Recently, the media has been abuzz with the story of Jay-Z and Beyonce’s visit to Cuba. Like Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea, it is beginning to appear as though the Obama administration’s new tools of foreign policy are coming from the ranks of celebrities. A number of people have already commented on this new (or old) breed of useful idiots so I see little other reason than to use these obvious propaganda stunts as a means to launch in to my own recent trip to Cuba. Unlike the mainstream media, there will be no attempt to sugar coat and spin what I experienced and saw during my brief stay.
My comrades and I departed on April 7th and the first signs that we were venturing in to a country with a government gone mad began before the plane even took off. About half an hour prior to boarding, the interior of the plane had to be sprayed down with pesticides as mandated by the Cuban government. We were assured though, that the World Health Organization had vetted this particular pesticide and that we would be just fine sucking down the fumes for the next 3 hours. I felt safer already.
During the bus ride to our hotel, we were given a brief introduction to Cuba by one of the resident slaves… err, citizens. She was very friendly and set the tone for my overall impression of the Cuban people. When the Bolsheviks were running things in Russia many Russians joked about their lot in life. It was a way of coping with the pain of oppression. The Cuban people are no different. We were told that our destination was one of the most northerly parts of Cuba, only 90 miles from the coast of Florida. For that reason, all of the best Cuban swimmers want to live there.
Joking aside, the condition of the average Cuban is saddening to see. Dilapidated houses, providing shelter for up to four generations at a time, slowly burn in the sun without air conditioning and sometimes even windows. Half finished housing projects lay abandoned scattered around the suburbs while emaciated stray animals scavenge for food in the streets of Old Havana. Road workers dig with shovels and pickaxes to make the necessary repairs that now overwhelm them. Cubans are decidedly living in poverty, with the average person receiving a monthly allowance of about $15 to spend.
Havana itself has fallen far from its former glory. In the pre-revolution days this city would have been a sight to behold. Classical European architecture abounds but can no longer be maintained due to the Cuban governments neglect and impoverishing measures. Such is the nature of communism, when everyone owns everything no one is responsible for anything. The result is the decay that now grips this once beautiful city. You can always tell the newer buildings from the old, pre-revolution constructions. They were designed and built by the Soviets and look positively horrendous. Occasionally we ran across a pristine villa that would easily blend in at Palm Beach. Invariably these were the home of some high-level bureaucrat; so much for the equalization of wealth under Marxism. During the revolution, the homes of British and American people were seized and turned over to their former maids and other help. Predictably, the new residents simply did not have the income to be able to sustain a high-end property and they all have since fallen in to disrepair. Recently the Cuban government has allowed them to rent out rooms to tourists but only under heavy restrictions, fees and licenses. It did not produce the desired effect of rehabilitating these once gorgeous homes.
Automobiles are a similar situation. Only the best workers can afford cars and will oftentimes have to work an entire lifetime to be able to afford one that is already 50 years old. In Cuba there are seven different coloured license plates to identify the class of the driver (citizen, taxi driver, tourist rentals and government vehicles). Bureaucrats are the only Cubans with cars built during my lifetime. Cubans who bought cars were stuck with them for life. The car could only be given away as an inheritance but recent liberalizations now allow Cubans to sell their unwanted cars to anyone, for a fee of course though.
Many consumer staples we take for granted are sorely lacking in Cuba. Simple items like band aids, matches and even toilet paper are in short supply everywhere we go. During our exploring we met one shopkeep who told us the story of her daughter who managed to marry a foreigner and leave the country. This is one of the only legal ways a Cuban can leave, but it is on the condition that they never return. Clearly, the government doesn’t want their former cattle coming back to tell their relatives how badly they’re getting milked. This mother will likely never see her daughter again, but is nonetheless elated that she has found a life beyond the island.
A brief note on money, because the Cuban system is unique. There are actually two currencies, the Cuban Peso (for citizens) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (for foreigners). This is one of the many ways the government keeps its citizens economically imprisoned because the Cuban Peso (CUP) cannot be converted in to the currencies of other nations, only the Convertible Peso (CUC) can. For obvious reasons, Cubans much prefer to be paid in CUC’s and black markets dealing in them are ubiquitous throughout the island.
For all the governments rhetoric and propaganda though, they clearly expose the lie that Communists have any interest in the common people of their country. They are just as greedy as the rest of us, only they have given themselves the moral sanction to use violence to get what they want. Take, for instance, their treatment of two of the largest industries on the island; cigars and rum. Both were nationalized during the early 60’s and many companies that had existed for over a century were torn apart and consolidated in to the mega-conglomerates that now run the island. To add insult to injury, half of the Cuban rum and cigar industries were then sold off to Spanish and French multinationals.
All in all, it was a great trip though I did get sick of seeing Che Guevara’s mass-murdering mug at every turn. The beaches were some of the best I’ve ever been to. The people were gracious, friendly and helpful whenever we needed assistance. Of course, a few pesos always helped as well. The recent reforms towards capitalism have been met with great approbation and it is clear that the people of Cuba want more, both for themselves and for their country. In the meantime I will enjoy the wonderful collection of rum and cigars I brought back home.