The Never-Ending Revolution

“Welcome to hell!” The Cuban man laughs and extinguishes his cigarette on the stoop where he sits, adding to the ever growing piles of garbage on the streets of Havana.

When we ask a thirteen-year old kid, “Are you happy?”, the answer is a nod and a shake of his head. Yes and no. Yes, because he is a child, can play, and has his whole life ahead of him. No, because he is always in want of more. More (and better) food. Clothes without rips and shoes without holes. A roof over his head that doesn’t threaten to fall down on him while he is asleep.

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Fifty-six years after the Cuban revolution, where Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara, joined by hundreds of rebels, claimed the power, the failure of its ideology is a fact. While most Cubans will agree that the revolution was necessary to get rid of the corrupt president Batista who ruled the country with aid of the American Mafia, they’ve also had enough. Life is tough. There is a lack of everything but rum, pork and white bread. One has to stand in line, sometimes for hours, just to buy basic necessities such as toilet paper and soap. And that is only on those days when they are available. Most of the time they’re not. Similar to the once living standards of the former Soviet Union, life here sucks.

Still, the battle-cry of “Viva La Revolucion” is painted on the walls of kindergartens, schools, bus stations and factories. Che Guevara’s face adorns buildings, mopeds and t-shirts. And the TV-anchors mention the revolution at least once in every clip, whether they speak about sports, politics or music. The Cuban brains are washed, tumble dried and ironed from morning to night, day in day out, year after year.

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It’s a land not devastated by war, but by the senseless governing of a selfish leader, who has let fertile fields overgrow and left his people starving. Where you have to stand in line for everything, every day. And the taxes you pay don’t depend on your income, but on your trade; you’ll pay the same amount whether you make any money or none. And although anyone can buy a new car for the reasonable price of USD $250,000, with the average monthly salary at $25/month, it would take a mere 833 years to pay it off. That is, if you forsake eating and other “hobbies.”

With increasing tourism, this will undoubtedly change. You can already see the cracks in the establishment, brought on by the loosening ties on free enterprise. Since Raul Castro took over the reins in 2006, the country has made small but firm steps away from communism toward capitalism. Despite ridiculous taxes, any cook can now open his own restaurant. Home owners are allowed to rent out rooms to foreigners. Bicycle-rickshaws can give rides to tourists. And people are catching on to the fact that providing good service will make them more money. The locals may never be as rich as the foreigners with their fancy sun-glasses and smart phones, but at least they may be able to afford good quality shampoo or an hour on the internet (after standing in line for a few hours to access the state-owned service). And as the world witnessed during the imploding of the Soviet Union, when you give people a finger of freedom, they will grab the entire hand and will never let go.

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So does money equal happiness? Of course not. But as a European or American it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be able to fulfill our basic needs. How fortunate we are to have access to the internet, free speech and news from the rest of the world. How great it is that we can travel when we want, where we want. And vote in democratic elections.

A fisherman in the French-flavored town of Cienfuegos confides: “All the tourists think Cuba is paradise, but it really isn’t.”

No, Cuba isn’t paradise. Although “hell” might be a slight exaggeration.

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This is Cuba

The lazy rays of the morning sun caress the dilapidated buildings of Havana, as if offering them a last sigh of hope before they crumble to dust. In the hallways, the scent of guanabana and pineapple lingers, and in the distance, the click-clacking of horse hooves on cobble stones remind you that you’re not in New York City any more. This is Cuba.

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Strolling down narrow sidewalks, you pass women in snug lycra dresses queuing up to buy eggs and pig trotters. A man sticks out his head from a hole-in-the wall shop, beckoning you to buy one of his pork sandwiches for 25 cents. You decline with a smile; God knows what part of the animal was used for that funny-looking meat.

High above, long clothes lines adorned with jeans, shirts and underwear flutter in the wind, keeping company with the grandmothers who spend their entire lives on the balconies, gossiping with their neighbors about the life below. They watch you take a photo and ask if you could spare some money, perhaps even a soap? As you turn away, you bump into an electric blue 1953 Buick in immaculate shape, and wonder why five slaughtered pigs have been heaped into the back seat.

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“Senor, taxi?” You shake your head at the young bicycle rickshaw driver. “No, not now, thanks. I’m just walking.” And you wonder if it was wise to tie such a heavy boom box to his bike, adding a few extra pounds to the cargo, then you realize that music will make the day go by so much faster. Through an open door, you glimpse a family crouched up in front of the TV, while their maid is scrubbing the floor. Next-doors, the bar is packed with men, women and children at 11 o’clock in the morning. Ten cents will buy you a shot of cheap rum, but a can of soda costs six times more. You wonder if the government trying to keep their people drunk so they will forget they are hungry.

Shouts of “panadeeero” and “leeeechuga” wake you from your contemplations; peddlers of newly baked bread and lettuce pass by with their wooden carts laden with merchandise. You’re starting to get hungry. What is there to eat today? You opt for a sandwich with cheese that most likely did not come from a cow or goat or any of those usual suspects. It just tastes funny.

The salsa music that flows from the tourist bar is inviting. You give up your pledge to live like a local and settle down at a table among other non-Cubans to enjoy your cup of strong coffee.

It tastes just wonderful.

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China: A Country of Contradictions

From the moment you land in one of China’s international airports, you’re struck by the immensity, modernity and futuristic vibe of everything – like a giant Texas on speed. On the way to your hotel, you’re amazed by the excellent roads and the number of skyscrapers being constructed. The sparkling new subways are decades ahead of New York City’s, and the electronic mopeds that buzz by remind you of the Bladerunner movie. China seems to be on a roll, and a fast one at that.

But then you notice something strange – the airline terminals are deserted, the luxury malls have no customers and very few of the thousands of new high-rises are inhabited. You wonder if the Chinese are planning for the (remote) future – or if it’s all a sham. Just like the pretty girl who mimed to the National Anthem during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, while the ugly little duckling with the beautiful voice had to hide behind a screen; the Chinese are masters in make believe.

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“Look how big and powerful we are!” they seem to say. As if tourists would look in awe at the cities crammed with buildings and no parks, where the smog is so dense the sky is never blue anymore. Or are they trying to convince their brainwashed citizens that their communist/capitalist concept is superior to the Western equivalent, and that China will soon take over the world? It must be the latter, because every foreigner we met had come to the same conclusion: it’s all for show. Just like a movie set, where you open the magnificently ornate door on stage only to discover the disappointing reality behind.

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The citizens are methodically lulled into ignorance. There is no access to Facebook, Twitter or independent blogs. Foreign online media pages time out so often they are almost impossible to read. Any anti-Chinese web sites are blocked. According to their warped history sources, not a single student was hurt in the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre. East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia gladly gave up their independence in 1947 and 1949 respectively, and of course Lhasa was very peacefully freed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in 1950. Only those who were there can testify that several hundred people died in the Beijing student attacks, and hundreds of thousands of Tibetans, Turkestanis and Inner Mongolians perished during the invasions. But the common Chinese know nothing about this. Propaganda rules. Domestic sites allow no comments, and the internet is awash with Chinese trolls trumpeting out their government’s lies while hiding behind English names.

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The lack of information doesn’t stop there. Nutritional education doesn’t seem to exist. The Chinese are slowly poisoning themselves with toxic toys and chemically produced “foods” like fake walnuts, mock apples and artificial eggs. Their daily noodle soups are laden with synthetic ingredients and topped off with tasty MSG. Most grocery stores don’t sell fresh fruits and vegetables. Instead, they are full of vacuum packaged meatballs, sauteed beef, chicken feet, boiled eggs – you name it. If it’s in plastic – bring it on!

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It’s really a shame, because pre-communism, China was such a vibrantly rich culture. The Great Wall, thousands of Terracotta Warriors and Chinese Opera are just some of the few amazing examples that remain. While Mao Tse-Tung did his best to erase the past by destroying thousands of medieval houses, Buddhist temples and invaluable artifacts, the current government is somewhat smarter. In a quest to restore the image of the country’s grandeur, they are restoring ancient quarters by tearing down entire blocks and replacing them with brand-new replicas reminiscent of Fisher-Price castles.

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Unfortunately, the people are not changing as fast as the streetscapes. TV-shows, newspapers and billboards all provide advice on how to act when traveling at home or abroad: don’t yell, don’t spit, don’t cough in someone’s face and don’t cut in lines. But the Chinese don’t seem to understand – or perhaps care. They are so used to public bathrooms without doors, often just communal rooms with holes in the cement floor, that if given the chance to use a toilet with a door or one without, they will pull their pants down and poop right in front of you.

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Just like an old lady smoothing her wrinkles with too much make-up, the obvious cannot be concealed. China is a police-state that controls their citizens by fear. Security checks in subways, train-stations and malls ensure the Chinese never forget that Big Brother is watching them. Cameras follow their every move, and their ID cards are checked and recorded everywhere they go. Anyone who protests or speaks the truth is arrested.

Still, China is an emerging super-power that cannot be ignored. Their economy is growing at an alarming speed due to the mass-production of chemically doubtful products, coal and mineral mines and depletion of their occupied territories. In addition, their investments and the unlawful exploitation of developing countries in Africa, Asia and South America are not only plentiful, but very lucrative. Only days ago, 168 Chinese citizens were arrested in Ghana for illegal goal mining.

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Yet the world bows and obeys China. No one wants to argue with the red giant, because they know that one day soon this plastic economy may rule the world. No matter how much they oppress their people, censor the internet and limit free speech, and how they abuse the citizens of the occupied territories, no one dares to say a word to the face of the Chinese. In the interest of making another dollar, eyes are closed and objections swept under the carpet.

However, not everything about China is bad. The cities are remarkably clean, in par with Singapore. Their trains are fast, efficient and always leave and arrive on time. They have excelled at providing information in the subway – even though everything is in Chinese, it’s impossible to get lost. The preserved natural areas are gorgeous.

And of course the pandas are very, very cute.

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Khmer Rouge – When The Devil Was In Charge

On April 17, 1975, the people of Phnom Penh celebrated in the streets as the Khmer Rouge soldiers marched into town. Finally, the rebels had ousted the corrupt, pro-American government and liberated Cambodia from the Viet Cong. At long last, there would be peace.

Little did they know that it was the start of a four year nightmare and suffering beyond their wildest fears. Only hours after Pol Pot and his comrades declared victory, teenage boys dressed in black and armed with rifles appeared everywhere. Anyone who didn’t fly a white flag outside their house was shot, and the ones who survived were chased out of town. It wasn’t safe to stay, they said. Another American bomb raid was due. They would be able to return in a few days. But it would take years until anyone could go back to Phnom Penh. All urban centers in Cambodia were turned into ghost towns, as the people of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea were forced into slave labor in remote villages.

Had they known, people would surely have reacted differently. But after being caught in the crossfire between Vietnam and the United States for the last ten years, a peaceful revolution seemed to answer everyone’s prayers. The Vietnamese had used their army to control their weaker neighbor. And Nixon’s army had peppered the border areas of neutral Cambodia with over 500,000 tonnes of bombs to catch any possible Vietnamese who might have slipped across the borders, four times as many bombs as they dropped on Japan during the second world war. Almost 10% of the Cambodian population had lost their lives in a war that was not their own.

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US Bombing of Cambodian areas 1965-1973

Khmer Rouge saw this moment as their chance to rise to power. With the aid of King Sihanouk, who had been exiled to China by the previous government, they presented themselves as the right choice for a free Kampuchea. They promised independence from Vietnam and thus an end to the bombings by the Americans.

 

But things didn’t turn out quite as planned. In an attempt to copy China’s agrarian revolution, millions of city-dwellers were relocated to forced-labor camps in the countryside. They were made to live in primitive huts and work the fields from dawn to dusk under the scorching sun without sufficient food or medicine. Schools were closed, hospitals and factories shut down. Banking, finance and currency were all abolished, and religions prohibited. Private properties were confiscated and all intellectuals, professionals, doctors, teachers and entrepreneurs were executed. Children were separated from their parents, and made to work as slaves in special children’s camps.

When the harvests didn’t increase according to plan, the food portions decreased to a few grains of rice in a watery soup and soon enough people started dying of starvation, exhaustion and diseases like malaria, dysentery and typhoid. Anyone who tried to supplement their diet with insects, rotten leaves or even rats was tortured or executed. Those who protested were shot.

It soon became evident that the revolution was a failure. Their idea of a completely self-sufficient Cambodia did not work. The Khmer Rouge responded by blaming it on others. Suddenly anyone could be accused for treason. Former friends of Pol Pot were no exception, nor were fellow revolutionaries. Anyone who was suspected of anti-Kampuchean activities was brought into prison and tortured until he confessed that he was working for the CIA or KGB, or – remarkably – both. Every “traitor” was forced to name up to fifty other co-conspirators. And so the list of innocent “criminals” grew by leaps and bounds until almost no one was safe. And everyone finally admitted to some crime, only to make the torture stop.

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An abandoned school in the deserted capital Phnom Penh, proved an ideal site for a prison for these “traitors”; the Tuol Sleng prison camp, also called S-21. Here, in a blocked off area of several square kilometers, the Khmer Rouge tortured and executed their “enemies” in secret. Former class-rooms were divided into tiny cells, so small that a grown man could not stretch out his body on the floor. The prisoners were chained to the floor, and forbidden to speak or make any noises. A plastic can was brought in as needed to be used as a toilet. Other classrooms were filled with prisoners, laying side by side, chained to the floor. Food was provided once a day at the most, and consisted of a couple of spoonfuls of rice and water. Bathing occurred once or twice a month, by the guards hosing water through the classroom windows.Every night, teenage guards who had been taught torture methods on animals, took someone away to be tortured or executed. Screams were heard across the playground, when the prisoners were hung upside down and whipped until they passed out. Other methods included pulling of nails, cutting off fingers and near-drowning. Babies were taken from their mothers and shot or bludgeoned to death.

All 20,000 prisoners were photographed on admission to S-21.Their photographs still hang in the Tuol Sleng museum as silent reminders of the children, men and women that were tortured to death in this camp. The fear in their eyes is haunting. They all knew that imprisonment equaled death. No one was ever released. To this day, Cambodians are still identifying relatives or friends from the photos, and will finally know for sure what happened to them after they disappeared.

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In 1979, when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh, only twelve of the tens of thousands of prisoners had survived. Some tortured bodies still lay rotting in their cells, but most had been buried a few miles away, at Choeung Ek the “enemy “dumping ground known as the Killing Fields.

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In their four years of power, the Khmer Rouge murdered around two million people, or a quarter of the country’s population; mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children. Not one family remained intact. Still, the leaders of this organization who had committed war-crimes as heinous as those of Hitler or Stalin, remained on free foot for the next 28 years, supported economically and politically by the United States, China, Thailand, Britain, and the United Nations. Hiding in the Cambodian forest and continuing to terrorize the villages and towns of Cambodia, the UN named Khmer Rouge the “government of Cambodia in exile,”and allowed them to rule over the victims of their genocide for another fourteen years, until Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia.

Because of the support they received from their prosperous allies and international relief organizations, the Khmer Rouge flourished in hiding for decades until December 1998, when the organization was finally dissolved due to internal struggles. But before the Cambodians and International Leaders finally got their act together in terms of bringing these mass-murderers to trial, Pol Pot passed away, still as a free man, in April 1998. By 1999, the majority of the members had either surrendered or been captured.

 

How is it possible that a world that promised “never again” after WW II could turn a blind eye and even help these murderers get away with it? It all has to do with politics. The United States’ partnership with the Khmer Rouge grew out of their defeat against the Vietnamese. In this blind hatred, they formed an anti-Vietnamese and anti-Soviet partnership with China, and therefore supported the Khmer Rouge to help destabilize the pro-Vietnamese government in Cambodia.

 

But really, there is no excuse for the world’s response and behavior in regards to Cambodia. Two million people died under horrific circumstances. The survivors lived in terror among landmines and Khmer Rouge attacks for another fifteen years. Not until 2010 was any of the leaders charged. The trials against the only two surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge are still ongoing in 2013. To this date, only one of the Khmer Rouge leaders has been sentenced. No one else has paid for their crimes.

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The world has not learned anything from history. Why is it so difficult to put politics aside when we are dealing with murderers? Communism may be bad, but surely genocide is worse? When will the “free world” start acting morally?

 

Never again.

 

Please.