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Posted May 31, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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By Stephanie Shapiro | Sun Staff | [url=http://www.sunspot.net]http://www.sunspot.net[/url]

By showcasing its rich cultural history, Baltimore’s Cuban sister city hopes to capitalize on tourism.


The writer’s Matanzas mementos include snapshots, religious beads and a baseball jersey bought from a player after a game. (Sun photo by Jerry Jackson)

The home team had the lead in Victory of the Bay of Pigs Stadium, a no-frills concrete hulk in Matanzas, a port city 60 miles east of Havana. On a cool April evening, about 350 fans were watching their provincial baseball team battle rivals from the Isle of Youth, once known as the Isle of Pines, the former site of a notorious prison.

Spectators had paid about a nickel to enter the stadium. There were no nachos or Dippin’ Dots, just roasted peanuts in paper cones and cocoa-flavored lollipops.

No beer vendors roamed the stands. Instead, fans old and young swigged from bottles of Caribbean Club rum, passed freely from row to row.

After several innings, the game soured and the heckling began. “Chupa! Chupa!” the crowd taunted, choosing a less polite term for “You stink!”

Matanzas prevailed that night in seat-of-the-pants Orioles fashion. But when Cuban players, patriots who play ball for country, not big bucks, hawked their jerseys after the game for $20 - easily two months salary in Cuba - the chasm between Baltimore and its Cuban sister city yawned once again. Picture Oriole Jerry Hairston doing the same.

During a three-day stay in Matanzas, parallels between the two cities surfaced often, only to vanish into the unfathomable gulf separating the United States and its island neighbor.

An ease in restrictions during the Clinton administration has allowed Americans in recent years to see a country that has been mostly off-limits since 1960, when the United States imposed a trade embargo against the socialist nation.

Through licenses permitting educational travel issued by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, visitors have participated in drumming and language workshops, film festivals, ecology expeditions, architecture tours, bike tours, sister-city exchanges and other pursuits.

Last year, about 160,000 Americans traveled to Cuba, according to a Treasury Department spokesman. Most were Cuban Americans visiting family. It’s impossible to pin down a firm figure, but it’s estimated that every year, tens of thousands of Americans also enter Cuba illegally through a third country, typically Canada or Mexico.

I was traveling legally, with five Maryland members of the U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association, several of whom were seeing Matanzas for the first time, and they hoped, not for the last. In March, the Bush administration eliminated educational travel licenses, making journeys such as ours impossible after current licenses expire - as most will by year’s end.

That’s unfortunate, because Matanzas, like its sibling city on the Chesapeake Bay, keeps wonderful secrets within its core.

Once, Matanzas was a haven for pirates, and a statue of Dutch buccaneer Piet Heyn overlooks the bay where he sent two dozen Spanish galleons to the bottom in 1628.

The city was named, according to municipal historian Arnaldo Jimenez de la Cal, after a massacre of Spaniards by Indians in 1510. “It was the first act of rebellion of natives in Cuba,” he says.

With a maritime history akin to Baltimore’s, a vibrant arts community and some enchanting architecture, it is an apt sister city. In a less commendable parallel, Matanzas and Baltimore’s attributes tend to get lost in the shadows of bigger, noisier neighbors: Havana and Washington, respectively.

Driving from Havana along the Straits of Florida coastline, Matanzas emerges in a sweeping panorama. From a distance, it appears more Mediterranean than Caribbean. Set around Cuba’s deepest harbor, the city grows into the surrounding hills that ultimately rise into a verdant mountain backdrop.

Smokestacks, tankers and oilrigs lining the shore coexist with royal palms and flamboyan, a flowering tree riotous with color while we were there. A horse and wagon are parked at the Oro Negro gas station. City roosters crow, and two windsurfers ply the choppy river waters flowing into Matanzas Bay. A spirited pick-up baseball game unfolds on a wide, grassy median.

A general sense of decline doesn’t overwhelm the Matanzan eye for design and color. Jetson-esque modern houses in a palette of pastels line Paseo de Marti, the main road into town. They give way to the city’s narrow, old streets, where pedestrians, vintage American cars, push carts, motorcycles with sidecars and low-slung dogs vie for turf.

Neoclassical rowhouses sit practically on top of skinny sidewalks, calling to mind a tropical Baltimore, as did, sadly, stretches of dilapidated, boarded-up structures. Little evidence remains, though, of Hurricane Michelle’s devastation in 2001. Residents, unified block by block through Committees in the Defense of the Revolution, have rebuilt scores of homes destroyed by the storm.

Like Baltimore, Matanzas is as much about its prosperous past as its struggling present. A city that grew rich from sugarcane and the slave trade, it cultivated a cafe society in the 19th century where poetry, theater and music flourished.

Matanzas also draws a healthy chunk of civic identity from the literary luminaries who epitomize that earlier glory. Baltimoreans count on Mencken to prove our mettle in tough times; Matanzans defer to the late poet Jose Jacinto Milanes and a pantheon of other artists.

And like Baltimore, Matanzas, once considered the “Athens of Cuba,” hopes to tap into that heritage, as well as its scenic harbor location, using tourism to re-ignite a sluggish economy.

Two years ago, the two towns were paired through the U.S.-Cuba Sister Cities Association, in an arrangement that has yet to be officially recognized by the Baltimore City government. Currently, the expansion of Baltimore’s sister cities program is on hold while its cost, impact and other considerations are analyzed, says Judy Orlinsky, a city consultant on international projects.

The U.S.-Cuba sister cities program, incorporated in 1999, grew out of a relationship established between Mobile, Ala., and Havana in 1993. Since then, 18 American cities, two counties, and one state have formed official relationships with Cuban counterparts, and an estimated 45 others are in the process of doing so, according to Lisa Valanti, association president.

The program is not directly affiliated with Sister Cities International, but the Washington-based group formed in 1956 to foster “citizen diplomacy” has recognized U.S.-Cuba sister city partnerships that have received formal declarations of support from elected officials here.

Built around the mouths of two rivers - the San Juan and Yumuri - with 17 bridges, Matanzas is also linked with Pittsburgh through the sister cities association. And the entire province of Matanzas is allied with the state of Pennsylvania as well.

Luring travelers

Traveling with a group seeking permanent ties to Matanzas, I’m glad I didn’t have the option of heeding the Moon Handbook’s guide to Cuba. It dismissed the city of 126,000 in a few lines: “Faded mansions and houses have neoclassical hints, with fluted columns inset into the walls and topped by faux pediments. There is hardly enough of note, however, to hold your attraction for more than half a day.”

In his next breath, the author unwittingly hints at the cultural wealth behind Matanzas’ weary facade: “Los Munequitos, Cuba’s best-known folkloric rumba group, hails from Matanzas, a potent center for Santeria and Afro-Cuban rhythms.”

In other words, if the idea of visiting the place where millions of Africans completed the middle passage on the route from Senegal to the United States, where brilliant musical fusions were conceived and the mysterious Santeria faith is still widely practiced, Matanzas could “hold your attraction” for quite a long time.

Reminders of Fidel Castro’s 1959 socialist revolution are everywhere in Matanzas. On the way to and from school, uniformed “young pioneers” fill the streets with laughter. (Socialism doesn’t stop girls from hemming skirts to daring heights.) A giant mosaic of revolutionary hunk Che Guevara commands a pocket park.

For good luck, newlyweds place flowers at the base of a statue of fallen Spanish-Cuban war hero, poet Jose Marti, in Plaza de la Libertad, where older Matanzans pass the time on shade-shrouded benches. Everywhere, billboards and signs proclaim in Spanish: “Fatherland or death,” “Our socialism is not revocable,” and other affirmations oddly reminiscent of Baltimore’s “Believe” campaign.

With its once dominant sugar industry in decline, Matanzas must depend more heavily on maritime commerce, oil production and other industry such as leather and fertilizer production. But it’s the prospect of becoming a tourism destination that animated the city champions with whom we spoke.

Situated between Cuba’s two major tourist destinations, cacophonous Havana and the chic Varadero beach resort, Matanzas is “in a privileged position,” says vice mayor Jesus Enrique Martinez Santiago, whose friends call him “Chuchy.”

In an effort to lure travelers making the journey between the two attractions, Matanzas is restoring its historic district, buffing recreation areas and tending to basics, like streetlights, says Santiago, sounding like any ardent city promoter.

To toast the sister city group’s arrival, he and others on the mayor’s staff opened a bottle of Yucayo rum, a local product that Santiago praised for its superiority to that made in other distilleries, all state-run. His rooting interest is, in a sense, moot, as all profits, he acknowledges, “go to the hands of the people” whether the public buys Yucayo or Havana Club. The Yucayo, though, went down nicely.

Santiago’s dreams for Matanzas were reiterated by Silvio Leovigildo, a chatty public relations specialist for the state-run Hotel Canimao, where we stayed, along with Canadian tourists, Cuban honeymooners and the very same Matanzas baseball team, who routinely converge there from around the sprawling province for each home series.

The hotel, built near the Canimao River, sits across from the Tropicana Matanzas nightclub. One night we caught part of the show, a mechanical extravaganza featuring dancing women in thongs and their consorts.

In slang-flecked English gleaned from American radio and novels, Leovigildo, who moved to the area with his family after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, said, “We hope some time the embargo will stop and then many tourists will come, and we have to get ready for that.”

As a cigarette-puffing ballplayer sauntered through the hotel’s lovely atrium, we sipped rum and Cokes - Cuba libres - while another employee philosophized about the team and its current foibles. “Our wine is bitter, but it’s still ours,” he lamented in woeful Spanish.

At the 24-hour bar, the television was tuned to a raunchy cable film. Two nights later, from the same perch, we would sample another local rum while watching Fidel Castro live as he discussed for hours that week’s hijacking of a passenger ferry by three men aiming for the United States. They were apprehended and swiftly executed.

A city rich in arts

During our first morning in Matanzas, we admired paintings and sculptures made from found materials, including cans and seeds, at the Asociacion Cubana de Artesanos Artistas, an arts center in a beautifully restored 19th-century Spanish mansion. Luis Octavio, the center’s charming director, proudly addressed sister-city visitors: “Everybody meets here - artists, musicians, sculptors. The whole culture of Matanzas has found its home here.”

The center is at the heart of efforts to help the city “recuperate,” Octavio says. With government assistance and a pooling of resources, however meager, “we have the willingness to re-create the Athens of Cuba.”

It was 10 a.m., but the occasion still called for saoco, a drink made from fresh coconut water and rum.

Then, heads spinning, we were off to Ediciones Vigia in the Plaza de la Vigia, where limited editions of handsome, handmade books featuring the works of Cuban authors, classics and children’s literature are produced. I bought a collection of dreamy verse, Mirarse en Ninive, by Mabel Diez Ochoa, a contemporary Matanzas poet. Constructed from cardboard, fabric and recycled paper, with little tags and keys attached with bits of yarn, the books have a crinkly, rustic quality and are as pleasing to hold and touch as to read.

We also visited the Museo Farmaceutico, an exquisitely preserved 19th-century pharmacy once operated by a French family. The state-run museum is stocked with the herbs, emulsions, powders and purgatives from around the world that remained on the shelves when the pharmacy closed decades ago. Researchers still use its library, where 1.5 million “recipes for the medicines” were entered by hand in 300 fat ledgers, museum employee Grisel Perez Falcon says.

One afternoon, young schoolchildren performed fetching songs and dances for the sister-cities group at a reception in the lobby of Teatro Sauto. The neoclassical gem of an opera house would be celebrating its 140th anniversary that week with an appearance by the Cuban National Ballet, and after our visit, a team arrived to scrub the marble entrance of the elegant but worn theater.

In the past, renowned artists, including Sarah Bernhardt, Anna Pavlova and Andres Segovia, have appeared at the Sauto, known for its superb acoustics.

Matanzas also boasts a puppet theater, a children’s theater - where a biennial international festival takes place - and another theater that recently marked its 180th anniversary, Octavio says. The city continues to produce notable artists. This year, Matanzas-born playwright Nilo Cruz, who immigrated to the United States as a child, won a Pulitzer prize for his work Anna in the Tropics.

A Santeria experience

Those who rate a place by its shopping would be disappointed in Matanzas. One morning, we made a quick dash to Calle Medio, the city’s central commercial street. A glum flea market offered little variety, and the shops were equally as discouraging.

The paucity of goods made everything else Matanzas has to offer all the more alluring. Besides, if you’re not shopping, you can be observing. Along the same street, we met young pioneers going door to door, checking each residence for standing water. It was a government strategy for curbing mosquito-borne malaria.

It may not offer a lot of things to buy, but the city sure likes to party. Matanzas celebrates the Bay of Pigs victory every summer as well as a government-sponsored, Rio-esque carnivale, replete with parades, bands and mass revelry. In October, the city plans to honor the 310th anniversary of its formal founding as Matanzas, with a weeklong festival.

With so little time, we didn’t get to more theaters, or to the city’s churches and other museums. I had particularly hoped to add the Museo de los Bomberos, a display of antique fire trucks, to my life list of quirky museums. Time also ran out for touring Reparto Versalles, a district settled by French refugees from Haiti in the 19th century.

Several sister-city visitors chose to tour the nearby Bellamar caves, a showcase of underground wonders. But a travel companion and I felt the need to go beyond official recommendations and see the Matanzas where Afro-Cuban culture still thrives.

Strolling around the Plaza de la Libertad one afternoon, we stumbled on a plaque marking the site where danzon, an inspired blend of African rhythms and European country dance, was first presented in 1879. It was a tantalizing clue to an art form that engendered the mambo and cha-cha and was the first African-American music to be recorded in depth. Danzon remains a living art in Matanzas.

Los Munequitos and other percussion ensembles native to Matanzas also keep centuries-old traditions alive in a remarkably pure form.

My companion, Judy Frumkin, and I stole away for a few hours into the spiritual realm of Santeria, a religion that features a colorful cast of deities called orishas, representative of different forces of nature. It helped enormously that Judy is fluent in Spanish. She had told Octavio of our interest in the religion, a combination of African spiritual practice and Catholicism. He asked colleague Josue Perez, who also enlisted his friend, Amalio Reyes Mirarda, to accompany us to a casa de Santeria.

First, though, the men fed us a meal that once would have sustained slaves. We nibbled croquetas made from a paste of potatoes, ham, chicken and flour, and sampled a soup called caldosa o ajiaco, a piquant blend of plantains, pork, potatoes and tomatoes. Both offerings were African in origin, and in Cuba, served to “to build strength” among runaway esclavos hiding in the mountains, according to the chef who prepared lunch.

While walking to the Santeria house, Perez told us about his father, a guerrilla fighter in the Revolution who was tortured, “but never spoke.” He went on to do public relations for Castro, he said.

Across the Calixto Garcia bridge, the two men led us over the San Juan river to Pueblo Nuevo, a neighborhood dating to the 16th century. It happened to be the Day of the Pioneers, yet another fiesta, and school was closed. A happy group of boys passed us, their hands filled with sticky meringue, sold in dollops at a neighborhood sweet shop, or dulceria.

Down a desolate street came the strains of a saucy selection of son, the national music of Cuba. A band called La Balanza was rehearsing, Reyes says. Around the corner, a family sat on the doorstep of what can only be described as a “row cabin” made of wood so old it looked primeval. Perez says this home, attached to other, slightly newer houses, had likely belonged to slaves.

It was a tough neighborhood, with signs warning of murderous dogs - hay perro muerte. But it was also a neighborhood where a young boy contentedly played his percussive sticks called claves as the world sauntered by.

When we arrived at her house, priestess Marta Yolanda Chatelain shooed us away. We could not enter until she splashed water on her doorway and the street, to banish evil spirits.

Inside, Chatelain, a forthright, humorous woman who also sings for a living, introduced us to her two house orishas, represented by doll-like figures tucked into corners. She then led us to a shrine composed of a gourd topped with fabric strips, coconut shards, apples, figurines, eggs, candles, a basket holding dollar bills from clients, a champagne bottle and other ritual objects. Here, she had recently worked with a woman who wished to become pregnant. She did, indeed, conceive, Chatelain says.

By then, Pedro Pablo Tapanes Gonzalez, a Santeria priest himself, as well as a percussionist in the acclaimed folklore group Afrocuba de Matanzas, had arrived. He and Judy retreated to a dark recess, where he told her fortune. To do so, he repeatedly threw several caracoles - tiny seashells - and gave Judy one to hold in each fist. He would then take the shells from her in varying order and touch the other shells with them. In this way, he divined what was in store for her. Judy was instructed not to divulge his predictions, but she did say they were in sync with what other soothsayers had told her in the past.

We said goodbye with hugs and kisses, awed by what we had witnessed. Wearing Santeria beads color-coded according to our assigned orishas, we would now be received with extra respect, we were told. Sure enough, during the rest of the trip, other practitioners nodded in approval at our beads.

On our last morning in the Cuban city, two waiters at Hotel Canimao presented us with tiny rose blossoms in acknowledgement of our new status. We beamed. In the spiritual center of Matanzas, two Baltimoreans had found their sister city.

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