Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Trip to Cuba With Paul Baizerman - in the Late 1970's

When the news about Cuba and the US hit yesterday I was reminded about a trip I took with Paul Baizerman during Easter vacation in 1978 or 1979. A lot of people are surprised we could go legally and openly for a brief window of time but Jimmy Carter's opened the door a crack and travel opened up until Regan became president.

I remember getting to the airport and there was no listing of the flight - we had a special code. In addition, the plane was sort of hidden in an outpost of Kennedy airport - not near a terminal. It was clear why -- elements of the Cuban exile community - known as "gusanos" - or worms in Cuba and in the American left -- often threatened violence and were considered terrorists by the left - though not by the American government.

Since it was school vacation time a number of people on the trip were connected to teaching, but there was also a variety of adventurers. It was a one week trip and we went to 3 locations - a day at the beach, a smallish city - I think Marisol and 3 days in Havana at the end where we stayed at the Hilton and were fed with so much food we wondered if we weren't eating up the entire food supply of the city.

We were told we could roam anywhere in Havana, the only restriction being we couldn't take photos of anyone in uniform or of a military installation. And roam we did, though there were no real stores other than some cigar places - and both of us being cigar smokers we loaded up.

Paul spoke fluent Spanish, so I got to "converse" will all kinds of people through him. Paul could sort of pass for Spanish. Paul didn't act like a regular tourist -- he engaged the bus drivers in conversation, helped them unload the luggage and sat with them when we ate. Some people on the tour whispered he was a Cuban spy put on the trip by the government.

We were very interested in the education system. Cuba guaranteed everyone a 6th grade education and over the almost 2 decades since the revolution, had raised literacy enormously. They built many schools in the countryside and kids were sent to them out of the city and resided there during the week. They had 2 shifts - one worked the fields while the other went to school and then they swapped. Every kid wore a simple uniform  - white shirt and color-coded pants/skirts -- red for elementary, blue for middle school and mustard color for high schools. The amount of money invested in their kids just in the clothing was impressive - as were the number of school buildings.

I went there not being anti-Castro and after this trip I could see that there was little comparison between Cuba and much of the rest of Central America where oppressive dictatorships reigned that had little interest in increasing literacy for the entire population or even health care. We visited a clinic and had a discourse on the Cuban medical system which has always been lauded even by Castro's enemies.

Yesterday I heard the commentators say that Cuba has had 55 years of dictatorship - or as Brian Williams so ignorantly put it - since they had democracy. Batista was democratic? Oh how the Cubans must have missed all those Mafia run gambling casinos and all the other ills -- let's support going back to the days  of poor medical care and low literacy - like so many nations the US supported.

I took 10 rolls of kodachrome slides and when we got back Paul put together a slide show which we showed around. Unfortunately Paul died in 2011 and I have no idea where those slides are so I have no photos.

Paul kept going back to Cuba for decades, often illegally by going through Canada and got to know some very high government officials. He made contact with people in the film industry and we showed some Cuban films here. He also worked with the Cuban trade union organization and helped create an exchange program with US trade unions - I think he took a high official of the steel workers union with him on some trips. Paul would travel around Cuba on his trips making speeches. I was hoping to go with him with a video camera 5 or 6 years ago but it never happened.

A trip with Paul Baizerman was a unique experience. A few years later I spent 2 weeks driving around Mexico with Paul one summer. I'll tell that story one day. Paul was a mentor of mine in so many ways. I should write more about him -- every activist in the UFT over a 30 year period knew him and even today when I see some people in the UFT they bring up his name. One of my goals was to get him and Julie Cavanagh together and we had a date - Memorial Day, 2011. But Julie's husband had a medical issue that day and I had to call Paul to cancel. That was the last time I spoke to him as he died while I was in New Zealand in Dec. 2011. People still tell me that if he were around and active, the opposition in the UFT would have a very different look because Paul was a game-changer.


  1. Chilling!

    Thank the Good Lord that Max, Yetta, and Al won the day. Cuba & Jimmy Carter, Norm you will never get it.

    1. Oh, you must be missing those wonderful central/Latin American right wing dictatorships with their death squads that Max, Yetta and Al supported - Hail to Pinochet.

  2. Thanks for presenting Cuba the way I had always imagined it. My sister went in 1964. I met people who had been involved in the literacy campaign in the countryside. And of course their healthcare is quite excellent considering they don't have many necessary supplies. Hopefully now they'll get them.


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