We arrived in Cuba on the heels of U.S. President Obama’s visit, the first visit of an American president in almost 90 years. The promise of “cutting loose the failed policies of the past” and building a new relationship with Cuba was met with lots of fanfare, official words of hope, grumbling from Cuban politicos, and from the Cubans we spoke with, a high degree of skepticism. Considering the country’s history, that shouldn’t be surprising.
I can’t pretend of course to understand the Cuban people or their culture in a week-long visit, most of which was spent in an all-inclusive resort few Cubans can enjoy. But Dan and I did come away with strong impressions and new insights. And it certainly brought home once again what privilege looks like.
The average monthly income in Cuba is equal to 15-25 U.S. dollars. To put this in perspective, a litre of gas, for example, costs about $1.30 U.S. Imagine you need to buy 10 litres of fuel to drive your car to visit your family. That one trip alone could be almost a month’s income. So the Cubans in the resorts are workers, many of them highly educated. It’s not uncommon for them to be former teachers, doctors, lawyers. But they make better money in the resorts. It’s tourism, in fact, that fuels the Cuban economy despite Fidel Castro’s recent letter about Obama’s visit that compared tourists to the Spanish Conquistadors searching for gold. Jobs in the resorts are considered among the best jobs in the country where workers can double, triple, even quadruple their monthly pay thanks to the tips left by foreign visitors.
We stayed in Cayo Coco, the fourth largest of the more than 4000 little islands that make up Cuba. Cayo Coco is not for Cubans. It’s made up of hotels, beautiful beaches and air-conditioned tour buses shuttling back and forth. Most resort workers here commute to work up to two hours each way on small ancient over-crowded buses and put in up to nine hour shifts. On the road to Moron, a small city of 65,000 people, new apartment blocks are going up which are intended solely for resort workers to reduce the commute time to 45 minutes each way. These blocks stand in the middle of nowhere, no shops, no markets, no other homes. Just concrete boxes. So while the time it takes to get to work may be less, access to the daily necessities of life will not be convenient, at least not at first.
The most interesting part of our trip was the day we traveled to Moron and a little further away, Ciego de Avila, a bustling city twice the size of Moron. Our guide, Alex, was a former English teacher who joined the tour company nine years ago. His reason? The money. He worries though about the impact of so many highly educated Cubans doing what he did, abandoning the work they hoped would build the country in order to cater to foreigners. There are 65 universities in Cuba where people can learn to become doctors, nurses, architects, teachers, lawyers. Education is free in Cuba yet it appears to be becoming something of a wasted effort. Who, he wonders, will teach the children when all the teachers are waiters and janitors?
What struck us the most though about Cubans is their apparent resilience. After 55 years of trade embargo and isolation led by the United States, the decay is to be expected. Even the most beautiful buildings with their Spanish architecture and intricate tile work are faded, with crumbing plaster, pieces having fallen away. Yet everywhere there is colour. Art. Music. Much laughter. A vibrant culture. And an ability to recycle goods in impressive ways.
Pop cans, for example, are often melted down for their aluminum to create the beautiful lattice work you see around windows and doors or to make bowls or plates or other household items. Old cutlery is melted down to silver and finds new life in beautiful jewellery and art works. People turn the front rooms of their homes in the city into shops where they sell these along with trinkets, wood carvings, clothing, intricately crafted crochet dresses and so on. Anything that might induce a tourist to buy a souvenir of Cuba.
In some of the homes/commercial enterprises, the owners allowed us to wander around, through the kitchen where we might find an impressive array of fresh vegetables laid on the counter ready for chopping, past a bedroom/sitting room where two or three people gathered visiting, into the back courtyard where the laundry stretched across its length to dry. In one such home, a 100-year-old woman sat in her rocker crocheting and smiling as we traipsed past, feeling awkward and intrusive. I purchased a hand-made sunhat. No machine stitches here, each stitch neatly and carefully made and held together in places with strips of lacy crochet work.
In another home, an elderly woman kept her back to the people invading her space, watching her flat screen TV showing a drama in Spanish. Her kitchen was bright, colourful, her walls decorated with paintings that appeared to be saints.
In the courtyard, there was a pool where half a dozen turtles swam about, there to absorb any evil energy, perhaps brought in by the strangers in her home. In the back, four young men toiled over workstations creating beautiful pieces of jewellery and art in silver, all of which were then sold in the front room of the house.
Cuba is famous for the timelessness that is perhaps most evident in the city streets where 1950s style cars jockey with Russian-made Ladas, bicycles and horses and buggies. They navigate around each other with sometimes alarming speed, evidence of people getting on with life using whatever they have to keep going.
Still, it’s clear that life isn’t easy for the average Cuban. We saw lots of beggars in the streets and scrambling for coins. Many homes look barely habitable, at least by North American standards. And so it’s not surprising that the expected arrival of the Americans, the people deemed responsible for the current state of affairs, is met with varying degrees of resentment. “We don’t like their policies,” said one man to us, “but we like their money. As long as they stay in the resorts.” Away from us, the unspoken message.
Revolution is present in both obvious and subtle ways. You can buy prints, for example, of the faces of revolutionary heroes in the tourist shops. In some cases, the faces are painted on the walls of buildings along with other symbols and rallying cries from decades past.
Cubans have fought several times for their independence. First, in the failed Ten Years’ War against Spain from 1868-1878. In the second war for independence from Spain, just before the turn of the century, the Americans entered the conflict concerned about their economic interests. The Americans prevailed, ousting Spain and setting Cuba up for American influence over its affairs. U.S. economic involvement and military intervention, over time, weakened the growth of Cuba as a nation. The 1930’s saw the rise of the brutal military dictator Fulgencia Batista who, backed by the U.S, ruled into the mid-1940’s and again from 1952-1959 when he was overthrown by Fidel Castro. Castro began expropriating U.S. properties and investments and in 1961, began to move Cuba to a one-party Communist system with support from the Soviet Union, ultimately leading to the U.S trade embargo. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, their economic support of Cuba ended, creating a major financial crisis. And by the late 90’s, the U.S. toughened economic sanctions and hardened its stance towards Cuba, instituting other measures designed to further its isolation.
So when Obama visited in March with the intention of “charting a new course for Cuba”, many Cubans seem at best cautiously optimistic, more likely taking a wait and see attitude. Especially when one of Obama’s first acts after returning home was to sign an order to Cuba of $800,000.00 to “help Cubans learn to change”. At least, that’s how Alex, our guide saw it. The United States described it as supporting the growth of a new civil society. And when we departed the resort for the airport to head home, the bus operator said, “We love Canadians and we hope you’ll come back soon. But come before the Americans get here.” There’s not much time. The first American cruise ships will dock in May. And Obama is promising 110 commercial flights a day from the U.S.
It’s not all negative though. The painting I liked best on the wall of an apartment block in Moron was a stylized sun with long rays stretching out and the words, “Un mundo mejor es posible.” A better world is possible. So while many in Cuba may be concerned about the advent of the Americans and worrying whether they will get a friend or a repeat of heavy-handed intervention, they will adapt. Cubans are known for their resilience. They are proven survivors.