Sunday, April 11, 2010

Haitian resettlement

Earthquake displaced people in the most congested and flood vulnerable camps in Port-au-Prince now have the opportunity to move to big new planned settlements a little distance out of town. This morning I heard the following jewel of a story about the process which is being managed by many NGOs and the Camp Coordination and Camp Management cluster lead agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Apparently a senior national IOM staff member was on hand yesterday at the new camp where the beneficiaries were being shown their surveyed plots, provided with non-food items and otherwise generally assisted. She saw a Haitian who seemed to be alone instead of lining up with his countrymen and women. When she went to offer him help her colleagues tried to nudge her but she asked them to wait while she was giving assistance. They had to interrupt her to help her realize that he was Haitian president René Garcia Préval. If I knew her better I'd tease her but I think she's gone through enough.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Further thoughts about Havana

It took me a day or two to realize notice but then I really appreciated that Havana has little or no public advertising. I saw no billboards or sponsorship of bus stops or any other such commercialism. Lovely.

Havana need not be an expensive city. I paid a lot for a chic hotel (previously checked out on my behalf by Sting and Jimmy Carter) but could have found comfort for a lot less. Meals in the excellent restaurants I enjoyed cost no more than they would have in Ottawa and a lot less than they would have in Oslo. Drinks are cheap everywhere. As I remembered from Veradero in the 1980s a Cuba Libre is hardly tainted by Coke – because Coke costs more than the rum. Bartenders free-pour absently and will top Cuba Libres up with rum once you make some space. Mojitos are made sweeter than I prefer but you can ask them to use less sugar. I am not an expert in rum – I enjoyed the stuff that is cheaper and safer than the water but I saw a 15 year old bottle for $125.

I had dreamed of travelling to Santiago de Cuba and back on the ‘tren francais’ which I learned about from The Man In Seat 61. I couldn’t find which days it runs anywhere on-line so I wrote to ask my hotel but they never answered. Perhaps they only use the "INTERNET" for bookings. The driver of my taxi from the airport said it hadn’t run for a year and I didn’t investigate much more because it seemed unlikely that I could fit that expedition into a week – and because I was enjoying Havana so much.

Havana is an excellent place for people who like to look at women who care about the way they look. Current fashion seems to include mini skirts and patterned stockings – even if the wearer is a police officer. The other mode is tight low-rise jeans and every woman wears high heels. Age is no limit.

Almost every tourist restaurant has live music and every other restaurant plays music all the time. I found music as prevalent as in Angola but Cuban’s don’t seem to dance as spontaneously. The instruments are always drums and guitars and percussion and often flutes. I’m pretty sure every single song was about love gained, love lost, or love carrying nicely on just for the time being.

Havana is not a good place to avoid Americans. They may have had to arrive via Panama or Toronto but that doesn’t stop them. Cuban authorities famously don’t stamp passports and I am now kicking myself for forgetting to ask for mine. I read a Cuban book (The Cuba Project: CIA covert operations 1959-62 – The Secret War, by Fabián Escalante, former head of the Cuban Secret Service) and visited a couple museums so I got a good refresher on Cuban propaganda (which I think is no more or less over the top than American propaganda) but the only public anti-American sentiment I noticed was posters calling for America to provide compassionate visas for divided families. Canadians are adored but I had to participate in the normal conversation I’ve heard a hundred times in a dozen countries as follows:

Friendly local person (insert ‘Cuban’, ‘Afghan’, etc.): “Where are you from, Friend?”

Me (with resignation): “Canada”

F.L.P.: “Which city? Toronto?”

Me (knowing what’s coming next): “No. Ottawa. The capital”

F.L.P.: “Really? I have a cousin/brother/sister/uncle/aunt/daughter/son/cat in Toronto”.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cuban society

As in China I had difficulty learning what Cuban people really think about Communism and history. I took a very good bus tour of the city and the guide seemed sincere about the Revolution but I did not feel comfortable asking probing questions.

I wanted to get a tattoo saying ‘Paz’ to go with my ‘peace’ tattoos from China, Nepal and Thailand and I made friends with a tattoo artist who took me to his home. We didn’t share much language but managed in French which he had learned at school. (I met quite a few Cubans who have studied French and or English.) He didn’t understand why I would ask if every child goes to school – they all do - even though he didn’t seem bothered that his home lacked glass in all the windows and running water. (I opted out of my tattoo, even after he had carbon copied ‘Paz’ onto my arm, because he didn’t have a new needle. He somehow ‘acquires’ needles from a hospital and said he could probably get one in an hour or so but I was already thinking too much about the cheese plate at the Paella.)

I don’t think the public has any easy or legal Internet access. I asked about Internet cafes and was told I could access at any hotel. My hotel had one computer with a fast reliable connection available for $6 per hour. I think I saw some hotel staff using it so it is not impossible for them connect – but $6 is quite a lot of money for many Cubans. At one of the museums I watched a video about successes in every year since the Revolution. One of the fairly recent years featured a boast about Cuba’s connection to the “INTENET – a world-wide network of computers” as if that implied little more than the new wonderful ability of Party Officials to arrange Congresses of the International Federation of Unions of Propaganda Writers and Editors (IFUPWE).

My tour passed the ‘Centro Cultural Islamico Malcolm X’. Apparently Havana has a mosque (and two Synagogues) – amongst over two thousand Catholic churches. My tour guide said that early Spanish settlers brought their Moorish influences to Cuba but I have an uncomfirmed feeling that the influence is more recent.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Celebrities in Haiti

I have got a lot of time for the two most famous celebrities (apart from Bill Clinton) who have been to Log Base where I work in Haiti. Angelina Jolie seems to know how to use her celebrity contentiously and usefully although I haven’t personally heard her speak. Today I was working at the International Organization for Migration office near to Sean Penn. He was participating in a meeting about the upcoming relocation of 7,500 people from the spontaneous camp where he lives and works to newly prepared transitional camp where displaced Haitians will live for at least a couple of years. He is very knowledgeable about humanitarian issues and passionate about his work and his NGO (Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization)’s beneficiaries. He has earned the attention and respect of the other experts in the meeting.

I wanted to meet him but he was busy and I had no justification. It felt nice to have made eye contact because I think he’s doing something very real.