Cuba - This is what 60 years of Communism and an embargo look like
Everyone knows Cuba: a land of classic American cars, colourful colonial architecture and endless joyful salsa dancing. The land of Che Guevara’s inspired people's revolution. A romantic, charming and nostalgic place - I must visit cuba before it changes! - we exclaim, referring to the bulldozer of American Capitalism poised to destroy everything great about the country. It’s a beautiful fantasy we have, but sadly, it’s a long way from the harsh reality of daily life in the country.
The first thing that struck me, en-route from Havana airport to my hostel in the old town, was the lack of life in the streets. It was 8pm and the wide boulevards and Soviet style apartment blocks which lined them were barely lit. The odd glimmer emanated from a window here, a doorway there, but like stars in a night sky, the darkness prevailed. In nearly an hour of driving, only a handful of people could be seen walking the streets and barely another car passed us on the multilane highways that appeared to have once imagined a city of heavy traffic.As we pulled into the narrow cobbled streets of the old town, there was still little more than a faint glow from the odd lamp suspended over the road, the streets appearing as though lit by candle light. It was however, enough to see that the buildings around me were crumbling and abandoned. Yet here, there were more people, sitting on steps, standing in doorways, leaning on walls, as though waiting for something or someone. These were no abandoned buildings, they were people's homes. As we turned the last corner, our car headlights illuminated the motion of a deflated ball being kicked about by some children, who swiftly moved aside, disappearing into the shadows. Was this really Havana, Cuba’s famously vibrant capital?
Walking around in the harsh light of the following day, it was clear that 60 years of America's embargo and an infamously inefficient Communist government has meant that for Cubans, time effectively stopped decades ago. Since then, the country has been slowly crumbling around them as they lie trapped and isolated from the progress of the world outside.
I have never been anywhere so alien to my sense of the world. There are no companies or brands, no glowing signs or advertising, no glitz or glamour and certainly none of the shrines to consumerism that you see in even the poorest of countries. The presence of a shabby Reebok shop in touristy Old Havana is as rare as it is jarring. In fact, parts of central Havana resemble the pictures we see of cities decimated by years of war, rubble strewn across the street, buildings missing roofs and whole blocks collapsed.
To say that all of this captured my fascination it is an understatement. The constant amazement with just how the country functions at all, combined with the endless questions that arise in trying to make sense of the place stimulated my mind in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Every street, every house, every person and every single thing you do in Cuba will introduce you to something you couldn’t have imagined existed before being there.
Visually too, Cuba is an Aladdin's cave of wonders. Those gorgeous old cars? They are indeed a thing, not just a tourist novelty as I had expected. In fact, they make up the majority of the traffic on the road, while the rest comprises of Soviet era Ladas and 90’s Korean taxis. The distinctive colonial architecture is also very real, made all the more beautiful by its state of disrepair and all the more fascinating by the brutalist communist monsters that sprout up amongst it. Every open door, courtyard or simple edifice has the potential to hold a beautiful visual secret waiting to be discovered. There is no denying that Cuba is a feast for your eyes. Just try not to think about what those visual delights mean for the people who have to live amongst them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not just the physical aspects of the country that seem to make no sense to an outsider. A doctor here earns $30 a month, a factory worker $15, while a taxi driver can make upwards of $300. But, even so, the taxi drivers are not rich. There are no “rich” people in Cuba, nor is there a middle class in the way we understand the term. You don’t see new cars, hipster furniture shops or yuppie bars. You don’t even see supermarkets. The state run shops that do exist are so woefully understocked that people regularly queue for hours just to buy shampoo and the monthly food rations are barely enough to feed on for a week. Have you ever thought that you might not be able to buy toilet paper when you go to the shops? For Cubans that’s a common consideration.
It is no wonder then, that people find other ways to get by. Factory workers take from the storeroom to sell on the side. Farmers grow a little extra to offload privately. Cooks make food to dish out on the street. Every doorway or window is also a shop front. Ironically entrepreneurship, the very thing Communism opposes, is an activity the average Cuban uses on a daily basis just to survive.
Unfortunately for us visitors, this survival extends to asking any foreigner they see for a gift. Get used to being asked for money, clothes or any other item you might have with you. This will happen upfront or after a friendly exchange. Have you ever had to explain why you can’t give someone your shoes? You’ll get plenty of practice in Cuba. It certainly gets tiring, but can you really blame Cubans for seeing tourists as walking dollar signs? The very fact we are able to be there means we are literally magnitudes richer than they are and as they see it, a part of their route out of poverty.
I asked countless Cubans what they liked most about their country and it’s government, which still holds surprisingly wide support. Every single one said that free healthcare and safety were what they saw as the big benefits to living in Cuba. Bureaucracy, limited freedoms and an economy in tatters the drawbacks. “We work hard here, but the economy is a mess. We don’t see progress.” says our taxi driver, Camillo, a 36 year old father of 2. “We just want to be able to earn a good living like the rest of the world”.
It was hard not to compare it to the life I know in Britain. We have a wonderful free healthcare system (unsurprisingly Cubans are not told of the NHS) and a country that is incredibly safe, even by western standards. And, at the same time our open economic system has also brought wealth and comfort to it’s people in a way that Cubans could not even imagine. Yes, it has also brought record inequality, alienation and selfish greed, which at least in part was why I started travelling in the first place. But wealth distribution and dissatisfaction with life, although serious (and a large part of the reason Britain now looks set to leave the EU), are problems you cannot compare to those faced by people in Cuba. They are not just another league, but another world entirely.It would be very easy to blame the US embargo for the current state of Cuba’s economy and in reality it is impossible to know exactly where the effects of the embargo stop and the culpability of the government begins. But one thing is for sure, in a country suffering the effects of a trade embargo, a Communist economic system that curtails individual ingenuity and minimises collective motivation is about the worst combination you could have.
I know what you’re thinking: Cubans are poor, but they are happy aren’t they? They are more social, they dance in their houses, they have strong communities and live happy lives because they have not been corrupted by the distractions of modern life! Indeed there is some of truth in this. Social interaction, close knit families and a strong sense of community are things that Cuba has in spades. It also has a free world class education system that produces more highly qualified doctors per capita than any other country. But to think that this is somehow justifies the status quo, when the hospitals those doctors work in are unable to prevent shortages of the most basic of medical supplies and they themselves live in extreme poverty, is misguided.
With the rapid influx of tourists, you might think that Cuba is changing fast. Indeed, while I was in Havana the first cruise ship from the US landed with six hundred eager American tourists aboard. “We’re here to show Cubans that freedom and democracy is best!” one passenger gleefully exclaimed to a reporter as he stepped of the ship, puffing on a Cuban cigar. But, brash Trump loving tourists won’t change Cuba, and nor will the rest of us. Not by a long way. For meaningful change that improves the lives of its 60 million inhabitants it needs a whole new system of governance that is democratic and a free economy that harnesses the spirit of progress, rejecting the ideological fantasy of Che’s revolution. It doesn’t appear that that will be coming anytime soon.
No doubt each person will take away something different from a visit to Cuba. There is so much to process that the experience becomes a deeply personal interpretation of the facts. Not only will you discover a place so different to what you know, but you will also discover what that means to you in your own life. For me, seeing the reality of life here has given me an incredible amount to reflect on. I realise now that I have spent so much time berating the system of governance and the style of life that we live in the first world, that I have never fully appreciated the wealth of opportunities it affords us. One of those opportunities is being able to leave and travel to a country like Cuba; An opportunity that should not be missed.