Wednesday, April 17, 2013


We have been going to Cuba since 2000. We have fallen in love with the island, the people, the music, and the culture. We affectionately call the resort we go to every year in Holguin  our "Cuban cottage." It is a place where we escape the confines of an Ontario winter and enjoy being pampered by our wonderful Cuban hosts.

We are under no illusion, though, about the reality which exists just outside the resort's gates. While we get to choose our dinner items, which are plentiful, varied,  and generally of good quality, an average Cuban gets by on a diet of rice, beans, some meat if he knows someone who raises pigs or chickens, and coffee. We have learned that Cuba is among the world's leaders for type 2 diabetes, mainly because of their diet. Back at the resort, the electricity is mostly realiable, and we enjoy power for our air conditioners, hair dryers, televisions, the bars' refrigerators, the restaurants' freezers, while average Cubans put up with regular brown-outs because the main grid is old and prone to failure. We can obtain some consumer goods if we need them, or if we forgot to pack them prior to departure, while an average Cuban is never certain what kinds of goods will show up at the local store. If we wish to travel within the country via air or bus, we can do so easily because our seat is taken away from a Cuban who would have been on the plane or bus. We can go to baseball games and sit behind home plate and have beer served to us, while Cubans sit on benches along the baselines or in the outfield. We can sit around the pool bar and engage in lively political discussions about any country in the world, but a Cuban can criticize his government only at great personal risk.

In short, Cuba is no utopia. But things are changing and we have taken notice of the new direction.

Recently, the CBC's documentary series, "The Passionate Eye", aired a piece on the changes taking place in Cuba. It was originally produced by the BBC and is called "Last Chance to see Castro's Cuba". Lou and I watched it this month and found the items contained in the documentary interesting. We have experienced some of the changes directly.

Cubans now have the opportunity to create their own businesses and run them for personal profit. This was unthinkable as recently as four or five years ago. We first noticed this phenomenon a couple of years ago when we were on the bus ride from Holguin airport to our resort. Several fruit stands were erected along the side of the road. We looked at each other with amazement. Such a simple thing, something kids do back in Canada, was the thin edge of the wedge in Cuba. Farmers were actually able to sell some of their produce to anyone who wanted to buy them, for whatever price they wanted to charge and pay, and keep the profits themselves. We were told that the bulk of the crops produced on Cuban farms still had to be turned over to the government for distribution to the population and continued to be rationed ( a hold-over from the near catastrophic "special time" in Cuban economic history), but a certain percentage could be sold privately.

We also know of Cubans who have begun to own and operate private restaurants out of their own homes. One ambitious restauranteur has printed up business cards which he freely distributes to tourists. We know of a man who has his own car and will take people on private tours of local cities and towns. All this in a relatively small backwater of the island.

The documentary showed Cubans, mostly in Havana, who were selling such things as plumbing supplies, food, operating restaurants, and perhaps most dramatically, selling real estate. Cubans are now able to sell and buy homes and apartments privately. Previously, all homes and land were owned by the government, and people, if they wished to move, had to apply to local officials to do so. Now, presumably, they are in charge of their own residential destiny. The documentary showed people gathered in parks conducting trade and negotiations for property. One home was reputedly selling for more than $800,000.00, although onw wonders what Cuban could possibly afford such a place.  People could also operate businesses in such things as construction work, automotive sales and repair, hair stylists, clothiers and a wide variety of other jobs. The most bizarre job approved by the government was that of "dandy" .... a Cuban gentleman dressed in "typical" Cuban attire, smoking Cuban cigars and offering to pose for pictures ... for a price!

The documentary, in its 45 minutes of air time, painted a rosy picture of the budding Cuban entrepreneurialism, captured in its infancy, about to rise from the ashes of a "failed" revolution, and ready to save Cuba from its past and launch it into a brave new capitalistic world. That's when my spidey sense started to tingle.

There is no doubt that Cuba is a very poor country, at least from the standpoint of a Western observer. There are the shortages and discomforts described above. There is also the truth of a nation that imprisons its citizens, not allowing them to travel or leave permanently. There is the reality of stifled aspirations: if a Cuban is creative, inventive, or ambitious, he typically had to find expression within the confines of the single party political system or not at all.

But the revolution is hardly a failure. Despite their disadvantages, Cubans are among the best educated people in the world. Their health care system is world renowned. The arts and sports flourish, albeit completely funded and administered by the government. And they are proud people, because of their achievements. They feel that they have stood up to a vast imperialistic power and have not been defeated. And they are right to feel that way.

So, why has capitalism been allowed to begin in this socialist society? The documentary confirmed what we had known for the 13 years we have been going there. The American embargo had forced them to seek help from the only alternative they had in the 1950's and 60's: the Soviet Union. When the USSR died in 1990, there was no external support for Cuba. The "special period", from 1990 until 2000 was extraordinarily difficult for Cuba and the people suffered badly. The recovery during the first decade of the 21st century was slow and painful. There seemed to be little choice for Cuba. Adapt or die. Embrace the system so vigorously denounced for decades, or watch the island sink into absolute and irrecoverable poverty the like of which is seen only in the worst countries on earth.

The documentary seemed to suggest that Cuba will very soon become a capitalist haven. Implied in this is the impending arrival of the United States to reclaim its former dependency. We have a different slant on this. The amount of change in Cuba is happening very, very slowly. The Cuban government is still in charge. And if the Cuban government wants to stop this experiment, it can and will do so any time it wants. And let's be clear: the Cuban government and, we believe, the majority of the Cuban people still regard the United States as an enemy. They will not soon let Americans come into their country in waves of free-enterprise hordes, buying and exploiting all resources, including the people,  in the country.

No, if Cuba is going to change, and there is no doubt it will, it will be done on terms dictated by the Cubans themselves. Does that mean that we can still go to the island and not run into packs of American tourists? Yes, we think so. Does it mean that we can still buy T-shirts with Che on the front? Yes. And does it mean that the unique Cuban culture, complete with its beautiful music, dance, literature and philosophy will continue unadulterated? Yes.

At least, we hope so.

So, as the documentary says, buy your ticket now to see the last country in the world where there is no McDonalds, where it is almost impossible to get a can of Coke, where '48 Studebakers and '57 Chevys still prowl the streets, where salsa music is played simply but with a genuine passion, and where children play baseball on rock-filled playgrounds with sticks for bats and a wad of tape for a ball, and turn the most remarkable double-plays and base stealing. 

The clock is ticking.

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