Incidental New Yorker XVI

July 2, 2016

The Incidental New Yorker has been highly incidental, but less of a New Yorker lately! May and June has been what felt like back to back travelling. I am trying to catch up here … with a few highlights from June.

Taxis in La Habana © Mette Holm

Uncontested numero uno was Cuba revisited! Returning to Cuba has been very high on my list while in New York, preferably on a direct flight from the US, but as that is still only possible twice a week, we had to do a stop-over. It was wonderful to be back. The people. The hospitality, the rhum, the music, even the air embraces you. Things have changed, mostly for the better. Facades are being done up, the old American classic cars have been done up, and now serve as taxis for tourists. Lots of them haven’t been done up, though, and they serve as taxis for the locals. Most buildings too, are in various states of disrepair.

I visited Cuba over New Year’s in 1984, 25 years after the revolution. There was money to go round, lots of sugar cane and oil, but little, bordering on no food, and I felt bad about not having brought some from home. The huge American cars didn’t seem quite as vintage then. There were many small Eastern European cars which really were no match for the climate. People were friendly, rhum and cigars abounded, and the music was inciting. Never have I felt so welcome. Travelling on my own absolutely didn’t mean being lonely. Lots of partying on music and rhum to make up for the lack of food, I guess. At that time, government treated newly weds to three days paid honeymoon at a government resort, according to status, i.e. high ranking government people stayed at the fancier, ”ordinary” Cubans at less luxurious, but still very nice beach resorts. Some said that this was part of the reason for many divorces and consecutive marriages in Cuba … One day Fidel Castro appeared on TV in his army fatigues. I figured he was going to give one of his notoriously long political speeches, but no. El Commandante patted his left breast pocket and took out a cigar. He had recently stopped smoking, and the TV appearance was to publicly break down and admit to his compatriots that “Comrades, I didn’t make it.” And then he lit his specially rolled Cohiba. Only much later did he manage to quit. As far as anyone knows, El Commandante hasn’t smoked for years (despite claiming to have quit, Cambodia’s long reigning prime minister, Hun Sen kept – and probably still keeps – on smoking several packs of 555 cigarettes a day, and even when actually puffing and smoking away in front of people and an ashtray with a small mountain of cigarette butts, he claims that he doesn’t smoke. Fidel C would never do something like that!)

My next visit to Cuba was some 14 years later, during the last years of what Cubans call the “special period” in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, which deprived them of everything they had relied on for over 30 years. The special period saw the fishing fleet fall apart. Oil and fuel was rationed. Sugar cane and tobacco is not food. People starved. By the time I visited the tide was turning. After almost 100 years of relying on first America and later the Soviet Union for supplies of almost everything, the Cubans had to relearn agriculture. Local communities were being taught to grow little vegetable gardens for subsistence. Private enterprise was if not exactly encouraged then at least legal. Families were allowed to open small restaurants, Paladars, in their home where they could serve up to 12 tourists. They were also allowed to open small Bed & Breakfast private pensions. In the state restaurants waiters and waitresses were doctors, civil engineers, professors and the like. There were dollar shops where foreigners could spend their money. The people were still lovely, as was the music, the rhum, the beer and the cigars. The American cars rattled, huffed and puffed, but they still rolled. A very common sight was the legs of a man sticking out of the bonnet or under the car while the top of the person tried to patch it up once more for the umpteenth time. 

Waiting for action, fighting cock and master © Mette Holm

This time round people are still sticking out of the cars; convertibles have been completely renovated in bright, shining colours for tourists. What is more, many house facades in the beautiful old part of La Habana have also been renovated, while the interior of many old buildings is still left dilapidated. Many government buildings and old family mansions have been done up as museums, associations or for business. The local neighbourhood Committees for Defense of the Revolution (CDR) are still round every corner, upholding peace and reducing dissatisfaction (or perhaps only the expression of …), I am told, issuing licenses for legal dogs to carry in public so as not to be caught and driven away by the local catcher of illegal dogs. Allegedly, Cuba enjoys full employment. Many people work together to carry out the slightest task; parks and streets are alive with people. Sidewalk-sitting is perhaps a job of sorts, where one can hang out with one’s fighting cock waiting for a fight.

La Habana © Mette Holm 

There’s some way to go yet in the way of respect for human rights. Surveillance is massive, criticism and views that differ much from government’s are unwelcome. The paid honeymoon has been abandoned. Paladars serve 50 guests or more. Private tourist businesses are common. There’s lots more food now, and people are much better nourished, which is terrific. Health and education as well as life expectancy is among the best in the world, better than e.g. the US.

Fabrica del Arte, La Habana © Mette Holm 

Art and culture flourish in both state museums and underground – and in between, like at Fabrica del Arte.

This place is so full of life and energy, with local and international concerts in many genres, exhibitions, films, bars, architecture, design, painting, sculpture, a fountain of expression.

The internet, however, is still absolutely undernourished and underenergised. The only place we found fully functioning wi-fi, fast and furious, was at the state conference hall where we attended the historic and exhilarating signing of the Colombian accord between the government and FARC, the Bilateral and Definitive Ceasefire, Cessation of Hostilities, and Laying Aside of Weapons. The accord sets out a roadmap for disarming and demobilising FARC after a final peace accord is signed, hopefully within months. It foresees a full turnover of guerrilla weapons to the UN within six months. We actually witnessed the beginning of the end of half a century’s armed and very destructive conflict in Colombia, which has left 260,000 people dead, 45,000 disappeared, and 6.8 million displaced. As mentioned, the wi-fi connection was flawless, and I wrote to a Colombian friend where I was and what was going on. Her answer reflected the feeling of millions of Colombians: “Oh my God Mette!!!! You witnessed perhaps the most important moment in history for my country of the last 50 years. I’m glad you had the opportunity to do so! How was the environment? What are your perceptions of the process? How were the speeches!”

Dialogos de Paz, La Habana © Mette Holm 

The speeches were terrific! They were meaningful, sincere and hugely promising. The atmosphere was warm and full of promise. Cuba and Norway have been patrons of the process, Chile and Venezuela observeres. The presidents of Colombia, Cuba, Chile, Venezuela were present, as was Norway’s foreign minister, my husband, president of the UN General Assembly and the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. While we were all waiting, President Michelle Bachelet walked around, warmly hugging and greeting every delegation and the negotiating teams, both President Santos’ and FARC’s. Others did the same. Everyone stood while listening to Colombia’s national anthem. The anticipation was tangible, almost physical, the relief and thrill when everyone had signed was like flood gates opening to a swell of happiness, the applause never seeming to end. It was a rare and wonderful moment to witness. And we appreciated that moment even more in the evening while watching the beginning of the end of Europe as we know it with the English voting Britain out of EU. Terrifying and incredibly sad. Democracy at its worst – with populist politicians passionately leading the way into something they hadn’t really thought through, letting down millions of Europeans. And hardly had the votes been counted before they started breaking promises … Disgusting.

The week before we saw democracy at its best, at the Peoples Political Festival, Folkemødet, in Bornholm, the small island in the Baltic. Folkmødet has become the place where people, politicians, civil society and civil servants convene to debate, discuss, explain, have fun and simply meet. Three days of politics where any and every subject is open for debate, is discussed in depth, conversation is the name of the game, and TV news’ 10-second video clips just not valid. The prime minister makes a point of doing his sweaty morning run in the crowded main street. It would make more sense take another route, to enjoy Bornholm’s unique beauty, but then no one would know that the pm actually exercises. Tens of thousands of people gather, mostly “ordinary” citizens and along with them government, parliament, administration, civil society, news outlets, schools – its like a massive rock festival focusing on politics instead of music, although there is lots of singing and also the odd concert. This year, for the first time, it rained for a whole day. Everyone was soaked, and enjoyed the following sunny Saturday and Sunday much more … Mi Presidente had several interesting debates with Danish politicians, colleagues from from the UN and the American economist Jeffrey Sachs, the debates between the two of them drew huge crowds. 

Back here in NYC Mi Presidente has introduced dialogue meetings between the General Assembly and the candidates to succeed UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon when he leaves Dec. 31st. The first dialogues took place in April. Mi Presidente has received much praise for revolutionising the selection process. The Perm Five (or most of them) still have no intentions of giving up their right to veto any decision. But giving each candidate (up until now 11) two hours to present her or his vision of how to do the job as well as answering questions from member states and civil society adds much needed transparency to the process. Also, it will be difficult for the Security Council to bring forward a candidate which hasn’t been through the dialogue process in the General Assembly. So rather than the Security Council presenting an unknown candidate that they have agreed upon in a back room for the General Assembly to rubber stamp, they will now most likely have to choose between the candidates brought forward by member states and present one or more of those for the General Assembly to vote on. Hooray! The hope is that the next and ninth Secretary General will be a woman, which would be a first, and from Eastern Europe which would also be a first.  And while we’re at it, this week the General Assembly elected five new members to fill half of the rotating seats in the Security Council. Kasakhstan and Thailand ran for the Asian seat, and Kasakhstan won. Ethiopia was uncontested in Africa and Bolivia in Latin America. Sweden, The Netherlands and Italy ran for the two seats that were up for grabs in the Western and Other Group. Sweden won one seat by a wide margin, while several rounds of voting had Italy and The Netherlands in a tie, 95-95. This led to yet another example of democracy at its best, when the two decided to share the seat in the SC, with Italy taking the first year and passing it on to The Netherlands the second year. The two countries also vowed to work closely together for the two year term.

Early celebration of 4th of July in the area surrounding the sea lions’ pool in Central Park Zoo a wonderful warm evening. The inhabitants performed beautifully under water behind their glass wall, as did a very funky army band from West Point Military Academy. Although not everyone danced, Mi Presidente and I did, our hostess the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, did and her father as well. Burgers, cheese, ice cream and drinks were served from stalls, and we all happily mingled, discussing Brexit, Colombia’s peace accord, the on-going review on counter-terrorism and other important matters. My kinda party!