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Program 0009/9937
Original Air Date: September 14, 1999
Rebroadcast Air Date: February 29, 2000


Ramiro Canazares, English Professor

Jorge Bodes Torres, Justice, Supreme Court of Cuba

Dr. Oscar Suarez, Emergency Room Surgeon, Havana

Humberto Carrillo Ramirez, CDR leader

Buena Vista Social Club

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

RAMIRO CANAZARES: Well, I used to be bit leery of the police, you know. But not any more. I realize that they are doing a good job. And maybe they harass one out of a thousand people, but if that’s the price we have to pay, we’re willing to pay it.

KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, Cuba’s changing society.

CANAZARES: It’s like a new Havana has been created. Cause crime has for all intents and purposes disappeared from the streets, especially after those tough laws have been enacted or passed.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Since about 1996 Cuba has experienced a sharp increase in street crime, due mainly to the island’s continuing economic crisis. Earlier this year the government of Fidel Castro announced a crackdown. It includes not only tougher laws and greater police presence, but an innovative community education campaign as well. Special Correspondent Reese Erlich reports from Havana that the multi-pronged approach seems to be working.

REESE ERLICH: Compared to the US, crime in Cuba is quite low. Havana’s main hospital saw only three gunshot deaths in the past 12 months, due mainly to the country’s strict gun control laws. While Havana is subjectively a lot safer than Littleton, Colorado or New York City, that’s of little solace to Cuban.

[sound of people talking and playing music]

ERLICH: In a small apartment in the San Isidro District of Havana, a man who wants to be known only as “Rafael,” opens the door to his home. Rafael, like most Cubans, never thought he would be a victim of crime. Then, one afternoon he came home to find his apartment robbed.

RAFAEL: I remember I had bought a pair of shoes for the celebrations on the year’s eve, you know? And I had some money at home, in the amount of four or five hundred pesos. I had a big stereo and around 30 cassettes. I think they took all that they could carry in one big bag, you know? And they didn’t take more because they couldn’t.

ERLICH: Cuba has been experiencing all kinds of crimes not seen since the 1959 revolution. One teenager in Rafael’s neighborhood became addicted to the local version of crack. His drug supplier cheated him out of some money and Rafael says the teen went looking for revenge.

RAFAEL: One evening he went home, took a knife—because he had seen the man—and he killed him. So now the boy is in jail. It all started a year ago, but….

ERLICH: When did he do it?

RAFAEL: The killing?

ERLICH: Yeah, the killing.

RAFAEL: It was a maximum three weeks ago, you know. So he’s been taking to, to prison. He’s now waiting to be charged….

ERLICH: He’s waiting for trial.

RAFAEL: For trial.

ERLICH: Cubans have become fed up with burglaries, chain snatchings, and even an attempted armored car holdup. Two Italian tourists were robbed and murdered last September. The increased crime against foreigners particularly upset the government, which now relies on tourism as the number one source of hard currency. In February the government passed a law that doubled some prison sentences. It also expanded the list of capital crimes to include violent robbery, kidnapping, and certain kinds of major drug dealing. And judges are allowing fewer prisoners out on parole.

A big part of the crackdown is increased police patrols. On this busy street corner, two officers stare intently at passers-by. Cops are now walking the streets in all of Havana’s tourist areas and in many residential neighborhoods. They frequently ask Cubans for their ID’s to check if they are legally living in Havana. But the stops also breed resentment. Rafael was coming home from church one Sunday morning when he stopped to say hello to a friend. The local cop may have thought they were planning to sell contraband to tourists, a common occurrence in this neighborhood. So the cop stopped Rafael.

RAFAEL: He asked me for my ID card. And I gave it to him. He also asked me if I was bothered, if I felt bad about that, and I said, “Of course, yes. I don’t want to be stopped when I’m walking the streets. I don’t want to be stopped. I live here. If you don’t want us to live here because this is a tourist place, please move us somewhere else. But you can’t be stopped when you come from church.” “Oh, but I didn’t know you came from church. How could I know?” “No, you can’t.”

ERLICH: Now, what was his, when he stopped you, was he polite, was he angry? What was he?

RAFAEL: He was very polite and controlled. I guess I wasn’t.

ERLICH: While nobody likes being stopped by police, some see it as a necessary evil. Ramiro Canazares, a university English professor who has traveled abroad, says the police treat people here far more politely than in the US.

CANAZARES: Well, most of the time it is seen as something positive, to tell you the truth. Most of the time. Sometimes I guess they go a little bit overboard and they ask anyone for ID. Yes, maybe, they—when they don’t have much to do, and then that’s when people don’t like it. I mean, they find it, like, harassment. But I would say that they’re being there on the beat, visible, it’s more of a comfort than to think of it as harassment. I feel safer when I see them there now that I have lived through this. And I used to very—well, I used to be a bit, a bit leery of the police, you know. But not any more. I realize that they are doing a good job. And maybe they harass one out of a thousand people, but if that’s the price we have to pay, we’re willing to pay it.

ERLICH: Jorge Bodes Torres, a justice of Cuba’s Supreme Court, says the crackdown is having an impact on crime.

JUDGE JORGE BODES TORRES: [speaking in the background in Spanish], being paraphrased by Reese Erlich]

ERLICH: [paraphrasing Judge Bodes] Justice Bodes says that since a speech by Fidel Castro in January, which initiated the crackdown, crime has dropped twenty percent.

ERLICH: But he declined to provide more detailed statistics, saying such data could help Cuba’s enemies. One way to test Bodes’s claim is to visit the local hospital emergency room.

[sounds of a busy hospital]

ERLICH: A patient is wheeled through a door into the trauma center here at Calixto Garcia, Havana’s largest general hospital. Dr. Oscar Suarez, an emergency room surgeon, offers a tour of the facilities.

OSCAR SUAREZ: [via a translator] This is a consulting room. We have an X-ray department, a first aid room, and operating rooms.

ERLICH: The hospital serves a population of 1.5 million people. According to hospital officials, 40 people were admitted with stab wounds from assaults and fights in the last six months of 1998. So far this year, they’ve treated only 20, a drop of 50%. Dr. Suarez explains.

SUAREZ: [via a translator] In the last six months, since the passage of the tough anti-crime laws, there has been a significant decrease in trauma caused by violent crime.

ERLICH: Dr. Suarez and many other Cubans attribute the drop in crime to tougher sentences and greater police presence. But Supreme Court Justice Bodes says repression alone doesn’t work.

JUDGE JORGE BODES TORRES: [via a translator] The phenomenon of crime is hard to explain. There are various reasons contributing to the drop. In the first place, it’s the preventive action taken by the whole society. The majority of people are involved in fighting crime. That’s the most important factor.

[sound of people talking on the street]

ERLICH: On a Havana street corner members of the local Committee in Defense of the Revolution talk with neighbors. Since last spring the CDR’s have been carrying out a grassroots anti-crime education campaign. The CDR’s were originally set up in the 1960s to root out counterrevolutionaries. In recent years, as Cuban society changed, the CDR’s carried out campaigns to promote public health. Humberto Carillo Ramirez, a national CDR leaders, says local residents often know who the criminals are.

HUMBERTO CARILLO RAMIREZ: [via a translator] If a family isn’t sending their kids to school or if a young person isn’t working and is getting into trouble, or if a young woman is practicing prostitution, we meet with them. We say, “We are representatives of your community, we live on your block, you are doing this wrong things.” We explain why it’s bad for the country and we also explain the severe legal consequences for them. We try to apply sociological and psychological reasoning to help rescue these people.

ERLICH: Carrillo concedes community education doesn’t always work, however.

HUMBERTO CARILLO RAMIREZ: [via a translator] If they don’t respond then we have to take other measures. If they are jailed then we visit them in jail. We want them to continue in the community and to reincorporate them in society after they get out.

ERLICH: However, the results of the anti-crime campaign are uneven. Professor Canazares says the CDR’s aren’t playing much of a role in his bario.

CANAZARES: Especially in parts of town where there’s a concentration of the more militant Communists, there have been a considerable role played by those CDR’s in those neighborhoods. But not in the, in neighborhoods like mine, you know? Where the average people live. People are just saying, “this is up to the police. This is part of their job and that’s their problem.”

ERLICH: That is a change from years past, when the government could count on organized support from grassroots militants in working class districts. As recently as ten years ago Cuban wages were enough to provide the basic necessities and occasional luxuries. These days almost all Cubans engage in some economic crime, such as stealing from work or buying from someone who does. Survival depends on getting dollars. The main way to get hard currency is working in tourism, getting remittances from relatives abroad, or engaging in crime.

[sound of surf]

ERLICH: Waves crash against Havana’s famed sea front wall called the Malecon. At night the Malecon used to be filled with jinoteras, young prostitutes wearing platform shoes and garish short shorts. The government crackdown has gotten them off the street. But many still hang out in nightclubs and other less obvious spots. The need for dollars, says crime victim Rafael, has changed some Cubans’ attitudes towards prostitution and other crimes of economic survival.

RAFAEL: I’ve heard people talking about a relative, a young female relative. “She’s so beautiful that in the future she could be a jenoterra.” And this is a compliment. The young girls are listening. They know that this is socially valued.

ERLICH: That’s certainly a change from times past.

RAFAEL: Yes, yes. Of course.

ERLICH: As long as the island’s economic crisis continues it will be difficult to eliminate crimes of economic survival. But in the short-run, Cubans are grateful that at least the more obvious forms of street crime seem to be receding.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: Professor Canazares stands on the narrow, rutted street in front of his apartment in Old Havana. His apartment was robbed last year but police caught the burglar after he committed another crime. Canazares speaks for many who see themselves as beneficiaries of the government’s crackdown on crime.

CANAZARES: It’s like, like a new Havana has been created. Cause crime has for all intents and purposes disappeared from the streets, especially after those tough laws have been enacted or passed. It’s very rare to hear that some house has been burglarized. You practically don’t see anybody in, complaining of, of having his chain snatched from his neck. The population in general have supported these measures because many of us who had never been victims of crime were becoming increasingly victims of such things. And I guess that’s why there have been such a large movement to support these laws. If there was not support from the population I don’t, I don’t think there would be such a success.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: So Cuba and the US share at least one common political reality. Residents of both countries love politicians who reduce street crime. For Common Ground I’m Reese Erlich in Havana.

[sound of Cuban music]

PORTER: Coming up, a visit with Cuba’s famed Buena Vista Social Club.

[sound of Cuban music]

MC HUGH: Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: The Cuban music CDs Buena Vista Social Club, and the documentary film of the same name, have become tremendously popular in the US. They feature wonderful Cuban performers playing traditional son, the kind of music made famous in Cuba in the 1950s. But some Cubans involved in the film are now sharply criticizing it, saying the documentary distorts their lives and the Cuban music scene. Special Correspondent Reese Erlich reports from Havana.

[sound of Cuban piano music]

ERLICH: Pianist Ruben Gonzalez wears a muscleman T-shirt on this sultry Havana afternoon. His 80-year-old triceps sag quite a bit these days. His mind is slipping, too. But not his musical abilities. I asked Gonzalez if he still remembers all the old music.

[translator asks the question in Spanish]


[sound of Cuban piano music]

ERLICH: The Buena Vista Social Club CD has radically changed Gonzales’s life. He was a famous pianist, but stopped playing professionally about six years ago. The success of the CD, which has so far sold over 1.5 million copies, has rejuvenated his career. Gonzales says he had no idea that would happen when he stopped by the Egram recording studio near his house one day, in 1996.

GONZALES: [via a translator] I was playing the grand piano they have there. There were a lot of people just checking things out. One of them was this British guy, Nick Gold. He insisted that I keep playing. Ry Cooder liked what I was playing, too. They grabbed chairs and they sat by the piano. They fell in love with the music. I didn’t utter one word. I didn’t leave, either.

[sound of Cuban piano music]

ERLICH: Gonzales speaks highly of CD producers Nick Gold and Ry Cooder, because they were friendly and wanted to learn about Cuban music.

GONZALES: [via a translator] I’ve been able to enter into a new age. The contract I have now is as a result of this meeting with Nick Gold and Ry Cooder. They are warm people. They aren’t demanding. They adjust themselves to our needs. Nick comes and visits me here.

ERLICH: But Gonzales and others say a certain mythology has arisen around the Buena Vista Social Club CD. The film implies—and some reviews directly state—that the musicians were impoverished and languished in obscurity before the CD came out. In fact, most of them, including 92-year-old Compas Segundo and cowboy-hat-wearing Eliades Ochoa, were quite famous and regularly toured abroad. Eneida Lima, who has been married to Reuben Gonzales for 46 years, says the movie exaggerates the musicians’ poverty.

[Lima speaks in the background in Spanish]

ERLICH: Lima says most of the musicians in the film lived in acceptable conditions, including her husband. Some had very fine apartments. Singer Ibrahim Ferrer was the only one who was in dire economic straits. Having retired in 1995, he lived in a small apartment and was shining shoes for neighbors in order to supplement his musician’s union pension. But Ferrer says the film failed to put his situation into context.

IBRAHIM FERRER: [via a translator] I was bad off, yes. You have to take into account it’s due to the US government economic blockade of Cuba. If it weren’t for the embargo there would be more musical activity. We would have more opportunities and there would be a better economic situation. The American public has to realize that it’s partly because of the US embargo that we’re in such a bad situation.

ERLICH: Under terms of the embargo Cuban artists can’t collect salaries for performances in the US. They can only be reimbursed for expenses. Ferrer has, however, used money from European and Canadian tours to get a new house in Havana. Eneida Lima says the film has many other problems, including a focus on the negative aspects of Havana.

ENEIDA LIMA: [via a translator] Frankly, I didn’t like the film. I wonder what was, what was the reason, why behind just shooting, the only things of the city, I mean the, the, the worst neighborhoods, people in the worst dresses. I mean, why would they have to do that.

ERLICH: Mario Jorge Munoz, a cultural reporter for the Havana daily newspaper, Rebel Youth, says German film director Wemm Winders deliberately chose those locales. He used hand-held camera techniques and grainy black-and-white photography to create a false romanticism for pre-Revolutionary Cuba, says, Munoz.

MARIO JORGE MUNOZ: [via a translator] He sees only old Buicks, Fords and Chevrolets. He’s stuck in a time warp in the 1950s, which I think is the Havana of nostalgia remembered by some Cubans outside of Cuba.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: Munoz says while there certainly was wonderful music performed in the 1950s, the period shouldn’t be idealized. It was an era of brutal dictatorship and racial segregation. For example, the Buena Vista Social Club, a nightspot that actually existed, was an all-black club.

MUNOZ: [via a translator] Winders forgot to mention that the Buena Vista Social Club, which began in 1932, was founded in reaction to racism. The blacks of Marianao, one of the poorest districts of Havana, went there. Blacks were prohibited from going to other clubs because the fancy clubs had a whites only policy.

ERLICH: The documentary notes that the original Buena Vista Social Club closed in the early 1960s, but never mentions why. It’s because Afro-Cubans were finally free to attend night club. The film has other errors of omission. While the musicians are interviewed extensively about their early careers, none are ever asked about their lives after the 1959 Revolution. Some film reviewers in the US have drawn the conclusion that the Communist government prohibited these musicians from playing son music. Quite the opposite. Eneida Lima says she and Ruben Gonzales consciously returned to Cuba as supporters of the Revolution.

ENEIDA LIMA: [paraphrased by a translator] They had spend seven years working in Venezuela. And also, even from exile, while they were in Venezuela, they were working to support a revolution. And they even were making some underground contributions to the Revolution. So he returned. And at the time he returned he did, he did great, and he was making good money.

ERLICH: Journalist Munoz says there’s another problem with Winders’ failure to mention any music created since 1959.

MUNOZ: [via a translator] The intention behind the interviews ending in 1959 is a deliberate attempt to ignore what came after that. It is significant that he overlooked a period of 40 years of music. The Buena Visa Social Club is not the only Cuban CD that has won a Grammy. Churchill Valdez and his band Irakere, have won two. Cuban music has developed an international audience despite the US blockade, which makes it hard for Cuban music companies to sell to the international market.

ERLICH: And that brings up a controversial point. What exactly has happened to traditional Son music in Cuba in recent years? The film, echoed by reviews in the US, says Son was in danger of extinction. Ruben Gonzales disagrees, saying the reality is more complicated.

GONZALES: [via a translator] No. Son is not dying. With this new generation of musicians it’s different. They play Son with a different style. People abroad are requesting the music done by the elders, not that of the young people. We are not doing anything special. Foreigners would call the music that used to be played in Cuba a long time ago. In England and in other places that’s what they want to hear.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: Walking through the streets of Havana it becomes immediately obvious that traditional Son remains popular with tourists and older Cubans. All of the bands in the tourist areas know the Son classics such as Chan Chan, the first cut on the Buena Vista Social Club CSD.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: At a small bar a band of young musicians called Sunny Boys were busy playing another classic, Son de la Loma. I asked if they knew Chan Chan.


ERLICH: The Sunny Boys were soon shaking their marachas to the famous tune.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: But if you listen closely to the Sunny Boys’ version they’ve modernized it with an up-tempo flute solo.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: And that gets at the heart of the matter. Most Cubans look at traditional Son like Americans see Dixieland jazz; it’s recognized as the foundation of some contemporary music but Cuba has evolved newer and more sophisticated sounds. In fact, young Cubans see Son as old hat.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: That becomes clear at a party for a group of construction workers in Havana. Young and old sit around sipping keg beer from paper cups. Their taste in beer may be the same, but not in music. Orlando Ledije, age 63, hides a protruding stomach under his guyaberra, the traditional Caribbean outside-the-pants dress shirt. He remembers well such famous Son musicians as Ruben Gonzales.

ORLANDO LEDIJE: [via a translator] I know Ruben Gonzales. He’s from around here, in the province of Santa Clara. He’s a very well known musician. He played with one of the best known orchestras in Cuba. I’ve loved his music for 20 years.

ERLICH: By comparison 33-year-old office worker Odalia Aliaga, has never heard of Gonzales. She wears a form-fitting blue-and-white-striped jumpsuit, complete with a fake Tommy Hilfiger label. She doesn’t listen much to traditional Son.

ODALIA ALIAGA: [via a translator] I have a good opinion of traditional Son, because it’s liked by people all over the world, particularly in Latin America. But I like salsa the best. Because I like to dance to it. That’s what young people like.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: While most Cubans have never heard the Buena Vista Social Club CD, it is nevertheless having an impact on the island. Young people are curious why foreigners are so interested in traditional Son. Lazaro Martinez, leader of a music club, says on Sunday afternoons young people listen to traditional Son at a local beer garden.

LAZARO MARTINEZ: [via a translator] There is something very interesting in regard to the youth behavior. And it is connected with the Los Jardines de Polar in the Tropical, pretty close to the beer factories, where we used to go to dance, now young people are going there. They are going there to Son. And they are beginning to understand and to love that kind of music.

ERLICH: Cuban musicians are pleased that younger people are getting interested in traditional popular music, but the fans abroad are really fueling the Son revival. And for all their criticisms of the film, the musicians want Americans to see it if nothing else than to learn a little more about Cuban music.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: Two years after its release the Buena Vista Social Club CD remains popular with Americans. It spawned seven other CDs. Ibrahim Ferrer says he hasn’t got the faintest idea why the music has suddenly become popular again, but he’s glad it has. He says when the musicians got together to record the first CD in 1996 they were just having a good time.

IBRAHIM FERRER: [via a translator] We were jamming. We were improvising on the spot. It became an overnight sensation. I don’t know how it happened because I had done those songs 17 years before. I just can’t explain why they became popular.

[sound of someone singing]

FERRER: [via a translator] That’s the song.

[sound of Cuban music]

ERLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Erlich in Havana.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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