I just spent a month in Havana, my first visit as a private citizen since ending my diplomatic work in Cuba last August.
Many diplomats, upon retirement, tend to feel a little lost- what with the privileges and all the whipped-up VIP attention one gets… My feelings were quite the opposite. I felt freed from obligations and schedules. The break with routines is hard on anyone after a full professional life, but on balance the freedom is the greater good.
Havana, with a very large diplomatic community, offers a readily available cocoon or a gilded cage for diplomats who want to avoid the city’s often complicated realities. I frankly enjoyed being out on the sidewalks of San Lazaro and Belascoain, however grimy the surroundings.
The weather in Havana was not very cooperative- we had days on end of grey, cloudy skies, with high winds and rough seas on the Malecón. Being out a lot on the sidewalks in such weather, one really lives Havana Without Makeup. The city needs luminous skies and the intensity of the sun to look good, to lend grace even to her rundown neighborhoods. As I always live Havana between elation and despair, the latter sometimes gets the upper hand when the clouds take over. Seen from our rooftop in Centro Havana, the city then takes on a grim quality; and coming down to the sidewalks, one plunges into a totally raw life.
And the people?
The feisty energy that characterizes many Cubans is still there- but there was also something tired in the air. The US policy toward Cuba, with Mr Trump closing the horizons opened by president Obama, weighs perceptibly on the city and the people.
And then there is the wait for the new generation of political leadership, due to take over this year- bringing uncertainty and a mixture of hope and anxiety about the future in general, and about economic opportunities in particular. Will the spaces allowed for people to spread their own wings expand, or shrink?
Large cruise ships keep coming and docking in Old Havana, in front of Plaza San Francisco. There were still many young Americans visiting- but the cruise ship passengers from the US, we were told, are warned on shipboard that they disembark ‘at their own risk’- apparently referring to the Trump policy of undercutting tourism by threats of financial sanctions. As a result, quite a few US citizens stay on board, and are seen taking pictures of the city from the aft deck of the ships. It’s their loss, not to make physical contact with the streets and the vibes of Havana, but who can blame them? Not having enough passengers to process, the Cuban immigration officers of both sexes- the women in the characteristic uniform of micro-skirts and black net stockings- were flirting heartily at the city end of the cruise ship pier.
Hanging out on a street corner of the Malecón to pick up a wifi signal, or walking to Hotel Deauville on the corner of Calle Galeano and San Lazaro- to do the same indoors- even in rain and wind one sees small groups of Habaneras and Habaneros partying around a bottle of rum and dancing to music from an iPhone- keeping, as always, despair at bay with the few necessary ingredients for instant alegría. The city, and especially the bars and restaurants along the Malecón, have made a remarkably quick recovery from the mean September hurricane- certainly seen next to the ongoing misery in Puerto Rico. Havana and her people still pull together and display a strong community spirit in times of adversity.
At midnight on December 31st, all the ships in Havana harbor rang their foghorns in unison- fancy cruise ships, rusty tankers and container ships forming a choir. Some modest fireworks were shot over the city. And a few firefly balloons, set off by visiting family members from Miami, took flight over the chaotic rooftops and drifted out over the ocean, like little souls escaping or modest dreams of the future on the move.
IF YOU CAN’T GO THERE- OR DIDN’T DISEMBARK… – READ ALL ABOUT THE CITY IN:
My family and I have spent most of our adult lives- the last 40 + years- in the Americas. I use the plural on purpose. The United States is but one of the 35 states making up the region, and our time was, roughly, divided equally between the US and the Caribbean.
Even while living on the Western shores of the Atlantic, and absorbing many influences, we remain at heart cultural Europeans. The mixture became a nice one, although I say so myself. Grounded in very old traditions and customs since birth, we made our own the American ‘can do’ attitudes, the belief in a better tomorrow, and the endless possibilities illustrated by wide open horizons. Not to forget: I am from an era, in Europe, of closed borders with annoying and inquisitive uniforms at every turn of the road, and currencies valid for a hundred miles only when traveling- or so it felt as seen from Belgium, a small triangle of land caught in between too many frontiers.
Coming from a humble background, reaching the United States to me personally was also like an immigrant’s dream. As a teenager, I was fond of Simon & Garfunkel’s song ‘America’, framing the dream: All come to look for America…
But lately, I have started to feel estranged from the dream.
It was not just the election of Mr Trump. I don’t share the opinion of many Europeans that a political system that allowed this to happen must be fatally flawed. Mr Trump’s victory, alas, to me was the result of the totally mismanaged campaign of Mrs Clinton. Alone in my family, I saw Mr Trump’s victory coming. The Obama years to us had been very uplifting- not necessarily the policies, but certainly the tone and the style of the discourse and the flawless elegance of the messenger.
By contrast, Mr Trump managed to bring out the worst of America- but this is not unheard of in politics elsewhere, and scarier examples abound. Maybe there is an unruly adolescent dormant in each of us, and appealing to her/his lower instincts, and saying out loud what we normally repress, is a working formula.
Not that Europe is lacking its own political buffoons. There was a certain Mr Berlusconi; and even former French president Sarkozy at times had great trouble controlling his temperament- and his vocabulary. But none of those were the leader of the free world.
Mr Trumps election came on top of other developments that disturbed me deeply. The continued gun violence and the inability and unwillingness of the political establishment to impose even the most elementary restrictions. There was the Supreme Court Citizens United decision, making elections even more money-driven.
There is the biblical literalism with reportedly as many as 46% of US citizens rejecting evolution. There is the deep-seated puritanism in sexual matters, resulting in the paradox that the goriest violence can be shown on prime-time television, but God forbid that a child should see a woman’s breast. Frankly: the most comical result of this, to me, is that many American movies show passionate sex- with the girl keeping her bra on. Please!
On a more serious note, I’m also convinced that sexual abuse results more from repression than from license. The current wave of revelations about sexual misconduct confirms this; but the reaction of unchecked condemnations is equally troubling, especially to me as a one-time criminal defense lawyer. And, ultimately, both are consequences of puritanism and its unavoidable hypocrisies.
Resettling in Europe after all those years, one cannot fail to notice also how well-off the European middle class has become over exactly the same time span it lost its gains in many parts of the United States. And then there is the infrastructure- European highways, bridges and tunnels and railroads in splendid shape when one is used to travel the US overland and one comes face-to-face with the neglect of decennia.
The health care discussions are another painful contrast. It bothered me already when the Affordable Care Act was under discussion, and the Republicans successfully used the example of the British National Health System as a scarecrow.
The NHS is indeed a rather disastrous system- but the Democrats could have done their homework and could have looked at the excellent systems on the EU mainland, blending public financing and private delivery of health care.
A side effect of Mr Trumps antics, is that not just transatlantic citizens like myself, but entire regions of the world are emancipating and weaning themselves from the United States as it turns inward and xenophobic. The EU just decided to develop its own supercomputers, and other sectors of the economy will follow, breaking further and further away from US monopolies.
How does that leave us, who love the United States but have to face the new realities?
As divided souls, really.
When I listen again to the Simon & Garfunkel song of my teenage years, it now strikes me that the lyrics imply that the America of the dream is not to be found.
But then I think things over again, and I hope to live to see the US bounce back as it has done so often. Mr Trump and his minions will become a painful but forgettable memory, the Supreme Court will regain its wisdom, Detroit will rise again and Chicago will control its guns, California will tame its fires, smooth and sleek trains will run coast to coast across the wide spaces; and even New York City, our spiritual home as the ultimate universal city-state, will control the subway rats and will restore its bridges and tunnels. Slavery will finally come to its real end when police, judges and the prison system become color blind. And from the enormous reservoirs of talent in the raw, and the very struggles it takes to emerge against all odds, America will still write the best books and compose great music and produce remarkable films.
For there is one virtue Americans possess in much larger quantities than us, jaded Europeans: Hope.
Judging by the success of documentaries and TV series, we can’t get enough of the Colombian Narcos and their king, Pablo Escobar, pitiless scoundrel and/or Robin Hood to the poor in Medellin.
I have always had a weakness for Colombia. We have friends and remote family there and, important to me, the Spanish spoken in the country is limpid and beautiful compared to the harsh Castellano in Madrid and the sloppy Caribbean brand.
My closest Colombian connections came through a local kidnapping and an internationally acclaimed peace accord. And they are not unrelated.
Xmas eve 2000, I was asked to help when a Belgian backpacker who had ventured into territory controlled by Colombian rebels, was taken hostage and held for ransom. Kidnapping was then a kind of national industry in the country, practiced on a wide scale by various armed groups.
The family of the backpacker had been contacted by a go-between. This activity had become a kind of subcontracting of the kidnappings, also practiced on the same wide scale. Often the mediators were present or former Catholic priests- but one could never trust their reliability without a thorough test.
My intervention was requested because I had already then close connections in official Havana- and the rebel group who was holding the hostage had an office in the Cuban capital.
The leftist rebellion in Colombia was even older than the Cuban Revolution, and there were strong ideological, personal and sentimental links. I always felt that, on the Cuban side, especially the Colombian FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) were loved as having maintained the original, rural and community-based roots of the first stages of the Cuban uprising, without the later compromises of national government.
Yet as diplomats we had to be very careful about any contacts with the FARC office, as the group was listed as a terrorist organization both in the European Union and the United States. So I moved with great care.
The first task was to authenticate the mediator. To establish that this person has genuine contact with the kidnappers and, via them, with the hostage, there is a simple method. One transmits a question, suggested by the family, that only the victim is able to answer, such as: what is the painting hanging on the first-floor landing in grandmother’s house?
If that is answered to satisfaction, the contacts can move forward. No ransom would be paid, both as a matter of principle and because the family, while solidly middle-class, was not rich. So the hope was for political intervention.
It worked. The hostage was released unharmed. He was freed before two Italian nationals kidnapped around the same time and in the same area, who were working for the state petrol company ENI. I suspect that in those cases, ransom was inevitable.
Many years later, in 2015-16, I was witness in Havana to the signing of the armistice and the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC. In the salons of El Laguito in Havana’s exclusive western suburbs, where the ceremonies took place, I came face to face with the FARC commander who had been the supremo in the zone of the kidnappings fifteen years before. There had been more discreet contacts with the rebel offices in the run-up to the agreement, as European diplomacy was then working to suspend, and later remove, the FARC from the terrorist listings.
I was to live another wave of kidnappings in between those events. That was in 2005-2006 in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, in the political confusion after president Aristide was removed from power, and while the UN was trying to re-establish order. There were up to twenty declared kidnappings in the city at that time, and probably many more that never came to light.
Again a Belgian national was among the victims- a case of mistaken identity, as it turned out, for the young man was a rather clueless hippy working for a tiny NGO. But again it was the intervention of Catholic clergy who set the victim free. The kidnappers had been former enforcers (‘Chimères’) of president Aristide, and foreign missionaries had some influence with them, as Aristide himself was, or had been, a Salesian priest- who was said, by his political enemies, to have close contacts with the Colombian Narcos. This was purportedly confirmed by the fact that he had fled the country with twenty million dollars in cash… And somewhere in the middle, so it was whispered too, were rogue elements of the national police, even hand-in-glove with certain UN peacekeepers.
If all this seems an inextricable nest of intrigue, that’s exactly what it was, making the Colombian situations look simple and straightforward. The net result was that my own safety in Port-au-Prince now became an issue. I had walked around the city by myself up to that point, but now I was packed in a safe SUV and given an armed escort. I missed the physical contact with the street. That was years before the 2010 earthquake, and Port-au-Prince, for all its poverty and shabbiness, was a very lively and soulful place. But my minders were right to impose precautions, no doubt.
Before I left my base-camp office in Kingston, Jamaica, for another working trip to Haiti, my assistant warned me, tongue in check, in case I was kidnapped to request ransom notes with three competitive demands, to respect our bookkeeping rules.
What one could observe in Haiti was a phenomenon repeated in many countries of the region and elsewhere. At the end of an armed conflict or a civil war or serious internal strife, the political gunman becomes a common-law gangster. There is mostly not much employment on offer for a youth who has had a gun in his hands since adolescence, except to work as an underpaid policeman or, if he’s lucky, a somewhat better-off private security guard. But then, not infrequently, the policeman and the security guard remain in cahoots with former comrades. Information about houses and people is passed on, resulting in even more burglaries and kidnappings. Such side-effects make abstract efforts at peacekeeping often very ignorant- and doomed to fail.
But European diplomacy is trying to learn from such experiences. In the case of the Colombia peace deal, helping to give the disbanded combatants land, jobs and a new life is a priority.
Still, realistically, the Narcos will be with us, and we won’t lack new material for drama and documentary.
Are you overdosing just as I am on Russia investigations and conspiracy labyrinths? Here is a somewhat different take, through the telescope instead of the magnifying glass.
I’m a child of the Cold War, and my father was, literally, a warrior against Communism. To the subconscious fears programmed in the brains of my generation in Western Europe, Moscow was the grand and sinister capital of Otherness.
Stalin was gone and for a while the somewhat more reassuring Nikita Kruschev stood on top of Lenin’s mausoleum- but he was still reviewing massive parades of tanks and missiles aimed at us.
Then granddaddy Nikita with his ill-fitting suits and his peasant manners was sent packing, as apparently too soft, and in came Mr Leonid Breznhev. If Central Casting had been ordered to locate a cartoon villain, no Hollywood director could have wanted a better face for the part. But below the neck he was elegant and fashion conscious, and he loved fast cars-which made him only look more sinister, of course. It was a James Bond script.
Meanwhile I was in the Belgian military for a year, culminating in a massive deployment exercise in the fall, when NATO regularly simulated a quick response to a hypothetical Soviet invasion across the Iron Curtain. I have fond memories of those maneuvers. It was a gorgeous Indian Summer. My comrades in arms and myself, on vintage BMW motorbikes, had great fun escorting long military convoys from the Belgian ports to the German border- leaving a trail of broken-down Willy’s Jeeps and even more ancient four-wheel drive trucks. All of that equipment had been ready for the invasion Stalin had apparently been planning in 1953, but if Mr Brezhnev had followed up twenty-five years later, I doubt that it would have stopped him.
Even before those experiences, the best comment came from my grandmother in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fully expecting her third world war, my granny shrugged it off: The Russians won’t be any worse than the Germans.
During my training as a diplomat, we visited NATO HQ on the outskirts of Brussels. After a presentation on the Soviet Threat, one of my fellow trainees asked a critical question- and the distinguished NATO representative lost his composure, sort of accused us all of being crypto-communists, and stormed out of the room. That was in 1979. It seemed that NATO was indeed nervous, maybe not so much anymore about the Soviet invasion as about its own relevance in the deep freezer of the Cold War.
Then it defrosted.
My first years of work at the United Nations, starting in 1985, coincided with the high times of Mr Gorbachov in Moscow and the world. Everybody loved him. And we lived the change in the halls and the corridors of the UN as well.
Soviet diplomats trusted to work in the decadent West up to that point had been robotic, heavily accented and as ill-dressed as Mr Krushev had been. They were bused back and forth collectively between the Soviet mission and the UN, lest they would hail a cab on First Avenue and defect to Brooklyn. Not that most of them displayed any such grand sense of initiative. But there were spies galore, of course, and God knows what went on in those heads.
In came the Gorbachov school of diplomats. And first and foremost, a young Mr Sergei Lavrov. Sergei worked in the same committee of the General Assembly I was a member of, so I saw a lot of him. He was a thoroughly nice, elegant and easygoing colleague, next to the caricatures of the previous generation of USSR representatives. As we diplomats tend to do, I judged Gorbachov and the state and the course of his country through Sergei. It was very reassuring.
I owe Mr Gorbachov one of the most intense moments of my entire diplomatic career- that was the day in December 1988 when he spoke at the UN General Assembly and simply ended the Cold War then and there.
When I came back to New York and the UN in 1992, it was a different world. The Soviet Union was gone, and Sergei Lavrov was back in Moscow. But with the great social skills and the keen intelligence I had observed, he was a survivor. I had a aha! moment when I saw him again- on television, that is- reincarnated as the Russian foreign minister. I thought proudly of myself that I had been on first-name terms with an actor of History.
The former Soviet satellite states formally joined the West when they became members of the European Union. A grand geopolitical move, to be sure. But most of the Eastern European societies were not quite ready for such a brusque transition, and are now going through their democratic adolescence. One cannot rewrite history in shorthand.
Be that as it may, with the renewed Russian assertiveness, I came to realize that my old colleague Sergei’s political survival skills made him part of plans and designs- in Georgia, in the Ukraine- that I would not have ascribed to his pleasant persona in New York in 1985.
Such are the cycles of history, and the incarnations of its servants.
So is Moscow the Other once more? The former communist EU members now all feel like front-line states. They may not be quite ready for liberal democracy, but they are nevertheless halfway there, and certainly not willing to step back.
Seen from the United States, the Cold War was always a strategic game. In Europe, it was much more visceral. No one in the US can really imagine what an invasion is like. Feeling one’s elections hacked is one thing- but seeing enemy tanks roll past your front door, quite another. Europeans still have traces of such events in their collective memories.
Is the cloud hanging over Central Europe and the Baltic states exaggerated? Will the new Russian empire stop where the Czars did? What goes on now in Mr Lavrov’s mind? (I don’t dare to call him Sergei anymore).
There is an old joke told in Western military academies:
What is the number one rule of war strategy?
Never invade Russia!
(Incidentally, the same joke could be told about Afghanistan, replacing Napoleon and Hitler with Alexander, the British and the US).
I wonder if there is a similar joke on the other side. From the 1950s till the 1980s, in theory the west was expecting a Soviet invasion. Not only did it not happen- when the Iron Curtain came down, we also absorbed the new-old-Russia’s western buffer zone. Now we’re back to the age-old game of land grabs, rearranging borders, and establishing ‘spheres of influence’. And for a novelty we have virtual invasions- by election hackers, not to be stopped by military hardware- either rusty or brand new.
I have a pet theory that diplomacy is one of the three oldest human professions. The other two are the warrior and the prostitute- although commonly that last one is said to be the oldest.
Unfortunately I’m convinced that the warrior was the very first one.
Having started my professional life as a small-time lawyer, I was always impressed with the endless potential for conflict our species displays. And the conflicts making it to courts of law, both civil and criminal, are probably only a percentage of the total.
Our 98% chimpanzee brains are just too quarrelsome to keep the peace. I love a good bar, and any good bar unavoidably breaks out in a fight once in a while. I have worked in, and sometimes led, large offices- and office intrigues are a universal given- smoldering conflicts all. My first overseas posting as a diplomat was in Ethiopia- and we found ourselves the heads of a large, quasi-feudal household living in the compound of our residence, and we had to learn to become judge and jury of vicious quarrels among the household staff.
Those early experiences were behind me when I started working at the United Nations in 1985. The ideal of world peace- supposedly symbolized by the buildings along the East River- seemed, and seems, a very naïve once one has absorbed the reality of human behavior. If a small group of people, even a family, can’t live in real peace, how can the world as a whole? Then to further stress the point, I lived and worked through the UN’s peacekeeping disasters in the Balkans and Rwanda, and the nearly as disastrous side effects of such an operation in Haiti.
But seeing conflicts from the wrong end of the telescope- in courts of law, bars, offices and households (not to mention large families)- nevertheless convinced me that the diplomat, as the peacemaker, is also a human archetype. However unsuccessful in the larger picture of our common history, there will always be a peacekeeper type in the middle of the bar fight. Hence my conclusion, that the diplomat is the second oldest human profession. You can fit in the prostitute- or at least the seductive woman- either as throwing wood on the flames, or as sealing a temporary truce.
So there is my personal triad of deepest human behavior.
What does that say about the profession I have devoted most of my life to?
With the delicate situations and shaky balances of power the world is going through, real professional diplomacy may be needed more than ever.
But is it available?
Mostly as a result of fast communication, diplomats in the field have lost their autonomy. They- we- have become handmaidens of politicians; and politics, as we can see every day, is still stuck in the reptilian part of our brain, with primitive territoriality and land (and sea) grabs, warmongering, much chest-thumping, and flourishing production of ever more frightening weaponry- the swords instead of the ploughshares the prophet Isaiah hoped for.
I don’t see that changing in the short run. On the contrary, a few of the world’s most vocal politicians are more reptilian than ever.
Yet true diplomacy, having diplomats acting like imaginative politicians rather than meek civil servants, has had its successes. The bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s were brought to a halt, albeit imperfectly, by Mr Richard Holbrooke, one man of flesh and blood and a true negotiator performing better than the entire United Nations machinery. The Iran nuclear deal, however much decried by Mr Trump, was also an impressive result of true negotiating skills, with principals sitting around the table.
After the Second World War, Hitler’s faithful chief diplomat, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was hanged at the conclusion of the Nurnberg trials, as a main culprit of the Fuehrer’s plans. That was, in fact, overstating his importance: as a person he was rather a nullity and as a professional he was just the messenger. His Soviet counterpart, Molotov, Stalin’s negotiator, inscrutable either because too clever of totally mindless, lived out his life quietly in Moscow. Both were mere henchmen and, in the end, caricatures of true diplomacy.
For our own times in world politics, we need diplomats that are one step ahead- I’d almost say in evolutionary terms– of politics and politicians, not the bureaucrats walking two steps behind with a briefcase full of nefarious instructions. One of the most painful moments of the wrong kind of diplomacy I’ve witnessed during my own career, was poor Mr Colin Powell having to defend the lies leading to the Iraq invasion in the Security Council, with a vulture-like Mr Negroponte looking over his shoulder. I felt Mr Powells’ pain- he confessed to it later- but I also felt a deep revulsion for what he was doing to my profession.
In the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachov were trying to negotiate an end to the Cold War, during a fireside session in Iceland Mr Reagan offered to unite forces with the Soviet Union in case of an extraterrestrial invasion.
Of course we all laughed about it heartily back then, as we saw suspicions of Mr Reagan’s senility confirmed. But now I almost see it as a metaphor of what it would take to have real diplomacy triumph on this planet. And some of Mr Reagan’s successors, while certainly not senile, hardly had and have better brains- or diplomacy.
In contrast with Mr Powell’s behavior in the Security Council in 2002, many US career diplomats are now leaving the State Department rather than to become mere pawns for policies they disapprove of. I feel honored that such professionals still exist.
Leading a wandering life as my family and myself have done over the years, the end-of-year holidays end up coming in various incarnations.
When I was growing up in Belgium, more specifically in Antwerp, the season stretched from December 6- St Nicholas, when good children received gifts during a nightly visit from the saint riding a donkey, and accompanied by a Black servant, Peter- till January 6th, Epiphany, when the same children went door-to-door signing dressed up as the Three Kings, and carrying a rotating star. The weeks in between were rich with the smell of the decorated Christmas tree in the living room, with even people like my parents, not habitual churchgoers, putting out an elaborate Nativity scene, with delicate figurines that had been handed down over generations.
The added factor for me personally was that January 6th is also my birthday. So the end of the season still held some extra presents for me, apart from the culinary traditions such as the Galette du Roi, baking waffles with a pea hidden in one, and the kid who got the waffle with the pea becoming King for the Day. With or without that lottery, I was King of the Day by birthright.
In Antwerp, and I think in Antwerp only, local bakers had extended good business beyond the holidays by inventing yet another occasion for specific products. That was Lost Monday, supposedly marking the day when boy Jesus went missing, and was found by his worried parents- pardon, mother and foster father- teaching the elders in the Temple. For some mysterious reasons, the Antwerp bakers on that day produced a flaky pastry filled with sausage, and an extra supply of apple turnovers.
This closed the season for real, and then the bakers and the food industry started gearing up for chocolate Easter eggs.
Looking at it now, with an eye both sentimental and critical, it feels as if the Vatican was in league with the bakers’ guild to make the Catholic calendar very much a catalogue of delicacies. The season opened with speculoos– a type of gingerbread- and marzipan on St Nicholas, and it was good business all the way from there.
Fast forward. When we were living in Ethiopia in the early 1980s, we landed not only in a different Christianity- the much older Eastern Orthodox rites- but in a totally different calendar. Ethiopia still used (and uses) the Julian Calendar, foregoing the improvements made by the ferenj (‘Frankish’, with the connotation of ‘heretical’) pope Gregory. We had left Europe in 1979, only to wake up in Addis Ababa in 1972. Not only that. We arrived in August, and faced New Year in mid-September in our calendar- the end of the rainy season on the Abyssinian highlands, with the profusely blooming yellow Maskal flowers commemorating the ‘finding of the True Cross‘ by Helena, the mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. (Maskal means cross in Amharic).
My birthday, Epiphany, also turned out to be the most important religious holiday in Ethiopia- much more so than Christmas. Timkat, as Epiphany is called in Amharic, is marked by elaborate and quite rowdy processions and cavalcades led by clergy in glittery robes wearing elaborate crowns under bejeweled umbrella’s, and hundreds of church deacons performing tribal-looking dances inspired by the Old Testament: David dancing before the Ark. Ethiopia was then supposedly a Marxist country under a ruthless military regime- but even those rulers did not dare interfere with these age-old rites.
The only rain on the parade to me was that this Epiphany did not fall on my birthday- but a week later, as is the case for all Orthodox religious holidays.
Fast forward again, now to the Caribbean. The heat in Kingston, Jamaica, is yearly relieved by the Christmas Breeze, and the culinary traditions hold new delights: a layered rum cake, built up over weeks towards the holidays, and the rich, tangy taste of sorrel, a drink brewed from red berries and strictly only to be consumed during the holiday season. By now, we were used to tropical substitutes for the traditional X-mas tree. In the Caribbean, one mostly ends up decorating a Norfolk Pine. But the smell of one’s childhood’s real pine tree remains irreplaceable.
Fast forward again. Living in New York as of 1985, I was working at the United Nations. The joke was, that if the UN would observe all holidays of all member states, the organization would be closed all year… Yet even the UN allowed to observe Thanksgiving, and we absorbed that now in our private calendar. The other novelty was Halloween, then still unheard of in Europe, but now pushed by global merchandizing just like the Antwerp bakers, on a smaller scale, had extended the season for the benefit of their sales. Our young son went out trick-and-treating, and the tradition was not unlike what we had done on Epiphany in Antwerp, also expecting gifts of candy (and coins !) when impersonating the Three Kings door-to door. I have fond memories of the Halloween Parade in downtown Manhattan, and never failed to get a scary mask for the occasion.
I should mention that fully living the New York melting pot, we also became very much aware of the Jewish holidays (strengthened by the remote Jewish origins of my family name, belonging to the class of Iberian converts or marranos)- but also of the Islamic calendar, because working with Pakistani staff and having to take the shifting dates of Ramadan and Id into account. And of course there was Chinese New Year on Mott Street downtown, with the long strands of fireworks hanging from fire escapes, and the relentless loud explosions in the streets scaring our son who thought we had schlepped him into a war zone. Jewish New Year, in September, strangely coincided with the Ethiopian dates; and of course no one can live in New York City without being aware of Hanukah, which we also celebrated years later, unexpectedly, in Havana with the small Jewish community there.
In that same Havana, old-guard communists enforced an anti X-mas tree campaign as late as the mid-1990s but had to relent- and nowadays the Cuban capital moves full-on into holiday mood with strands of lights, very American Santa Clauses pushing such modest consumption as is available or accessible to the people- and New Year’s Day also being the celebration of the taking of Havana by the Revolution in 1959. But an attempt by the Embassy of Spain in the late 1990s to reinstate an Epiphany celebration on the streets ended in a political row, and took this holiday off the map: throwing candy to children was officially labeled a disrespect of Cuban youth. Strange- because in colonial Havana the Epiphany had been the Africans’ carnival, and very much a symbol of resistance against colonial oppression and slavery.
But to come full circle, in Spain where we currently have our base-camp home, Epiphany or Dia de Reyes is, once more, the highlight of the season, with parades, disguises, special cookies and gifts showered on the children.
How does all of this mix and mingle in the end? Like a color-and –tasteless cosmopolitanism, as nationalists and enemies of multiculturalism preach? Well, frankly- quite the opposite: more smells, more tastes, more delights, more fun, more reasons to get together.
As an agnostic, I don’t believe a word of the traditional Christmas and Epiphany stories, clearly myths just as those about Jupiter and Apollo were to the Ancients. But even while seeing those stories for what they are, their abiding attraction lies in their human interest and just in the beauty of the tales.
Political correctness and officially enforced cultural ‘neutrality’ on and off interfere with the old traditions. It’s borderline risky or incorrect, in multicultural societies, to wish someone just Merry Christmas without regard to their culture. The anathema against blackface has become a hot political issue in The Netherlands around the figure of Black Peter accompanying St Nicholas. In that case, the key is probably that St Nicholas is a Catholic tradition surviving in the largely Calvinist Holland. In neighboring and much more Latin-feeling Belgium, this kind of discussion is practically absent, because it’s simply not seen as a true racial issue. But global conviviality, as it exists in New York, does require a radar for such sensitivities.
Some shortsighted fanatics still lobby against Christmas trees, as being a Christian imposition on multi-religious (or officially agnostic) societies. That’s clear nonsense to me- beside the fact that the X-mas tree removers seem unaware that the decorated tree is actually a much older pagan symbol, celebrating the winter equinox and the slow climb of the cosmic cycles from darkness to light. Christianity- at least Catholicism- absorbed those rites as well, because just like Timkat was untouchable to the Marxist regime in Ethiopia, early Christians would not give up their earlier traditions.
Where are we going with our Holiday Seasons, in the plural? It sounds arrogant to hope that the personal mixture of traditions we came to taste, might become universal. Or at least that all of the traditions can live side by side, further enriching the stories and the myths we can share to live richer lives in our minds. And let all fanatics of political correctness take a step back, eat a Kings’ Waffle or a slice of Christmas cake and have a drink of sorrel, and relax and have a good time.
2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States in the First World War. While I was working as a diplomat in Havana, I came across some unexpected discoveries about that conflict- the fact that even Cuba had been involved in various ways.
I knew already that Cuba had hugely benefitted from the war economically, as a very important producer of cane sugar. The reason was very simple. The conflict in Europe, with its dug-in front lines, stretched for thousands of miles from west to east, all along the belt of fertile agricultural land where sugar beets had grown.
This resulted in shortages driving up the value of cane sugar on the world market- and new large fortunes being made in Havana.
It’s not a coincidence that entire new neighborhoods of fancy mansions- many of them in ornate sugar-cake styles- were going up around Havana as of the 1920’s. Old money had gotten a new boost, and the new wealth was ostentatiously exhibited.
Havana thrived. The 1920s also saw the construction of the impressive Capitol building. The presidency of Machado was corrupt but internationally successful in putting the country on the map. The last visit of a US president before that of Mr Obama in 2016, was that of Calvin Coolidge. That visit was part of a Pan American conference, and also was the occasion to create the Parque de la Fraternidad in Centro Habana, where every country of the region has an individual monument.
Across the street from the park, the Fuente de la India, originally a monument set up in 1892 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discoveries, was rededicated to Pan-American solidarities. La India on top, a sensual white girl with Native American attributes, became an ambiguous illustration of racial diversity, Latin America’s greatest asset today, but certainly not recognized as such in the 1920’s.
And all of that thanks to war-sugar wealth.
But there were more surprising discoveries about World War One and Havana.
The atrocities inflicted on Belgium by the invading German armies created such universal horror that solidarity committees were set up even in Cuba, both in Havana and in Santiago. Funds were raised, later used for the reconstruction of a large orphanage destroyed by the Germans in Flanders.
And the most unexpected fact: It’s said that it was a Cuban, Santiago Campuzano, who became the private pilot of King Albert of the Belgians to fly him on inspections above the front lines in the small western corner of the country not taken by the invaders- above the deadly warren of trenches and barbed wire where limbs and blood of countless young men, hapless victims of imbecile generals and short-sighted politicians, had replaced the crops.
Cuba’s history of war and sugar would have unpredictable new chapters. After the Revolution, the country became the main sugar provider of the USSR. That led to the entire national agriculture being turned to sugar cane production. Cuba was not just sweetening the sourest years of the Cold War. The sugar was the Cuban input in a vast barter deal in exchange for underpriced oil from the USSR. What sweetened the tea in the Kremlin, kept the lights on and the buses running in Havana.
Cuba is still struggling to replace the sugar cane monoculture with domestic food production. It’s an uphill battle, and the sugar successes of the past (including the almost ten million ton harvest of the 1970’s) still leave the country hugely dependent on imported food today.
Roaming the streets of New York, I discovered that several of the National Guard armories spread out over the city, still bear the names of WW I battles on their walls. Due to constant moving back and forth between New York and the Caribbean over many years of my past professional life- from 1985 till a few months ago- I am always looking for links between the places where I have lived and worked. To me, born and raised in Belgium, both world wars are also part of my family history. The extensions to link Cuba to those stories are part of a mental game, creating one interconnected world out of seemingly random facts.
My last and most personal anecdote regarding Cuba, sugar and war occurred in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis. I was ten years old, and not in my wildest dreams would I imagine to live and work one day in Havana, the city that then, for a few scary days, was holding the fate of the world in suspense.
I remember my grandmother musing aloud that she was in for her third World War, and that surely the Russians would invade Belgium- but that this time, she would hoard enough sugar (and coffee) to last for four years.
I often think now that the last coffee she sweetened before her death six years later, was still somehow linked with Cuba.
Read much more about Cuban sugar, the economy, and Havana’s 1920’s monuments and architecture in:
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