Thoughts on Cuba
Feb 23, 2010
|Feb 23 - Our thoughts on Cuba
Having travelled through Mexico for two months last year, and spending considerably more time there, it’s natural to make comparisons between the two countries. However, it’s not easy to make comparisons between Cuba and Mexico. Perhaps one of the main differences is that Mexicans, for the most part are more laid back and easygoing, whereas Cubans are more passionate and complicated. So is their music. Cuban music is infused with complicated, syncopated rhythms, while Mexican music is predictable and simple. Neither is better than the other, just different. Mexican music is filled with harmony and heartfelt, romantic lyrics, while Cuban music seems to tell stories accompanied by music filled with the sounds of drums. It is more danceable, hence the salsa that practically every 10 year old learns to do in school.
After a few days of relaxation at the Blau Varadero, we have both had time to reflect on our time travelling through Cuba. Cuba is, in a nutshell, very complicated. On our last morning of travel, we met a couple from Uruguay. Carlos has been in Cuba for 20 years, his wife Noelia has been here for 12 years. Carlos has completed his medical training and is a specialist (oncology), Noelia has also just completed her family medicine training. Carlos said it quite well when he said that after 20 years of living here, he still hasn’t figured out Cuba. Yesterday, a vendor on the beach, after a brief conversation about Cuba, said you could read an entire encyclopedia set about Cuba and still not understand it.
The North American traveler would see many things this country that will make him sad and angry and at times in awe of their resourceful nature. Fifty years of embargo without the support of their super power Russian ally has left this country frozen in time. There are modern vehicles around, but they are few and far between. Their transportation system is practically nonexistent. People move around by any means possible, horse and cart, bicycles, trucks, motorcycles from the 1940s, and pedicabs. Hitchhiking is the order to the day and there are lineups everywhere.
The duality of existence between visitors and residents is dramatic. Wherever there are lineups, there are Cubans buying merchandise or food with local pesos (moneda nationale). There are lineups for everything here and Cubans seem to take it in their stride. Lineups to pay bills, exchange currencies, buy rice, wait for a ride; every conceivable thing requires them to line up. There is not only a duality between visitors and locals, there is also a duality in their economics. Cubans are paid in local pesos. Twenty four of these pesos equal one Convertible Peso (CUC). Workers can also earn CUCs as a bonus to extra time worked, extra piecework completed or for other rewards.
While Cubans purchase some things at a fraction of the cost that visitors pay—produce, baked goods, food sold by street vendors—the products may be inferior and variety is extremely limited. Anything considered non-essential is sold in Convertible Pesos: shoes, shirts, toys, books, furniture or gasoline. Since every Cuban received rations (rice, beans, oil, sugar, toilet paper, toothpaste…in all 29 items), there is a basic level of subsistence.
Cubans have to put up with such a heavy handed tight control over their lives that we cannot fathom how they manage. They can’t sell their houses, buy new cars, have access to communications, travel to different countries…in fact almost everything we take for granted in Canada is strictly controlled here in Cuba. Unlike Mexico where the average education ends at elementary school, Cubans have the highest literacy in the Caribbean and most are university educated. Educated Cubans, and we met many from doctors, engineers, architects and teachers, all have to find other means to improve their standard of living outside of the government’s watchful eyes. Since the Russian withdrawal and US embargo, we are told that parents do not want their children to become doctors, lawyers, engineers or any profession. They direct their children to work in tourism as this gives them the best chance to earn CUCs as tips.
We wonder how it is possible they simply don’t revolt, but when you consider that practically 90% of workers are employed by the government, who are you going to complain to? City Hall? Fat chance! All restaurants, hotels, stores, taxis, tour companies are owned by the government. If you want to support the owner operated venture, you can stay at a casa particular or eat at a paladar (food served in a person’s home). Both are legal and heavily regulated by the government. The fees they pay the government in order to operate their businesses are steep. Monthly fees must be paid regardless of whether they have any business and, at the end of the year, they must pay additional fees based on their annual income. Inspectors review their official receipt books almost daily.
Regardless of the tight government controls, Cubans manage to enjoy life and celebrate with music. We love the music because it is intriguing and complicated. We love the people because they are interesting and complicated, more European than the Mexicans, and more affectionate than we are. Kissing takes place everywhere. Between men, between women, between old and young. Unabashed, unbridled enthusiasm at greetings. For the most parts, except for inner core cities like Havana, streets are kept clean. There are street cleaners everywhere. Not the kind with big trucks and water wagons, but simple wagons carrying dustbins and brooms. The vegetation is typically lush as you would expect in a tropical island. Banana trees, mango trees, fields of corn, sugar cane, tomato fields, and acres of tobacco. But the evidence of that kind of land of plenty is nonexistent. There are never any large produce markets with fresh fruits and vegetables. Never any large outlets of cheese, cakes, marmalades, preserves…nothing is plentiful here. Why? The lack of vehicles to transport goods, the lack of farm machinery and fertilizers, and the cost of transporting goods are some of the reasons. You’re hard pressed to find a bar of soap in town. Yes it exists, but it is most likely hidden away in a little store unidentified and the choices of brand names are few.
In Mexico, it's the relentless time share huckster, or street vendor offering everything from silver bangles to the service of hair braiding. In Cuba, everyone has to find inventive ways to supplement their meagre wages. As a result, Cubans have become very…. assertive. Since the withdrawal of Russia and the US embargo, we have learned that Cubans must find ways to earn extra money. In some cities, an offer to help you find a restaurant, taxi or casa particular is not without strings. An under-the-table kickback is paid to the individual who can bring a new customer to a casas particulares, restaurant or paladares. Few people go the extra mile or provide that extra service without expecting a monetary reward. Eventually the visitor becomes suspicious of each and every Cuban offering to “help” find something or provide information. More often than not, there is an expectation of a monetary show of gratitude. It is understandable, but destroys their credibility and our trust. It is one thing that creates a negative attitude for visitors.
It is understandable because if we were to put ourselves in their shoes, we’re sure we would be forced into the same methods of survival. The tourist is an easy way for them to increase their income. We are very easy to identify. We carry large amounts of cash in CUCs. We are used to paying a great deal more for goods and services. We are, for the most part, good tippers. We are generous. We often like to bring gifts with us that we know they don’t have access to. They have come to realize that wherever we go, we will often have giveaways for children and, as a result, children have learned from experience that if they follow us and beg for money or gum or candies or toys, we will most likely have it to give. It gives us great joy, but turns them into persistent beggars. It is a harsh lesson in life for us to learn. We can justify it any way we like, but in the end, it still creates a distance between us.
In Cuba, people are highly educated and most understand English. However, a basic ability to speak Spanish creates a connection that has resulted in many interesting conversations. Cubans have an opinion on everything and are eager to share it. We have been very lucky to have earned the confidence of many Cubans who have, quite unabashedly, shared their stories, their struggles and their joys. We have found that one of the best ways to communicate with Cubans is through music. There, we don’t have a separation of haves and have-nots. We have a common language, common identity and respect for one another’s talents. Music has opened the door to easy communications and to laughter…and for that we are very grateful.
Cuba ... a complicated and fascinating country!