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Thursday, July 12, 2012
MY EXPERIENCE IN CUBA
For anyone who lives outside the United States, a trip to Cuba is no different than a trip to any Caribbean country like Jamaica, Aruba, etc. However for U.S. Citizens and Permanent Resident Aliens living in the U.S., such a trip is not so easy.
Three years ago the Obama administration made it a little easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, but there is still a lengthy and more costly procedure that has to be undertaken. First one has to find a tour company that has an " umbrella " license from the U.S. Treasury Dept. that allows educational and cultural trips to Cuba. That costs anywhere from $ 300.00 and up per week for the " privilege " to travel to Cuba, in addition to the round-trip airfare.
Then once you are in Cuba, the U.S. government demands that U.S. citizens only stay in "approved" expensive hotels arranged by the tour group and participate in all programs of the tour group. The U.S. government calls this a " people to people exchange " , however as most things stated by the U.S. government, what they say and what they do or try to do is just the opposite. Such is the REAL intended effect of the above restrictions, to LIMIT contact between U.S. visitors and the Cuban people. And finally when a U.S. citizen returns from Cuba, they are not allowed to bring anything with them from Cuba, except "items of communication" like ; books, CD's, DVD's, paintings and posters.
My trip was under the educational auspices of a conference at the University of Havana organized by an organization called " Global Justice ", and the theme of the conference was ; " Socialist Renovation and Capitalist Crisis". The conference had participants and topic presenters from both Cuba and the U.S.. There were mostly academics in attendance, but in addition to myself a Carpenter by profession, there was a Baker from the San Francisco Bay area.
Much of the conference centered on problems in the U.S. and responses to these problems, like the Occupy Movement and in one case, the Baker from San Francisco making a presentation about the successful cooperative he has been a member of for almost 40 years, that started with 5 people and now has 53 members.
The presentations from the Cubans focused on the problems they have been facing historically with the U.S embargo, their successes and failures in the economy past and present, and ideas about the future restructuring of the economy to one degree or another. The topic of converting state owned enterprises into worker owned cooperatives was repeatedly discussed, with emphasis in the ; agricultural, construction, retail, and hotel / restaurant / bar and nightclub areas of the economy.
There was also a very contentious topic of allowing Cuban owned small private enterprises to begin operation and to allow them to hire employees. This was a very hotly debated issue, since this would begin the process of worker exploitation.
Currently the only private enterprises allowed in Cuba ( everything else is owned and operated by the State, even restaurants and bars ) are individuals / families who rent rooms to foreign visitors ( Casa Particulars ), individuals / families who have turned the front part of their homes into restaurants, people who use their vehicles for taxis, and street vendors.
As an interesting example, the taxi driver I had when I first arrived in Cuba from the airport to my hotel was previously an Engineer who worked for the Cuban government, but is now driving his own taxi because he earns 5-10 times as much as his previous Engineering job. An additional piece of info about the Casa Particulars ( rooms rented to foreign visitors in private homes ). The three different homes I stayed in all were clean. The hosts friendly. All of the rooms were private with ; a key, shower / toilet / sink, air-conditioned and / or had a fan. Two of the three also had a full sized refrigerator as well. I payed $ 20 to $ 25 ( U.S. ) for the rented rooms ( which included breakfast ), as compared to $ 80.00 ( U.S. ) for the barely tolerable tour group " approved " hotel.
MY IMPRESSIONS ON THE STREET
To begin with, when one arrives in Cuba, the first thing that is a noticeable difference is the 5-mile ride into Havana from the airport. One begins to see billboards within a few minutes on the road, but unlike the U.S. and other places I have been in less developed countries ( Mexico, Jamaica and Brazil), one does not see billboards of Coca-Cola, cellphone companies, and even condom advertisements. Instead one sees billboards with revolutionary slogans with pictures of Che Guevera, Camilo Cienfuegos and the Cuban Five imprisoned in Florida. This is when it hit me that I was actually in Cuba.
On the streets one sees about one in every four vehicles that are pre-1959 American cars, small Fiat looking Russian vehicles from the 1970's and 1980's, many motorcycles with side cars, an occasional newer Japanese or European vehicle, as well as many horse drawn carts and newer Chinese city buses. For a city of 2-million people, the traffic was steady but not congested.
The first evening I observed a lot of social activity occurring in the streets and along Havana's sea wall (El Malecon). Young people with unusual haircuts, piercings and tattoos like you would see in the U.S. or Europe. A diverse and intermingled racial mixture of people socializing together. Individuals, couples and families of all ages walking around and hanging-out at the seawall, drinking openly in public and various individuals and small groups of people singing and playing musical instruments. My first thoughts were that this did not seem like an oppressive society.
In the U.S., the police would not tolerate such large informal social gatherings in public on the streets drinking alcohol, and would be sending in riot squads to break-up any such gatherings that did not have official approval, restrictions and permits. I saw Cuban police mainly in the tourist areas and unlike Mexico, Jamaica and Brazil, nowhere did I see the police patrolling with shotguns and automatic weapons, with arrogant attitudes and glaring at the people on the streets, looking and acting like they were hoping for a confrontation with someone.
I have even seen this occasionally in the U.S., but not in Cuba. I felt perfectly safe walking around at night. The one danger in walking at night in Havana however is the occasional uncovered sewer manhole or busted chunks of concrete on the sidewalks in certain areas.
In subsequent evenings during my 7-day stay in Cuba, I found to my surprise that the Cubans I spoke to were :
1) Very well informed about what was happening in general in the U.S.., politically, economically, etc..
2) Not at all timid about stating their opinions about what they liked and disliked about the Cuban government and society. Several people stated that Fidel Castro, despite his outstanding leadership in the Cuban revolution, should have stepped aside years ago, and that younger people in general should be in leadership positions at the national level. Also that corruption is pervasive. In particular, if one needs something like a service they are entitled to under Cuban law from a low level government official, that bribery is often needed to obtain what they need in a timely matter.
3) Very proud of their health care and educational system, and were shocked to hear from me examples of how much both health care and university education cost in real terms compared to what myself and the average U.S. worker earned.
4) Stated repeatedly the evils of the U.S. embargo and did not blame the American people, but instead the U.S. government and those who control it.
5) Were cautiously optimistic about the future in terms of ;
a) The U.S. embargo ending and a subsequent influx of U.S. tourists and products.
b) The Cuban government transferring state run enterprises into worker owned cooperatives.
c) Being able to travel abroad easier.
d) U.S. companies moving into Cuba providing products and jobs but with restrictions upon them in terms of their ability to control the economy and influence the government.
e) Being able to protect their health care and educational system from adverse changes.
What also surprised me was the abundance of people who owned chickens in Havana and the number of rooftop vegetable gardens.
With the exception of my first night in which I was " persuaded " by the tour group to stay in an overpriced hotel, I stayed in Casa Particulars ( Cubans who rent rooms to foreign visitors ) and because of this I had another opportunity to get the opinions of my hosts as well as sample some delicious home prepared Cuban food. What was really amazing was how tasteful simple items like eggs, milk and butter were and how thick and flavorful various fruit juices were compared to the U.S..
It was obvious that Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, and other agri-businesses with their chemical and preservative laced products and their livestock factory production of egg, meat, and dairy products was not present in Cuba.
The downside of Havana however was the terrible condition of most of their buildings, literally falling apart, even though inside people's apartments everything was clean and well maintained.
The building elevators were very scary and as I stated previously, the sidewalks were in many places torn-up.
The streets were in decent condition and many of the two and three hundred year old buildings in the old part of Havana have been beautifully restored. But when one walks a few blocks away from the tourist areas with it's magnitude of hustlers and aggressive prostitutes, one finds entire blocks of buildings in some areas that looked as if the U.S. military had bombed the area five years previously.
IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
The fourth day I was in Cuba I traveled to a town 3-hours west of Havana called Vinales, which has about 20,000 inhabitants and is located in an agricultural area that grows ; tobacco, coffee, and a variety of fruits, vegetables and livestock. The primary attraction of the area of Vinales is the haystack shaped mountains ( Mozotes ) full of caves and protected forests that has been a UNESCO nature site since the mid-1970's. Hence there is a fair amount of tourism every year.
The drive to Vinales was an interesting glimpse of the Cuban country-side. The interstate highway that we took three-fourths of the journey was not in as good of condition as interstate roads in the U.S., but considerably better than similar roads I have encountered in the past in Jamaica and Mexico ( with the exception of the expensive Mexican toll roads ). Along the interstate I saw people on bicycles and horse drawn wagons traveling on the shoulder of the highway, as well as groups of people standing under various overpass bridges, waiting for transport trucks to stop and in exchange for a few pesos give them a ride to town exits along the way.
During the 120 mile or so ride on the interstate I saw an occasional agricultural field, but the vast majority of the flat-lands ( with mountains in the distance ) were unused grasslands and scattered shrub trees. At the previous days conference in Havana, I had learned that Cuba is only currently using about 20 % of it's potential of land that could be used for agricultural production. One of the future goals of the Cuban government is to try to significantly increase the development of unused land into agricultural cooperatives. An important priority in a country that imports 70 % of it's food supply.
Once we left the interstate and traveled the last 15-miles or so on two lane roads to the town of Vinales, I saw a lot of small farms with many fruit trees and various small to medium sized parcels of land growing a variety of crops, in addition to a fair amount of pigs, chickens, goats, and an occasional milk cow and/or cattle.
All of the houses I saw were made of either log cabin type solid wood or concrete block and stucco with a variety of different roofs of clay tile, concrete, metal, or in some cases thatched vegetation.
No where in Cuba, either in the outskirts of Havana or the country-side did I see the familiar metal and / or cardboard shacks that I saw a lot of in Mexico, Jamaica, and parts of Brazil.
Nor did I see large amounts of trash, garbage dumps, or rivers and streams used as open sewers as exists in the above countries.
On the two lane side road to Vinales, I saw both arriving and during my departure several days later, transport and pick-up trucks with doctors riding in the back, wearing white robes and hiking boots and carrying black doctor's bag of medical supplies, making their weekly rounds to small villages.
In the town of Vinales, other than the main road into town where about 5-6 blocks of businesses were located, all of the streets were rough dirt and gravel with a considerable number of pot-holes, with many chickens and pigs wandering around.
In contrast, people's homes were in some cases very well maintained inside and on the exterior, to the point of looking " middle class ". In general it appeared that the people in this small city had a higher standard of living than most people in Havana.
Cuba is a very interesting country that is currently in a period of transition. The next five years or so should be interesting as to how and to what extent Cuba changes for either the worse or the better. In many ways it is like things have been frozen in time since the 1950's in the case of many functioning automobiles or more accurately the 1970's in the case of it's " newer " buildings, with an unbelievable amount of unspoiled and untouched nature as well as an abundance of older buildings that are still standing in various degrees of restoration or disrepair, some dating from the year 1650. But also an incredible number from the 1890's and the 1920's that have an incredible amount of ornate architectural detail.
It is my opinion that none of this preserved history and nature would exist if the Cuban revolution had not been successful. Capitalism would have destroyed most of it years ago and in it's place new sterile high-rise office buildings, condos and shopping malls would have been constructed.
In terms of human beings, one of the things I noticed was how good of teeth everyone had. How I saw no people sleeping in the streets, begging, nor extremely thin or extremely overweight people, or that "beaten down" look of despair, desperation and defeat. Which is more than I can say about other places I have been in Latin America / Caribbean ( Jamaica, Mexico, Brazil ) or even in certain areas of the U.S..
Cuba has many problems, in particular the general condition of housing and infrastructure in Havana. But Cuba has a much higher standard of living than any of the neighboring countries in the Caribbean / Latin America, in particular Haiti and Honduras.
It's main economic source of revenue is ; tourism, tobacco, and sugar, although it has made some significant economic advances in recent years in alternative energy such as wind, solar and hydro-electricity, as well as the beginnings of a solar panel manufacturing industry for both domestic use and export. The overall economy has grown in the last 2-3 years, including a 24 % increase in tourism. Ironically though the tourism infrastructure has been barely able to keep pace with the increase. I was told at the conference that if the U.S. embargo against Cuba would end next month, there would be a mass influx of U.S. tourists and that Cuba would not be able to handle the increase in the number of visitors.
Although I wondered when I was in Cuba, if Cuba really needed the U.S. for anything considering it's current economic relationships with Europe, Latin America, China and Japan ?
Ending the U.S. embargo I was told would help Cuba in many ways such as cheaper food prices and some medicines with U.S. patents, as well as a larger variety of products that would be available. As long as there were no political and economic " strings attached ". Of course if U.S. corporations would be allowed in to Cuba with no restrictions on their operations and behaviour, how long would it be before the IMF and World Bank would begin to move-in ? If that would be the case it would only be a matter of time before they would try to privatize everything and the Cuban people would lose their free health-care and free educational system.
My wife's cousin who lives in Poland experienced first hand what a total transformation from a State run economy to a capitalist economy is like. Almost overnight when this happened in Poland in the early 1990's, half of the country lost their jobs, rents doubled and food prices tripled. This has since been termed " Shock Doctrine ", and several of the Cuban Presenters at the conference used the term and stated emphatically that current Cuban government officials have stated that they will under no circumstances allow this to happen. I hope this is the case and not as in the transformation of Russia where shock doctrine also occurred with the cooperation of Communist Party government officials who became very rich in the process via bribes and kickbacks.
In general not only is Cuba fascinating and it's people engaging and friendly, but it has something very special about it which is difficult to describe.
Although I was only in Cuba for 7-days, and I would need to live and work there for at least a year to speak with any real confidence about what life there is truly like, I nevertheless saw that what I had been told about Cuba all my life via the U.S. government and the corporate media was an absolute and total LIE !
I hope that the Cuban people are able to keep the best of what they have and change for the better the inadequacies. I am both worried and hopeful as probably many Cubans themselves are in terms of what the future will be.