Thursday, 26 April 2007

Bad Things About Cuba

It's easy to fall in love with Cuba as a tourist. Cubans make you feel very special. As a tourist, you represent the best chance for every single person you meet, for the chance, even a tiny one, at a shot of something better. If you give them a dollar (a CUC), maybe they can buy something that would otherwise be out of their reach. That's why, like the guy who drove us to the airport the day we left (a former professor of English) and our bell-hop (tall, white, perfect English, I guarantee he was a former engineer or scientist), the poorly paid intelligentsia quit their jobs for a shot at a precious job in tourism.

Here's a country that has screwed up so badly that being a chambermaid beats being a doctor.

But I don't want you to think, reading this blog, that I'm infected with the sort of romanticism about Cuba that has the some people ga-ga for Fidel. (Mentioning no names, but has anyone noticed how many notable writers and actors have reported that they've been yacking to Fidel on the phone lately? It's a wonder he has the energy to recover, what with award-winning actors and novelists after him day and night on the phone...)

Walking the streets of Havana, you don't see well-dressed people. People wear cheap-looking, ill-fitting clothes, simple skirts, jeans or slacks with T-shirts. Cheap shoes, falling apart. No sunglasses, in a country where the sun shines brilliantly most of the year. The only women who have much make-up are the ones who work in tourist places.

They don't walk with the bounce and energy of people in a Latin country like Mexico. If you discount the energy which comes from anything associated with music, you begin to notice that the energy level of every person is low. When people talk to you about life, it's clear that just getting enough varied food to eat is a problem. People come up to you and beg you for spare sunglasses, sunblock, face-cream, clothes for their kids.

This does not happen in Mexico - beggars are happy with a few pesos. They can buy their own sunglasses etc - such products are available cheap in the massive, amazingly stocked and cheap supermarket chains. The energy levels of Mexico City are about a 100 times what you see in Cuba.

Crossing the island, two things impress:

1. The utter lack of any sign of the modern world. No traffic, the main highway is an almost uniformly lumpy thoroughfare that in Mexico would barely qualify as the 'libre' - the toll-free roads which meander across the country. Apart from the dreary communist/banana republic architecture (two storeys, long concrete blocks, often painted pink or blue, with shuttered windows, no glass, or lots of broken windows), you don't see any buildings dating after the 50s. Lots of nice art deco buildings too, but everything in a state of total disrepair. There are still lots of people living in tiny, weather board huts, and it isn't for reasons of olde-world charm, in case any visitors to the island have found this charming.

Near Havana you see lots of citrus orchards. These give away to sugar cane and bananas as you go east. The plantations don't look anything like as large and well-tended as what I've seen in Veracruz, Mexico, or the expansive strawberry fields of Irapuato. There's a marked absence of modern equipment. You might occasionally see a pathetic old tractor. Elsewhere, skinny men cut sugar cane by hand, stack it on their backs and carry it around. I even saw people carrying water across their backs, in two buckets.

2. The substitution of billboards advertising brands etc, for horrible, preachy communist slogans and propaganda. Photos of the eminently photogenic Che accompany slogans like 'Che- it's our hope that you'll all be like him', 'Socialism or Death', 'Imperialism - not even a tiny bit!' It's funny until you realise that this isn't a ubiquitous joke. Like citizens of former Soviet countries that I'm friends with, the people we met in Cuba just shrugged and told us that they ignore such stuff.

Well, not the enterprising rip-off merchant Daniru who took us for a very expensive rickshaw ride in Santiago. "Socialismo!" he cried, punching the air as we passed a poster of Che. "Socialism is the only way!" he yelled. Maybe he thought we'd come searching wide-eyed for a socialist paradise. But if he lost my sympathy, it was there. When it came to asking for money, Daniru demonstrated a perfect understanding of capitalism - the price of a thing is what someone is willing to pay for it, no more and no less.

Latino people are naturally pretty hot-blooded. How has an entire island of such people been suckered into accepting such a miserable existence. Is it really worth living like that, just to be able to boast that you're independent of the USA? Maybe I'm just a stupid yuma (Cuban equivalent of the term gringo, meaning foreigner, probably from the rich West), but I think Mexico's attitude to the USA is better, more practical, whilst also being ambivalent.

The only places you see Cubans looking really happy is in places where there's music and dancing. The world famous Casa de la Musica in Havana, which features in so many salsa songs, is only really accessible to upper-middle-class Cubans and those with links with tourists. The dance floor fills with a mixture of Europeans and Afro-Cuban salsa teachers. It's even worse at the Casa de la Trova in Santiago, which fills with middle-aged, non-dancing European tourists who have fallen for the world of Wim Wenders' film, "Buena Vista Social Club". Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if like us, you've gone out there hoping to mingle with Cubans dancing in their own environment, being crammed into a room with a bunch of white, middle-class European tourists to listen to Cuban musicians is not quite the draw is could be.

At times I actually longed for La Maraka of Mexico City, the most authentic latin salsa dance hall I've ever known. If only they played more Cuban music, it could be the best in the world!


Anonymous said...

Loved your observations of Cuba. Found myself agreeing with you on so many counts. Reading your comments have brought back so many memories for me.
I've visited 3 times now - each time I return i can't imagine I'll go back. Then I start to hate just how invisible I am in the UK and how we don't really interact with those around us and I start to miss the energy and warmth of the Cuban people. Who knows if I'll go back. Carnival de Cuba this weekend started me thinking again...

MG said...

Thanks Nicola. Like you, I just want to go back. I don't think you're invisible in the UK though. I always notice you - the incredible way you dance!