Travels in Cuba (part 3 of 3)
The reality of Cuban life more than 40 years after the Revolution
From Baracoa it was back to Havana. We stayed in a lovely hotel, Hostal Valencia, for our last night in Cuba and were all devastated to be leaving this beautiful country behind.
A look at Cuba's recent past goes some way to explain the anomalies at play in its present state. Before the Revolution in 1959 that brought Castro to power, Cuba followed closely behind the US as a progressive capitalist country. They had all the modern appliances and 5 TV channels, one or two less than the US. People remember this as a time when movie stars flocked to Cuba. Now in 2001 they have two TV channels and Castro heavily governs both. One is dedicated to promoting the Communist doctrine and the other shows sports, nature programmes and soaps. If Castro is televised he is broadcast on both. Opposed to this, hotels have 15 channels for tourists. Cubans are not allowed visit them except if they work there. Cinema too is censored, as are books. It's impossible to get an international newspaper and the only papers on sale in the streets are 2 communist newssheets. All the young people dream of escaping and probably have a very idealised view of the outside world. The hassle we got from men was for the most part an attempt to secure an invitation out of the country. The only way they can get out is to receive an invitation and a work contract from the country they are going to. We met one American man who had been to Cuba 36 times trying to secure an exit visa for his young Cuban wife. Prostitution is quite blatant and it's hard to avoid seeing older Western men arm in arm with young Cuban girls, in the bars and on the street. It's one aspect of the tourist boom that's hard to stomach and didn't really exist until tourists started coming back into the country in 1993. The Police earn more than doctors (average wage of $11 per month) and bar staff earn more than the two combined, due to tips in dollars.
The before and after effects of Communism are laid bare in Julian Schnabel's 2000 film 'Before Night Falls' telling the story of Reinaldo Arenas and the persecution he suffered for being a poet and homosexual during Castro's rise to power in 1959. It's a film worth seeing to get a sense of the transformation that Cuba has undergone in the last few decades.
Every town has monuments and plaques to the great Revolutionaries - Jose Mart? Fidel Castro, Ch?Guevera and on every wall there are Communist slogans emblazoned. Here are a few examples of ones that I saw:
En el pueblo hay mucho - There is plenty in the town
Nadie podr?quitar la esperanza - Nobody can kill hope
Igualdad y Libertad plena - Total equality and liberty
Patria o Muerto - Mother country or death
En cada Barrio Revoluci? - En every neighbourhood revolution
You leave Cuba with regret and mostly full of contradictions. The handsome face of Ch?Guevera adorns T-Shirts and postcards wherever you look. However by sporting his face are you in some way supporting his legacy? The opulence and luxury of the hotels is sharply removed from the basic lifestyle of the ordinary people. The power of the dollar flowing from the pockets of tourists is gradually devaluing the Cuban peso and at the same time encouraging the people to hustle as many dollars from the tourists as possible for a better life. Sure you get hassled in most countries but it's sad in Cuba where increased exposure to an outside world is driving them to it. The desire for people to escape to the land of the free is contrasted with the strong family bonds and neighbourliness of the people. It's a country where bartenders earn more than doctors, television and cinema are strictly censured, no-one can leave freely or make any money independently. It's hard when you're immersed in the country to fully see and appreciate these disparities but from a distance looking back they're all too clear.
Despite all this the warmth of the people and the beauty of the country are the strongest memories you take with you when you leave. It's an odd feeling you have when you go, you couldn't live there but it's heartbreaking to say goodbye.