Circles Robinson Online

My Photo
Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Night at Havana’s Superdome

By Circles Robinson

I grew up watching my father play a lot of beach volleyball. Since living in Cuba, I have also become fond of conventional volleyball, a game quite popular on the island.

Last week the Chinese and Cuban men’s teams squared off at the Havana “Sports City” indoor coliseum for two exhibition matches. Unable to make the first, I didn’t want to miss the second. Despite it being a school night, I took my 6-year-old grandson for his first visit to our “superdome”, built in 1957 with a 15,000 capacity.

Tickets are sold for one and two pesos, the equivalent of 4 and 8 cents of a US dollar, within anyone’s reach. The more expensive tickets were for wooden seats on the first two levels, and the cheaper tickets bought a space on benches higher up.

The first thing we did upon entering the stadium was to buy some popcorn. Others around us were snapping up the other food items for sale: lechon pork sandwiches and chocolate coated ice cream bars.

We arrived a half hour early to get good seats and see the players warm up. However, finding seats turned out to be not all that easy. We attempted to sit down twice, only to learn that we had chosen blocks of seats that were reserved for a large group of Chinese students who are in Cuba to study Spanish.

Finally seated on the second level, I started explaining to Axel who was who, which he had already figured out, and observing the stadium and its decorations. There were no advertisements; just a couple of small scoreboards, a large portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara (there was no need to tell the boy who he was), and a potpourri of red, white and blue banners tastefully hanging from the ceiling, giving a kind of birthday party atmosphere.

Down on the court, the warm-up resembled a choreography of giants jumping up and down and more than a dozen blue and yellow balls flying in the air.

After the passing drills it was time for practicing attacks. This proved quite humorous from our vantage point, as several hard spikes flew past the court helpers and into the ground floor crowd which had to be on red alert so as not to get bopped. A few did!

The practice ended, and the player announcements and national anthems of both countries were played over the loudspeakers. One amusing detail was that the announcer for the Chinese team called out the players’ numbers in English, despite the presence of several hundred Spanish students in the crowd.

Play ball began right on time at 8:30.

Axel had come with a Cuba tank top on and was set to root for the home team. However, the Cubans had decided to start off with their rookie players and the Chinese got off to a strong early lead.

Concluding that the die was cast, Axel decided that he didn’t want to back the loser and made an abrupt about-face announcement that he was really for China. Of course I stuck with Cuba.

Cuba lost the first two sets 25-20 and 25-21 and then the boy fell fast asleep on my lap, convinced he had gone to bed with the winner.

By the third set though, the islanders had brought in some of their real starters and things began to turn as Cuba won set three, 25-23. They also took the fourth, 25-19, setting the stage for the fifth tiebreaker-set which is played to 15 points.

China, with excellent defense and passers and two first-rate spikers, were not throwing in the towel and were perched to win after taking a 14-11 lead. Then the excitement gradually reached a crescendo as Cuba scored five straight points to win 16-14 (according to volleyball rules you must win by two points).

The two teams may lock horns again later in the year in the Beijing Olympics, but first Cuba has to prove its strength in May’s qualifying tournament in Dusseldorf, Germany. China automatically qualifies for the Olympics as the host team.

To the delight of locals, the popular Cuban women’s volleyball team has already qualified for Beijing.

After carrying Axel for a while, I finally had to wake him up so he could sleepwalk the rest of the way to a friend’s car that would take us home. It wasn’t until the morning, when he came into my office to say goodbye before leaving for school, that I broke the news of who won the match. I stifled the impulse to rub it in. Axel had no comment, but we both agreed that the night out at the Sports City arena had been great fun!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cuba Manages Without Advertising

By Circles Robinson

There’s nothing like traveling abroad to get added perspective on things at home. A trip at the end of last year to Spain and Nicaragua got me thinking about some of the things that make Cuba different.

When you get off the plane at the modern Havana airport you are immediately struck by the absence of advertising. No “Drink Coca-Cola” signs, no shiny photos advertising hotels or airlines or credit cards. There are some large posters with palm trees, white sand beaches and attractive people invoking the island’s enchantments.

Once out on the streets of Havana, the impression of being in a different world continues. Nobody is trying to sell you a car, a home, a candidate, a vacation, toothpaste, a meal at a fast food chain or anything else.

In Cuba, there is no commercial advertising in newspapers or on television and only one radio station, Radio Taino, —directed to tourists— promotes a few Cuban products like Cristal and Bucanero beers. Billboards carry public service messages about saving water or electricity, or political messages reminding people of the economic damage caused by the US blockade or extolling the example of revolutionary heroes.

The lack of advertising even seems to go too far at times. A common complaint is a lack of public information on cultural and sporting events, despite the attempt that’s made on TV and in some publications to publicize them. Similarly, many restaurants, social clubs and offices have poorly visible signs or none at all, relying almost totally on word of mouth. This works fine for longtime locals, but may leave out many visitors or newer residents.

It’s almost impossible for some Westerners to imagine a life without ads. It’s no surprise; last year over US $450 billion went to advertising around the world. In the case of the US, many politicians consider freedom for companies to advertise on the par with freedom of speech and the right to buy hand guns.

Cuba’s system doesn’t look at it that way. Its authorities believe that a country striving for a fair and equitable distribution of all available goods has no use for the frenzied desire for “more, more, more,” that advertising stimulates.

The ad-less Cubans live without the stressful consumer Christmas season that characterizes most Western societies for the last two months of each year. And children don’t pester parents to buy sugar-coated cereals, take them to McDonald’s or purchase a never ending host of toys and electronic devices.

Without ads to tell them what they should be wanting, kids are generally content with far less, and adults as well. Cubans are big on family and friends; like to dance and drink their rum, read a lot, and are TV fanatics, loving their movies, soaps, musical and sports programs.

This doesn’t mean they are totally satisfied. Most would like a little more in the way of creature comforts - a car, sound system, a DVD, air conditioning, new furniture. But with those items out of reach of their purchasing power the chief concern is getting enough of the basics and a little variety in their food and clothing, independent of the brands.

At the same time, though, most Cubans also want the benefits offered by their social system, which provides the entire population with some basic foodstuffs and utilities at very low prices. In addition health care and education are free at all levels. A government program to replace old refrigerators, TVs and some other kitchen appliances has been underway in recent years.

When pressed, most people recognize that the country is incapable at this time of providing everyone with the basics and the extras. Armed with this recognition, the population continues —sometimes amid complaints— to use the crowded buses, turn on fans instead of air conditioners, and make do with their old furniture.

Would this attitude change if people were subjected to a daily barrage of ads for things they don’t have? Interestingly, many Cubans have no particular like or dislike for advertising since they’ve never lived with it.

Having seen both worlds, though, I feel that the dearth of advertising keeps the pressure down on the wish list and keeps people focused on the things they do have or can get.

As an ex-pat from the developed world, it’s a great relief to live without the strains of so many artificial “needs” created by ad firms. Cuba’s policy to live without commercial advertising is clearly one of the things that make it different.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blogging from Socialist Cuba

By Circles Robinson

Back when I was growing up in Los Angeles, California in the 1960s, most US media painted Cuba as hell on Earth. I remember the air raid bells ringing and getting under my school desk because a bearded “Satan” had allowed the Russians to station nuclear missiles barely 90 miles from peace-loving Florida.

Of course my third grade teacher didn’t fill the class in on any of the details, but she did let us know there was plenty to be afraid of. In fact, for nearly a half century, generations of US citizens and people around the globe have been fed the story that Cuba is a permanent threat to peace, democracy, religion and everything we hold dear.

I always wondered how an undeveloped island country with barely three percent of the US population could really pose such a threat. Having been offered a job revising Spanish to English journalistic translations I finally got the chance to see for myself in 2001. I moved to Havana with my partner, daughter and one-year-old grandson.

After living in Cuba for several years, I decided in 2005 to start this blog. My main objectives in writing are to break through the black and white portrayals of colorful and diverse Cuba, and at the same time support the island’s right to be a little different from the rest of the continent.

It’s not easy to write objectively about Cuba. Two polarized views often distort any rational discussion.

One comes from the United States government and media, obsessed with its characterization of Cuba as a “Communist menace and police state.” Trashing the island in these terms is a decades-old lucrative business, thanks to the continuing flow of dollars from Washington and Miami to journalists and politicians.

No reality, not even the end of the Cold War in 1991, has modified this distorted view of Cuba.

Equally far from reality however, is the rosy picture Cuba has painted of itself; influenced by a belief that it’s not in the besieged country’s interest to share its problems with a hostile outside world.

Those who question the horror stories and somehow manage to visit the island, usually come away feeling that they’ve been duped by the mainstream media.

On the other hand, visitors expecting to encounter a revolutionary utopia encounter a complex country with many achievements and just as many problems. Some leave disillusioned.

With a new president (Raul Castro) and a new parliament in Cuba, and with the US heading into a November election showdown, it seems to me that this might be a good time to take a broader look at Cuba.

In the coming weeks I will be interspersing my news commentaries with several posts on life in Cuba and some of its main challenges for the future.

Business Logo design
Hit Counter