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Father Claude

As I was saying.....

I embrace the world from my backyard at the University of Portland, January 1, 2018. I again invite you to "clod-hop" with me on my journeys to Latin America via this blog. More...

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VIVA CHILE (and Cuba) (Category: Cuba)

Preparing for Chile.  My last blog was in October 2014 on food and Buenos Aires. Apologies for the long absence. I will soon return to Santiago, Chile for seminars and lectures. I hope to shed some light,on Chilean politics and society, and even start a controversy or two. Or three.

The photo of a senior citizen in Santiago de Cuba was taken by my sister, Marcelle Leahy. It provides a bridge to Santiago de Chile. Marcelle was visiting Cuba recently with her husband, Senator Patrick Leahy. She travelled to Cuba numerous other times with Patrick (more photos to follow), who is also a fine photographer, husband, and decent senator. During those travels to Cuba, Patrick has been intensely involved with US policy changes toward Cuba, encouraged by none other than Pope Francis and pursued by President Obama. Significant results are seen from the opening of diplomatic relations between the two countries, beginning a new posture toward the Americas. I was privileged to visit Cuba on exciting educational tour organized by Patricia Pomerleau, another outstanding photographer. Runs in the family…

But I digress. It is Marcelle’s personal, human touch that has given a unique depth and special meaning to Senator Leahy’s significant influence on these significant policy initiatives. Specialist now believe that the  relationships between within the Americas  will be significantly affected as a result of normalized relations between Cuba and the US. I am anxious to see how Chileans interpret this new US opening towards Cuba, and share this with you.

Chile provides a unique framework  from which to understand the significance of US/Cuban relations. US involvement in Chile’s 1973 military coup complicated all of US relations with Latin America.  Chile is still struggling with the consequence of the  “War of the Pacific”, 1879-1883. During this major, military operation involving Bolivia and Peru, Chile annexed a significant part of territory that previously belonged to Peru and Bolivia. It will be interesting to see if this complicated and emotional territorial issue is mentioned during the visit of Pope Francis to that region.

Both Cuba and Chile are facing powerful domestic issues. These issues have significance for future cooperation and integration of the region. Many analysts predict that changing relations between USA and Cuba will bring benefits to all of Latin America. Although Chile is seen as one of the closest allies  of the US, Cuban-US relations have traditionally sent destructive tremors throughout the rest of Latin America. Now, Chine has drawn its own conclusions as a result of these tremors.

I look forward to joining my Chilean colleagues in their celebration of their championship in the Copa América (for men), and to remind them that the US women’s team also wond the World Cup.
Permalink | Wednesday, July 8, 2015

CUBAN CADENCES (Category: Cuba)

Claude's Photo in Plaza De Armas, Havana. One of the musicians is holding a hollow gourd called a “guiro”
 Nietzsche says in “Twilight of the Gods”: “Without music, life would be a mistake”.  Without music, would Cuba be a mistake? Cuba would certainly not be as accessible or as exciting. Or as human. Afro-Cuban rhythms surrounded us everywhere we went, day and night, in restaurants, museums and parks.  So, here’s another quote that come to mind: “Ah, music… it’s a magic far beyond what we do here” (Dumbledore, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

 Maniceros (peanut vendors) and musicians.  Why are those musicians in the accompanying photo smiling?. They were in the Plaza de Arma in Old City, Havana. One of the musicians is holding a hollow gourd called a “guiro”. They saw me taking the photo and smiled.  A normal reaction, for most Cubans.  When I commented to a woman selling postcards that nothing is free in this world, she responded with a big smile:  “Ah yes” she said “smiles are free”.

 The “guiro” is a hollow, elongated calabash that is scraped with a stick to the special rhythms of the “Cumbia” or the “Son”  -- thos musical songs and dances that we heard during our visits to Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad.  Creative musicians like Moises Simón revived  these rhythms in the 1920s. The musicians in the photo were playing a popular  song from that period called “El Manicero”, The Peanut Vender.  Plenty of venders were on hand to take advantage of the music, selling peanuts. Lots of great photos of this beautiful Plaza are available on line.

 Everyone in our group came to Cuba with a special interest, from agriculture to construction, from economics to politics, from music to art. So hang on, little tomatoes, while I explain my own interest in Afro-Cuban music. Earlier travels in Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil showed me that music is very important in shaping the national characters of these countries. As we all discovered, that’s especially true of Cuba

 You might remember the squeaky sound often heard in Brazilian sambas – it’s the “cuica”, from a hollow gourd called a ‘laughing gourd’. A similar native instrument is also characteristic of Afro-Cuban music. It, too, is made from a hollowed-out gourd called a  “guiro”.  The  scraping sound made by rubbing a sticke on the ragged edges of the guiro accentuates the rhythms of the bongos,  maracas, or voices. Most of the professional groups that we heard, such as the “Cuarteto Isla”  or the Salsa Group of the  Café  Taberna also used “claves”, bongos or cow bells, along with guiros, to mark the changing rhythms. The claves are 2 short, hollow pieces of ebony or granadilla wood that are hit together to accentuate the rhythm (along with guiros). – you Beatles fans will recognize the sound of claves from their song,  “And I love her”.

We had barely arrived in Havana when Patricia insisted that we go to Cafê Taberna. For Salsa dancing,  She added: “You won’t remember the food, but you’ll remember the gorgeous, ultra-sexy dancers”. True, indeed; wow. But the food was pretty nifty, too!  Café Taberna is famous as the successor to the Buena Vista Social Club, and the place where Benny Moré sang until the 1960s. He was one of Cuba’s most famous singers.

If you want to relive that sexy musical  experience,  you can look it up on Youtube ( under Café Taberna, Benny Moré). There, you can watch some great Salsa dancing, with all those typical Cuban combos. Members of our group were invited to dance with these musicians, and they did so, like pros. Salsa is a modern variant of the original Afro-Cuban “Son”, also made popular by the Buena Vista Social Club. It is said that when Tito Puente was asked what he thought of Salsa, he responded: “Hey, I’m a musician, not a cook”

 A musical tour of Cuba must include the National Ballet.  The performance we attended, “The Magic of Ballet” at the Gran Teatro de la Havana was world class. Alicia Alonso, General Director, is in her 90s and is considered one of the best ballet directors in the world. Of all the ballet numbers performed on this occasion, one was especially by us, and by the audience. It was “Fiesta criollo”, of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a famous mulatto-American composer and pianist of the 19th century. This ballet was first performed under his direction in Havanna in 1860. The choreography was spectacular.
Permalink | Friday, March 14, 2014


Outside 'La Guarida' a Cuban entrepreneur's success story restaurant where one meal costs 200% the monthly salary of those who live there in the shadows.(Photo: Patricia Pomerleau)
Since my return from Cuba, I have tried to synthesize the many presentations of experts, along with late night discussions,  sipping rum and listening to Afro-Cuban rhythms . We all generally agreed that the US policy toward Cuba needs to change, and that the existing pattern of the top-down, command economy is a clumsy, even hopeless,  framework for necessary and rapid transformation of Cuba’s economy (and politics)

So, what about the eagle and the hummingbird, above?  John Caulfield, Chief of Mission for the US Interests Section in Havana suggested a useful metaphor for understanding Cuba-US relations, that of a divorce.  My cousin Patricia provided me with a wonderful synthesis of his talk:  “We (USA) were married to Cuba and our breakup (after the ’59 Revolution) was like a bad divorce”. The younger generation of Cubans thinks differently and wants things to move faster. However, “they live in the house of their grandparents (the old timers); they don’t like it…but they choose not to make noise”

I propose another metaphor. In Montréal, and at home, I grew up with the fables of La Fontaine (Aesop recycled). I es-pecially loved Le renard et la cigogne (fox and the stork). So, I now propose a variation on this fable -- as it might apply to Cuba: El zunzunsito y el ágila. I discovered that hummingbirds love Cuba and that there are 16 different species of zunzunsitos, or in the original Cuban, the “colibrís”, “god bird”). These little creatures buzzed around our heads at every walk. Small and fast, it is the only bird that can fly backwards.  They live on sugar that they suck from flowers through their long, slender beaks. Deprived of sugar, their metabolic rate slows down to 1/15th of normal. They appear to be in a state of torpor. But, they can quickly recover.

The eagle, with its huge beak and long talons, is seen as the symbol of US power in Cuba. Cubans sometimes see themselves as self confident, beautiful and creative individuals, but caught in the eagle’s talons.  However, the eagle is a predator and a scavenger. C’mon, now, they don’t feast on hummingbirds. They often settle for carion.

OK, so much for that bird metaphor. Most observers that I consulted assured me that it’s time for Cuba to revive. Or, as one Cuban scholar says: There’s no more free lunch”. So, Cuba needs to increase it’s economic metabolic rate. It must also stimulate its civic culture. Cubans take to entrepreneurship like hummingbirds to flowers. Oops, there goes that metaphor again.

Are the million or so of  new, private entrepreneurs the cutting edge of such a  regenerative process?   One of the most exciting, new online publications that I found is “Espacio Laical” of the Catholic archdiocese of Havana. It provides a safe space for young Cuban intellectuals to search for and discuss viable, economic alternatives to the existing system.  I discovered that these young artists and intellectuals and are passionate about their nation’s future. They want support as they search for a viable alternative for integrating their country into the global economy. In so doing, they do not want to destroy the gains made by the Revolution – that of a healthy, educated, and self-confident nation with a unique identity and spirit. 

Cuba is a sinking ship. We must do something to save it. That is a variation on a speech made several years ago by Raul Castro to the governing body of the Communist leadership. My recent conversations with Cubans of different backgrounds strongly suggest that the search for a new, viable path has begun in earnest. Are the leaders listening?
Permalink | Sunday, March 2, 2014


Santeria Shrine Trinidad (photo by Patricia Pomerleau 2014)
Cuba’s religious syncretism is more subtle and mysterious than anything I’ve seen in my 40 years of travels in other parts of Latin America. The contrast Mexican religious practice is profound and (for me) surprising. I’ll return to this.

On the 4th day of our Cuba visit, I joined Cardinal Ortega for Sunday Mass at Havana’s Cathedral. Because the 18th century Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (aka St. Christopher) was under extensive repairs during our visit, services were held in the back courtyard, with its elegant baroque Spanish architecture, shade trees and flowers providing welcomed relief from the Sunday sun. Some 150 persons attended on this Sunday, many of them tourists. The majority of the aging Cubans would have been someone’s grandparents. Most Cubans as they filed out lined up to greet the Cardinal – the Catholic version of a babalao

I certainly don’t mean to be disrespectful, but Cuba’s many babalaos (santería shamans) were more available and welcoming -- certainly to this visiting tourist – than the Catholic clergy. I ducked into several Santería house shrines while in Havana and Trinidad. (The photo is taken at a shrine in Trinidad)

While Cuba is considered to be the most secular country of the Caribbean, religion is pervasive and subtle (at least, to this superficial observer). There are at least 3 major Afro-Cuban religious traditions, santería, palo monte and abakuá. Our expert Cuban guide, Alexis, added to this complex mixture by suggesting that there are other rites, including one for the blacks who came directly from Spain during the colonial period, known as negro curros. OK, now I’m confused as well.

There is a very important shrine of popular Catholicism, Our Lady of Charity, patroness of Cuba, aka, Neuestra Señora de Caridad de Cobre, It is located in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains, beyond Trinidad. Exact reproductions are found in many Cuban churches. Yikes! The original shrine is located precariously between the those mountains that originally and temporarily sheltered the rag-tag band of Castro’s revolutionaries, and Guantánamo Naval Base, sheltering close by, a band of unwelcomed, permanent, reactionaries.

A short visit to Cuba doesn’t allow sufficient time to experience the many religious masks of modern Cuba, from Catholic, Jewish, Protestant to Afro-Cuban rituals. But, my brief contact with the Cuban traditions and extensive research on Mexico’s religious history suggests an interesting contrast. c Mexico’s shrine to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe consists of a profound and lasting fusion of native Aztec religious traditions with Spanish Catholicism. In spite of the significant role of Cuba’s Senora de Caridad de Cobre, African religious traditions were never fused into an original synthesis with Spanish Catholicism. African rituals maintained their uniquely independent and powerful presence, hidden under, and feeding on, Catholic rituals and saints.

Religious experts have noted that you don’t have to disavow Catholicism to practice Afro-Cuban religious rituals, but you won’t find many Catholic priests speaking favorably of santería rituals. Holy water fonts and signs of the cross are as common in santeria houses as in Catholic churches.

Our guide Alexis told us a delightful story of John-Paul’s visit to Cuba in 1998. As Castro and John Paul were driving in an open car along the Malecón, Havana’s waterfront, the Pope’s feathery hat flew into the ocean. Castro stopped the caravan, leaping over the wall, he walked onto the stormy waves, retrieving the Pope’s hat. The next day, Granma, the Cuban daily paper reported in bold print, “OUR COMMANDER IS IMMORTAL. VENCEREMOS. The Vatican newspaper reported: WITH GOD’S HELP, POPE PERFORMS MIRACLE, ALLOWING CASTRO TO WALK ON WATER. An anti-Castro Miami newspaper reported: CASTRO’S DAYS ARE NUMBERED. PROOF THAT THE DICTATOR CAN’T SWIM.
Permalink | Thursday, February 20, 2014


We arrived in Trinidad on the 6th day of the Cuba visit. This UNESCO world heritage site was established n 1514 and is one of the most remarkable places we visited in Cuba.  It was once the center of sugar trade, it now grows and exports tobacco.

My cousin Patricia invited me to meet (and bless) a family that she has befriended from past visits.  This extraordinary family lives in a humble house, close to the main square.  We entered their house through a small, souvenir shop at the entrance. The entire, extended family lives in the rear. In this inviting house, they protect, nourish and love a young, disabled daughter, Jany  (known as “Princessa”). She is the glue and center of the family. 

The family welcomed us with great joy and open arms.  Patricia had asked me to bless the daughter and the house. After coffee and conversation, we exchanged gifts. Among the many gifts exchanged were blessings. I blessed the daughter and the family, and at their request, the house. The mother then put her hands on my head and blessed me. As we left, the father invited us to return, to stay at their house, next time. “It won’t be as fancy as your hotel, but it will be the best that Cuba has to offer. You will be en su casa”, they insisted. 

As an additional surprise at this colonial city,  we experienced an outstanding, professional salsa band at one of the private restaurants (known as paladars) on the main square. Quarteto Isla is a professional recording band that travels the country and Europe.  With a mixture of boleros, cha, cha, chas  guarachas, and afro Cuban rhythms, they entertained the patrons for the entire evening.  I will offer more details on the charms and professionalism of Cuban musical culture in a later posting.  Trinidad  seduced us with its people, culture and colonial architecture. A welcoming, blessed treasure of Cuba.
Permalink | Wednesday, February 19, 2014

NEW BLOG FROM EL FRANCO-YUMA--Cuba Bound (Category: Cuba)

The Spirt of the Cuban People--Centro Habana (Patricia Pomerleau 2013)
I open my next blog with the title of “Franco-Yuma”.  Let me explain. I have joined a group that will travel to Cuba in a few days, organized by my cousin Patricia Pomerleau and consisting of 15 others. We travel under the administration of “Marazul” travel agency, led led by Batia Plotch. There will be more specifics in future blogs. Since Cubans prefer the more gentle and civil term of “yuma” to “gringo, I use it as the title of this new phase of my blog. To distinguish my own background as Franco-American, I invented the heading “franco-yuma”. So, lectores,  adelante y arriba.

Newcomers will notice that my blog is under the heading of Ceoexpress and the guidance of Patricia, its creative and energetic founder and director. She is my muse. She guides my “pen” and illuminates the blog with her fantastic photos. Her previous travels to Cuba will become obvious from the depth and precision of her photography and suggestions. 

As a specialist in the politics of Mexico and the Southern Cone, I must confess that my knowledge of Cuba was previously limited  to general introductions and superficial generalizations. I expect to become a more serious observer of Cuba after this trip.  Of course, I studied the big events from the Spanish-American War to Castro, from the Cuban missile crisis to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and tried to keep up with the significance of the appointment of Raul Castro as President of Cuba in 2008, I watched, amazed, as two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI visited the island. I can only imagine what a fture visit by Pope Francisco will be like. I read Frei Betto’s talks with Fidel on revolution and religion.  Cuba is still a huge mystery to me.

However, I am now discovering some exciting scholarship on the recent transformations in Cuban society, on the great expectations for the future and on the renewed expectations for improvements in relations between Cuba and the USA. In addition, there’s increased interest in the role of religion for Cuba’s future, from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, to popular, Afro-religious expressions like Yoruba, or Santería.

My own experience and interests will lead me to pay special attention to religion and music. Patricia’s suggested itinerary dramatically opens up for me the rich world of human geography. While I won’t claim that geography is destiny, I can appreciate that it is fundamental to understanding Cuba. Ted Henken, blogger and scholar (Sociologist at City University of NY) begins his insightful and recent study, Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook, by reminding us that Cuba has been considered the geographical hub o all the Americas since Cortés. It is nestled in the center of Haiti, Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Jamaica and Key West Florida.  So, call it a hub, a portal, a stepping stone…your call.

From that geographical perspective, I will also be looking at the resulting transcultural Cuban musical “stew”, as a result of the prodigious cultural production (to use the expression of Henken) that has emanated from Cuba. Cuba’s mixture of West African, Spanish, Chinese sources, and its transforming impact on jazz, blues, salsa, tango, high-life (from Ghana, including Afro beat), bachata, merende, cumbia and nuevo flamenco, all of this is mind-blowing and unparalleled.

So, Cuba, here we come.
Permalink | Saturday, February 1, 2014