Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Seeing Cuba: Life isn't easy -- but it isn't bad

Charleston Daily Mail

by Michael Lipton
For the Daily Mail

HAVANA, CUBA -- Whether it's visions of the fancy, high-rolling casinos of the 1950s; bearded, cigar-smoking revolutionaries; or simply the seductive appeal of a place that has essentially been off-limits to U.S. citizens for a half-century, Cuba has always had a strong allure.

Despite the U.S. government's best efforts to make travel difficult and/or illegal, it's estimated that 80,000 U.S. citizens visit Cuba every year.

And though a U.S. trade embargo has been in effect since 1962, Americans are welcomed in Cuba. As people the world over have come to understand, citizens often do not agree with their government's policies.

In the past year or so, President Bush has increased efforts to prosecute Americans who visit Cuba. He has been effective, as Cubans we spoke to said there have been far fewer U.S. travelers in the past year. And Fidel Castro has made Bush an even larger target with huge billboards vilifying Bush and linking him to terrorists posted throughout Havana.

Except for the most basic information, most of the articles and travel books I read were of little use.

The thieves and pickpockets on the famous Malecon (a walkway, road and nightly hangout) that runs along the coast and the bike-riding purse-snatchers on the Prado (a beautiful marble, tree-lined walkway that leads from the Malecon to the country's capitol) never materialized.

Police stood on nearly every corner, yet, unlike the imposing, machine gun-wielding police I've encountered in Russia and Argentina, they appeared completely benign, at least for foreigners.

Likewise, price-gouging cabbies were nowhere to be found. Ditto with scam artists, crooked moneychangers and the assortment of pests that usually descend upon Anglos in Third World countries. And no one we saw appeared to be hungry, malnourished or homeless.

In short, Havana was perhaps the safest, most tranquil and "human" city I've visited.

In old Havana, many of the once-magnificent, now-crumbling buildings are slowly being rebuilt. But hundreds more are in such disrepair, with makeshift supports holding up cracked rooftop facades and sagging second floor porches. They are in danger of collapsing and often do.

As we sat at a cafe and tried to imagine the grandeur of the city in the 1920s and 1930s, a young man approached our table.

"I love your people," he exclaimed, "but I hate your president." We smiled and invited him to sit down and drink a beer.

Cuba's economic future is riding on tourism. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of billions of dollars a year in aid, the country is struggling. Tourism is now Cuba's biggest industry and the government has done a remarkable job of making everything user friendly.

For visitors, Cuba can seem a model of efficiency, albeit a strange one. From the separation of currencies (foreigners use Convertible Pesos while nationals use Cuban Pesos) to the system of "casa particulars" (guest houses), you enter a sort of loop that is surprisingly easy to navigate but tricky to exit. It's a brilliant system that makes a stay in Cuba incredibly easy and much less of an "adventure" than expected.

While there are plenty of hotels and resorts, many visitors prefer to save money and stay in the casa particulars, which are registered and regularly inspected. Through a friend, we rented a room from a woman in old Havana. It was anything but what we expected: Her flat was on the top floor of her building and had a veranda that overlooked the ocean with a breathtaking view of old Havana. Our room was air-conditioned with a private bath and a refrigerator. The price: $35 a night.

Due to his illness, Fidel Castro officially postponed the celebration of his 80th birthday. Still, an event that featured a variety of music, dance and speeches was held at an elaborate staging area on the Malecon. A hundred or so buses brought people from the surrounding areas, but the mood seemed more reserved than festive.

People we spoke to were anxious about what changes will take place in a post-Castro Cuba, especially in terms of U.S. influence. As one woman put it, "We are not communists and we are not socialists, we are ‘Fidelists.' He is what has held this country together."

After a couple of days in Havana, we took a bus to the eastern province town of Pinar del Rio. There, we found someone to drive us to Vinales, 20 kilometers or so to the north, a village situated among striking limestone mountains and outcroppings called mogotes -- reminiscent of parts of West Virginia and far from the landscape we expected to see in Cuba.

Next stop was Puerto Esperanza, a tiny fishing village on the northern coast. Along with 50 or so locals we waited for a bus at an intersection at the edge of town.

A woman in a uniform gave us a number, but most of the buses (or flat bed trucks with cattle racks that carried passengers) were either full or didn't stop.

We met a young man named Yayo, who, after nearly three hours, secured us all seats in a 1952 Chevy. After more than 50 years in service, the car was all but stripped -- no door handles or gauges -- but it transported all 10 of us with no problem. We passed horses, buggies and tobacco fields being plowed with oxen.

The main attraction in the small fishing village of Puerto Esperanza was "el punto," a newly rebuilt pier where people gathered day and night, to fish, swim, drink and socialize. At night, it was transformed into an outdoor disco. A stereo played an infectious blend of Cuban and hip-hop while people of all ages talked, drank and danced. A friend of Yayo's offered us a "coco-loco." He promptly shimmied up a coconut tree, threw down a half-dozen "cocos" and opened them with a machete. The drink consisted of equal parts rum and warm coconut milk.

Yayo was employed as a security guard at the pier, a job that didn't exactly seem necessary in the small village. (There is a saying in Cuba: "the people pretend to work and the government pretends to pay them.") Still, dressed in slacks and an official-looking shirt, he took his job seriously. While we talked, he pointed to some wooden fishing boats that were docked nearby. He said a number of people in the village had used similar boats to flee to the United States. We sat quietly for a few minutes, imagining being adrift in the ocean on a boat that small.

Puerto Esperanza consists of one main street with a few essential shops. A variety store carried everything from T-shirts and flip-flops to bicycle tires, soap and electronics. The shops were tiny and people lined up and were let in as others left. It was telling that the newest looking building was an air-conditioned community center that contained a dozen or so computers.

Yayo's girlfriend, China, lived with her mother and two daughters in an aging four-story cement building. Everyone's door was open, and the children moved from one apartment to the other. China's apartment was comfortable and spotless, like most of the houses we visited.

By the third day, China began talking more openly. With a sense of frustration, she said it was difficult for Cubans to save money and the schools lack supplies. High-quality medicines are difficult to obtain and traveling is all but out of the question. However, when Cubans spoke of their country's ills they also acknowledged there was a trade-off.

"I know it may be hard for people to understand," said one man, "but people are taken care of here."

Trying to understand how and why Cuba works is difficult. And that's no accident. But somewhere between the exaggerated tales of misery, poverty and torture that come from the U.S. government and those of a model society where everyone is equal and amply provided for that come from the Cuban government, there is a reality.

Which reality you prefer depends largely on how well suited you are to the workings of capitalism.

Cuba provides full health care, an excellent education system and some manner of housing and food for all its citizens. But it also imposes a ceiling on how much they can earn.

While U.S. policy has served to make life more difficult and expensive (and given Castro a convenient scapegoat), it has also given the Cuban people something that money can't buy: It has made them even more proud, resourceful and determined, and has given them a fierce nationalism that would likely not exist if there was a free exchange of goods and culture with the United States.

But perhaps the most telling comparison between the two societies came when we returned to Nassau.

In the Nassau airport, I asked if there was a way to avoid the $25 cab ride into town. Everyone I spoke to was unfriendly, rude and just plain not helpful. Strange, I thought, we just left a country where people are supposed to be miserable and oppressed and they were, to a person, congenial and helpful. Here, in a country whose stock in trade is "don't worry, be happy," it was completely the opposite.

Once outside the airport, it was easy to see why people were grumpy. It was as if we never left the United States - we saw KFC, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, malls, strip malls, sprawling mansions and characterless hotels.

On one hand, there is an island that has kept its culture, a strong sense of nationalism and a way of life that is simple, though not easy. Then, 200 miles away, capitalism has had its way with another island. And the result isn't pretty.

The obvious answer is that neither system is perfect. While,I'm not ready to give up my American citizenship, the experience was enough to cause some serious thought about what we've deemed important in our society and how, more and more, we are isolating ourselves from the rest of the world.

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