POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?

For the great-grandfather I never knew.

Yesterday, I felt… heavy.

Today… well. Listen:


& read:


My great-grandfather Victor was an idealist and a card-carrying member of the Polish Communist Party. He ripped up his party membership card in 1945—the year, incidentally, that Americans and Western Europeans celebrate as the end of World War II, and Poles also mark as the first year of the 44-year Soviet occupation that followed our “liberation.”

While Americans were popping firecrackers and getting ready to pop out oodles of babies, Poland—much of the war ravaged Eastern and Central Europe—was struggling with food shortages, created as much by the state at that point as by the consequences of the war.

Everything was rationed.

And Party members got more.

My great-grandfather found himself in a queue at a bakery, behind a young mother who asked for a loaf of bread, and got refused

“What’s going on?” he demanded, flashing his Party ID.

“She’s already got her allotment for the week. Today, it’s extra bread, only for party members, sir,” the little man at the bakery window replied.

My great-grandfather ripped up his party ID card on the spot. (My mother, incidentally, and two of her four siblings inherited that impetuousness and temper.)

“That is not Communism,” he told the stogey. “Now sell me two loaves of bread.”

The little man sold him the bread—which my great-grandfather handed to the woman who was just refused food… because she did not belong to the Communist Party.

My father was, for several years, a card-carrying member of the Polish Communist Party too. His father made him sign up. “You’ll never get anywhere as an engineer if you’re not a party member,” he counseled. By then, it was the 1970s, and there were no idealist Communists left in the party, only opportunists.

More than 40 years later, my mother—who resisted every attempt to enlist her in the party, even though for a medical professional membership was mandatory—brings up this act when she’s fighting with my father and wants to play dirty.

My parents emigrated from Poland to Canada in 1984, mostly as economic/merit immigrants on the point system, with a subtext of “we’re seeking political asylum” in their application.

“We don’t want to raise our children under the Communist system,” my father wrote in response to the question “Why do you want to immigrate to Canada?”

In the 1980s, that was all you had to do to claim political asylum in the Western World if you were white and your government was Communist.

Since the Cuban revolution—and this is a quote from The Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act

“the United States is extra willing to accept Cuban citizens who are politically opposed to the Cuban government.”

All Cubans, who made it onto American soil via a barge across the straights of Miami—or an international flight from Bogota or Mexico City—had to do to claim political asylum in the US was touch American soil. The green card was virtually guaranteed a year later… although, it sure as hell helped if you were white. Or at least, you know, very pale mocha.



At first, I think Cuba killed its experiment with socialism when it introduced the CUC, when it started actively chasing tourists—when it showed its people, “OK, this way of living is good enough for you, but Western tourists, they have higher standards—they need air conditioning and a never-ending buffet table. Flush toilets. Modern buses.

Then I realize—no, it happened earlier, much earlier than that. It happened the first time Fidel Castro decided to keep an expropriated colonial house for himself—or for one of his friends.

9-Ruined Communism CUC


One day, I get lost in the west-end of Havana, a suburb that looks at first like Miami… and then a New Orleans slum.

Suddenly, I’m facing a chain link fence and a swimming pool and tidy little buildings.

“What’s this?” I ask a security guard.

“Vacation houses,” he answers.

“For whom?”

On the left, for the workers of such and such union, and on the right, for the workers of two other unions.

It’s sort of a nice concept, right?

Except… ok, see, another day, walking along the shoreline where Miramar slowly morphs into neighbourhoods tourists never visit, we accidentally “break in” to a recreational complex, reserved for the workers of another union. It’s on a stretch of beach that, pre-1959, used to be dominated by private clubs, casinos.

I’m not sure that “exclusively for United Widget Painters of Havana, Factory 17” is that much of an improvement, really.

But today, I am not a socialist.



There’s an old joke one of my uncles told me, back in the 1980s. I can’t remember which post-Stalinist Soviet leader it was about—Khrushchev, maybe, or Andropov? Let’s say it was Khrushchev—he’s the leader most on my mind in Cuba. So. The joke goes: After Khrushchev gets appointed to be the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he goes in a state-owned, of course, limo to pick up his mother. And he shows her his office, and his private car, and his other private car, and his apartment, and his vacation dacha. She looks at everything very intently, and her eyes get rounder and rounder, and she looks more and more fearful.

He gets pissed.

“What, Mama, don’t you like it?”

“I like it, Nikitka, I like it,” she assures him. “But what are you going to do when they come back?”

“When who comes back?” Khrushchev asks.

“The Communists.”




When Lazaro tells me that the nice, new buildings on the right are newly built for members of the army—and points out Raul Castro’s house, “one of his houses”—he does so with resentment that sizzles.

I guess, like me, he’s thinking about the shacks we just saw in which migrants from The Oriente live.



“Religion is the opium of the people. … Yes, and music is the opium of the people. … And now economics is the opium of the people; along with patriotism the opium of the people in Italy and Germany. What about sexual intercourse; was that an opium of the people? Of some of the people. Of some of the best of the people. But drink was a sovereign opium of the people, oh, an excellent opium. Although some prefer the radio, another opium of the people, … Along with these went gambling, an opium of the people if there ever was one, one of the oldest. Ambition was another, an opium of the people, along with a belief in any new form of government…

But what was the real one? What was the real, the actual, opium of the people? He knew it very well. It was gone just a little way around the corner in that well-lighted part of his mind that was there after two or more drinks in the evening; that he knew was there (it was not really there of course). What was it? He knew very well. What was it? Of course; bread was the opium of the people.

Bread is the opium of the people.

Ernest Hemingway, “The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio”


I read Hemingway’s “The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio” for the first time here, now, in Havana, in An Anthology of Famous American Stories, put together by the Literature Department of the School of Modern Languages in the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Havana in 1953.


Hemingway is still alive. Living in Cuba, which is ruled by the American-supported dictator Battista.

The edition I’m reading is a second edition, issued in 1975.

I wish I could compare it against the original 1953 edition, because… well, this 1975 edition has the following introduction:

“This anthology of American stories has been edited in our country as teaching material for literature course that are taught at our universities.

The study of each story in those courses includes a profound critical analysis of the historical conditions, class position of the author, and the ideological aspects reflected in the work, in addition to the purely stylistical study of the same.”



I did not expect see so many parallels between Cuba now and the Poland I barely remember from the 1980s.

But they hit me, hammer me constantly.

I am my great-grandfather’s descendant, and I want to do violence to the betrayers of the revolution.

The Castros, first and foremost.


The security guard at the recreational complex of the United Widget Painters of Havana walks me and the kids off its filthy beach, past the decaying, empty playground and around the beach volleyball court with no net. There’s a line of string demarking the top of the net—blue—and the bottom—yellow.

“There are many good, fun things to do here,” he says. He shows me a cafeteria and an indoor games room.

Then gives me directions to Havana’s “Coney Island.” The beach there, he says, is public.

As I say thank you and wave goodbye, he’s moving slowly towards the complex’s main lobby, the centerpiece of which is a television that’s playing American music videos.

Playgrounds Banner


“Revolution…is no opium. Revolution is a catharsis; an ecstasy which can only be prolonged by tyranny. The opiums are for before and after.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Gambler, Nun, and the Radio


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First time here? Visit the landing page for the Postcards from Cuba project.

You: “I’m here for that unschooling talk?”

Me. “Right. Go here & then roam through Undogmatic Unschoolers while you’re at it.”

See you next week.


POSTCARDS FROM CUBA: if Nikita Khrushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba…

For Janine. Who understands how important it is to care for one’s delicates.

Today’s post is brought to you by the wifi on the Red Arrow bus that traverses Highway 2 between Calgary and Edmonton and Sean Lindsay‘s ability to edit audio while moving at 120 km an hour.



and, of course, read:


Jorge now refers to the villa’s front salon as “my writing room,” and every time he says it, I feel at home… even though I haven’t written a word there.


The kids want me to make jello.

Jane: “Ok, ok. But first I have to go to the store and buy yoghurt.”

You might be mystified. They understand. I’ve been making them jello in the plastic cups we’ve saved from the extortionate, imported-from-Spain single-serving yoghurt I bought them a couple of weeks ago. ($0.90CUC, so more than a Canadian dollar, per miniscule single serving). But yesterday, I used one of the cups as a candle holder. Not because there was a black out, by the way, but because I was running out of matches—I’ve already told you that story, right? Point: we only have two yoghurt containers, and there are three children, and so… I need to buy more yoghurt.

Cinder: “Can you buy more cream cheese while you’re there?”

Jane: “Sure.”

Except, I can’t. The tubs of cream cheese have been replaced by slabs of white cheese. Mozarellish? Maybe? “Queso blanco,” Yaskiel, the clerk behind the cheese-and-butter counter, says. I as him when there might be cream cheese again. He shrugs.

I buy some queso blanco, made locally, and the second last chunk of gouda, imported from Europe via Brazil.

The elderly woman behind me taps me on the shoulder. Would I mind taking the bigger chunk so she can have the little one? It’s a difference of $0.75CUC in price. A dollar and change to me. Significant to her.

“Of course.”

The strawberry yoghurt I bought here last time has been replaced by plain yoghurt, which will not be celebrated by the children, and no-fat peach, aspartame-sweetened yoghurt, which I will not let them eat. But—oh—chocolate pudding in absolutely perfect jello-making cups—much better than the yoghurt cups, which are, really, too thin and tall to house jello properly.

Bonus: the pudding is $0.50CUC a cup, making it almost half the price of the yoghurt.

Vanya, the clerk who’s been on check-out most often when I’ve been at the store, is manning the meat station.

“Hey, amor, you were asking about chicken—there are still chicken breasts,” he calls to me, and points, and sure enough, there they are, behind him, rapidly defrosting in the freezer bin. Delivered Sunday, yesterday, he says. They do their best to keep them cold, but the freezer bins have no tops, you see, so you’ve really got to buy them Sunday if you want them to be fully frozen. But it’s Monday morning. They’re still pretty solid.

I grab a pack. Chicken juice (don’t think about it) drips down my hands. Vanya gives me a damp rag to dry off. “They’re still pretty frozen,” he says. I decide to believe him.

(On the way home, I decide I should, in fact, run back for another pack, because there is no guarantee they will deliver them again next Sunday, or, ever again, is there?)

Vanya’s name, of course, is a legacy of Cuba’s relationship with Soviet Russia. There are quite a few Vanyas, Vladimirs, Yuris, Olgas, Valentinas, and Yevgenies around. Most of them are in their 50s—born in the first years after the revolution.

I haven’t met any Josephs, though… Nor a Nikita.




“No matter how much imperialist reaction, headed by the United States, tries to stop or check the great revolutionary process of liberation of mankind, it is powerless to do so. People fighting for their freedom and independence are strong enough to defend their gains with the backing of all the forces of peace and socialism. This was convincingly demonstrated by what took place in the Caribbean towards the end of last year.”

That’s Nikita Khrushchev addressing a mixed audience of Cubans and Russians on May 23, 1963, speaking about the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war in October 1962, when Khrushchev headed the Soviet Union and JFK was the President of the United States of America.

“The Caribbean crisis was one of the sharpest clashes between the forces of socialism and imperialism, the forces of peace and war in the entire post-war period. When they prepared their invasion of Cuba, the American belligerents thought that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries would not be able to render effective aid to the Cuban Republic.

The imperialists reckoned on the geographical remoteness of Cuba from the socialist countries allowing them to utilise their overwhelming military superiority in this area and attack the Cuban people and wipe out their revolutionary gains. As everyone is aware the American imperialists are no greenhorns when it comes to suppressing the liberation struggle in Latin America and other areas of the world.”

“The imperialists’ plans to strangle the Cuban revolution came to grief thanks to the firm stand of the Cuban Government headed by Comrade Fidel Castro, the fighting solidarity of the Cubans, the military might of the Soviet Union and the powerful political and moral support of the socialist countries and all the peace-loving forces which joined the united front to defend the heroic Island of Freedom.”

Go on. Gag. I am…

…but if I quoted you the propaganda the Americans were spewing at the same time—even now— you’d gag too. Or you ought to, anyway.

(You can download the whole speech here, courtesy of the Luxembourg-based Centre Virtuel de la Connaissance sur l’Europe.)


Cinder: “Did you get yoghurt?

Jane: “No, chocolate pudding. But look: chicken breasts!”

The kids do a little dance of joy.

Ender: “Will you make jello now?”

Jane: “Right away. You have to eat the pudding, and I just have to finish washing my bras.”

Um. Yeah. So, between the tub, bathroom sink, kitchen sink, and two laundry tubs, I have five places where I could do laundry. Not one of them comes with a plug. I try to solve this issue the First World Way by, you know, trying to buy a plug.

This is not possible.

There is apparently a nation-wide plug shortage in Cuba.



I create make-shift plugs out of plastic wrap and rocks, and they do ok, but they’re none of them a perfect fit, and the water keeps on draining, and I can’t give anything a proper soak.

So. I use our pots.

Cinder: “Rinse it really well. Because when we washed my socks and then you made pasta, it kind of tasted like detergent.”

Flora: “What are you going to do when Daddy comes to visit? Are you going to tell him what you use the pots for when you’re not using them for cooking?”

Jane: “Hush. Do you want jello or not?”

In deference to the fact that they are their father’s children—and that he would probably have a stroke or at the very least a mild anxiety attack if he knew I was feeding his children jello made in a pot in which, a few minutes earlier, I was washing my lingerie—I pour boiling water over the pot before repurposing it.

True story.



This is also a true story: November 18, 1956. Three years after the death of Stalin, and two years and forty-three days before Fidel Castro and co. unseated the US-backed and profoundly undemocratic government of Fulgencio Battista, Khrushchev is talking to Western ambassadors at the Polish Embassy in Moscow—I’m telling you the story at least in part because it happened at the Polish Embassy, of course—so he’s talking to Western ambassadors, and he says:

“About the capitalist states, it doesn’t depend on you whether or not we exist. If you don’t like us, don’t accept our invitations, and don’t invite us to come to see you. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you!”*

Nikita died in 1971; the Soviet Union itself… well, the mortal wound was delivered on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. The patient was declared legally dead on December 26, 1991.



Cuba lives.

Cuba lives.

It is so… very, very much alive.


Ender: “Is the jello ready?”

Jane: “Let’s go check.”

We do. It’s ready. It’s orange. It tastes mostly like sugar and artificial colouring, and only a little bit like harsh detergent.

The children are ecstatic. After they eat, they carefully wash the pudding cups-cum-jello cups so that we can use them again.

I walk into “my writing room,” then past it, onto the verandah, meditating on the meaning of the word “freedom.” Also, “independent.” And… when he was dying… did Nikita have an inkling of what the future would hold?

Does Castro?

Down below me, the street—Cuba—lives, and I wish I had a crystal ball that would assure me… you know? I just don’t want to think…

But I know nothing, nothing. Except for this—Fidel will die, as Nikita did. So will Raoul.

Cuba—will live.


*In the years to come, he couldn’t quite decide how he meant it… Check out the Wikipedia entry on the phrase “We will bury you” for subsequent interpretations of what Khrushchev meant. 



LANDED here for the first time? Let me catch you up:

Series 1 of Postcards from Cuba is now fully live. Check out the annotated table of contents for a tour, or, if you prefer, hop over to the chronological table of contents.

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Jane: Buy me a cup of coffee, a Cuba Libre, or a counterfeit Cuban cigar.

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