also constitute over a quarter of the tourists to Cuba–over 1 million.  Part of that comes from Canadians escaping winter (when I was in Quebec City with my family one spring break, the snow-covered town was empty; I thought they were all in Florida!). Part may have been, as well, US citizens who could fly to Havana from Montreal.  Her presentation, however, gave us a nice look at state planning–with party goals to develop 8 tourist areas, many of them surf and sand resorts along the coastline of Cuba. Some of that has come with foreign expertise, such as we heard about when we spoke to the Melia (Spanish) hotel managers, but I think Sheraton has also signed a memorandum of understanding to run some to-be-built government hotels.  She also described the rampant, or perhaps explosive, growth of bnb, one of whose consequences has been to exacerbate an already stretched housing problem.  Surprisingly, there are are no regulations for consumer protection, which for me sort of questions the centralized nature of planning.

The final speaker, whom we’ve had several chances to meet, is a young woman, a US citizen married to a Cuban, who teaches English and pursues research in cultural anthropology.  Her topic: the consequences of social and economic and political change.  I couldn’t help thinking of my trips to Russia and to Eastern Europe, where we repeatedly heard from locals that they “missed” the subsidized life of the Communist regime; “and now,” sighed our guide in Russia, “I am reduced to having to guide to make a living.”

Some of the same things are occurring here in Cuba as a  result of Cuban economic directives (the inside factor) and the increasing normalization (external) that have reduced subsidies and increased some market forces particular through (what seems to me relatively unplanned) development of a private sector.  The creation of the directives and a five year plan based on them (by the party) were the result of many “town hall” meetings, where notes were taken, apparently for the first time, anonymously.  She said over 8 million participated (population 11 million), and the result slowed either the implementation or changed the direction of the proposals.  For example, the company lunch was replaced with a lunch stipend. Many consumer goods used to be distributed through the company (“We have 5 tvs to distribute; you decide which workers deserve them”), whereas now they are distributed on the market, though there are shortages, and some savvy buyers get things by standing in line and resell them.  One of the items Cuban-Americans bring back to their families here is a Best Buy TV set, which costs $800 in Cuba, $300 in the US, which can be sold on the black market at $700, making a $400 profit to the family.  She said many of the changes need to be “sold” to a society still based on nationalism and socialism, the pillars of the revolution. As I told her at dinner (she shared the rise of helicopter parents among her students, one of whose moms is a Minister, who tried to use her party position to “encourage” the teacher to give the student good grades), what has probably surprised me most about Cuba is the strong influence the revolutionary ideology has–almost 60 years later, and without the purges of Stalin or the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution.

“Class” ended, and I was free to pick up where I’d left off last night.  Wearing my “Maine High Adventure” polo, I set out to continue to “remember the Maine.” Last night, that consisted of having my picture taken at the monument to the battleship, which features cannons salvaged from the ship.

Today, my homage was in the old city, and particularly around the Plaza of Arms, where the troops used to drill.  Many were stationed in a fort (the big one is across the bay), the Royal Fortress, now converted into a naval museum, with scale models of caravels and galleons, and gold and silk treasures recovered from sunken ships.  The sly guide took my camera and furtively took pictures forbidden of the treasurers, by which she added to her treasurer….a business opportunity, I think. What I learned there was that the galleons that gathered in Havana Harbor consisted of the treasurers of South America via Cartagena, but the Manila galleons came across Mexico!  The tower over the fort has a weather vane that has become the symbol of the city.

The former American embassy (through the fifties) is across the square and is now a library, but the other seat of power was the residence of the governor general, which is now the city museum.  I used a guide here; the building houses artifacts from the residence (some really wonderful phaetons), and a portrait gallery of the leaders of Cuban independence movements from the first war of independence (1860s) on. The building also houses the first Cuban flag, designed in New York (sic!). Built in the late 18th century, one of the features is a wooden block street in front of it, installed by a governor to please his wife who complained that horses clopping on the street kept her from napping during the day!

From there, I wandered to the Cathedral square, only to discover that the wonderfully baroque facade was all I was going to see since the church was closed.  Instead, I contented myself with a colonial art museum, which contained porcelains, chairs, stained glass, and furniture from the colonial period.  It came from France (the nicest stuff), Spain, Italy–and the United States.

While I thought about resuming my musical career in Cuba, I think that will have to await my next trip.  I’ll not only remember the Maine, but the 15 other faculty I spent the past week with in Cuba.

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Fairview Stew (the song) debuts in Cuba

It’s hard encapsulate all that happened today (and it’s only 6 pm), which included a Scoutmaster from Normal Illinois attempting at lunch to top the performance last year of the Rolling Stones, who attracted one million Cubans; read to the end to get the exact admission (as if you didn’t guess).  And who knew there was a Napoleon museum here in Havana that had the largest collection of Napoleona outside of Paris?  Or that, miracle, we would get back early enough to visit it.

I had no idea how the day would unfold when we drove the 45 km to the constructed special economic zone of Mariel, a 464 km2 area set aside for the development of a deep water port to restore the greatness of the Havana port which has grown too small for the big container ships (38x the size of those of the 50s, necessitating as well the widening of the Panama Canal); it was in Havana harbor that the galleons gathered from the far flung reaches of the Spanish empire (from Manila, Peru, and Mexico) before the long trek in convoy (to evade the predatory European pirates) to Seville. Though 45 km from Havana, it connects into the rail system–and wages are ten times those in the rest of the country.

One of the advantages of the “planned economy” is that the government can say, “Do this” and it gets done.  That’s more or less what happened with this new port a few years ago.  Dredging, hiring PSA International of Singapore to manage the operation, one of the leading operators of ports around the world (Singapore usually leads the world in transshipping). Our host was Argentinian, and he had lots of good things to say about being an expatriate in Cuba, particularly the safety–there doesn’t seem to be any overt dissatisfaction — and good international schools. As I said, this seems to be a pattern in the joint ventures–hiring managers for expertise–but the zone signed to let foreign owned companies locate here.  It was after all, the special economic zones Deng Xiao-ping established in China that propelled much of China’s economic miracle. For the long term, as with some of the other businesses we’ve visited, reaching the goal of creating a transshipping and manufacturing center will require an end to the US embargo.  Given that the population of Cuba is only 11 million, and we keep being told it is a poor country (Raul noted that when he became president and canceled some of the retirement benefits; retirees get a small stipend, but essentially you have to  plan ahead for your retirement),  the future depends on the ability to utilize the geographic location–within 500 miles of major port cities, including Houston, Miami, Charleston, etc. Currently, 90% of the containers are destined for Cuba. As I mentioned, ships that stop here cannot dock in US ports for 6 months.  It’s always fun for me to see logistics operations, with the huge cranes that lift the containers off the boats and onto trucks or train cars.  The cranes were made in China, one of the few connections I’ve seen here with the Middle Kingdom. Cuba was in the Russian sphere of influence for 30 years, and that shows in lots of places. Lada cars anyone? The last time I rode in one, I was in Tsingtao, China, with Mike Seeborg, pushing the Lada up a hill.One of the Russian connections is in the realm of cooperatives.  We had a talk from a lawyer a few days ago about these instruments for economic development, and two visits to cooperatives.  One was a restaurant, reputedly the first restaurant cooperative, which like many of the cooperatives (rather like Green Top in Bloomington, where you put money in and run the company) started with contributions of 7000 pesos, and a loan of 35000 CUC (each CUC=25 pesos). Our guide said it was one of the few successful cooperative restaurants.

There was a guitar trio, and this Scourtmaster from central Illinois could not help himself, and so, the amusement (or was it the embarrassment) of all, plucked through two verses of Fairview stew. Despite entreaties to play at the same stadium as Mick and the Stones, the modest Scoutmaster ended his Cuban tour in favor of lunch.

The next cooperative, a car restoration facility, was state  owned, when the state recommended (one of the directives from the Soviet inspiration) to turn it into a coop.  The 48 owners (now 200) have in the two years boasted of their voluntary association, economic participation, community involvement, and being self managed and consultative in decision making.  They choose their own executives.  What was interesting to me, though, was despite the semi-socialist rhetoric, their strategic plan came straight from Harvard–a strengths/ weaknesses analysis, followed by a Michael Porter analysis, then a tour through the plant which reconstructs cars, trucks, and buses.  The plant does panel beating (honest), painting, reupholstery and assembly/reassembly.  With the expense of cars (I think the guide told us one luxury car goes for $265,000; two were sold), and the age of cars (US cars to the late 50s; Russian cars from the 80s), repair maybe the easier (or only) way to go.  The bill is around $4000–and the terms are net 30.  There’s no financing.  This is a cash economy, even if some businesses have credit card signs to lure tourists in.

We got back early enough that I took advantage and went to the Museum Napoleon.  Who knew the Emperor lived in Cuba (as I recall he was so disgusted with the French possessions in the new world that he sold Louisiana to the United States)?  A rich Cuban decided to collect memorabilia, and wound up with four floors of it in a wonderful neo-Renaissance villa built in the 1920s, that alone was worth the price of free admission.

And it’s only 630 now.  Off to do more.  Maybe play the guitar again.  After all, the 14 faculty on the trip applauded…..

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A sweet day

The four visits today helped put a lot of things together about what we’ve seen in Cuba.

Our first stop was at the US Embassy, a concrete 1950s blockhouse reopened after Obama’s visit, with the flag raised by some of the same marines who had taken the flag down in the early 1960s when we closed the embassy.  A briefing helped put the history of US-Cuban relations since the revolution in place.

I sort of remember the shock of having a communist government in the Western hemisphere at the height of the Cold War. As a later speaker pointed out, at the time, the other islands were still colonial possessions or friendly dictatorships. There apparently were efforts to recognize the new government, but confiscation of property and the CIA operatives led Eisenhower to authorize the Bay of Pigs operation. That, in turn, provoked Fidel (can you imagine another well-known global leader from another small country who occupied public and global imagination for 50 years?) to turn to the Soviet Union, which in turn led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, which in turn led to 50 years of tension that as Obama pointed out, challenged the moral leadership of the United States in the Western Hemisphere.  We are likely on the cusp of changes that are being signalled by both the United States (more trade,led in part by Midwestern Republicans who want more agricultural markets; more tourists) and Cuba(the internet; joint ventures with some American companies; a big port (we’re going there tomorrow).  While the change in the presidency is coming next February, Raul will still hold the reins as head of the party and the army.

The two site visits were equally interesting. At the biotech company, I learned that biopharmaceuticals constitute the biggest export of Cuba, and we’ve heard over and over that the expertise in free health care is one of the expertise Cubans have been sharing with other countries.  The Ph.D./businessman who spoke to us about the resources of his pharmaceutical research company, now with 20,000 employees was one of the most passionate speakers I’ve ever experienced.  His point was that we need collaboration to develop better goods for a better life, and that should be the focus, rather than developing products to make money.  Cover the cost, he insisted, and showed us some of the solutions his scientists have been working on–for cancer and diabitis and arthritis.

At lunch, we had an interesting talk with our guide about the social nature of the state. And some of the consequences.   For example, for the free college education, each graduate has to perform “social service.”  Depending on how good of a student you are, you can be working in your chosen industry (as in tourism, which our guide chose), or, if you are at the bottom of the class, you’re likely to be a teacher.  While that seems like punishment commensurate to fit the crime, it’s a measure of the high turnover of teachers, who, like many civil servants, are badly paid.

The sweet smell cited at the title occurred at the consumer goods manufacturer we visited–maker of perfumes (tobac,naturally, is one brand, that comes in a bottle with a cap that mimics a cigar pack), cosmetics, and personal hygiene goods.  The company is a joint venture with a Spanish company, Comacho, and fits the pattern we’ve seen in other joint ventures.  This one started in 1989, so it has a long history.  The Spanish company lent expertise, capital, distribution and marketing expertise.  There is one Spanish executive and 14 Cuban executives.  They get the same pay, but the Spaniard gets paid in hard currency (the so-called CUC), while his staff gets pesos.  I think the exchange is at least four times more for the hard currency). The Cuban state hires all the workers.  The company pays the state, which pays the workers (the Embassy official says the same thing is true for his “nanny.”  He added that he paid more than she received from the state, so he supplemented her income directly).  The company pays bonuses in hard currency, and also provides rides and meals.  The word we’ve heard is “incentivize” (as in give the factory cigar rollers extra cigars to sell on the open market).

Camacho said it controlled 99% of the hospitality industry (we have its products in our room), and does mostly point of sale promotions, not using tv, radio, or print advertising, with some use of testimonials from famous Cubans.  Interestingly, of the 5% it sells overseas, Comacho’s markets are Panama, Ecuador, and Angola.

If you followed my travels last year, you’ll maybe remember in Windhoek, the North Korean built museum that had the history of the transition from Southwest Africa as part of the Union of South Africa into Namibia, with rebel help from Russia, China, North Korea, and Cuba….what a way to build a brand!

When we asked about potential expansion, he suggested of course the United States, and I wonder whether the expectations for growth in trade with the “normalization” of trade with the United States are as great here as they are on the mainland.

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I had a blast today

Read on to see why…

It was a long day today, with ecotourism at the top.  Vinales, around 200 kilometers west of Havana, was our destination.  Part of it was designed to finish our look at the tobacco supply chain, the fourth most important revenue source for the Cuban government, and one of the first things that probably comes to mind when someone thinks of a “Cuban” (you were thinking of Mark?). That was a visit to a farm, where we saw the tobacco leaf seeded (really tiny seeds), transplanted, then dried and stored until aged properly.  The guajiro (I think that’s what they call the farmers) demonstrated the proper curing and rolled one of his products for us.  He sells 90% to the government and, with a wink, said he keeps 20% for himself. Not a bad math arrangement, and the tour buses parked in front of his farm house were a nice supplement to his income.

Vinales is the third biggest tourist destination, but only in part because it’s in the heart of tobacco ountry (the soil, hundred or so years of expertise, and climate, the guide intoned, made the area unique for cigar growing). The city is renowned for being one of two tourist destinations for karst scenery (the other near Guilin, China), with trekking, climbing (and nearly 50 dive sites nearby in the province at the west end of the 700 mile island of Cuba).

We got to savor some of it, literally, at a restaurant that was farm to food, a handsome family style buffet, featuring an anti-stress drink (“we have the intellectual property rights”, said the owner), a mint-flavored pina colada, rum optional, fresh vegetables, pork (that several hours earlier had been walking on the grounds, I bet), beef, fish, and probably the best flan I’ve ever had. There’s a reason Pinon del Rio is the “garden” of Cuba (though on the way, we passed green read wet) sugar cane fields, etc. Though the rural population of Cuba, as elsewhere, is shrinking, it’s still 25% of the country. One of the reason the embargo hurts is that Cubans are not agriculturally self sufficient, importing rice, among other food supplies.

A word about sugar (can’t remember if I wrote about the importance of sugar and rum earlier, but a word here might be appropriate). One if the best business books in the last few years was about the empire of cotton, which the author described as the first global industry; sugar may be a close second.  Though Colombus is credited with bringing sugar cane to the Caribbean, it certainly took root here. Much of the colonial wars in the Americas were fought either for the sugar islands or for the wealth the colonial power extracted; the French, in fact, traded a potential return of Canada in 1763 for Santo Domingo (also captured by the British), and Florida (again to the British) for Cuba, which had been captured in 1762 by the British (I’ll refer to that again later).

The other visit in Vinales took us to a cave (the porous limestone of the karst area–essentially eroded limestone) lends itself to caves; we visited a distant relative of the Blue Spring cavern in Indiana that troop 19 has spent many a night exploring.  I say that because of the boat trip in both, though the Cave of the Indians was a lot shorter, with no blind crayfish…

We got back pretty late (it was a 12 hour day), but I had one site on my bucket list that could be done any evening. However, I knew there was a front coming in the next few days that could bring rain (this is the beginning of the rainy season, which is why our rooms cost a bargain $250 from the $700 rate in the high season.

That requirement was a visit to La Forteleza.  The importance of the harbor here (which is why in 1519 it was settled) made it a desirable port, and Spanish wealth tempted those swashbuckling pirates portrayed by Errol Flynn in my youth to attack the Spanish possessions.  As a consequence, Spain built enormous fortifications, and this was the fourth I’ve seen (St. Augustine, San Juan, Cartagena, and now Havana). La Forteleza is the largest, and every night at 9, an in regalia contingent marches in the fort to fire the 9 o’clock cannon that symbolized the closing of the city gates.  There are no gates, and the city (at least big parts of Old Havana) opens, rather than closes at 9 today, the pagentry, happily, continues. I joined about 500 others to watch the guard march in, flags flying, drums drumming, theatrically crying allegiance to Carlos (Charles III, king of Spain), before igniting the cannon.

You might say I had a blast yesterday.  I would.  Oh, yes, I did!


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Old Man and the See

The Old Man and the Sea (Hemmingway wrote that here, and I’ll get to him at the end)

I mentioned yesterday that the other number that struck me as being important was 11000000. That’s the population of Cuba.  As much as the comparisons circle in my mind comparing my first visit to China (1990) or the early 1990s with my first visit to Cuba a quarter of a century later, the comparisons turn increasingly into contrasts.  Despite the presence of two currencies and a centralized economy,based on central planning, there was no Tiananmen Square here, no obvious police or party state, and a gemultlichkeith that is not necessarily attributable to tourists (although, as I mentioned, the tourist invasion is here).

The businesses and academics we visited with yesterday and today have broadly outlined the challenges (sometimes with sugar coating), and their potential response.  Perhaps the biggest is the difference between a country of 1.2 billion (China) and a country of 11 million, about 20% of whom are over the age of 50.  For a variety of reasons, including emigration, the birth rate is down, and the bootstrapping of a young labor force that propelled the economic development of China, is not going to happen in Cuba.  The emphasis, we were told, that the government would love to insure, is on the development of  a knowledge based society.  While the Cubans are literate (98%+ according to some of our sources), the goal is seemingly that of every developed and developing country

Part of the problem is the scarcity of capital.  Indeed, one of the traits I realized in reading Jack Ma’s biography, and the book on Airbnb and Uber (the “Upstarts”) is the relative ease with which those startups were able to raise “angel funds.”  (Goldman Sachs gave Ma $30 million for Alibaba). That is not the case in Cuba, where the US embargo hurts.  In addition, I raised the question of the overseas Chinese, overseas Vietnamese, and overseas Indians, all of whom have been critical in assisting those nations in moving up in development.  Three million Cubans live elsewhere (including 2 million in the United States), and many of them are wealthy; the answer, the professors gave me, was that giving them privileges would be “dealing with traitors” and negating the sacrifices  made for the revolution.  Mulling over the answer, I think about what happened in China, where the bitterness of the Kuomintang defeat (or the Communist victory) lasted until the death of Mao and Chiang, and required the move of Deng Xiao-ping to give special economic zones to Xiamen (across from Taiwan) or to Singapore Chinese in Suchow, etc.  Locals have, however, told us how much change has occurred in the last five years here, which they attribute to Obama.

Today was a combination of history and business, and the two are related.  Cuba (again, the professors insisted, had been too reliant on a single market (Spain, as part of Spanish colonial policy, that tried to funnel all the wealth of the colonies through the mother country—Seville was the first major source of finished Cuban tobacco; then the United States, partly by proximity, and partly through dollar diplomacy, and the protectorate that lasted more or less through 1959), and finally the Soviet Union.

What does Cuba have to share with the world?

We have had a chance to look at three of the major income generators in Cuba—tourism, and the agricultural products, tobacco and rum—the major cash crops of Cuba today.

We went to the Melia hotel for a talk with two of the executives.  The pattern there is what we saw in the other businesses as well; a foreign (not US) company brought in for its expertise (in this case management) to run hotels owned and built by one of three major government agencies.  The spike in tourism, especially from Americans, has had some interesting consequences.  The lack of adequate housing led to a classic supply and demand situation, when hotels raised their prices. Tour operators, in turn, had to raise their prices by between 500 and 1000 dollars, which led to cancellations.  That was one consequence.  Another was the approval to build more hotels including a new one in the old town that will decrease the Nacional to the 4th most expensive.  And a third (semi encouraged by the government) was the arrival of the shared economy: i.e., airbnb, an arrival greeted with hostility by our presenters.  There’s also a fourth response, as I think I mentioned last night—and that’s the return of the cruise ships to Cuban waters.

Interestingly, at the Havana Club museum (how to make rum), they mentioned the great growth in tourism and rum during Prohibition.  One of the Club Ron (as it was known in those days) advertisements noted, “Just a Hop from Miami,” and I can only imagine the decadence of the period from the buildings we saw on our tour of the old city.  We stopped at the end of the day for refreshments and music at a bar Hemingway used to frequent.  His daily diet was either 12 mojitos (the local drink offered to guests and served at meals) or 8 daquiri.  None of us followed his example, I’m happy to say.

We’ll visit a tobacco field tomorrow, so I’ll save what I have to say after that trip.  I still want to get back to the old city later this week; you know I love forts and churches, and Cuba, as one of the rich colonies in the Spanish empire, needed to have both.


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Hi From Havana

May 22, 2017

Welcome to Havana

I’m going to start with two numbers, and use them to talk about some of the things in Havana that we’ve learned in the last day or so.  The first is $750, and the second is 11 million.

The first number refers to the published rate for the hotel where I’m staying (although the Nacional’s $750 is for the high season, and the low season—now–is “only” $250).  It’s a historic hotel in the Vedado district, facing the Caribbean.  With a Moorish lobby, it was built in 1930, and became a fixture in the ancien regime.  The museum has pictures of famous celebrities, such as Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, who once graced its gambling casinos.  The Mafia had an international convention here when Havana hosted hoods.  Today, it’s full of tourists who have discovered Havana as a destination.  That includes North Americans, although our visits are regulated under Treasury department restrictions.  There are 13 categories permitted, including our Certificate granting educational visits, which is why we’re having 8 hours or so of class every day; and Americans can’t come to Cuba to enjoy the beaches.

The old city is about a mile away, and I can see the harbor where in February 1898, the battleship Maine, sent to protect American interests during Cuban’s (second?) war for independence, blew up, bringing an end to Cuba’s almost 400 years of Spanish rule. That instituted nearly 60 years of US “protection”, which included support for the anti-Communist dictator Sgt. Batista, dethroned in 1959 by Fidel Castro (beginning a verbal, political, and economic contest only partially abated when President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations in 2014).

The past is still alive in the many buildings from the colonial and republican period, many of them refurbished and restored.  While property values have increased in the last few years, you can buy one of them for under $300,000—far less than anything comparable in Chicago—but this is a strictly cash economy, based on socialist characteristics, with about 75% of the economy under state control, and an average income of under $400 a month.  Many services are free, though,  including health care and education.

The past is alive, too, in the old cars.  I would have loved to have been able to buy a 50s Ford Fairlane, or a Chevy Belaire or Impala; alas, I couldn’t afford them then, and I was told the cost would be $50,000 now. It is not an old car; it’s a collector’s item.

The Castro dynasty is still in power, with Raul as Castro II, president of the Council of State, but Fidel’s works and the results of the revolution are still present.  For example, I got off the plane and drove past Lenin Park in a Skoda (Czech) taxicab. Cubans of a certain age (pre collapse of the Soviet Union), reminisce about the good old days, when the economy flourished with Soviet support.  In response to the US embargo in the early 1960s, Cuba sold its sugar crop to Russia, and acquired Russian advisors and military assistants who almost ignited the cold war to full flame in 1962.  I remember that well, and got a look at the bunkers here on the hotel grounds, where Castro set up his command post.  Fortunately, Khruschev pulled his missiles back, but that hardened US political and economic policies toward Cuba;  the embargo is still in effect,  and American subsidiaries are not allowed to trade with Cuba.  In addition, ships that call at Cuban ports are barred from landing in the US for six months. The result since the collapse of Russia has been economic hard times that persist in shortages.  Here at the hotel, for example, they had no pineapple juice for the pina coladas the hotel is famous for, and ran out of ice cream.  As one of our speakers noted, even if you have money and influence, if it’s not available, it’s not available.

There are other Fidel and Soviet period effects.  Billboards with sayings of Fidel dot the roadsides, in the same way that Chairman Mao sayings are on the walls of the Forbidden City.  One of the mementos I had to take a picture with was at the University of Havana.  Started in 1728, the prestigious university has a main plaza with five “faculty” buildings surrounding it.  One is the law school, where Castro studied in the 1950s.  In front of the law school, there’s a tank, donated in memory of the students who fought to overthrow Batista at the battle of Santa Clara.  Not many campuses would have a similar display.

The second number of 11 million is the population of Cuba, and the effect of that number will have to await a chance tomorrow to tell you more of what I’m learning here in Cuba, 23 degrees north of the equator (but I couldn’t bring my GPS).

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Initial views of Cartagena

December 21,2016

The equinox day

When we got to Cartagena, two things were obvious.

First, the 32 degrees in latitude and 2300 miles in distance resulted in a temperature gain of 90 degrees.  It was -6 when we left home Monday, and 85 degrees when we got here.  While that’s not the reason I came here, it was a change; knowing that it would be much warmer here made the trip from the car to the airport terminal even longer. It’s not a motivator for me, but it could well be a satisficer when I go to the coral reef nearby tomorrow for my first scuba dive in anything other than a central Illinois quarry.  Do you think I might see something other than rusty buses?

The second change was the time warp—we went to a city where 1533 (its founding) is almost as alive as 2016.

Our hotel is a case in point.  Like many of the finer establishments in town, it was originally a convent for the Carmelite nuns, the gift in the early 17th century of a rich widow.  Though the independence of the country in 1811 (and the defeat of Spanish efforts to reconquer their empire after the end of the Napoleonic Wars) led to the separation of church and state, and the taxing of the extensive church properties, and the end of the Inquisition here, the religious orders maintained most of their properties until the 1850s.  Like many of the other convents/monasteries, this one was variously used as a storage facility or a hospital or a jail or was empty until some hoteliers rescued it in the late 1990s.

Cartagena, today a city of about one million people, was, during the colonial period one of the richest of Spain’s possessions.  It was, among other things, the leading slave port for the plantations and mines of South America and the Caribbean.  (Slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1821, about the time that the Spanish reconquest efforts were defeated by Simon Bolivar).  It was also a warehouse on the Atlantic side, but the biggest city close to the Panama/Pacific routes that brought the wealth of the Philippines and elsewhere in Spanish Asia for transshipping to the mother country, where Charles V (among others) could squander the gold and other minerals in wars to keep the Reformation spreading (in vain).  At one time, there were 18 galleons in port, awaiting a mass departure for Spain; no wonder the French, Dutch, and above all, the English, who had pirates, eyed Cartagena with some interest.  No wonder, too, that this became one of the most fortified cities in the Americas.  The big fort—thanks to a number of British invasions (Sir Francis Drake occupied the city for two weeks, and only a huge ransom got him to depart; the money went back to Elizabeth I, and Drake died impoverished) is the largest in the Americas, perched atop one of the two hills in town.  Naturally, an Augustinian monastery sits on the other.

Small wonder, too, that the old city is walled, and the walls today encircle the tourist town.  Many of the buildings and churches have been restored, but as I said, several date back to the 17th century.  Our hotel has bikes, and I discovered 630 am is a great time to traverse the narrow streets in relative safety, and without the heat of the midday sun.  It’s really busy with tourists. One restaurant we wanted to reserve said there were no reservations until after the new year!

Cartagena is still a major port, with berths for ships that traverse the Panama canal. That country was once part of Colombia—until the complicated story that led to the Canal Zone and the boast of President Theodore Roosevelt, “I took Panama.”

The recent peace between the FARC rebels and the government ends a 50 year war, but the history of Colombia is rife with similar episodes.  One might note that the Spanish conquest (with 200 soldiers) was aided because two of the Indian tribes had been at war with one another.  The general tone today among the people we’ve talked with is optimism.  Tourism has helped many countries leap stages of economic development.  This may be one.




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