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Sunday, January 27, 2019

People to people: Cuba

The moment we left Havana, goats appeared on the side of the road. It does not take long at all to get into rural Cuba, and we were on our way to Viñales, in the northwestern province of Pinar del Río. Scrawny cattle, ox-drawn carts, old-time pony traps. Not much in between towns.
The thing to do in Viñales, if you want to support Cubans, is to visit a tobacco farm. So we went walking in the valley with the help of a very interesting local guide.

This guy works for the official tourist agency, so you might expect him to mouth a lot of pro-government stuff. No chance. In between mother-in-law jokes (apparently humour is stuck in 1959 also), he shared with us such gems as: “Three successes of the revolution: health, education, and safety. Three failures of the revolution: breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” He also told us that Cubans are, for the first time, going to be able to play in Major League Baseball without having to leave Cuba and their families behind forever. I checked it out—it was just announced in late December! Cubans love baseball so it is great that their best players will no longer have to defect—or betray, as our Les Dawson guide put it. 

But we weren’t here to talk about betrayal—that would come up at the Bay of Pigs. Les Dawson wanted to tell us about Cuba’s bigger problems. Education, for example, was one of the successes of the revolution, in that everyone is educated now. But that means 78-year-old Gerardo has to keep cultivating his tobacco plants by hand, because educated grandkids don’t want to do this type of manual work.
We struggle with this in our societies too. We were told that getting a college education was the ticket for everybody, so now there are all sorts of underemployed people with degrees. The generation behind me has, in exchange for their degrees, student debt that seemingly will never be paid off. Meanwhile, technology continues to eliminate more and more jobs that used to be done by skilled people.
Or yokes of oxen
Les Dawson was also open about the limitations of Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother who is still the head of the Communist Party. “You cannot expect an 88-year-old to change,” he said. “Raúl doesn’t know what Internet is.” Just bringing the Internet to a country isn’t enough, of course, to make its doctors earn enough so they don’t go to other Latin American or African countries to earn 20 times as much. Or drive taxis. If I knew the answer, I’d be sure to write The Economist about it.
Cowboy on cell phone--sums it up, really
By now Gerardo’s son was ready to demonstrate to us how Habanos are rolled.
When I was growing up in Tennessee, the fields were all tobacco. I used to see barns full of the hanging stuff. Lungs were not made to smoke anything so I am a lifelong foe of cigarettes, but I have to say that when Gerardo, Jr. passed the dried leaves around, they smelled like a childhood memory.

I’d never have the patience to commit to a whole cigar. I wouldn’t even have tried it if it’d smelled like most cigars, but it didn’t. You can tell these are the best of their kind. It didn’t make me want to smoke, but I can’t say I disliked it either.

It had been the “coldest night of the winter” the evening before, Les Dawson told us. Meaning, I had to wear my sweatshirt on the patio. But he has friends in Brandon, Manitoba and they were reporting -40 degrees! That magical temperature at which Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same.
The limestone karsts of this region are the mogotes.
Later, I was wandering around town and found the Tasmanian couple from our group. They said the Poker Bar had WiFi without the need to buy a card (which is usually how you have to access the Internet in Cuba; same price for foreigners and Cubans). I hadn’t planned to use any, but I got a sandwich and a beer anyway, and thought about what we’d learned from Les Dawson. He is the same age as I am, so he remembers both the full-on communist era and el periodo especial, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like many Cubans, he hopes for a more normal relationship with the U.S., and soon. What is certain is that things are changing in Cuba and will be different—I hope better. These 1950s cars aren’t going to run forever. 

Of course for Cubans, those cars are a necessity, not nostalgia. Most transit in the country is by taxi colectivo, a kind of a bus (but nothing like our bus), or by hitchhiking. It is possible to travel independently around Cuba but WiFi helps, as does Spanish! At the 90¢ mojito place we ran into a pair who are doing just this.

I’ve said before that people are what make a trip. This was certainly true in Cuba, and not just the Cuban people. This Italian brother and sister were making their way all around the country by taxi colectivo, and they were a hoot. There’s not much rum in a 90¢ mojito, so we had a few. These two even inspired us to have pasta for supper which was a welcome change, believe me. Arrabiata sauce was the closest I got to spicy the whole week.

The Cuban system provoked more and more questions. T. asked, “Do you think those subsidized places for poor people will still be there [after the economy is freed up]?” Does rationing continue because of the U.S. embargo, or is it inherent in Soviet-style communism? Do the Central Intelligence Agency, or the higher-ups who give its orders, represent me, a U.S. citizen? One of the flaws in Fidel Castro’s revolution is that he identified himself with the people. He would not tolerate criticism of the revolution because the people supported revolution. Hmm. 

We were constantly bombarded with information on this tour—after all, I was there to learn about Cuba, not be one of those Canadian tourists. Bus trips from town to town involved non-stop documentaries, not all of them about politics. Surprisingly, most were from the U.S. and featured all kinds of Americans: former C.I.A. operatives in Cuba, members of U.S. administrations, journalists and historians, Cuban exiles who were brigade members at the Bay of Pigs, Arthur Schlesinger, Harry Belafonte, Alice Walker, Angela Davis. I was repeatedly struck by how different this experience was from visiting museums in Vietnam, where the propaganda arm of the government is constantly apparent.

The great irony of this is that outside the government, Vietnam has more butt-busting for money than in any country I’ve ever seen. In actual economic terms, it seems far less communist than Cuba, but here I kept having to remind myself not to confuse communism with poverty. Are other islands in the Caribbean thriving with middle classes? I have not been to them, but I remember how Puerto Ricans were treated after Hurricane Maria, and they are U.S. citizens!

Anyway, we were on our way to the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs). Here, it was the counterrevolutionary Cuban exiles who used the word betrayal. Their idea was that their landing would provoke an uprising by many Cubans who were unhappy with the communist direction of their government. But by the time of the invasion, thousands of those people had already been detained in prison by Castro.
How Cuban propaganda portrays the counterrevolutionaries: "This is as far as the mercenaries got."
The brigade members, and their C.I.A. backers, thought that despite John Kennedy’s saying that he would not send U.S. troops to invade Cuba, he would have to do so in order to avoid humiliation at the Bay of Pigs. But President Kennedy seemed to be aware that sending U.S. forces to a foreign land, itself divided over how it would be ruled, could be a long, costly, and bloody enterprise, so he stuck to his guns (or rather didn’t). Had Kennedy and his successors retained this awareness throughout the 1960s, the whole history of Southeast Asia might have been different. 

Back to back with the Bay of Pigs documentary, we watched another (also American) about Fidel. One thing that must be said of Castro is that he wasn’t interested in the leadership of Cuba to personally enrich himself. When he first took power, that made him better than previous leaders of Cuba. But that's probably not saying much. He is one of the few self-proclaimed revolutionaries in the world to have genuinely changed his country, for good and for bad. But as one Cuban said to us, “Fidel got stubborn later on.”

My impression, at least, is that Fidel Castro sincerely believed in ideals such as no one starving so that another could drive a luxury car, and racial equality. Perhaps that is why so many others in the less privileged world seemed to take to him. We watched a warm interview between Castro and Nelson Mandela, and I was struck by how complicated both characters were. We’re all on the Mandela bandwagon now, because in power, he took a very different path from Fidel Castro. But from the point of view of the apartheid government in South Africa (and London and Washington), Mandela was a terrorist. That’s what people are called who seek to overthrow their governments by violent means. The people who admired Mandela in the '80s were the same people who had Che Guevara posters…

Fidel's mythic status was surely enhanced by the fact that, while C.I.A.-backed goons were merrily killing Salvador Allende in Chile and Che in Bolivia, none of their assassination attempts on Fidel were successful. Despite exploding cigars and all of that. Castro stuck it to the world’s greatest power merely by remaining alive. 

I have the freedom to write scathing things about the failings of my own government. But I am also the citizen of a privileged country (more than one). I don’t know what it’s like to be dominated by a huge neighbour, now enemy, nor do I know what it’s like to be poor. I have to listen to what Cubans say. Generally, that things are better under Raúl. He instituted term limits and is not even the president anymore (did you know that? I didn’t.) Unfortunately, it’s not enough for the president of Cuba not to be a Castro; it’s about who is U.S. president. The embassy in Havana has been closed again. “We are supposed to have different opinions,” our tour guide O. told us. “I am not trying to make you members of the Communist Party!”

Perhaps the strongest point I heard made against the U.S. embargo was from Senator Claire McCaskill. She said (as I’m sure others have) that as long as it is in place, the Cuban government can blame it for all deprivations and shortcomings. Removing the embargo would call the Cuban regime’s bluff. That might have happened under our previous president, a man who in Cuba would be called mulatto (like Batista!) but in America is just called black.

I was getting the hang of Cuban public toilets. On the road, you usually get a toilet seat, but no paper. In a restaurant, it’s the other way around. One thing we always do anyway is carry our own toilet paper. Sometimes in Cuba a woman is working at the washroom, and whether she gives you paper or not, you are always supposed to tip her; try to imagine what her salary must be. (Random disco fact: “She Works Hard For The Money” by Donna Summer was written about a restroom attendant.)
Here, or in most of the developing world
I was not so much getting the hang of prices. We stopped at a government-run place for lunch because it was the only one around (anything called a “restaurant” or “hotel” in Cuba is government-run). A basic toasted sandwich was 5 CUC, which at the Poker Bar in Viñales had gotten me a much better sandwich, a cerveza nacional, and WiFi. Our guide spoke quite openly about government-run not being the best. 

Then I thought about something government needs to do well: public education. Cuba was the first country in the Americas to eliminate illiteracy. In the U.S., 14% of the adult population—32 million Americans—cannot read. Does eliminating illiteracy mean forcing people to be educated? Freedom isn’t free. 

We stopped for the night in Playa Larga. As you can tell from its name, there’s a beach there, though no sand. Not much happens in this town (Gustavo’s was the most basic guesthouse since we joined the tour) but we all got together for dinner and an informal Spanish lesson. After that, the big game of the night was dominoes. You see men playing it on tables in the streets in Cuba—without WiFi, have to do something.

Our next stop was Santa Clara and yet another documentary played on the way, this one Nature. If there’s anyone in Cuba who would be happy for the U.S. embargo to remain in place, it must be the sea turtles. They cross the sea from Florida regularly to lay eggs in fairly undisturbed nesting grounds, which have not (yet) been destroyed by beach development. The birds, snails, and coral reefs of Cuba are also in better shape than others in the world. Since the fall of the U.S.S.R., there has been no money for the fertilizers and pesticides that superpower used to send. As a result, these pollutants do not end up in the ocean, and everything grown in Cuba is necessarily organic. Tomatoes, and other fruits, that actually taste of something!
We went to Santa Clara because it’s where revolutionaries led by Che Guevara were victorious in December 1958, and where Che’s remains were placed in a mausoleum (after eventually being found). I have to say I still don’t get the mystique of Che. He was a doctor and an intellectual, and Fidel (also well read whatever else can be said about him) was very fond of him. T. thinks maybe it’s that Che was from Argentina, but chose to become Cuban. I did learn one handy fact which is that “Che” is an Argentinian expression like “pal” or “mate.” Ernesto Guevara de la Serna called his buddies “Che,” so they called him that in return.
It's the 60th anniversary of "the triumph of the revolution."
In central Santa Clara some of us joined O. at a restaurant Cubans go to. The prices were unbelievably low. I don’t know if the government has anything to do with the hamburgers and milkshakes there, but they were quite good! 

Usually you don’t get beef in Cuba. It’s all about pork. We stopped at a farm in the mountains so that the family could show us their fresh coffee, bananas and other fruit, but I spent most of my time taking pictures of the pork and chicken running around everywhere.
I was losing track of the stops by the time we got to the outskirts of Trinidad and explored a colonial sugar plantation.
View from the tower

That was a long day. I could have used more than a brisk orientation walk around Trinidad, which is a splendid town.
As you might guess, slavery was big around here and much African tradition remains, including the Afro-Caribbean religion Santería. There are elements of Catholicism woven into Santería. We stopped by a temple dedicated to Yemayá, syncretized with the Virgin of Regla.

I was tempted to spend the next morning exploring Trinidad at my leisure, but had to keep going with the Cuban people activities. Some of the others booked a day trip on a catamaran to an island with iguanas, but T. and I and the older Canadian woman joined a group hiking to “El Cubano” waterfall.
On the way our local guide told us lots about the botany of the area. She also talked to the Canadian (while we swam in the cold water!) about her and her engineer husband’s attempt to emigrate to Canada. They scored enough points to get in, but couldn’t come up with C$10,000. I well remember the requirements to immigrate to Canada, and while I don’t remember how I was able to show I had $10,000, that’s why I’m Canadian today, while this bright woman and her family are still in Cuba.

Finally, after a week packed with learning, we had rum tasting on the beach.

Playa Ancon is just starting to be developed by the Cuban government, but it hasn’t gone resort yet. When it does, I hope Cubans aren’t chased off the public beach, the way I hear they are at Varadero and places like that.

Photo courtesy of T.
Trinidad was having a weeklong festival for its 505th anniversary! This meant the streets and plazas were full of music and dancing. We aren't really up for that aspect of Cuban culture, though of course, I made an effort to learn.
Some of the girls recommended La Redaccion for dinner—it was good enough that they joined us for a second night! The fish curry was the best thing I ate in Cuba. Still a long way from hot. If you’re ever at La Redaccion, check out the bathroom—only one toilet (with seat and paper!) but the room is roughly as big as the dining area.

On the way back to Havana we stopped in Cienfuegos. The city centre is pedestrianized and there are more shopping opportunities—not that we were shopping; I was just interested to see Cuban prices and what people can buy without ration books.
Prices in Cuban pesos=24 to 1 CUC or US$
All around Cienfuegos are industry, socialist murals, and workers’ flats. It looked like an interesting place and again, I was sorry we couldn’t stay.

Back in Havana we were staying next door to our previous casa particular. Our host there was the most cheerful woman I have ever met. Usually people would ask if we spoke Spanish, but she just launched into it. I didn’t get a lot of what she was saying, but I understand laughter, and hugs.

Over meals, some of us compared notes. The Australian guy told me that he’d met a young Cuban who used to be a photographer, but the government had hassled him so much that he found it impossible to continue. He was banking on a Slovenian girlfriend as his ticket into Europe. Meanwhile, he had two other girlfriends on the side. Not to stereotype.

At our last supper O. was very frank about the problems Cuba can have, such as taking five hours to replace a bus that broke down six kilometres from the bus company. That was why he’d been upfront with us at the very beginning, in case we had any of those experiences (and tried to blame the guide). Fortunately, nothing like that happened on our tour. He also told us why he hadn’t been able to join the group that went on the catamaran trip: Cubans aren’t allowed. That island is only for tourists! The government fears that if Cubans get on a boat, they have one thing in mind and that is to go to the U.S.A.
Flags on display at our nicest guesthouse, Alberto's in Trinidad
No country should tell its citizens where they may and may not go. Nor should any illegally detain or ill-treat prisoners. Down in the southeast of Cuba is a little province called Guantánamo, and here, the U.S. deeded itself a naval station in perpetuity when it wrote a constitution for Cuba in 1901. One of the stories about Guantánamo Bay of which I am least ashamed is that the U.S. keeps writing checks to Cuba for the rent, but the communist regime refuses to cash them. In Cuba, I heard that the U.S. keeps the money in an account to reimburse anybody with a complaint against the Castros. 

O. is from Guantánamo Province. I hope that soon, both his native country and mine have leadership that truly respects human rights. And is it beyond the bounds of human ingenuity also to find some way of sharing the wealth more equitably? Could Cuba possibly have the basic human dignity that the revolution promised, without all the crap?

I wouldn’t bet against the people of Cuba.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Our woman in Havana

Marie-Josée asked how, or if, we’d changed during the course of our travels. I didn’t have a good answer at the time. One thing I think has really affected me, though, is a growing awareness of the preciousness of water. So many places that we’ve traveled in the world, people can’t take for granted just turning on the faucet and having clean water to drink. And in some cities, like Cape Town, there is real danger of running out of water, unless people drastically change their habits. Meanwhile, a country like Canada is sitting on most of the fresh water on earth.

I hope I am more conscious now in my own habits. When tap water is drinkable, as in North America, I see no reason to buy bottled water. If you don’t like the taste of water in your area, there are filters—anything but plastic that takes petroleum to make, and may end up in the ocean! I was not as aware of these issues when we were first traveling in developing countries, but it made an impact that our hosts in Arusha, for example, kept reusable (glass) bottles of filtered water on hand. Before we left Canada, I bought some water purifying tablets—a few dollars for enough to purify 50 liters of tap water. Or, when we have access to a kitchen, we can boil water vigorously for 1 minute. One minute to effectively purify water and save on plastic bottles!

I am making a big deal about this because it is such a simple thing. We usually travel independently, but for various reasons, we chose to visit Cuba on an organized tour. We still wanted to travel on a budget, and the company we chose was Intrepid. One of the things Intrepid does is provide jugs of (chilled!) filtered water on its vehicles, so travelers can refill their reusable bottles and cut down on the need to buy plastic. It’s so simple—guesthouses can do it too. If other tour companies took a simple step like this, we could save so much pollution and waste of fossil fuels (not to mention our own travel money).

Our plan on these two years of traveling has been "two women, six continents." North America was the fifth of the traditional six continents we have visited, and South America will be the sixth, a new continent to both of us. But Cuba is an island, the largest in the Caribbean and the first one I have visited. And it's a fitting place to begin our travels in Latin America, because Cuba is an island in more than just the geographical sense.

Aboard our flight from Toronto I was looking at a route map in the Air Canada magazine, realizing I knew little about the geography of the Caribbean. I've heard of most of these islands, as cruise ship destinations, the type of places I rarely visit. But I didn't know that Cuba is westernmost, or contains half the land mass of all the islands in the Caribbean Sea. I did know one fact that has probably been more significant in Cuba's modern history than any other: it is very close to Florida and thus, to the U.S.A.

I was there to gather information and I will present my impressions, as best I can, in the order they were made on me. I haven’t come to a conclusion of my own, so I won’t be building to one for my readers. Cuba is unique in the world today, and it definitely has its problems, but that doesn't mean there is nothing to learn. I found that my assumptions and expectations were frequently overturned.

The expectations start with Cuba’s troubled 19th- and 20th-century history with the U.S., but let’s step back for a moment. Five hundred years ago, the island was colonized by Spain, and before even that, its original people were the Taíno, who named their home Cuba. The Taíno were one of those indigenous peoples of the Americas who were actually not warlike, but had the misfortune to be discovered by Columbus. Not that he personally exterminated them--his son did that, with the generous help of European disease. So no one on the island of Cuba today is descended from its original inhabitants.

Many Cubans, however, are descended from African slaves, who were brought here to work the sugar cane plantations. Before we left Toronto, Wayne showed us Anthony Bourdain’s documentary on Cuba, in which a black Cuban complained that people like her are more likely to be stopped by police. (Are you as tired of this as I am?) The Cuban revolution's approach to racism was to declare that it no longer existed, but as we see from the American revolution, merely declaring that all men are equal does not guarantee that they will treat each other so.

Having now been to Cuba, I cannot think of anywhere I've been in the world where black and less black people appeared to associate as commonly together--not just in families and relationships but as friends and acquaintances. Is this a real Cuban characteristic?

A few years ago there were no scheduled commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba. Now, it's hard to avoid them. José Martí International Airport in Havana has Delta and Southwest planes coming and going, along with Aeroflot direct to Moscow. This is the main reason I wanted to come to Cuba and I wanted to do it now. It’s a country that is changing, almost before a traveler’s very eyes. It has changed in the past few weeks and years, and if you visit in another year—or week—it will be different again.

Since we previously traveled in Vietnam, another communist country with which the U.S. had a troubled history, I kept making comparisons with Cuba. But both immigration/customs and our prearranged pickup from the airport were quick and efficient. Things slowed down somewhat at the currency exchange outside the terminal (the one inside was closed, as it was midnight!) At the moment, Cuba has two versions of its peso: the currency that Cubans use, and a convertible peso or CUC (“cook”) that foreigners can buy with our currencies. Also at the moment, this can only be bought in Cuba; it has no value outside. U.S. dollars (at the moment!) incur a 10% fee to exchange; fortunately we’d brought Canadian dollars. (In one of many ironies of Cuba, the CUC is actually pegged at 1 to the U.S. dollar, but that's not what you'll get.)

Our taxi looked pretty beat up, so again I was expecting a southeast Asia experience. But inside it had modern seatbelts—chest belts in the back seat. We whizzed by exactly one poster with the word Socialismo and image of Fidel Castro, who led the nation in an increasingly dictatorial way from 1959. I’d expected to see Fidel everywhere in Cuba, but over our week of traveling, I saw very little of him. Nothing like the prevalence of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam or, even more ubiquitous, the king in Thailand.

It was late at night when we got to our casa particular or guesthouse. Fidel might be rolling in his grave, but the country he led into the communist bloc is now awash with private enterprises such as these. Our host was up late waiting for us. He spoke no more English than I do Spanish, but somehow we worked it out. It’s amazing how that happens, when I’m in a country that uses the language and actually have to speak it. I had expected no toilet seat (like many items, they’re hard to come by in Cuba). We had one of those, but no towels. Out came our quick-drying travel towels.

A rooster crowed all night. There are roosters all over Cuba, but perhaps in Havana they get confused. It is, relatively speaking, the big, lit-up city. (Compared with Arusha, maybe.)

We had, indeed, anticipated such basic facilities that until the next morning we thought we didn’t even have a bathroom door. It turned out to be a folding wooden door that we just hadn’t seen. So much of having a good experience is just where you set your expectations!

Not many hours of sleep later, we made our way to the third floor terraza for breakfast. This was lovely. Fresh tropical fruits, freshly squeezed juice, and even eggs, which can also be hard to come by in Cuba. 
Hey--has Ivan taken my glasses? Photo courtesy of T.
We’d arrived the day before our tour started, because of the late scheduled arrival of our flight. I was glad we had, because we had the whole day to explore Havana. First, though, there was an unexpected wrinkle. The casa particular from which we’d be beginning our tour was not the same one Intrepid had booked us in (though I’d been assured it would be). So I wasn’t sure where we were supposed to go, and it seemed that my phone would not connect to Cuban telephone numbers.

Our friendly hosts sprang into action again, phoning on my behalf and showing me the way to our next guesthouse, Vista al Mar. (“View of the sea”—at a stretch, maybe, from the terraza!)
These guys had towels and a toilet seat! But no eggs. And we couldn’t get hot water in the shower either. After a full year in what the Cold War era called the First World, we were getting back into the rhythm of traveling in a Third—or, perhaps more exactly, Second World country.

Again, I could not help a comparison with Vietnam. Its cities were the loudest and craziest I’ve ever been in; the streets of Havana felt calm and peaceful. Sure, the sidewalks were often broken and folks just walked in the street, but no one was gunning for us. I never felt in danger of being run over in Cuba, but it must be the only place on earth you could get run over by an Oldsmobile.

For ever since 1959, people have hung onto their American cars: unable to get new cars or parts, they've held their beloved vehicles together with whatever it takes. The Cuban revolution was not ahistorical, like Cambodia's. If it had been, the communist revolutionaries would have razed Spanish colonial buildings and destroyed U.S. cars. Instead, both remain in abundance, highlighting the extent to which Cuba is in a unique time warp. Don't get me wrong; being less destructive than the Khmer Rouge is a pretty low bar for a government.
Chevy Bel Air, the pride of its owner
Our tour guide, O., later told us that Canada is the #1 country from which visitors come to Cuba. This doesn't surprise me. Canadians come because it's cheap, it's Caribbean, and the resorts, at least, are devoid of Americans. O. said that most Canadians don't come on tours like the one he was leading. They fly straight to Varadero, lie on the beach for a week, and fly home. Not that I blame them; I took a trip like that to Mexico one year when I was weary of the winter. But U.S. law bars its citizens and residents from this type of tourism so for now, Canadians (and Europeans and South Americans) have the resorts to themselves. If the embargo ever lifts, Cuba will be overrun with millions!

Of course, this is a stereotype, not true of the Canadians in our group or, for that matter, of my friends. At Wayne’s suggestion, we spent our afternoon in Havana walking to the steps of the Capitolio for a fine view. 
Capitolio (modeled after the U.S. Capitol) with cocotaxis (like tuk-tuks)
Then we walked up the Prado, a wide pedestrian street. Apart from the odd tout, there was no hassle at all. This also reinforced my sense of being in a unique, Second World city. 

At the top of the Prado is the Malecón or seafront walk.
View of modern Havana
On the way, we stopped for some Cuban food: ropa vieja or “old rope,” a kind of beef stew with rice. Cuban food is known for not being varied or exciting, and so it proved. The mojitos, on the other hand, were excellent—even to someone who doesn’t normally like rum.

Cubans also love their helado or ice cream, but most of all, their music. Music is played everywhere in Cuba. If it’s not a live band—even at the smallest and most modest of establishments—there’s still music playing: in stores, in public squares, on buses. I of course do not know the hearts of individual Cubans but I’m tempted to describe them as happy people. Their smiling faces and constantly swaying bodies gave that impression.

Finally, we met O. and the rest of our group of ten travelers. There were a Canadian mother and daughter, both born in England. There was a couple from Tasmania, a young man from Melbourne, and an Australian woman who turned out to have been born in Sydney, but to live in Athens. There were two other young women, a Swiss German backpacker and an Italian who lives in Brussels. And T. and me. If you're on an organized tour, this is the kind of group you want to go with. Everybody was friendly, flexible, warmed to the local people and genuinely wanted to learn about their country and culture. 

A poignant moment in O's introduction came when he said that there were things he would not "discuss about" (he actually meant argue as we did discuss them): politics, religion, and just to round it off, sports (which is religion to some people). My initial assumption was that this was a prohibition by the communist government, but in fact Cubans spoke to us freely about the many limitations of their government. O. explained that he has never had the opportunity to travel, so Cuba's is the only system he knows. Again, I assumed this was a limitation placed by the Cuban government, but most other countries restrict Cubans from visiting as well. After all, they are considered potential immigrants. 

And above all that, where would O., or most Cubans, get the money to travel abroad? I'd heard that Cuban salaries are low, but the equivalent of US$60 a month for a doctor, or $25 for a teacher, is really low. By comparison, Peru, a country with vast contrasts between rich and poor, has minimum monthly salaries equivalent to ten times that amount. 

The Italian-Belgian, who also speaks Spanish, told us that literally in the past week, Cubans had become able to use their phones to get the Internet. This is what I mean about a country changing before our eyes. But how can Cubans even get phones, on those salaries? One clue was the subsidized restaurants for poor or old people; another was the shops where people use their ration books to buy limited amounts of groceries (eggs!) at very low prices. 
Bread shop
We would never have seen these things without O. showing them to us. We’d walked these same streets in Old Havana the day before. What do subsidies and rations accomplish? Everyone gets the same amount, but the government controls it. I saw very little either begging or apparent wealth in Cuba; the effect of its system seems to be that everybody is equally poor.

If you’re doing better than average, and equality comes in with the force of revolution, it would feel like oppression, wouldn’t it? There were many losers in the Cuban revolution, not just wealthy people (and the foreign companies that owned 70% of the country’s wealth). Ordinary shopkeepers and middle-class people like that also saw their property nationalized, or stolen, as they would describe it. This has been called “the tragedy of the Cuban diaspora.” 

But in 1959, when Fidel Castro first became prime minister, he was not replacing a functioning democracy. He was replacing dictator Fulgencio Batista, the latest and most brutal in a long line of corrupt and inept Cuban leaders. I am trying to imagine another point of view, that of someone living a subsistence, serf-like existence in rural eastern Cuba, suddenly given a government apartment with a doctor and education. Would I see that brutalist block of flats in quite the same grim way? Maybe it didn’t seem as grim to someone who hadn’t always had enough to eat. Maybe freedom means something different to those of us who have leisure time—the kind that middle-class Americans first enjoyed in the years before 1959, when they traveled to Cuba en masse.
You can buy these authors, but not, say, The New York Times. Unlike in Hanoi!
It’s a country of strange, strange contrasts. Economically, it appears more like the Soviet era than any other country I’ve been to, yet casas particulares and paladars (privately owned restaurants) are everywhere too. These are the local businesses we're there to support, so O. took us to a paladar on our first night. Good food and high prices, both by Cuban standards. We loved the paella, we loved the music, we loved the rum. The Greek-Australian and a new friend surprised us with their salsa dancing.
Photo courtesy of T.

But Cubans can’t afford to eat in these places. O's meal would cost a month of his salary! He ate with us on the house, because he’d brought the group. It’s the way it works, and yet I can’t figure out quite how it works. How can a paladar be financed by Cubans? They must have moved abroad and come back, or have friends abroad. There just isn’t that kind of money in Cuba.

If this is the case, then there’s always been an artificial subsidy for the Cuban system. Because the revolution’s reforms turned out to be socialist, Fidel Castro cast his lot with the U.S.S.R. Money came from the Soviets until their system collapsed, at which time the “special period” of great deprivation began. Cuba might have been expected not to survive backing the wrong horse in the Cold War, but one look at those lovingly preserved pre-revolutionary cars shows you Cubans are more resourceful than that.
Classic American car or Soviet Lada? This Cold War is no contest!
Our walking tour of Old Havana was not all bread shops and prescriptions for fish (yes, you can get one of those). O. also showed us religious buildings, including the temporary mosque and the Catedral de La Habana.
His explanation was that religion is not prohibited in Cuba, but proselytizing is. He was open about conflict between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church in the early days of the revolution, when children were separated from their parents and sent to the U.S. This was in response to fears that the communist government would separate children from their parents and send them to the Soviet Union. More tragedy of the diaspora.
Physical education in Plaza Vieja (Old Square)
For most Cubans, poet José Martí was the founder of Cuba. There are statues of him everywhere (unlike Fidel), but I was more interested in this one, of Carlos M. de Céspedes.
He was the first president of the republic, a plantation owner who freed his slaves, then asked them to help him resist the Spanish colonial government. In this struggle, he lost his son. As in Vietnam, I sense a long history of national pride in Cuba, not something that originated in the twentieth century, or even started as communism. 

I left Havana with more questions than answers. The Cuban government controls many aspects of people’s lives, apparently making everyone the same—poor. In the U.S., government fails to protect citizens from gun violence, which forces them to live with random shootings. Cuba is safe, but is that because it is a police state? Some opponents of gun control think a police state is the only possible alternative to the U.S. system. 

Our last stop was in the modern city, at Plaza de la Revolución. Here, there is a José Martí Memorial, but what dominates the square is the Ministry of the Interior, with a steel sculpture of its onetime head, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. 
To me, this picture sums up the contrasts of Cuba. The deceased hero of the revolution, whose image (based on the iconic photograph by Alberto Korda) adorns a bazillion products for sale. And in front, one of an equal number of pre-revolutionary American cars, stubbornly chugging along.

Next time: more ironies, surprises, and impressions from other parts of Cuba. Meanwhile, if you have any questions of your own, please add them to the comment section.
Recycling, Plaza Vieja