Cuba where to start!
I have been home over a month now and have only started to write a blog on Cuba! I still haven’t properly processed the massive contradictions of this complex little island; I’m hoping writing this will help me process my thoughts at least! So if you’re reading this hoping to find out concrete facts about the ins and outs of Cuba I feel I should put a disclaimer out now! This blog is simply my experience, my perceptions and my understanding of Cuba. I now realise it takes more than two months backpacking with broken Spanish to understand the complexities of this beautiful little island. But if you are interested in to hear my experience here it is……
I have wanted to go to Cuba for the past few years. I have been inspired by the Cuban revolution for as long as I can remember; being a hopefully socialist I have always been intrigued to see how a socialist state actually works in day to day life. I was also feeling a bit of despair by the state of our society and hoped to get some inspiration on how a different country runs. Seeing the relations with Cuba and America changing, the embargo gradually being lifted, freedom for Americans to visit Cuba and the Kardasians priding themselves as being the first ‘reality’ TV show to film an episode in Cuba I realised I better go quick before America get their hands on it and it becomes McDonaldized like the majority of the world! So I planned for two months in Cuba, friends and family coming out at different stages, travelling, learning and just Being in Cuba.
Me and my two good friends arrived eager to learn, understand and get inspired. By the time the girls’ two weeks were done the three of us realised we had more questions than we did at the start of the trip! I was left with a list of hanging quires and promised to try and bring them home the answers to questions like; Are all tourist hotels state run? (I now know yes they are) Are professional sports star allowed to profit from their talent? (Not if they are representing Cuba – the government takes any financial gains) What’s Cuban’s views on Guantanamo Bay? (They just kept warning me don’t go there!) And what is the craic with all The Beatles statues everywhere!? (John Lennon was a massive supporter of the revolution and became great friends with Fidel) On reflection, I now realise I spent the first month there driving myself crazy trying to learn what was going on and how everything worked. I got frustrated because nothing made sense! This could be because despite my several attempts of trying to learn Spanish, I have never progressed past my 15-20 trusty words and English isn’t very widely spoken in Cuba. As you can imagine trying to ask someone their opinion on how the changing socialist state and introduction of globalisation is affecting their lives through charades is not easy! Or it could be because every individual I met had a different take on the current situation and how it worked, or didn’t for them. When the girls left I travelled with my daddy, brother & sister, had a few weeks on my own and to finish off with my good friend Nicola; toward the second half of the trip I decide to give up trying to understand everything and just to go with it, accept Cuba as it was and simply enjoy it – this is when I properly fell in love with the place!
Like all new loves I was besotted by the exciting uniqueness of the island and couldn’t get enough of everything that was on offer. The music on every corner, the gathering of people singing & dancing in the street, the beautiful architecture of buildings that looked like they’re ready to collapse but 10 families are living in them just fine, the overfriendliness of people offering their life story and asking mine in return, the colours, the daily randomness, the open displays of affection, the equality, the lack of choice in anything. Life is simple – not overcomplicated – not over indulgent – just simple. I have no doubt the simple life is also a tough life for many Cubans. The embargo means there are not the necessities required for people to prosper, people work very hard with no extra money and most people live on food rations. But in amongst all that they have something I fear we are losing in our society. The appreciation and celebration of life. I think when life is simple happiness is easier to achieve and maintain. People aren’t obsessing over looking like a fake celebrating, or validating their worth through likes on Facebook, comparing their lives to other people’s uploads, worrying about how they will afford the upgrade in a car/phone/house or another flat screen TV or taking over a ‘competitor’ for more business, monopolising over similar services for funding, feeling like a failure because they can’t live up to the unobtainable lifestyle set by the multinational companies. People in Cuba don’t have the choice of these things. And without these choices people have are not yet been corrupt by greed, competitiveness and capitalism. They know a life beyond the single-minded mentality capitalism creates because they are living it. They know that allow there may not be much – there is enough to go around. I continually heard people singing The Bare necessities song, known from The Jungle Book, in different forms from sitting in a local families house, to a salsa club and on the streets of Havana – everyone loved this song. On one of my last nights I watched an amazing live band perform this and was welling up with tears. My watery eyes were not only an affect of the strong rum (!) but as I listened to the words I realised this is what I love about Cuba. Here’s some lyrics to refresh your memory!
Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That’s why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life
And don’t spend your time lookin’ around
For something you want that can’t be found
When you find out you can live without it
And go along not thinkin’ about it
I’ll tell you something true
The bare necessities of life will come to you
I was emotional because I was thinking about going home. I was reflecting on the amazing people I have had the privilege of meeting over the past few years. Young people struggling to get a job in Belfast forgetting their own self worth, families forced to use food banks to feed their children because they cant make ends met on £71.53 a week, people living in barbaric conditions in Palestine waiting on the next attack from their oppressors while the world turns away, families fleeing their homes for safety to end up in a rat invested refugee camp with no clear safe step for their future. These are man made problems that have been created as a result of greed, corruption, injustice, war and capitalism. The huge disparity of wealth that is inevitably created in a world where we are told success is measured by the size of our house and the number in our bank account and let’s not look outside our lives to how other people are doing because that might threaten our bubble of reality. Seeing the difference in a society that has not yet experienced capitalism in its full form showed me exactly what we are missing out on by being sucked into the world of the rat race and that another way of living is possible.
My love for Cuba was not just surface deep, the more I learnt about the Cuban Revolution and what the country has battled against since, I developed a new level of respect beyond Che Guevara’s beauty! Here is the condensed version of the Cuban Revolution as I understand it. In the early 50s Cuba was a poverty-stricken country with corruption and mass inequalities of wealth under right-wing, US backed dictator Batista. Batista’s allies were the wealthiest Cuban sugar plantation land owners and the American government together they controlled a deteriorating economy that widened the gap between rich and poor Cubans to be the largest it had been known to be in Cuban history. Eventually it reached the point where most of the sugar industry was in U.S. hands, and foreigners owned 70% of the arable land, leaving only 30% for the majority of the Cuban population to squalor over. Batista’s increasingly corrupt and oppressive government then began to systematically profit from the exploitation of Cuba’s commercial interests, by negotiating profitable relationships with both the American Mafia, who controlled the drug, gambling, and prostitution businesses in the capital city Havana and with large U.S.-based multinational companies who were awarded huge contracts with no employee rights or regulations. The island became known for its forced prostitution, the drug gateway from South America to the states and offshore casino heaven. The 1% were cleaning up at the party and the 99% were being left with the mess – sound familiar?
Fidel Castro, a Cuban lawyer and activist seen hope in saving his country and attempted a people power petition to overthrow Batista. After this was rejected in the courts Fidel and his brother Raul (current president of Cuba) took up arms and started a paramilitary group calling themselves ‘The Movement’. Fidel and The Movement attempted to overthrow the government in a military coup in 1953 but failed. They were captured, tortured, some killed while others escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountain range. Fidel and Raul were both later captured and sentenced to 15 & 13 years in prison. This may have seemed like the end of The Movement however the group were gaining people & international political support and in 1953 Batista was forced to release all ‘political prisoners’. The Castro brothers went to Mexico where they met likeminded revolutionaries such as Che Guevara. There they planned the second attempt to overthrow Batista and at the end of 1953, 80 men travelled on a boat from Mexico to Cuba. The rebels headed straight for the Sierra Maestra mountains but within three days the first attack from Batista’s army and the Cuban Police Force took out most of them leaving around 20 men. These 20 men found each other in the mountains eventually, they were joined by other rebels who came to sign up to what was then established as The Guerrilla Army. The Rebels came up against many attacks by Batista’s Police force and Army; some 37,000 men with US weaponry. However the Guerrilla’s managed to hold their ground in the mountains and at every attack Batista’s army always retreated. The revolution was gaining support from the people of Cuba, many were regularly tuning into ‘Rebel Radio’ to hear the latest from the Guerrilla Army who were reporting from in the mountains on the outcome of a battle and their ideas for the revolution. While Batista was still popular with the rich American landowners he was losing popularity with the American Government, JFK being the President tightened the purse strings Batista had been relaying on to fund his army. This mixed with the support of the revolution growing within the communities of Cuba meant that when Fidel and the troops launched their second attack on the military barracks in Santiago de Cuba they succeed! Bit by bit they liberated the island and on 1st January 1959 the revolutionaries made their way to the capital city of Havana, the last city on the island to be liberated. Batista fled Cuba to Portugal and the rich landowners were shipped back to the US, many settling in Miami.
So, Cuba was free from the chains of Batista and the wealthy US allies however with this came a price. The USA imposed an embargo on trade with Cuba meaning Cuba could not get any imports or sell any exports to America or their allies (most countries in the western world). Being a small Caribbean island Cuba relayed on a lot on imports of goods from other countries and used exports, particularly from their sugarcane as a main source to keep the economy going. This embargo started Cuba post revolution on a back foot. This didn’t stop Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries, they took up government and introduced changes right away. Some revolutionary implementations included a literacy campaign resulting in free education for all, free healthcare for all, free basic food for all in the form of rations, zero tolerance on drugs, zero tolerance on prostitution and pornography, job guarantee or social security for all, and social housing for all. While this was part of the post revolution society it was not constitutionalised until 1976 when the government held a referendum; the first public vote since the revolution. With a 98% turnout to vote the constitution was supported by 99.02% of Cuban’s. Fidel carried on his presidency of Cuba for almost five decades until 2008 when he handed over to his younger brother Raul who is the current president until 2018 when someone else will see Cuba through the countries biggest transition since the revolution.
The Cuban Revolution has been held as an inspiration for struggles around the world. People on The West Bank of Palestine spoke of Che Guevara as a freedom fighter they look to in their struggle for freedom from oppression, Lefty Activities speak of the learning’s from Castro across the globe, Young People in Belfast mistakenly thought Che Guevara was a republican hunger striker as his face is painted on the walls of Belfast beside the Martyrs of the Republican movement! I was intrigue to see if the people of Cuba held as much admiration for their revolution as international supporters. The cities, towns and villages are covered in murals, statues and graffiti on the celebration of the revolution which made it appear from the onset that people were very proud of what the rebels achieved. However, the more I talked to people the more I wondered how much of this is expression of people’s love for their history and how much is propaganda coming directly from the government – I’m still not too sure! There were many Cuban’s I spoke to who, after building trust with me expressed their opinion on the government. Some said the government are holding the country back. Their lack of opportunity to make money has a knock-on effect on their lack of freedom. An average monthly salary in a government job is 25 CUC, as passport is 100 CUC prices of flights are rarely under 1000 CUC travelling isn’t an option for many Cuban’s. Cuban’s are seeing the world through the tourists that visit and flaunt their wealth. This is causing a warped view on the western world. I explained that they are seeing the privileged people from other countries, those who can travel but that isn’t everyone. For a lot of people in the Western World trying to survive day by day is a struggle and travelling is a luxury that isn’t on their radar.
Some other comparisons Cuban people made with the western world was the freedom of speech. Many people in Cuban expressed frustrations over the censorship of the government. Apparently, there are government eyes and ears everywhere observing people’s expression particularly to do with criticising the government! Many Cuban’s felt this censorship impacted on their lack of open internet. I was prepared to have no internet while there but fortunately (or unfortunately depending how you look at it) internet was introduced on the island last year. This wasn’t internet as we know it today where a smart phone can pick up 4G in most places. In Cuba Wi-Fi only exists in Wi-Fi parks, designated areas where people can get a Wi-Fi card and log on to the Wi-Fi for as long as the card lasts. I learnt from Cuban’s that certain searches were blocked by the government and people’s searches were monitored with a close eye. The Wi-Fi parks were a hub in each city and town where people gathered. Students on their laptops, friends listened to music, kids played, tourists uploaded photos! From what I experienced this was a lot more of a positive and healthy use of the internet than how it is used in our world. I found myself wondering the answer to questions I had a lot more because I couldn’t just Google it! I discussed ideas and shared views with others a lot more instead of reading about them in articles, asking people directions without Google maps helped my communication in Spanish! It’s amazing how you can still get by without relying on a screen to guide you through every minute of the day! Kids weren’t able to navigate their way around a touch screen the way many children can here. Without IPads and Interactive Whiteboards in schools it was the good old blackboard and chalk that was used for teaching. Looking at the education outcomes – the chalkboard doesn’t seem to delay anyone’s development!
The literacy campaign set out to irritate illiteracy over two years. This relayed on volunteers to work as teachers from 1959 – 1961 they successfully taught every one of the 11 million people to read and write. Elderly people told me they remember volunteers coming to their communities, setting up schools for all ages, teaching people in their homes and offering a variety of methods for those who did not learn from traditional teaching styles. The Cuban education has since went from strength to strength. It is completely free right through to PHD level. The average fee to study to doctorate level in the UK is £40,000 and up to £100,000 in USA. Not only are the Uni fees free but if a person doesn’t live close enough to a university the government pays for them to stay in student accommodation on campus and pays for food while they are there. When a person finishes their studies in Cuba it is then the responsibility of the government to find them a job in their field of study. There is no competition over job hunts as the government ensures there are enough job in the field before the course is started. I was very fortunate to get my university fees covered 2004-2007 as then it was means tested and as I was from a low earning family the government paid for my fees. Ten years later my sister couldn’t afford to go to university so didn’t go. Where has this change came from? I have been sickened by the attempts of conservative right wing politicians to put all their efforts into making education less available to all. Cutting education budgets, free school meals, lowering uniform grants, scrapping EMA and student grants; all this is a deliberate attempt at making education work for those who have the luxury of being able to afford it. With annual university fees in the UK at £9000 a year before accommodation, living expenses, book fees etc it is definitely not the ‘free education for all’ that it claims to be.
While Cubans I met expressed how grateful they were for their education system many were critical of the government job they were given at the end of their studies. Another unique thing about Cuba is, being a socialist state, up until recently private business weren’t allowed and every service, business and company was run by the government. As the government have been socialist since 1959 they have capped peoples salaries meaning there is not a huge disparity of wealth. A bin man’s wage and a doctor’s wage is not that different. To be critical of this people may think; Where is the incentive to study really hard to become a doctor? Does someone cleaning the streets have the same job stresses as someone who is taking care of peoples’ health? Is this justified? I spoke to some people who were doctors and asked them why did they study so hard to become a doctor if they aren’t getting much more money than anyone else and the answer were quite simple; ‘Because I enjoy being a doctor’ ‘Because I want to help people in my country’ ‘Because I was good at it in school so kept studying’. Part of becoming a doctor requires the student to go to a ‘developing’ country to volunteer for a year and share with local medical staff their practice, which is said to be the most advanced in the world. I quickly realised through these conversations these are the motivations people have when they aren’t blinded by making money. I also seen there was not a hierarchy of professions the way there often is in the western world. The bin man who gets up every morning to sweep the streets and empty people’s bins is making an important contribution to society, people respect him no less than they do the doctor. Therefore people were a lot less likely to throw their rubbish on the ground for example without a second thought as to where that was going. This is one example of a society where people see themselves on the same team as their fellow citizens. It isn’t “each to their own” “look after number one” mentality that we have come to know as the norm in the western world.
While a lot of what I’m saying may sound like utopia, and at times I thought it was, I’m afraid there’s a changing tide in Cuba and once again money is dividing people. The development of the tourist trade in Cuba has brought a huge imbalance in people’s wealth. There are two currencies used on the island; CUP which is used by locals and CUC which is used by tourists. 1 CUC = 25 CUP. The average government paid salary is 650 CUP (27 CUC). In 2008 Fidel give permission for 120 entrepreneurs to open and run private businesses, giving a heavy tax to the government and keeping the rest as profit. Before this everything was run by the government so any profit made from production, tourism, services etc was 100% put into the government and those working got their monthly salary (27 CUC). These 120 businesses grew at the same speed the tourism industry did. More people applied to own their own business and boom – gone were the days when everyone was living on the same amount of money. As a tourist, I stayed with local people in their homes these businesses were called Casa Particulars. The rate for one room per night was around 20-25 CUC, sometimes 30-40 in the cities. Remember the average monthly salary in a government job is 27 CUC. I pay the family when I leave for however many night I stayed, breakfast, meals, drinks I had. They pay a tax of 40%-60% to the government and keep the rest. Even with the heavy tax it is possible for a casa owner to make the same amount of money in 2 nights or 2 full rooms in one night as a government employee makes in a month.
This new phenomenon of making money has already had a massive impact on society in Cuba. A lot of people want into the tourist trade to get paid much more and to get their hands on some CUC, the stronger currency. I got a bicitaxi from the bus station to my accommodation one day and got talking to the man cycling the bike. He was a doctor – like every second person in Cuba (literally 1 doctor to every 1.4 people!) but he makes more in one week on his bike than he does a month working in a government hospital. So, he cycles tourists and locals around for 4 hours a day makes some money then attends to people in the afternoons as a doctor from his house. He has the skills and passion to be a doctor and help people which he doesn’t want to stop doing but needs to make more money to live a decent life so he takes people rides on his bike for a few CUC – that’s solution focused thinking! Each Cuban is given a rations book with a list of everyone in their family, a person takes this book to the local shop and can get the supply of food for whoever is listed in the book. This is said to cover the basic need of hunger for each Cuban citizen. Some Cuban’s say it’s not enough, others say it isn’t nice food while a few say it’s enough. With the rise in private business and the wealth that comes with it, other food shops began opening where people can get more of a selection of food than what they can get on rations. Towards the end of my stay a supermarket not unlike what we have on every street at home opened in Baracoa, a small town in Southern Cuba. I was passing in a bicitaxi and wondered what all the commotion was about. Crowds were eagerly looking through the window shouting with excitement. I asked the bicitaxi driver what was going on he said “Nuevo supermercado gente loca” ‘New Supermarket people are crazy!’ I fought the crowd to get in one day and was shocked to see spar labelled goods on a massive section of food – it was like being at home! While the place was bunged not many people were buying anything everyone was looking and talking to each other about the products. The prices were in CUC (the tourist currency) and were very expensive for Cuba. I thought there is no way anyone living on government wages could ever afford to buy anything here; to pay in CUC you must be paid in CUC. I got a sad feeling as I left the shop and thought; Is this is the beginning of the end.
A lot of things about Cuba is like going back in time the cars, the lack of internet, the buildings, the house shops, the Fruit Man going door to door to sell his fruit. But coming back to our society I can see clearly we are the society that is underdeveloped in many ways. When people can’t make eye contact because their head is in a screen, people are saving their hard earned money or getting into debate to get chemicals injected into their faces to stop the beautiful process of aging, people turning their heads passing a hungry person on the street to throw a half eaten burger in the bin, young people afraid to step out the door without a mask of make-up on, people refusing to wear anything that doesn’t have a logo that is made by a multinational company who continually move their sweatshops to countries where labour is cheapest then sell that product in our part of the world for an extortionate price. None of this makes sense but we are so used to it being part of our society that we think it’s normal. It most certainly isn’t. Being a guilty participant in all this superficial bullshit I can confidently say the momentary happiness all these things bring to people’s lives is surface deep. We are condition to think we need these things because it is what capitalism is built on. If we were each happy in our own lives, had a sense of purpose to our days, a sense of belonging and looked out for each other; capitalism would fail. Of course, those who gain immensely from this don’t want that to happen and so they prey on vulnerabilities and throw a few spanners into a society to keep us down such as fear, division, poverty, unemployment, lack of community, drug & alcohol, insecurities, ill mental health, identity crisis, low self-esteem, unobtainable role models……the list goes on. These aspects of society aren’t inventible, they aren’t accidental and they don’t have to exist but they do to serve a few at the top of the human money chain. If we reminded ourselves of the bare necessitates of life we will gain more control over our happiness and remember what’s important in life.
I’m not under any illusion that Cuba has it sussed I have experienced positive and negatives of their society but what I have learnt is that another system to running a country and living a life is possible, which is exactly the hope and motivation I needed out of this trip!
Next year sees new elections for Cuba. It is unclear how those elections will go; some people say it’s a Castro Family business and the presidency will carry down the family chain, others know of emerging political figures who have innovative ideas to change the direction of the country and some even talk of a new revolution! Whatever happens I have no doubt the energy, resilience and spirit of the Cuban people will prevail.
I hope and pray the streets of Cuba will maintain their vitality for years to come and we can all take inspiration for the bare necessities of life.
“All the rules in this world were made by someone no smarter than you. So make your own” – Che Guevara
Hasta La Victoria Siempre