Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ten Days in Cuba: May 2012

Back on the road again. This time, Cuba, the last of the three countries heading my travel list for some years. Countries that have been all but impossible for me to visit. And this year, I’ve done them all: Saudi Arabia, Libya and now, Cuba.

I entered Cuba as a “delegate” with Global Exchange with a tour focused on Arts, Culture and Architecture. Most of the time was in Havana for we were rained out of Trinidad - in fact, the local resort where we stayed a night, closed down, thoroughly soaked by storms. We ended back in Havana a day early, at the Hotel Nacional, no great hardship there.

But to begin: there were twenty-two in the group: Writers, photographers, architectural historians, students, dancers and other interested travelers. Most stayed with the program though some went their own way - they had other agendas. The itinerary included a walking tour of Old Havana, visits to the Fine Arts Museum, an artist’s studio, meeting with an urban planner, time at various organizations, i.e. the Muraleado community project, the Ludwig Foundation, the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation, Casa de Africa and Fototeca (local photography) plus observation of dance classes and a rehearsal. And more.

Extra curricularly, I attended several performances of Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s student and main company, an enthusiastic song-dance Opera on the Streets and the Buena Vista Social club with its two marvelous Spanish-style ballroom dancers. And I did get to Hemingway’s Cuban home, now a museum, Finca La Vigia. I missed the Museum of Danse.

Cuba has been described as a country fixated in the fifties. There is some truth to that, what with the old cars and buildings, both in good condition and dilapidated disrepair. Buildings are old Spanish influenced Greco-Roman with decorative metal on both windows and balconies. In the Old Havana, the ground floor was often barren with rickety stairs leading to apartments that would be rejected by any self respected tenement.

My roommate visited several locals, friends of a friend, and reported the basic living conditions of even middle class, had few facilities in their small living areas. Toilets there and elsewhere, were sans seat and lid, leading to a half squat; toilet paper was rare, often handed out at entry for a small tip.

We started with a walk and talk about Old Havana, a presentation of the Master Plan for restoration. Into various plazas and religious buildings. A good orientation to the area.

For me, the high point was the time at Pro Danza, Laura Alonzo’s dance studio and company. As we drifted into observe class, I felt totally at ease, set to remain there indefinitely. The dancers were good, well trained - the men all but hit the ceiling of the room with their jumps and leaps. I was able to talk some with Alonzo, the daughter of Alicia and Fernando, who was charming and energetic as she talked of her background and the company. At seventy, she still takes class - my kind of woman!

Miguel Coyula was an outstanding speaker - not the filmmaker but the architect and urban planner . He reviewed the history of Cuban from the 1500s when it was a stopping point for ships from the colonies onto to their home ports, to the present. (Noted was that the Cuban Capital building, almost identical to the US Capital, excepting two metres taller.) Baptista and the Mafia worked hand in glove. So it was at Revolution, people trashed the casinos. - and parking meters! Afterwards, modern buildings rose, often prefabs influenced by the Soviet and Eastern European styles.

Coyula talked of owning his apartment but has a struggle to find funds to maintain it. The cost of materials is very expensive. Until the Soviet Union collapsed, 80% of the trade came from the Eastern bloc. Since, Cuba has been struggling. Seventy percent of the food is imported. There is encouragement of small farming and interest in a hybrid economy: 40% planned and 40% private. Problem is fifty years of a planned economy to buck against. Plus a brain drain. Tourism is increasing - Canadians and Americans are most numerous. And they were obviously all about. (And the Cubans do come out ahead, what with two currencies - one for them and one for us - plus a 10% cut, with American dollars).

I found the Muraleando Community Project, fill of life, much more interesting than the Colon Cemetery. Members had decorated several blocks of the area surrounding their building, worthy of mention in Lonely Planet. The stop at the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation, a cultural and scientific organization was most interesting for along with Jimenez’ writings, was a nice collection of artifacts from Peru and Mexico. The Fine Arts Museum had an extensive collection including some children’s art work. Across the street was the Military Museum, which was being repaired so no admittance.

Out in a one time elegant residential district was Alicia Leah’s home and studio. I was more interested in the neighborhood and her home than her painting. Her home was well kept as were some of the neighboring places - but not all. I thought of Coyula’s comments about the expense of maintenance materials..

The Ludwig Foundation was a NGO focusing on contemporary Cuban art while Case de Africa took a look at the African influences - I opted out of that early; the drumming was too piercing, man! I also left the Fototeca early, becoming bored with some of the presentations; they also had a Andres Serrano exhibit, most of which was a bit too avant garde for me. .

I took off with two of our poets one night, to a cafe where poets were reading their work. It was well attended and they had good ice cream, a must for me. Some were really performance artists while others just stood and simply read. It was mas intersante! Even in Spanish.

The trip ended at the Artisan’s Fair, located in an old warehouse with three elderly train engines before it. It was made clear to us, rail travel was NOT the way to go. But the engines were nicely restored and made an interesting entry way to the building, where all sorts of artistic items were sold. Paintings, leather work, weaving - you name it. A nice ending to our explorations. I walked across the street to look into an old 15th Century church (San Francisco?) with a stained glass window of recent (2000?) origin - obviously new but appropriate to the building. From the chairs and music stands, it must have fair acoustics as it obviously is used for chamber concerts.

Wile we did see and walk about Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South, we missed out entirely Trinidad, a World Heritage site - the tropical storms were just too much.

There is a lushness to Cuba, greenery about. Though it contrasts with the exhaust smoke from the autos. But, there was the spirit and vitality of the people. I couldn’t help but compare to Libya: there they had recently thrown off the yoke of a Strong Man, now determined not to repeat that; conversely fifty years ago, Cuba had thrown off the corruption of a Strong Man, but replaced him with another Strong Man. Yet, I had the same feeling of exuberance from those I talked with in both countries. Like Libya, Cuba is poor, third world, but full of hope.

Bits and pieces: Patterned hose popular on the younger set, even those in uniform. Hava Nagila being played by a roving quartet at mealtime. The wet suited scuba diver with harpoon and fish, rising from the harbor water by the light of the moon. The sound of the evening cannon going off, leaving me with a day’s worth of ringing in my ears and a broken blood vessel in my eye - I was right next to it, a bad mistake! The couple who gave three of us a ride to the hotel when taxis weren’t forthcoming. The non-English speaking woman who was so concerned that I had a untied shoe lace.

Accommodation: We stayed at four hotels, three in Havana and a resort place outside of Trinidad. The first two hotels were in various parts of Old Havana - we were moved to give us a chance to experience various architectures and districts. These were comfortable 3* hotels with an efficient staff. The resort was having its problems but, given good weather, would have been quite comfortable.. Its customers had come down for R/R and were not happy campers. The last hotel was the Nacional, a year younger than me. A 5*, it was elegant with three restaurants/cafes, a swimming pool and a couple of night clubs. I snuck in one night to see a couple of would-be Apache dancers perform; it was there I saw the Buena Vista bunch.

Food: Excellent. Usually we ate at restaurants patronized by Westerners. Two meals - breakfast and lunch or dinner, were included. Some places I’d never find again and others were quite evident. Choices were usually chicken, fish or pork. You could pick up cheap but good sandwiches at street cafes.

The Tour: Well planned, keeping in mind various artistic interests. And enough spare time to pursue individual agendas. The guides were exceptional: knowledgeable and patient - chasing down tickets for various evening activities. A minimum of propagandizing.

Cost: Global Exchange charged $2600 which included airfare from Cancun to Havana. The sllight from San Francisco to Cancun: $509.63. Overnight Cancun (including restaurant): $150. Entertainment, meals, donations and gifts in Havana: $500.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Tysons Corner, McLean VA: April 2012

Tysons Corner-M clean, VA

Less than a year ago, I flew into Raleigh, North Carolina for a Spy Conference, sponsored by local media. I had a good time and learned a lot. Also I was recommended for associate membership in the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, which includes not only CIA types, but strays from military and law enforcement. I managed to slip through one of the loop holes and thus, took myself at their two day yearly symposium in mid-April, 2012.

Home base was the Crown Plaza Hotel, Tysons Corner: quite elegant! This has been a year of elegant hotels for me, what with the stays in Saudi Arabia. I must say though, Tysons Corner is not the beauty spot of Virginia - busy thruways, a collection of office buildings, a large shopping mall and the work-in-progress rail link to DC. did not encourage early sunrise sightings.

However, we spent part of one day at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at Liberty Crossing and a full day at the Defense Intelligence Agency at Bolling AF Base. The Symposium concluded with a gala banquet. I didn’t know a soul there; looked for my sponsor, a semi-retired AF Colonel, with no success.

Most of the attendees were of the gray,white, or no haired set: about a dozen women - they came from that time where females were mostly clerical workers - half a dozen African- Americans (and about four of them female) and several Asians. They were an alert audience and made good use of the Q&As. One individual had been charged with training Afghan army recruits; another had contact with Robert Hansen, not one of the FBI’s finest; others were active with cyber security, and so on.

The military types have impressed me as no-nonsense guys, forthright and direct in their discussions. James Clapper Jr., the Director of National Intelligence, started as a Marine and retired as LTG, USAF; LTG Mike Flynn, USA,Assistant Director of National Intelligence (and soon to be Director of Defense Intelligence Agency), and LTG Ronald Burgess,USA, Defense Intelligence Director were all individuals I could respect.

The Symposium started at the hotel with a former FBI Counter Intelligence and Security Director, who who presented background on US intelligence gathering. According to David Major, Russians and Chinese are the two biggest collectors of information - and also are busy, spying on each other.

We were quite efficiently processed into the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. There were six speakers, including Director Clapper, focusing on private sector engagements, Intelligence integration, human resources, and technology. I should explain the Director Clapper is the Intelligence Czar; a position created out of the rubble of 9/11 - I asked one of the experts whether it was a helpful move or just another layer of bureaucracy; that person originally felt it was another layer of bureaucracy but now was supportive of its efforts to coordinate the collection of existing intelligence agencies.

So, here are abbreviated notes from the sessions:

Post WW2, there was a system of containment which worked given the Cold War time. However, all changed post 9/11. Since, a fully integrated intelligence community has made the nation more secure. The current approach is to be problem preventers rather than problem solvers. The Intelligence office now works closely with Congress, Civil Liberties groups and legal communities. They are learning more about the scope of social media and cell phones. Comment: need is to focus on the problem rather than just the data.

Intelligence integration makes the whole better than the parts. Basically, there all areas should work together, including the private sector, eg: academics and non-governmental organizations. It appears the US is still in the running vis a vis the Chinese. But admittedly, the US has made poor assumptions: eg: Iraq!

The worldwide Intelligence Community is changing: There used to be were similar values among the players;. now, other cultures, not all nation-states, are involved. Again, integration of information is the key, involving federal, state, local and tribal services.

Concurrent with the new crises, there is the demand to reduce costs, eg. by 25%. Which leads to out sourcing and sharing single cyber platforms. In short, the effort is to protect the mission despite taking a cut in the budget.

Per Director Clapper, agencies did acquire many more people since 9/1, but now, the agencies must deal with financial cuts. He is trying to take the negative and turn it into a positive: Integration is most important, involving all the leaders in the community. He listed several considerations: 1) sustain staff, 2) employ agile capabilities, 3) key investment to maintain strategic advantage. 4) enhance cyber security and Counter intelligence, 5) more integration with Department of Defense and allies.

In answers to questions, Director Clapper commented that the Muslim Brotherhood is not monolithic and not necessarily a terrorist organization; there are 50 pieces of pending legislation re: cyber security, overseas threats appear more serious than home grown ones, contractors have been cut by 30% as directed by Congress. and that it is hardest to deal well with things that haven’t happened.

At near daybreak the next day, nearly 200 of us gathered in three buses for the ride to Bolling AF Base. A nice day, we drove on freeways in various states of building and repair. The Defense Intelligence Agency was housed in a huge, new glass-steel building at odds with the older brick dwellings of the air base. The security arrangements were strictly TSA sans any check of individual ID?

There were a dozen participants, including LTG Burgess. Topics included discussion of a five year strategic plan, the role of Defense Intelligence Officers, Counter Intelligence/ Humint Center, collection management (strategy and programs), the National Intelligence University, and cyber security/ analysis.

Per speakers, lessons were learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, intelligence was going to do more for less. While Defense Intelligence was primarily to assist military operations, there was the emphasis on integration of information as well as working outside US Intelligence organizations and other think tanks.

Trilateral threat assessments are coordinated with US, Canada and Mexico. Drug, terrorist and cyber threats are evaluated by this coalition. The Diplomatic Attaché program is also managed by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Before 9/11, it seems that the various agencies marched to the tune of their own drummer. Since, strides have been made to integrate the various agencies. Counter Intelligence seemed “ahead of the curve” more than other aspects of intelligence.

LTG Burgess talked of turning currents against Al Qaeda, which continues to be active in Iraq (pro-Sunni), showing up in Syria, with increased activity in Yemen, popping up in Libya, and busy in Somalia. There are current concerns with Iran and cyber security. In 2020, he sees China, as a regional power, competing with the US but not a global peer competitor. To sustain her populations, China will be busy as she must create ten million new jobs over the oncoming years.

A National Intelligence University was started in 1962 and has continued, under varying names and guises. It has a teaching, research and outreach mission. Master’s degrees are offered along with certification programs. The University is accredited.

Talking of cyber security, it appears there are three levels: hackers, criminals and purposeful actors eg: nation states , non national-states and individual groups. Recently, social media has come to the fore. There was some discussion of Wikileaks. Again there was the emphasis to collaborate on all aspects - cyber security and counterintelligence.

Lunch was in the lobby, I was seated next to an Iraqi Scud missile. There was also a shop with caps, sweatshirts, t-shirts, coffee cups and the like, labeled DIA, CIA and related identification. I decided not to buy as couldn’t quite see myself wandering about the Middle East or Central Asia with a cap or t-shirt reading CIA. In fact, there was a shuttle run from the hotel to the CIA gift shop at Herendon for the committed. I also missed that one. But I did do the Banquet - Spies in Black Ties! That turned out to be quite social. The group at our table was a chatty bunch and fun.

The speaker was a former Deputy Director of the CIA, now at Johns Hopkins University. He started by commenting that Intelligence is the least understood instrument of foreign relations. US was the last major country to organize intelligence; we have had an intelligence organization only since 1947. Since 9/11, the government has devoted resources to intelligence activity, giving it a robust legal authority, obtaining unprecedented cooperation from both civilian and military sources.

He gave background on AlQaeda, past to the present, reporting while the core is weakened but the affiliates and lone wolves have come to the fore. The US is probably safer now, but not out of the woods. His concluded with the observation that we now live in a time where events in one part of the world quickly affect the rest of us.

That was it. I did show up to the Saturday breakfast meeting, but it was a housekeeping session. I checked out and flew home. I don’t know that I would do this again: it would depend upon speakers and field trips. But I did find it worth while, once around, to experience the ambiance of this particular world.

Cost: Air fare: $440.60. Hotel: $340.38. Conference: $695.