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Cuba, moving on in a frozen state

There are two countries on my bucket list of nations to visit if life, resources and time permit: Cuba and Jamaica; Cuba because the events…

There are two countries on my bucket list of nations to visit if life, resources and time permit: Cuba and Jamaica; Cuba because the events that shaped my earliest exposure to history, politics and governance were from the adventures of the Argentinian medic, Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, popularly known as Che Guevara. He was one of the most notable companions of the late President Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, also known as Fidel Castro. Along with their compadres, Che and Fidel led the campaign against dictator, Fulgencio Batista, a campaign that snowballed into the guerrilla warfare that birthed the ‘Cuban revolution’. Most students of political history of the 80s would have read Castro’s allocutus – La Historia me Absolvera translated as – History Will Absolve Me. Jamaica is second on my list because it is the birthplace of reggae and its legends.

The history of the Cuban resistance was, and perhaps remains a euphoric addition to other stories of the leftist struggle that commenced with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution until the fall of the USSR. Nothing compliments reading the accounts of societal transformation like visiting or living it; hence the euphoria of having an opportunity to visit Cuba. 

The first impression of the Cuban capital, La Havana from the relative opulence of a capitalist society or an under-developed society is the reality that life could be moving in frozen motion for 65 years. One iconic representation of Cuba of the last 20 years has been antique vehicle of the late 50s and 60s. That is because of the events that overthrew Batista installed a socialist system in Cuba in 1959. The cold-war clash between Western capitalism, pitched itself against Russia-led communists creating a cold-war ideological divide that imposed sanctions on Cuba by the West.

This led to the migration of 1.2 million Cubans to the Miami-Dade county alone, the largest single ethnic cluster in that state and at least four others. Miami is only 90 nautical miles from the Cuban capital , La Havana. Yet in contrast to the opulence of Miami, about 70 per cent of the vehicles left in Cuba were those left on the island during the 1959 revolution. The can-do spirit of the Cubans has sustained these antiques on Cuban roads, albeit leaving a thick smell of carbon polluting the otherwise beautiful landscape of the Cuban capital.

On an hourly basis, at least one plane takes off from Miami towards Cuba or from Havana to Miami. Flight time is less than one hour on the 727 jet that ushered us into a slow descent to the Jose Marti International Airport, named after a revolutionary Cuban of the independence era.

In contrast to other North American airports, this one is nondescript. Fenced round and splashed in white paint, the plane touched ground revealing a series of weather-stripped decommissioned flag carrier Cubana, the first casualty of America’s crippling embargo. As the plane screeched to a halt on the tarmac, passengers appreciated its journey with thunderous hand-clapping, gesture of gratitude for safe landing and perhaps appreciation to the flight crew. 

Filing through the jet bridge, we were greeted by a squeaky-clean tiled floor and the fading scent of fresh paint on the walls of the building.  Taking a small elevator, we were soon facing entry gates manned by decently dressed customs and immigration officers in their well-ironed khaki. The routine of baggage and personal checks finished, we were ushered into the cool breeze of the morning and the mellowness of the early morning sun.

Parked vehicles did not immediately reveal the dated icons identified with Cuba, although they were not glittering specs of modernity. We settled into an old Toyota Prado that sounded sturdy given its age. As we drove through the paved road into town; those antiques began to appear -1959 Chevy Impalas, Russian Lada, that once plied Nigerian roads in the late 70s and 80s, then the odd Volkswagen Beetle followed by Bedford lorries of the Bolekaja era all cruising along. There were Yamaha, Suzuki and Honda motorcycles of the same era. 

A driver explained that while these vehicles have their old bodies, the engines and parts are not of the same era as Cuban mechanics cobble together whatever their hands could find to keep the vehicles going. ‘It is not uncommon to find a Chevy with a Toyota engine, a Lada transmission and some Kia parts,’ she enthused.

At the Grand Mufti Hotel, our team was met by tourist-friendly staff. The hotel itself was squeaky clean and the staff were ready to assist. Cubans are tourist-friendly and there are no inhibitions about taking pictures. Although there is a plasticity to the smiles here, people appeared content having something to do.

Inside our room were clean white towels, three China-made toiletries – shampoo, relaxer and shower gel that would remain unchanged throughout our stay. Two- round hand soaps carrying the mark – Gaviota Hotels barely foamed. In the loo, a half roll of toilet paper hung there is stronger than the kitchen towels wasted in modern societies. It bore the inscription Jinboshi Group in Chinese calligraphy and in English. The bottled water stood bore the mark Mexvco suggesting it might have come from Mexico.

There is talk of scarcity of bread and eggs in Cuba as a result of the broken central supply system, but our morning buffet consisted of foods that could sustain for the day. There was the abundance of locally made tea and coffee renowned for its unique strong taste, ham and sausage in abundance and chicken, as well as fruits – pineapples, papaya, momey, guava and watermelon. The milk is not fresh, probably dried milk mixed with water. Tourists showed their generosity by leaving tips as they savour the meal.

Cuban Perestroika

In November 2016, Castro announced a partial opening of the economy, allowing small-scale businesses like barbing salons, eateries, transportation and hotelling. These are still in operation catering to Cubans, as well as tourists. Government remains the highest employer of labour or its controller. It continues to regulate pay leaving a despondent almost robotic workforce.

Visitors are granted a $5,000 spending allowance. For those with high tastes that want to tour the whole country, this is unlikely to go far, even as package tours are advertised for less than $1,000 for a week’s visit.  Cuba has no open supermarkets, even as government-controlled distribution  stores are mostly locked up. The few expatriate stores open to tourists accept dollars or payment with Mastercard. Locals have no such luxury.

Cuba does not produce its own fuel. In the days of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, it relied on that nation for its fuel supply. Venezuela is battling post-Maduro daemons and its effect is becoming visible in the two-tier fuel supply system existing in La Havana. The fuel with long lines is the ones accepting pesos. Those sold in dollars have no queues. The rest have run out of supply. With the official exchange rate at one American dollar to 23.99 Cuban pesos, every store in town was exchanging the dollar between 300 and 325 pesos.

Cart-pulled vending and roadside grocery sellers have very limited commodity on display reflecting a struggling economy. A few balcony sale of second-hand wears happens within residences. 

Touring La Havana

Official tour of La Havana on government run open-roof buses sell $10 tickets that is valid for a whole day although the tour itself is completed in two hours. It starts wherever the bus makes a stop and drives round the city’s iconic monuments running through the cemetery to the the imposing Plaza de la Révolucion. Here, a marbled statue of Jose Marti looks down on the metal wall art of Che and Castro standing side by side, separated by a paved open square. This is Cuba’s version of secretariat featuring defense formations and government offices.

It then runs round the nearly three hundred year old Universidad de la Habana founded in 1728. The institution’s slightly flaking structures belies its reputation as a centre of excellence in medicine, science and the arts. It raises the Cuban doctors famous for their professionalism and ruggedness. In contrast to its wealthy neighbour – America, whose health care caters to the highest bidder, Cuban health care is free. Functional hospitals dot the Havana landscape, ensuring that the sick get easy access to what the state offers. A visit to one of the hospitals revealed the trade-mark clean environment, smartly-dressed staff and surprisingly state of the art equipment. It is not uncommon for tourists to save for their dental care in Cuba.

Official tour snakes the beautiful beachfronts, exposing the decay of dilapidated structures and crumbling alleys crying for renovation. It is said that a bag of cement here costs about $50 in the black market. That is more than the average home owner could afford leaving the countries old beautiful structures in a serious state of disrepair.

Tour buses stop at the Centro Cultural Antiques, where tourists could satiate their taste for Cuba’s arts and artefacts. Straw hats, carvings, trade-mark cigars and paintings and iconic t-shirts are available in abundance for those with dollars to spend. 

From here, the tour stops again at city centre, with its fleet of  colourful antique sports cars. There is the Cuban version of Nigeria’s Keke Marwa and other forms of transportation. The bistros are busy with street bands strumming afrojazz music. Couples and families walk arm-in-arm, eating at the posh restaurants while revellers waltz to samba. Havana is a culturally descent city where the open show of affection is matched with the dainty dressing of its svelte women clad in fitting if slightly decadent outfits.

Located here is the Museum de la Revolucion, displaying the relics of the boat that brought Castro and his compadres under armed guard in a glass vault. The museum is closed due to renovation, but the planes used to counter-attack the young revolutionaries are visible to the public.

La Havana Cuisine

For those with a taste for food and drinks, coconut is the backbone of both beverages and liquor. It is a better alternative to water because of its mineral and electrolyte content. Cuba is known for its trade mark big fat Cohiba cigars but the home of Havana Club rhum, served straight on the rocks or with fresh coconut water in its pod with a touch of lime that the locals call saoco. 

The ocean invites surfers, swimmers and those who just want to splash. But it provides abundant fish, lobsters, octopus and crabs all that makes for a pescatarian diet. Grilled, fried or cooked, La Havana cuisine is exquisite to the taste. 

Meat lovers have only chicken as an alternate to pork. Beef is not a staple food. ‘Here, every cow has a passport, just like humans. To kill one, even if you own it, would require state permit,’ said a local. While restaurants cater to the taste of the high-class, street food cater to all. It ranges from sandwich de Huevo  (egg sandwich) to tostones (fried banana) and churros or pastries.

Castles and statues

Across La Havana is a cluster of Cuban history preserved for generations daily showcased. On this land lie relics of decommissioned canons from expeditions of yore, now mostly military outposts. Among them is the imposing Cristo de La Havana or Christ of Havanna, a magnificent 20-metre sculptor carved out of 600 tonnes of pure carrara marble by Cuba’s Jilma Madera. Standing at 51 metres above sea level, on a 20-metre base, this is a sight open to interpretations that gives an impressive view of the Havana coastline by day or by night.

At 9pm every night, visitors gather here to watch a re-enactment of an ancient tradition at which time a canon is fired to warn stragglers and citizens of the closure of the city’s gates. Every evening, hordes of tourists and citizens gather to watch soldiers clad in pirate-like regalia march to the shooting point to fire a thundering canon. A night market caters to the tastes of souvenir scouts while a horse-drawn carriage is ready for those who want to explore more under the night skies. 

65 years of Cuban films

Cuba has a thriving night life. From the Grand Muthu Hotel’s adjoining clubs, the sound of heavy electric music could be heard into the early hours of the morning. This year is particularly important for night life. It is the 65th year of Cuban film and television. The initial event was flagged off at the Cine Praga by an orchestra featuring different musicians re-enacting film, music and drama behind the silhouette of old vignettes. The celebration was well attended by an audience of arts and artists, cinema, film and theatre enthusiasts and continues throughout the month of April. Twenty-five countries have sent representation.

Cuba, what future?

For all its history, culture and struggle, Cuba stands in the valley of decision. Almost all the icons of its revolutionary era are gone. Its most powerful allies, such as Russia and China, have either reformed or are reforming. 

This leaves Cuba in the same isolation as its communist friends in North Korea against very tough and powerful capitalist foes. With a burgeoning population of youths not totally closed to happenings across the globe, a powerful force of exiles, it would be detrimental to Cuba’s development to keep it a closed socialist state, particularly in its present state.

There is a compelling need to reassess positions to embrace freedom and more open market. The pervasive rumour of corruption among its ruling elite that led to the arrest of a smuggler who confessed to be fronting for a member of the politburo is a case in point. While this led to the arrest and conviction of a government minister, it lends credence to the rumour that there may be more.

The disadvantage of a closed society is far outweighs the advantages. Empty shelves, closed stores, long lines at fuel stations, dearth of essential commodities, state-controlled employment that pays starvation wages and breeds mass poverty. All these have led to desperation by citizens to leave Cuba. ‘People prefer to sell their homes to a willing buyer and use the money to seek greener pastures elsewhere than wait for the red tape that controls prices of the goods needed to renovate them,’ says a citizen. Another citizen cautiously whispered that ‘most Cubans are tired. They want out. Believe me, some Cubans would even migrate to Haiti the way things are.’ 

The old communist state hangs on by a wobbly thread as emotions are pent up and may explode. The state is no longer able to provide the basic needs of the people. On March 17 this year, an unprecedented demonstration over power shortage attests to this.

On its part, the democratic regime in America must see the futility of sanctions because they hurt the Cuban people more than they hurt their targeted leaders. At a time when a stream of economic migrants are trooping towards the Mexico border, it would be disastrous if the Miami border witnessed an outpouring of disgruntled Cubans. This is why it would be in the interest of the USA to reconsider the Obama-era rapprochement and resort to dialogue and diplomacy.