Cuba: Pina Coladas, cigars, tropical beaches, salsa and old cars! That’s the main image most people have of this hot, time-warped Caribbean island. But, as with any travels, we discovered much more than that: a land with a rocky history, which still very much affects the present, and locals bracing themselves for the future.
Above all Cuba was extremely interesting. Travelling to a country which was able to remain Communist even after the Cold War was over and the Berlin Wall fell, was fascinating because Cuba has remained in the past. The pros and cons of Communism gave us much to compare to our own capitalist systems and had our group constantly engaged in discussion about how this socialist society functioned…and didn’t function (much like capitalism). From the outside things seemed to tick along, we didn’t see blatant signs of poverty and suffering at first, but once we began to scratch under the surface and talk to different people, we learnt that things are not all as they seem.
The minimum wage in Cuba is around USD$18 a month, with a doctor earning around USD$80 a month. This is “balanced out” with free health care and free education (both of a high standard) – so people struggle to get ahead, but that is the whole point of communism, you are not supposed to get ahead and create a huge gap between the rich and poor. However all humans not being created equal, no system will ever be better than any other: you could have an extremely motivated person in a communist society who struggles to get ahead, but also an extremely unmotivated person in a capitalist society with all opportunities available and not willing to get ahead.
Cubans also receive food rations – that means, for a small amount of money, using a rations booklet, they receive basics like rice, beans, coffee and sugar (among other things) each month, so technically nobody starves. If you don’t have a job, the government will give you one, and if you don’t like it, there is no unemployment benefit. This is why you often find doctors, lawyers, teachers etc working in tourism, where they can earn tips and have a better life. We compared this to poor people in the capitalist societies, where education and health and food costs money, and people really do struggle – is it better to have health, education and some food? There are pros and cons to both places.
The US embargo and sanctions are also a very big issue in Cuba. Seeing the effects on the people is depressing – after Communism fell in 1989 and Cuba had virtually nobody to trade with, people were starving – there was no oil, no way to get to work, nothing was functioning and families were living on a meager diet of rice – it was a very, very hard time for Cubans until tourism was introduced to bring some revenue back into the country. Since then some private enterprises have been allowed, like accommodation in private houses (casa particulares) or privately owned restaurants (paladars) which help increase incomes, but when there are food shortages it is hard to run a restaurant when you run out of a lot of ingredients. In one restaurant we went into there was so little left that we couldn’t even order bread and butter. We often got asked on the street for soap, shampoo, clothing, pens or paper – basic necessities are often not available to Cubans, and queues to get into shops are not uncommon. The Cold War is over, so I really don’t see why the US wants to make the Cubans suffer so much, it really is cruel and selfish to have a political agenda cause so much anguish – currently the Cubans are facing more embargos and an even harder time, and are bracing themselves for the future by stocking up while and when they can.
We also learnt a lot about the Cuban revolution of the late 50’s when Fidel Castro and Che Guavara toppled the then dictator, Batista. We came to understand the ideology of Communism, which basically has the good of the people at heart, but in theory, like capitalism, just does not work. Then there was the 1960 Operation Peter Pan project that sent 14,000 Cuban children between the age of 2 and 18 years to live in the USA – rumours were spread either by the CIA or a church organization (depending on what you want to believe) that under Communism parents would lose their parental rights or kids would be sent to Russia to be made into dog food or sent to Russan work camps. It is not clear who started the rumours, it doesn’t matter, the main point is that thousands of children were separated from their parents in a heartbreaking act to slander communism.
Going to Cuba is like a step back in time, the crumbling old Spanish buildings, the old yank tanks (which have been kept on the roads despite lack of parts and lots of Cuban ingenuity) – and due to the price and lack of petrol, there are various forms of transportation from taxis, to rickshaw-style bikes, to horse-drawn taxi-carts. This all adds to the charm, and why we as tourists go to see Cuba and it’s differences. Cuba also seems to be full of musicians – nearly every café, bar or restaurant has a band in the corner churning out popular Cuban songs like Guantanamera over and over, day in day out.
One thing we did enjoy (a LOT) were the cocktails which Cuba is famous for – Mojitos, Cuba Libra, Daquiris and Pina Coladas – for around USD2-USD5 each. Whereas we probably wouldn’t rave about the food – depended on where you went and what was available on the menu – veges are not a common sight, but if you like shrimps or lobster, you will be in heaven. Beans, rice, chicken, pork and beef are all common.
We visited some beautiful, pristine, white beaches, with coconut palms and turquoise blue waters. We drove to Vinales, which is tabacco-growing country, and saw how they made organic cigars (nearly everything is organic in Cuba as they can’t afford or buy chemical fertilizer, which is one huge benefit, and shows in their healthy countryside). Of course, we also had the opportunity to learn how to light, hold, smoke and put out a cigar. As we strolled through the farms, Cuban cowboys, complete with gumboots and spurs rode on their horses across the fields. There is not a lot of traffic in Cuba due to the price of cars and petrol.
We took a wonderful cruise in old American cars around the districts of Havana: beautiful old Havana and it’s crumbly buildings, past old mafia hotels, hero statues of Jose Marti and other freedom fighters, along the famous Malecon seafront, and through the old posh suburbs and jungly, tropical parks. We learnt from our driver that he earned about USD2 a day (we paid more for a pina colada!), so inevitably he got a good tip – he had been an orthopedic surgeon.
All in all it was a fabulous insight into Spanish history, slavery, Communism, organic farming, embargos and sanctions which has given us much to ponder, question and discuss, even though the trip is over and we are all back to our normal daily lives. I love trips that stimulate you into thinking about your own life. That’s when you really learn a lot.