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Havana work gang sixteen

Any one who has worked in a communist country at the worker's level - as opposed to that of the bureaucrat – might recall being in a work gang. Castro's Cuba was no different in the way it organized the physical work of the state. It's all very well being a visiting nabob, journalist or diplomat to be pandered to, but for workers it's different ball game. Everyone had to belong to a gang. There was no choice in the matter. The first order of business for visitors such as me, arriving to install equipment, was to be issued a ID card and assigned to a gang.

Immediately upon my arrival in Havana in 1978 I was stamped, photographed and registered by the Comite Estatal De Colaboracion Economica. With the ID card handed to me came a slip of paper assigning me to Work Gang 16. This meant working, resting, eating, moving about in the company of the gang, which did everything together.

I had arrived in Havana on the last Air Canada flight of the winter season to be met by the Canadian rep. of Interimco, the organisation in Ottawa that bought Canadian equipment on behalf of the Cuban Government and contracted for its installation.

At the José Marti Airport, where I was to install the equipment, the Canadian rep., Mr. Roland Ramsay, saw to it that I was properly documented and furnished with my treasured ID card before conducting me to the Hotel Bristol.

ID card issued and assignment to work gang 16 made before leaving the Jose Marti Airport, Havana

My escort apologized for the accommodation allocated to me before we arrived at the hotel, but there, El Ministerio de Technicos decided who went where, not he. Senor Ramsay had good reason to apologize. The Bristol was a bare, decrepit-looking structure in the final stages of decay: grimy green plaster crumbling from walls, exposing the wood lath beneath; paint on the woodwork so old and mottled it yielded to a thumbnail in a spray of paint dust and flakes; windowless rooms naked but for wooden shutters that didn't shut, and furniture no down and out would covet. One used the furniture in the hotel lounge at one's peril, for bare springs came through the fabric, tears and loose lumps hung from the padded arm rests. The hotel was clearly in desperate straits. Leaving me at the reception desk, Senor Ramsay made himself scarce with a promise to pick me up the following morning.

I made my own way to my room on the fourth floor with a strong sense of trepidation. The bed was made with clean sheets on a lumpy mattress, which was the one blessing. For the rest, the furnishings of the room were dilapidated beyond description: a bare wooden chest of drawers, a plastic-covered kitchen chair, bare wooden floor and alive with huge cockroaches, which ate their meat off the hoof at night as I discovered. The 'en suite' was without running water for washbasin, shower or lavatory closet. I learned later, at reception, that the water was turned on at 8.30 a.m. and off again at 9 a.m. daily. As I had to be breakfasted and outside the hotel for pick-up by 8 a.m. the lack of water was an inconvenience to be born with patience and strong will until the airport was reached and deliverance made mine.

A night of disturbed rest followed. Fruit bats flew in and out of the room in a constant parade that ruled out sleep. As if that wasn't enough, cockroaches attacked with guerilla tactics requiring a continuing defensive battle conducted by the dim light of a bare electric light dangling from a long chord from the 15 feet high ceiling. It was, as Stephen King would have it, a living nightmare.

Hotel dining room provided breakfast of sorts. This, at a cost of 85 pesos (about $5) consisted of a cup of milk with a dash of dense Cuban coffee and a crisp bread roll with a pat of butter, hygienically wrapped in silver paper. My stay in this luxurious hotel lasted for four nights.

We arrived at the work site – a new passenger terminal building to cater to Canadian and European tourists – at 8.30 when a number of important officials came to witness construction of new-fangled flat-top baggage conveyors that would modernize baggage handling. Senor Ramon Bulit, Project Director, arrived in the company of Senor Henrico Beniguie, Director of Works, Senor Caesar, Airport Sub-director, and a fan club of lesser managers who listened with fawning respect to the words of Beniguie. His English was adequate as I learned, but he spoke through Agent Ramsay most of the time.

His admonition for productive performance was, I'm sure, was more for the benefit of his entourage, for I doubt that anyone else understood Ramsay's translation. The airport terminal was to open on May 1 (who could miss the significance of International Labour Day?). Senor Beniguie insisted that the system be in working order for the opening. It was up to me to do whatever was necessary to comply with this requirement.

Cuba modernizes its baggage-handling from the old system

Work crew number sixteen, assembled especially to install the new baggage-handling system appeared. Seven in number, they were under the command of gang foreman Manuel, an intelligent and hardworking fellow who looked less an artisan than a ballet dance wanting to pass for a plumber. His assistant, José, was next in the pecking order and ready in a flash to do his superior's bidding. Manuel spoke English well. He claimed it was the first time in his life that he'd spoken the language, which was hard to believe, but he insisted. I thought little of it at the time. The crew had no tools. They used mine, working under Manuel's direction, who interpreted my instructions and passed them through José. To their credit, they returned what simple tools they used at the end of each work session. Not a tool was missing at the end of the job.

The airport authorities provided the noon day meal in the airport workers' canteen, an experience equalled only by that at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and by comparison on the plus side because, at least, the utensils and canteen facilities were clean. The form followed at the noonday meal was set and unchanging.

Each work crew, numbering between 10 and 25 followed its foreman leader. Each crew foreman, armed with a slip of paper, signed by an administrative supervisor, authorized how many in the crew were to be provided with a midday meal. Between four and five hundred workers were fed daily between noon and 1.30 p.m. Dutifully, in a single line, the crew approached the canteen entrance. For the education of workers, three large notices set along the approach route carried selected comments of comrades Lenin, Castro and Guevara, all to do I leaned in time with the solidarity of the workers. A barricade restricted entry to the canteen to passage by single file. Above the marble counter top a frosted glass barrier obscured the faces of the kitchen staff to prevent the recognition of friends for dishing out larger portions of food than they would otherwise do.

Meals were thrust under the modesty barrier on a single compartmented aluminum tray. The indentations allowed for a maximum of three dishes. A typical meal consisted of a watery yellow bean soup, mauve rice and a pat of Russian-style span, deep-cooked in oil. Only occasionally did the canteen supply with the meal.

At the end of the counter line one passed through a turnstile to be checked off by the checker to whom the foreman had handed his chit of authority. One then collected spoon, fork and aluminum beaker and sat at a marble slab table in the eating area. At each position at the table was fixed a plastic place mat, flat and unmoving, kept in place by the ever-present water spills. The crew ate together at one or more adjacent tables.

Children in blue shorts (boys) or red skirts (girls), white shirts and red neckerchiefs constantly cleaned the vacated places. In the centre of each table stood a bunch of red, green and blue plastic flowers of unknown kind and an aluminum pitcher for water, which one of the workers at the table had to fill; not the child helpers or orderlies.

The food was next to inedible although I soon ate it as readily as my companions. The rice was palatable when mixed with a spoonful of soup. There was also a variation with chicken, fish and a stringy meaty mish-mash of what the Cuban workers called 'Siberian bison'. The diet was mostly of carbohydrates with very little protein which probably explains why Cubans tend to be overfed and undernourished. Still, I am assured that this is a far better lot than what they could have expected under the previous regime.

Workers who wished to supplement the officially-provided meal could do so at the commissariat attached to the canteen. This would be in the form of more substantial food such as a Cuban hamburger or hotdog. A glass of milk or carbonated molasses was to be had for half a peso. The commissariat also sold cigarettes in three styles; strong, very strong and throat choking. A packet of twenty sold for 2.40 pesos, which is equivalent to $4. Superior brands of Cuban manufacture are available to tourists at .20c (Cuban pesos). The workers are used to their own cigarettes and find north American cigarettes too bland for their tastes.

During the period I spent in Cuba, a Cuban worker was paid a flat rate regardless of the hours worked, their trade or occupation. Some were trained for more skilled work than drilling anchor holes or leveling the conveyors I had come to install. Manuel said he was a college-trained naval engineer; José a building inspector; another claimed to be a ventilation engineer and another an architect, which was pretty general among the work force. Managers laid bricks, painted walls, mixed cement and did carpentry.

A major upheaval in the construction work management had taken place shortly before I arrived. The original project manager had been deposed and was now a member of work gang 16, doing whatever job he could find. He was an intelligent man in his early thirties who had facts and figures at his fingertips. An economist by training, Garcia López Fernández took his degree at Havana University, but was, as Manuel told me, too easy-going. He was replaced by Beniguie who came to the airport project from the ship construction yard with his complete crew including Manuel and a dark-looking youth in his mid-twenties who I knew as the headman. These three, incidentally, turned out to be of a totally different calling than was told me in the beginning and I discovered they had an opposite relationship to one another than appeared on the surface.

But there was privilege among the Cuban workers, privilege of two orders. The first was that accorded to 'the chosen' or the 'untouchables' - that is, the soldiers who fought in Castro's liberation army and, secondly, party members. Beniguie was in the first category; the henchman was in the second. Manuel was in yet another special category, which is worth being put on hold.

Cuban society has the same order of privilege to be found in any capitalist society, which is based on a pecking rank in the political-economic hierarchy and who genuflects to who. To find favour is a favourite occupation. For example, someone in the airport chain of command was sufficiently impressed by my dedication to the job (working long hours) to direct that I be permitted to eat in the executive dining room. A connected set of railway carriages parked on the airport apron temporarily served this purpose. Manuel was directed to accompany me to this daily spread (shades of Animal Farm). Jubilant right wingers need take no delight in this observation, for the same order prevails in Washington, London, Paris, Moscow and Beijing.

Here, in the dazzle of the golden trough, we met the shift manager, Manrico Famosa, a tall angular man in his later fifties whose word was law. ('Things are seldom what the seem, skimmed milk masquerades as cream' as Gilbert would have it, and vice versa.) He had served in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, landing on Omaha Beach the first day of the Normandy landing. He knew London well and was anxious to revisit in conversation the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate and the Kensington Science Museum. He spoke English with ease in a New England accent and diplomatic charm. There was more to Senor Famosa than his position implied, for even Beniguie and Caesar were deferential in his company and only flowered when the conversation centred on Cuban revolutionary campaigns and they were able to display their ID cards, worth their weight in gold leaf.

While my Spanish was minimal – all conversation in Spanish would have ceased had this been known – it was enough to follow the drift of the table talk. Though only a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Senor Famosa had commanded a battalion in Castro's army while Beniguie and Caesar were in junior ranks. They had all taken part in resisting the Bay of Pigs invasion and, having known every detail of the invasion plans, they laughed themselves silly at the antics of the assault force. Interpreting some of gist of the chatter, Manuel said, "The CIA thinks it has cornered the intelligence market. It couldn't be more mistaken," which was as near as he'd go to explaining Cuban's sources of counter-intelligence.

The magical day came when the first of the conveyors was ready for operation and everyone crowded into the area to watch the movement, smooth as a Swiss watch. Fascinated by the progress of the carrying plates around the track, witnesses refused to believe the moving pallets could turn corners and insisted it continue to move while they watched.

The magical day came when the first of the conveyors was ready for operation and everyone crowded into the area to watch the movement, smooth as a Swiss watch. Fascinated by the progress of the carrying plates around the track, witnesses refused to believe the moving pallets could turn corners and insisted it continue to move while they watched.

So satisfied were the Cuban authorities with the speed and efficiency of the four-day installation that all doors were opened and nothing was to be denied this communista comrade from the far north. Not only was I invited to eat in the executive dining room, but my accommodation was upgraded from the Bristol to a downtown city executive hotel. This was the equivalent of being upgraded from steerage to first class.

A spanking new baggage-handling conveyor begins operating in José May 1978


On his government expense account, no doubt, Senor Beniguie entertained me for the evening at the city's famed Tropicana Nightclub with leggy Cuban dancers in exotic outfits from the 1940s. Manuel was assigned to accompany me on sight-seeing trips around the city to the Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana and other sites worth visiting.

Havana, city of tourist delights and Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana

What more could be done to make my stay more comfortable? What additional services would I like in the way of Cuba's appreciation? An interview with President Castro would be appreciated if a meeting could be arranged.

Why would I wish to meet el Presidento Fidel Castro?
For my editor. An interview for my newspaper.
Editor? Newspaper? A journalist? Not an engineer?
I'm an engineer true, but also a stringer for a news journal.
That cannot be, not a journalist and an engineer; not possible.

Big mistake! In the flash of an eye, I am persona non grata, an object of scorn and ridicule to be avoided like the plague. With Manuel, I am relegated back to the workers canteen. (Manuel sticks to me like a mollusc to a rock.) The demotion must have been a blow to his prestige, but no, he takes it in his stride. Within two hours of that innocent exchange about comfort and sterling work, Cuban intelligence is on the case.

When first noticed, the watcher dressed in a business suit is seated on a bench reading a newspaper, but there was something wrong. A observant eye soon notices the abnormal. Quite apart from spending three hours on the same bench without moving, the tail is wearing Russian army boots, which are of a distinctive design. Later, being driven back to my ritzy hotel – at least, I'd not been re-assigned to the Bristol – Senor Raymond said he thought we were being followed.

He stopped the car opposite and beyond the hotel entrance, and waited. Seen through the passenger side rear view mirror, the car following came to a stop on the opposite curb and waited. I moved to leave the vehicle. A man and woman alighted from the car opposite and waited, uncertain of the next move. I made as though to go to the hotel and they moved in unison. I quickly bobbed my head back through the passenger side window to exchange another word with Senor Ramsay. My followers were flummoxed and, lost for a lead to follow, moved in the direction of the hotel. I quickly crossed the road and fell in behind them. Our positions should have been reversed.

In the hotel foyer, they hung about a cigarette and newspaper kiosk leaving me to go to the reception desk for my key. I turned to watch them making time by the elevator. Playing the same ruse I used outside, I moved towards the elevator and saw them prepare to enter, too. That's when I made a diversion to the kiosk, paused, changed my mind about buying something and made for the elevator a second time. They were ready to enter, but stepped aside to make way for me. More maneuvering. It was a cat and mouse game of waiting for who would move next. There was no eye contact. I stepped into the elevator, pressed the floor button and the followed. They stood behind me and waited. A fourth passenger came in and pressed a button for the fifth floor. The awkward behaviour of my followers should have made me laugh, but it was no laughing matter.

At the fourth floor, my tails followed me out and kept a few unnerving paces behind me. I was in a sweat. Were they about to take me in charge, lay about me, rough me up? I got the key in the lock, opened the door – not so nonchalantly – and stepped into the room. On closing the door, I was relieved to see that my tails had returned to the elevator much to my relief. Being in work gang sixteen had its downside.

Over the days that followed the minders stuck to their job. It was not a happy situation. Manuel's attitude had stiffened. I asked him about the watchers watching. He said he hadn't noticed, thought they might be visitors watching the aircraft landing and taking off. I thought they might change shift occasionally and vary their pattern, but no, they were dogged plodders and stuck to me like glue. Then, returning from the public washrooms one time I saw Manuel in the distance talking to my watcher with the Russian army boots and all became clear to me. Manuel was not what he seemed; he had been assigned from the day of my arrival to be my minder.

True to his word, given in the heyday of my appreciated workmanship, Senor Beniguie accompanied me along the coast for a four-day rest in one of Cuba's new tourist hotels. His family was with him, but there was no social intercourse between us. Perhaps it was that Senor Beniguie in his turn was being watched by Cuban Intelligence and was taking care not to give cause for blotting his copy book. Lazy days on the sun-soaked beach and roaring surf of the Caribbean, a bottle of rum placed at the bedside daily, food galore, attentive staff to attend to the tourist's every whim.

But the vacation was hollow and the watching constant; not the least conducive to relaxation and ease. I was glad to be on the return flight and, I believe, the feeling was mutual. Journalists – even stringers – are a pain in the neck of any totalitarian regime and best given the boot. 

Work journal 27 April to 13 May 1978

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