22 días en La Habana

Yesterday was a historical day for the American continent. After more than a half-century defined by mistrust and rancor, the United States officially reopened its embassy in Cuba. Of course many questions remain unresolved. Will the US embargo against Cuba be lifted? If so, when? And will all of this eventually lead to a democratic government in Cuba? We will probably only know the answers in years.

El Capitolio, exact replica of the Capitol in Washington DC in Havana.

El Capitolio in central Havana, once the presidential palace, is an exact replica of the Capitol in Washington DC.

In August 2013 I had the chance of staying in Havana for 22 days. During this time one thing had become crystal clear. The US policy towards Cuba was complete outdated and no rational soul could argue that it still served any purpose today. The best argument for dropping it completely is the fact that it is constantly misused by the Cuban government to hide their own failures or to legitimize the repression of political opponents. Cuban pride and anti-Americanism are the glue that hold together the revolution.  No internet available? Down with the USA! Shortages of basically everything? Blame the imperialist conspiracy against Cuba!
Obama`s speech announcing the changing policy proves that he clearly understands this history and these sensibilities. He found the balance between the Cuban and American narrative, understanding why sanctions were implemented but making clear that they have failed for a long time now. An American president quoting Jose Marti, the one historical figure that unites all Cubans. It was once unthinkable and it deserves the most respect. Obama clearly understands diplomacy and knows how to sell it to his people.

Cubans are very divided. Polarization is huge. Main proof for this is the amount of Cubans who left the country. Miami is the second biggest Cuban city after Havana, often called the  capital of Latin America. Most refugees left behind their whole family. The revolution broke up many marriages. And those who stayed, acted in very different ways. Some people I met couldn`t care less about politics, which is understandable if you have no say in it. Others defended the regime, some of them in a quiet naive way believing every story told by the propaganda. But mostly the reason for defending the system was some kind of national pride. This reminded me about how the UK feels towards the rest of Europe. This typical island mentality: we are different than you, we are doing our own thing and you`ll never really understand that. Some other people clearly disagreed on the way things were going in Cuba but avoided openly discussing about it. After all, they really didn`t want to get in trouble. One taxi driver was the exception, he just lost it when passing by the parliament, according to him a house of puppets, and blaming the government for treating their people like slaves.

The main reason why people should watch out are the `Comités de Defensa de la Revolución`. Their offices can be found on almost every street corner and their sign says it all.  “We are watching you.” They gather intelligence about the people living in their neighborhood, making sure they are not doing anything wrong. When I discussed this with an extreme leftist friend in Belgium, she said that the USA is also spying on all of us. Even though I`m pretty sure that there is no NSA office in my street, she obviously made a point. But two wrongs don`t make a right. It terrifies me that this Cold War mentality is still alive and a legit reason for people to defend dictatorships.

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We are watching you!

The biggest failure of the Cuban revolution is definitely the potential it throws away by not rewarding talent. Doctors and engineers are driving taxis and Havana has the highest educated hookers in the world. The reason for this is very obvious: hookers and cab drives make a lot more money. The best source of income for Cubans are the tourists, which are often seen as walking ATM machines. But don`t get me wrong, no Cuban will every harm you. Havana is the safest city in Latin America. The tourism sector is so important to the economy and the regime is very well aware of this. Cubans know they`ll never get out of prison if they harm a tourist.

Nevertheless, change is coming to Cuba. New economic reforms are challenging the revolutionary ideals. Thousands of new shops and business open every month. For every success there is a failure, but those who do succeed can easily make as much money in a few hours than what state employees get in a month. The new shop that I will personally never forget was Cuba Libro, a very small English book shop owned by an American journalist living in Havana (for those interested, she also has a blog which is worth reading). The initiative was aimed at Cuban students who wanted to improve their English. Those who can not afford to pay for the books can just read them in the garden while having some ice tea. Great initiative in a country where access to information from outside Cuba is very limited. She didn`t like to admit it, but in the end we found out that she already had received visitors from the nearest Comité de Defensa de la Revolución.

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There is also an active civil society in Cuba. Personally I was volunteering for an independent church community which was not directly related to the government (although the president was a member of parliament…). This experience could have been better. Our contribution to the project was rather small and despite the fact that we did fundraising for them, they still tried to charge us for things that were already paid for. Unfortunately this led to arguments and in the end the trust between our group of volunteers and the leadership of the community was totally gone.

But despite this disappointment, I had an excellent time in Cuba. The island is stunningly beautiful. Sun, beaches, rum, cocktails, salsa, cigars and old timers give the country a beautiful charm. What else can you wish for? I recommend everyone going there as soon as possible. The Castro brothers will not live forever and combined with the changing US policy, Cuba could be a very different country in ten years. And if one thing is sure, it is that the Cuban people deserve an updated system. A system that preserves the achievements made by the revolution, such as an excellent health care and schooling, and combines it with an open and free society. A system that includes every Cuban, regardless whether he is a hardcore anti-communist billionaire living in Miami or a leftist revolutionary wearing a Che Guevara t shirt in Havana.

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Migration and Poland, a story of double standards

It is estimated that today 20 million people of Polish origin live beyond the borders of Poland, making it the sixth diaspora in the world. The USA has 10 million inhabitants with Polish roots. Lots of those live in Chicago, which is the second biggest Polish city in the world after Warsaw.
These facts explain why it`s no coincidence that the biggest museum recently opened in Poland is the emigration museum in Gdynia. This museum teaches us that the history of Polish migration is just as interesting yet tragic as the history of the country itself. It’s a history of escaping poverty and oppression, a history of people hoping for a better future for themselves, their family and their country.

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The museum of emigration is located in Gdynia`s old marine station, commissioned in 1933 and one of the pearls of the modernism style in which the whole city is built.

Migration, diversity and exile communities have always played a big role in the history of Poland. The predecessor of today’s Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, used to be a melting pot of ethnic groups. Poles constituted less than 50% of the population. In the 19th century when Poland was divided by the Prussians, Austrians and the Russians, some of the most brilliant people in Polish history lived abroad. Pan Tadeusz, the famous national epic which denounced Russian occupation, was published in Paris in 1834 to avoid censorship. The most famous Polish musician, Chopin, also lived in Paris for most of his life and was buried at the famous cemetery of Père-Lachaise. In the 20th century, the Polish exile community in the USA played a big role in the restoration of Polish independence in 1918 and in the international protest against the breakdown of the Solidarnosc movement in the 1980s. It is definitely not exaggerated to say that Poland would never have been what it is today without its history of migration.

While many Polish people have come to Belgium since they are part of the European Union, I chose to go in the opposite direction. Many of my friends back home pointed out this irony, telling me that the locals here would see me as a threat coming to steal their jobs, women and social security. You see, irony really has no boundaries…
After one month I can say that this is definitely not the case. People here have always been friendly to me. I haven’t experienced any hostility yet. Most people speak English to me and if they’re not able to, they seem to feel embarrassed that they can’t help me rather than getting irritated with this foreigner who doesn’t speak their language.

Yet this doesn’t mean Polish people are open to all immigrants. It helps that I’m white and Western. If I would be brown and Muslim, things would probably be very different. Based on some conversations I had, this article in The Guardian and the sort of replies it received, it is definitely safe to say there is a lot of xenophobia and hostility towards migration in this country. Migration gets associated with ISIS and terrorism, making every asylum seeker crossing the European border a potential threat to the country. Recently, the government allowed some 2,000 asylum seekers to enter the country, which was seen as completely irresponsible by the people. Religion is often used as an argument, just as pointing to Western European countries which have ‘lost their identities’ and became victim to terrorist attacks such as the bombings in London and Madrid or the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris earlier this year.

In a certain way, I can definitely understand where these ideas come from. Terrorist attacks look scary on TV and it’s a natural instinct to think “thank God we were born here and not there” when you see misery in a foreign country. It doesn’t help for me to explain that I have lived in Western Europe all my life, that I lived in Paris when Charlie Hebdo happened and soldiers marched on the street, and that despite these sad facts I never ever felt threatened by terrorists. After all, chances are a lot bigger to get hit by a car than to get shot by a terrorist. Yet nobody is terrified when they cross a street. Once you do give in to this irrational fear, terrorism has won. It ‘terrorized’ you.
The other argument used against immigration might make more sense. Migration policies in Western Europe don’t have a track record of great success. Especially in Belgium where any discussion on this topic was always avoided, fearing that it would only encourage extremism and (Flemish) nationalism. It even led certain politicians to say that identity leads to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Multiculturalism was the norm, until it was declared a failure. And did we prevent extremism to grow? Not really, it has only benefited from this lack of serious debate about how to handle migration, globalization and multiculturalism.

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Poster for an anti-immigration march in Wroclaw

So yes, I totally get that Poland does not want to follow our enlightening example. But this definitely does not mean that I approve the xenophobic attitude. A country of almost 40 million people with 3% economic growth, which is starting to take a more leading role in the European Union (as it should), has to be strong enough to allow migration and smart enough not to make the same mistakes as we did in Western Europe. It should take its responsibility in taking over some of the burden of Italy and Greece, countries that are drowning in the amount of refugees crossing their borders. It’s a question of European solidarity. The same kind of solidarity that makes Belgian and Dutch military do joint maneuvers with armies in Eastern Europe to deter Russia. And solidarity should always be a two way street.

But most importantly, this attitude is outrageous for two reasons. First of all, Poland has received a lot of solidarity and money itself by the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Poles had the chance to go work in Western Europe. Only in the UK there are currently 750,000 people living and working from Poland. And secondly, regarding their history, Polish people should know better than anyone else what drives migrants. They should know that migration is often not so voluntary. For some people it can be the only way out. People who see no other option than giving all their savings to human traffickers who put them on crappy boats with a big risk of drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

If there is any nation in this world that should have some sympathy and understanding for immigrants, it should be Poland.

Open`er festival

When I knew I was going to live in Gdynia and started doing research, one of the first things I found was the Open`er festival. It can be found in many bucket lists of good festivals in Europe (such as this one which declared Poland as the place to be this summer for festivals) or travel magazines with tips about what to do in Eastern Europe. Obviously I was interested and once I saw The Libertines were playing this year, I knew I had to be there. The fact that Major Lazer was playing the same night was a nice bonus. Once I found a few colleagues who agreed on going, plans were made, tickets bought and a great party assured!
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Reviews and opinions about Open`er are contradictory. Lots of people living here find it expensive. To Polish standards, they make a fair point. A day ticket of 200 zloty (around 50 euros) is not really cheap. But for a Belgian who is used to ridiculously high festival prices (I won’t name any festival in particular) it seemed reasonable, especially considering the bands who were coming. Another complaint you can find in every review is about the beer. Heineken used to be the exclusive name sponsor of Open`er festival, which made it the only beer sold at the festival. Unfortunately many reviews don’t seem to know that this is no longer the case. I was happy to see that beers like Desperados, Paulaner but most importantly Affligem were also sold. And once again for very reasonable prices. The only disadvantage that remains is that you could only drink alcohol in certain areas at the festival. Having a beer while enjoying your favorite band’s concert at main stage was no option. And obviously, that sucks.

One element Open`er is truly known for is the fact that it is somewhat of a hipster festival. Unfortunately, subcultures are dead and replaced by conformity. The only ones who try to oppose this are called hipsters. And honestly, it`s not like they are doing a good job. Growing a beard, wearing big glasses and being a pedantic snob who goes to coffee shops with a MacBook while dressing like a hippie is just lame. Seriously, how can it be that the the line for coffee at a festival is ten times longer than the line for beer? I don’t think I need to tell which line I picked. And on that note, which festival in the world even has coffee shops in the first place? But then again, why should I care? The good part was that I always had a beer in two minutes, too bad for those idiots who were waiting for coffee.

I don’t know if you can consider this hipster, but Open’er is also clearly a festival that tries to be more than just music and bad beer. One of the first things I noticed was the fact that the festival is also used to promote art, fashion and tourism. There was a museum which contemporary Polish art, a fashion stage were cloths were sold and models were walking up and down the catwalk. There was even a cinema.

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But most importantly, the concerts at the festival were good and the atmosphere was really cool. Going to Open`er was an amazing festival experience. Crowds were also not too big, which made I could enjoy The Libertines from a perfect distance without being trampled by thousands of people. Also, you could still buy a ticket for the festival at the train station in Gdynia from where a bus brings you to the festival in 10 minutes. We never had to wait or stand in line for anything. When we left at 3 in the morning, we immediately had a bus to the train station in Gdynia. From there buses and trains left all night to every corner of the Tricity area. The organisation was really excellent, far better than certain other more expensive festivals. (Seriously, I`m not naming any festival, stop asking!)

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Parties in Gydnia always last untill sunrise. Since sunrise here starts at 2:30 am.

Oh, one more thing. Which I can`t stress enough. I saw The Libertines! One of my favorite bands, which finally starting playing concerts again and announced the launch of a new album. I can die a happy man.

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