Impressions of Cuba

I’ve now been back from Cuba for a couple weeks and have had a bit of time to reflect on what I saw in this unique and fascinating country.

Cuba is like nowhere else I’ve been. I briefly visited Bulgaria and Yugoslavia during the Soviet era, but Cuba in 2011 bears little resemblance to Communist eastern Europe. It is, much more, a Latin American country with its own brand of revolutionary politics superimposed. That too is changing — as Cubans I talked to all emphasized, Cuba is in a period of transition.

In my undergraduate university studies, I concentrated on Latin American politics and history. But my focus was always on Mexico and Central America. Cuba was a country whose history and politics I only covered superficially. And Cuba is very different from its mainland neighbours.

Two factors immediately make Cuba very different from the other Latin American countries I’m familiar with: it has no indigenous population to speak of, and it did not gain independence from Spain at the time of other Latin American countries. Rather, Cuba is largely mixed race African-European, though there’s a surprising number of people who seem to be of pure European or African ancestry. The African influence has had a notable impact on Cuba’s music and art. And Cuba has not had the experience of Mestizaje — the mixing of European and aboriginal cultures — that is at the heart of the culture in Mexico and Central America.

I had several opportunities to chat with Cubans about the transition occurring today. They speak in hushed voices, and there is a certain amount of fear associated with expressing political opinions, but they did seem to speak fairly freely.

The general sense is that change is happening and needs to happen, but there’s some anxiety about what the changes will be. Since the so-called “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been a gradual move to allow more and more private enterprise. Everyone I talked to saw this as a good thing, and something necessary. There’s a general feeling that the revolution is 52 years old, and its ideas have become stale and has led to Cuba’s stagnation.

The problem now is the dual economy of state-controlled low salaries in moneda nacional and private enterprise operating in convertible pesos. It’s causing a great misallocation of resources, and is unsustainable.

Since the Special Period, Cuba has relied more and more on tourism to bring in the needed hard currency. But this has contributed to the distortion. Now, a hotel chambermaid or a prosititute earns far more in a day in hard currency than a doctor, teacher or engineer earns in weeks in moneda nacional. Stores selling in moneda nacional have empty shelves and line-ups for rationed goods. Stores selling in hard currency have imported products on their shelves.

Two of the people I met are good examples. My guide on a hike in Viñales had been a high school teacher, but that’s a job that pays a government wage in moneda nacional. With survival so difficult, he became a tourist guide instead so that at least he makes some tips in convertible pesos.

The casa particular (private home) I stayed at in Viñales is another example. The owner, Dr. Luis Luis, studied for years to become a doctor, and travelled to serve Cuba during the Nicaraguan Contra war and later in Guyana. He is skilled in trauma treatment, anesthesiology, and other emergency medicine. He now teaches medicine. But his medical salary is meagre and in moneda nacionale. By contrast, the family pays its bills with the hard-currency paying tourists who stay at the home. Although owners of casas particulares must pay high taxes to be allowed to operate, a single tourist in a few nights brings in more income than a doctor’s salary.

State-run restaurants have a reputation for surly, bored staff and overcooked inspid food. Small private restaurants called “paladares” have sprung up to offer good food and meet the need of the tourist industry. These changes have been slow to come about, but the general feeling is that Raul Castro has been less dogmatic than his older brother about allowing change to come.

Which brings up an issue I only discussed very carefully with Cubans — Fidel is probably mortal, and unless he has a miraculous improvement in health, his days are probably numbered. So what shape will Cuba take when Fidel departs?

One of the ironies of the Cold War is that Fidel’s longevity as leader can only be thanks to the Americans. For a country that has made such great pretense of wanted to be rid of Fidel and to end Communism in Cuba, America has been the single greatest factor in keeping Fidel in power for more than half a century. The United States has seen 10 presidents since Castro came to power in 1959. There have been various attempts by the Americans to get the Mob to assassinate the Cuban leader, or even to give him substances to make his beard fall out. And yet, he has hung on until only his health led him to relinquish power to his younger brother.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba has been Castro’s best friend. Around Havana today, billboards decry the social costs to Cuba of “el bloqueo.” Typically they point to the cost of several hours of the embargo in terms of medical services or educational supplies for children. The reality is, though, that for years the embargo has served as a convenient excuse for Cuba’s economic difficulties. True, there have been real economic costs to the Cuban economy as a result of the embargo, but for the Castro regime, the embargo has served as a convenient excuse to cover the failings of socialist economics. If not for the external enemy of the U.S. imperialists and their embargo, the Cuban people would have turned against Castro long ago. At the same time, American political isolation of Cuba has left the Castro regime to operate in a giant incubator — free from the kind of ideas that would be brought to Cuba if there were a more free exchange between the two countries. Opponents of the regime have been allowed to leave, as during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, with the result that Castro’s enemies are kept at a safe distance in Miami.

But what will come of Cuba when Fidel dies? Will Raul hang onto power, and gradually reform the system. Or will the be an overwhelming and uncontrollable pressure for rapid change both from inside and out?

One force that I think will play a much stronger role in Cuba in coming years is the Evangelical churches. Evangelicals are a political force in Latin America, nowhere so much as in Guatemala, but in other countries too they are a political threat to the Catholic Church and to secular political forces. In Cuba, the Catholic Church has been weakened by years of revolutionary socialisim, and although many Cubans are Catholics, there is a power vaccuum that Evangelicals will be quick to exploit when Fidel goes.

In geo-political terms, the counterproductive American policies towards Cuba have created an enormous political opening for the Chinese. Chinese presence is noticeable, especially in many of the newer vehicles seen in Cuba. The new buses are all Chinese built. There are Chinese cars. At one point during my trip from Trinidad to Havana, our bus and other traffic in our direction had to pull over to allow an almost endless convoy to pass. The convoy, escorted by police and military, contained dozens and dozens of brand new Chinese-built construction trucks obviously just being delivered. Chinese influence in Cuba is only increasing, and one wonders for the Americans about the wisdom of their policies that are switching a former Soviet satellite on their doorstep for a Chinese one.

It’s hard, of course, to get a clear view in a crystal ball in a short two-week trip to three locations in Cuba, and a few conversations with Cubans. And so, I’ll stop predicting, and instead close with a few more comments about Cuba as a country to visit.

I’m glad I went, and I certainly would go back. Despite the hardship for Cubans, for a visitor it is fascinating to see a country that has not been spoiled by global homogenization and McDonaldsization. It’s a beautiful country with an amazing culture, incredible unspoiled colonial and post-colonial architecture, and friendly people.

It was recommended to me before I went that I be cautious about contacts initiated by Cubans, and that I would get more from contacts I initiated myself. This is certainly true, and in this I am lucky to have a fairly good command of Spanish. Usually when Cubans approached me, they had some agenda whether to try to sell me something, or ask me for something. It was rarely ever too much of a problem, though walking in some areas it could get tiresome to keep saying “no gracias” to offers of cheap cigars or a taxi. Occasionally people came up with various stories as a pretext to ask me for money, and sometimes I got a quick cold shoulder when I refused.

On the other hand, when I initiated contact, I usually found Cubans friendly and willing to talk. Often they were curious about where I came from, and often the conversation was fairly superficial, but they were usually happy to talk if I asked them about their old cars, their business or anything else. For the most part, they seemed like good natured people with a sense of humour, and I never detected that the Cuban people were especially miserable, despite their challenging lives.

Cuba is not as cheap a country to visit as other Latin American countries because of the two-currency system and the artificial state pricing. For many things, such as museums, foreigners are expected to pay in convertible pesos what Cubans pay in national pesos, meaning foreigners pay 24 times as much. Given the difference in our salaries, this isn’t unreasonable, but it does make Cuba a more expensive destination than countries where tourists and locals pay the same price. Of course, Cuba offers many inexpensive package holidays in resorts, but to really see the country, you’ll spend more. Staying in casas particulares reduces the cost, but this is not like other Latin American countries where a reasonably comfortable hotel can cost $10 – $30 depending on the country.

Still, in terms of travel experience, Cuba offers something unique that you won’t find anywhere else. Its political isolation has preserved its unique culture. And its Afro-Latin culture is a fascinating one, mixed with influences from colonial Spain and its long experiment with revolutionary socialism.

The time to visit Cuba is now — before it changes to an uncertain future.

Cuban heroes.

About Richard McGuire

Richard McGuire is a part-time photographer and photography enthusiast based on Ottawa, Canada.

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