A summer biking holiday in Cuba- I was looking forward to seeing the architecture and hearing Cuban music and experiencing the island as I rode across it. I did all this but I also discovered that Cuba has a darker side of unemployment, censorship and repression. These darker aspects put a shadow across my pleasure in the lighter, brighter Cuba that the tourist board promotes.
I went on an Exodus holiday with 17 other cyclists, age range 16- 64 and the oldest was the father of the youngest. Teachers dominated the group with a quarter being Irish. We rode across the island for 14 days and moved on almost every night. So we saw a lot but there was little time for reflection or even rest. So I returned fit but exhausted.
We experienced the huge range of terrain in Cuba. The first day we cycled over high rolling uplands in the morning and were in the swamps around the Bay of Pigs area in the afternoon. Another day we biked along a coast road with deep blue sea to one side. I liked the mountains best and we had a morning walking in the Sierra Maestra. We had climbed up through dense forest and looked across lush green vistas with big trees and palms and blue sky overhead. We saw into people’s homes because our toilet stops were arranged at the homes of our guides’ friends along our route. Most of the homes had few possessions, in the kitchen women cooked on small electric elements and many had a pressure cooker, popularised as part of an energy saving drive. Nearly all had a TV. One of the few homes with decorations had pictures of the Virgin of Cuba, Fidel and an ecological advertisement about saving energy and illustrated Cuba’s populist themes of religion, revolution and self–sufficiency.
As we travelled I realised how much censorship there is. The only newspaper is the party paper, “Granma” and I only saw that a couple of times and no-one was reading it. There were no other newspapers and no magazines. I also did not see any paper or pens, nobody was writing anything. There were a few libraries in towns and schools. These were stocked with texts such as Castro’s speeches and communist economic analysis. I did see a copy of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” in one library. It is a paradox that the Cuban government is very proud of its high literacy rates but there is little evidence of people using that literacy. I also talked to a Cuban journalist one day who was delighted to have my week old Guardian, he had infrequent access to the internet. Cubans are barely allowed to use the internet, they can only access a few pages under government control. People also feel trapped; they have no passports and cannot travel. The journalist I talked to had a Spanish passport and had travelled to Barcelona, paid for by Spanish friends. This had been a huge trip for him and I was interested that he had returned and felt loyal to the regime. Our guide had also avoided answering our questions and on the last day we were each allowed to write down one question on a sheet of paper that was circulated. He then answered these questions very honestly but also in the safety of the bus and on the last day. There is also a very active secret police monitoring what people are saying. However news from the outside world is broadcast and Cubans knew all about the Olympics in London and had cheered on their own athletes (who won 14 medals). Politically it felt just like East Germany in the 1980s with a repressed population.
We experienced the centrally run communist style economy. There are ration shops providing essentials such as rice and beans are provided by a monthly ration, these looked poor quality and there were also a few other goods, even plastic buckets were very expensive. There are a few shops with luxury goods such as bicycles and washing machines. There were a few markets but very little trading occurring, is such a contrast to Africa where people set up stalls anywhere. One of the communist features of the Cuban economy is that people cannot take out loans. This is good for averting debt crises but bad if you want to stimulate your economy.
Unemployment was visible with many young and middle aged people standing around the towns and villages. Many people have moved to the countryside and are living as subsistence farmers with banana trees, vegetables and pigs. Keeping pigs and eating pork is popular in Cuba, when the government liberalised the laws on keeping pigs they were flooded with 14000 applications for keeping pigs the next week. Cuba is very fertile and well watered and it was saddening to see little large scale organised agriculture, beyond a few large sugar cane farms. There is no effective distribution system for agricultural produce. Farmers are now allowed to sell part of their crop privately but the government is very bad at paying them for the crops that they do produce and this does not incentivise farmers. We visited a farmers market and it felt empty with a few stalls selling shrivelled garlic bulbs.
Given the hot humid climate it is astonishing that Cubans keep their ancient American cars alive and functioning long beyond their expected life span. Only a few new cars have been imported recently. In the poorer parts of the island there are not even bicycles. In much of the island donkey and cart is the main means of transport.
There is a dual currency system. Tourists pay for everything in “convertible pesos” which are worth about 25 Cuban pesos. One pays with these in hotels, restaurants and shops. This also creates differentials, a Cuban working in the tourist sector can earn in a week with tips in convertible pesos what a doctor earns in two months. Cubans can also go to bars where they pay in convertible but with the price differential one would have to want to really impress the person one was with. What is curious is that whether the price is convertible or Cuban just seems to be known rather than displayed. Our guide said that Cubans just knew which currency to pay in. Foreigners can only buy Cuban pesos on the street.
Cubans have very good health indicators and they are over- doctored with one doctor or nurse being responsible for 1400 people and having to visit them every two weeks which seemed very invasive. I can see how they have effective public health measures but I suspect that even their primary care is quite minimal with little access to modern drugs. I was also surprised to see modest numbers of obese people, I wondered whether some unemployed people have a very sedentary life style. Maybe Cuba is a good example of how one can improve health indicators by improving water, sanitation and having effective vaccines together with a basic level of nutrition being available for everyone. Cubans certainly have better health indicators than their Jamaican or Haitian neighbours with longer life expectancy, lower maternal mortality and better water access
Cuban does seem to have social safety nets and I was left feeling that if I had to be poor I would prefer to live in Cuba than elsewhere.
Our bike ride taking us through villages exposed us to a surprising amount of Cuba and
I left Cuba with my head full of questions, what will happen to the economy, how can civil rights be improved, what will happen post Raul? I could see that the communist economy does not work as a market; people are not rewarded by producing goods. It is sad that Cuba has not offered an alternative economic model to our own failing capitalist version. The Cuban economy is now as dependent on tourists as they were on sugar 50 years ago. This creates differentials between the Cubans and the tourists and between the Cubans themselves. The US trade embargo is counter-productive, it worsens the Cuban economy and promotes the absence of human rights. As I travelled I became more aware of the absence of free speech and access to the outside world. I am now emailing the journalist whom I met but he can only go online for a couple of hours a month through a foreign student. Political opponents of the regime have also been imprisoned. I have also followed the blogger Yoani Sanchez www.desdecuba.com/generaciony who describes life in Cuba with its repressions in a wry and insightful way. Cubans cannot stay abreast of medical and scientific developments if researchers do not have access to the internet. Since I was there the government has announced that they will be easing restrictions on travel but for many people this means going into exile. Cuba again risks haemorrhaging talented people overseas. Yoani Sanchez fears that 2013 will be a year of goodbyes, but promises to stay herself, to keep the door open. Of course if she continues blogging with her insightful, wistful pieces about Cuba she might be forced to leave. I doubt that her blogs are read with appreciation by the secret police.
Conversely if I was poor and had to choose where to live then Cuba would be on my list, life there is much better than in many places. One has free medical treatment and no worries about unexpected medical expenses which is a luxury that my Indian friends do not have. There is a social safety net. The free education again provides something that my Indian friends might envy. I guess that the government makes Cuban aware of these comparative advantages and this probably helps to dampen potential revolution. There is also a huge genuine pride in the Cuban revolution and doing things in a Cuban manner. I left feeling that I would not want to go back as a tourist but would go back if there was a work related opportunity.
Cuba A new History Richard Gott
The Cuba Reader Ed Chomsky, Carr, Smorkaloff