I took a little time this New year to reflect on my past new years. It seems like they are always a bit of an anti-climax, you build up the new year’s eve to an extent that it can’t possibly match, especially when there are another couple of hundred thousand people desperately trying to have a good night. New year’s eve 2006 was unique for me:
Cuba had always seemed like the ideal place to visit. Maybe it was the romantic air of idealism and the refusal to submit to imperialistic US oppression, or my own deep-seated student rebellion tendencies surfacing from a sea of contemporary apathy. Whatever it was, I decided to see in the new year in the Communist state of Cuba.
But it’s not that easy to see the real Cuba, at least anywhere that is not the tourist board, “Look how great we are” side; to find the heart of the country and by all means avoid the tourist traps. Veradero is a famous beach, but it sickens one to know that it is strictly off limits to all Cubans unless they work in one of the fancy hotels, in order to preserve it for tourists. It is just another place where tourists are herded like sheep then lifted upside down by the ankles until their pockets are emptied into the state coffers.
Christmas 2006: arrival in Cuba amidst a tidal wave of confusion; a tubulent time, where nobody actually knew whether Fidel Castro, leader of the country since the successful revolution in 1959, was actually still alive. Nothing had been seen nor heard from him in some time and the tension was so thick in the air on the ground at Havana airport that people were cutting through it with their suitcases. Many of us were pulled aside. We were searched, one by one, everything taken from our luggage as wealthier, better-presented Europeans idled through immigration virtually unhindered.
Stood on Havana’s Malecon, the angry, invading sea was trying to break down the newly renovated sea defenses. Originally built by the Americans in 1901, tourist money has recently helped the Cuban Government fund the much-needed reparations. I watched the heavy, rolling, Straits of Florida-borne waves crash against it sending up a cloud of spray, which soared over the wall and onto the cars passing by on the busy road below. Normally the Malecon would be lined with Cubans by 6:30pm, singing, chatting and drinking rum into the darkest hours.
The majority of the old pastiche buildings lining the road hold none of the glory they once knew. Ramshackle, these uninhabitable wrecks show all tell-tale signs of habitation, washing hangs out the window of one house, making do with what remains after the onslaught of almost yearly hurricanes, Wilma in 2005 was especially devastating.
West along the malecon is Hospital Nacional Hermanos Ameijeiras, a tall beacon of the world-class health service that Cuba boasts. Was it possible that the ill Fidel Castro, who had not appeared on television for more than four months was in there? He had since handed over control of his country to his brother, Raul. The sky above the hospital held five turkey vultures, puppets of death, which circled the building, eventually landing on the ledge of the highest window. Perhaps they were death’s messengers keeping tabs on The Man’s progress, if indeed he was in Havana at all.
Nobody seemed certain about whether Fidel was alive or dead. Nobody was willing to say. An acquaintance, Ulysses (perhaps so named by his parents after the James Joyce book, which appears to be extremely popular in Cuba, a rarity of sorts because it is on the short list of accepted foreign fiction by the Revolutionary Committee) wandered through the claustrophobic streets of Centro Habana, pointing out landmarks. I asked him if he thinks Castro is still alive or not. “I would tell you but I can’t say anything out here in the streets” he said in a hoarse whisper. It is ignorant to come to Cuba and expect speech to be free. It could also be dangerous.
La Plaza de la Revolucion and the Museo de la Revolucion are among some of the Havana sights that are simply unmissable. The museum especially commemorates the multitudinous achievements of the Cuban Communist government under Castro and is as much a propaganda tool as the numerous signs and billboards adorning every corner pronouncing ‘Venceremos!’ (We will triumph). Americans at any point on the tour of the museum are noted only as ‘Yankees’ and couple of ex-Presidents even make it up on to the museum’s prestigeous ‘Corner of the cretins’.
The centre also houses many beautiful churches and squares that have a weather-beaten and yet very romantic atmosphere. The famous Capitolio building is modelled on the United Stated Capitol in Washington D.C. but no longer houses the Government. Statues and monuments line every street, more often than not of revered figures adopted by the state for purposes of propaganda, such as that of Che Guevara and Jose Marti, an influential intellectual who led the Cuban independence from the Spanish revolt in the 1890’s and became a martyr when killed in battle.
People in Cuba lack many of the freedoms that we in the ‘free world’ often take for granted. A few examples are the ability to leave one’s country, the freedom of political association or the freedom of speech. A quarter of Cubans belong to the Comité de la Defensa de la Revolucion (Revolutionary Defense Committee), which is essentially a network of spies who alert the authorities to any unconstitutional acts perpetrated by Cuban citizens, including anything remotely anti-Castro or anti-Communist.
Cuba is classed as a Third World country, particularly after the fall of Soviet Russia. After 1991, Cuba entered what was known as the ‘Special Period’ where strict rationing was imposed upon food and petrol. Today, principally tourist money has helped buoy Cuba. Every Cuban receives from the Government food and clothing rations, enough to stay alive, and extremely cheap accommodation.
The U.S. embargo certainly makes life hard, but ever the opportunist, Castro uses it as propaganda to strengthen his own domestic position. There is a saying that goes around which is “One man’s dream has become the nightmare of the 11 million Cuban citizens.” The embargo only strengthens Castro’s rule but makes life for ordinary people harder. But the ingenuity which comes out of this is amazing. Cuba might just have some of the world’s finest mechanics. Cuban streets are still filled with U.S. cars built prior to 1959. The fact that they are still running after half a decade without any recourse to buy spare parts or new batteries is amazing. Some of course are merely the shell of the original with a Russian engine, but the streets of Havana are still graced with many a Studebaker, Chevrolet, Buick and old Ford.
Tourism in effect has been the saving grace for Cuba economically, but could essentially be the Revolution’s downfall. There is an apparent lust in many people for money. Many people are prepared to break the law in order to make money off foreigners. Old men walk the streets selling copies of the only newspaper in Cuba, Granma for 24 times the prices they pay for it, in order to supplement their meager pensions. It is nearly impossible to walk for more than five minutes without being approached. Often the opening line will be “Are you looking for something?” The Cuban tact is not to sell something out and out, for which they could get into trouble with the policia, but to offer something in a friendly way and expect underhand payment for the service offered. Another form of service offered to tourists is encountered in the form of the jinterias. Prostitution is a form of consumerism here in Cuba, and sex tourism is a grave problem that the Government fails to recognize.
Sitting out on the verandah in a rocking chair, smoking a cigar bought illegally from a street tout, a man passing by notices my distinct ‘whiteness’ and stops to chat. ‘Frank’, a tall, black, athletic looking man of 30 years seems out of place as a Cuban. He is wearing fine clothes and has an mp3 player.
“What line of work are you in” I quizzed.
“I teach salsa four days a week” he replied, giving me a little demonstration.
“So it must pay pretty well then?”
“No, no, but I have a German girlfriend who gives me money and this mp3 player” he interjected. There was a slight pause as I took this in. I had heard of this situation before. A foreigner meets a Cuban on holiday, the Cuban then feigns love, gets married to the foreigner, which is essentially their get out of Cuba free card, then files for divorce. Unprovoked, Frank continued, “I don’t love her, she is 54. I am only 30! But my family needs the money.” He pauses shaking his head solemnly. “If …(Makes the beard gesture with his hand to denote Castro) dies then I might be ok, but until then I must stay with this woman.”
Cuba is not all negativity, but many younger generation Cubans find themselves in a position of near-desperation thanks to tourism which has inevitably highlighted the comfort of the capitalist world. There are so many positives to take from the city, children play happily in the narrow streets, music fills the air; the fresh, rhythmical sounds of salsa encourages one or two steps from even the least adept dancers. As a foreigner, the cars and the people are all very beautiful, the cigars sublime. The Caribbean lifestyle is relaxed, fun and energetic all at the same time. The sense of cameraderie and of being a part of something big is impossible to escape, but at the same time one feels as though they are on the cusp of great change, the calm before the storm as it were.
p.s. It is now exactly 4 years since I wrote this piece. Since then, Fidel stepped aside from government permanently but, despite viral rumours of him having colon cancer, wikileaks recently released a document that suggested his illness was due to a perforated intestine. In the past 6 months, he has made regular appearances in public which would suggest his improved health, although there is no hint of a return to power. His legacy is already such that when he does eventually pass away, his legacy will live on for some time to come.