Europeans in Cuba
I translated this article from a newspaper in Spain.
Spanish tourists in Havana.
(Article that appeared in the Spanish daily, EL PAIS)
We arrived in Havana intending not to set foot in Varadero. We thought that to go equipped only with a backpack of less than 9 kilos would allow us to know the other side of the touristic Cuba; without political bias without pre-set plans, and with pre-arranged accommodations at the home of a Spanish friend who works in the capital as an aid worker in a United Nations body. But Cuba is too complicated to try to understand in casual passing and the shock has been so enormous that many things, from our perception of tourism to our social and political principles have been left staggering.
To get from the Vedado residential area to the popular Old Havana there are two possible routes: you can either stroll along the scenic pier or immerse yourself in a stark reality by walking through Central Havana. We wandered about until we were approached by the first hustlers. Dizzied by the heat and their jabbering, we allowed ourselves to be dragged through the most sordid streets of the city. They might have taken us for all that we had but we were fortunate and our first contact with the Caribbean hustle cost us just 5 convertible pesos – CUC (slightly less than 5 euros). In exchange, and without it being the intention of our makeshift guides, we got our first impression of the day to day life of Havana’s residents which conditioned the rest of our perceptions of the reality of history’s most institutionalized Revolution.
We knew the poverty belts surrounding Mexico City, and shanty towns of Caracas but had never seen slums with marble staircases. . None of our acquaintances who had visited Cuba before we did had spoken of anything other than Cuban joy, dance, rum, parties, and the Caribbean. It is also true that nobody had mentioned the sex, so we should have suspected they were concealing some facts from us. We walked amidst a foul smell, observed by people who drank in the doors of “tenements”, crumbling mansions where every four walls houses a family – including what in the past was a landing in the best colonial style – and share hot plates and toilets. We allowed ourselves to be dragged to the building where the movie Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed, where our “guides” were convinced we, as good Europeans with backpacks, wanted to go. While they strove to identify for us which rooms had been used to film the various scenes in the movie, we looked at the interior of the houses and rooms and wondered where the f–k all these people had been who say that there is no misery in Cuba.
Arriving in Old Havana is like arriving at a theme park; majestic houses, clean streets, police surveillance which aims to limit contact between Cubans and tourists. Because Cubans are the Caribbean victims of 21st century apartheid. Hotels for tourists, buses for tourists, shops for tourists. A world apart that nationals are prohibited from entering. And it’s not even an issue of purchasing power, with all that is unacceptable in classism. It’s something even worse. Cubans whom we questioned regarding this separation justified touristic privileges on the grounds that,” Cubans are troublemakers. There are people who dedicate themselves only to troubling the foreigners. It’s best that they limit their access.” Is that what is understood as hospitality and good manners in Europe? That an entire nation reverences the white visitors?
We walked about in search of a taxi to take us home when we came upon the Bodeguita del Medio, brimming with satisfied tourists; believing themselves to be fraternizing with Cubans who only sought, and I don’t judge them for it, their dollars or their passports. And I mean it sincerely when I say I don’t judge them for looking upon each foreigner they meet on the street as an opportunity to better their own situation. If I were Cuban, I’d be a rafter or a street hustler. I had never felt so much anguish for a nation in such a short amount of time. But this apathy, this letting life sift through ones fingers (after all, isn’t this where they said people really know how to enjoy life?) this mutilation of ones personal aspirations. The Cuban people arise each day wondering how they will make it to the next, without any medium or long range plans. They criticize Fidel, but don’t mention him by name because he is no longer a man. He is a god with no known family or residence. They glance out of the corner of their eyes. Because no one any longer trusts anyone else. That is the power of the Revolution.
We return home tired and demoralized by what awaits us in the coming days. No one can remove the impression we’ve taken away with us that all those stories of Cuban/foreigner joy and brotherhood come with a price in dollars. Our landlord awaits us with a cup of coffee. In the coming days we will talk quite a lot in her kitchen: she answers our questions and we suppose we provide for her a break from a daily routine. Her name is Mari, and like all Cubans she is an engineer in something or other. Mari speaks to us of her travels in Europe and Russia as a government employee during the early 90’s. 1990 marks the beginning of the sarcastic “Special Period in Times of Peace”. Sarcastic, because what really began in the decade of the 90’s was the solitary walk of the Cuban Revolution when it ceased being a colony of Russia and could no longer continue to sell sugar at the price of petroleum.
It’s the time depicted by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez in “Dirty Trilogy of Havana” or “The King of Havana”, much more crude than Zoe in “Nothing Daily”. They are the years of hiding pigs on the rooftops and throwing waste into the streets. Of using the bathtub as a chicken hatchery. The beginning of the process of death from malnutrition which slowly faces a large part of the Havana population. The news may not give the number of deaths from malnutrition but neither does it give the number of abortions though figures of around 40% of all pregnancies are rumored. You may not die of hunger, at least not in a few days because it can take a lifetime, but the concept of nutrition includes more than the ration of rice and beans that comprises the daily fare of a Cuban family.
On one of those trips Mari divorced her husband to marry an Argentine with legal residence in Spain. When all was set to go, the little corral they live in frustrated their plans and each had to return to their respective countries and their private crises. To date, our landlady lives with the man who is legally her ex-husband, also an engineer, and also home 24 hours a day because it costs more money to go to work than to stay home. She is pure rage. He is pure apathy. I ask them what they think will happen when Fidel dies. She answers: we’ll kill each other. I console her by saying that at least the populace doesn’t have arms, unlike what we witnessed in Venezuela, and she looks at me seriously then clarifies:” Not arms, but we have machetes”.
Looking for a Cuban history manual as recounted by Cubans in one of the multiple bookstalls of the old zone we meet Guadalberto. We provoke a conversation in order to attain another perspective. Until now we have had contact only with a marginal sector of middle aged people. Perhaps their criticism and desperation is due to their struggle to make a living or just plain exhaustion. Guadalberto studied economics but makes more money as a street vendor. It’s understandable if we compare the 15 CUC /month national average salary with the 8 CUC/book he asks of the “yumas” for each second-hand volume that he sells. He tells us that he won’t leave because of his baby. He tells us that he reads what foreigners send him because in Cuba books are not censured at first, but are then recalled or published in parts. He tells us that his favorite book is George Orwell’s 1984; censured.
A single eye cannot see it all; Big Brother is not so powerful. But the “little sisters” are. And we felt it when we returned home. Mari’s neighbor is a member of the Defense Committee of the Revolution. There is a DCR for every 20 city blocks and its function is that which Chavez has attempted to copy with his Bolivarian Circles. It’s possible that their initial intent was community service but today they are organs of control of neighborhood life. This neighbor rents rooms to tourists as do nearly all Cubans who have a room to spare in a decent house. For making a room available to a tourist (never a Cuban or a tourist with a Cuban) you must pay an initial fee of around 100 euros (keeping in mind that the base salary is about 15 euros per month) plus a monthly fee of around 150 euros whether or not the room is occupied. Mari rents out a room illegally. She does not pay the fee nor is she registered which allows my friend to rent it for 200 euros a month instead of the approximately 700 euros a month a foreigner typically has to pay in order to rent a room in Havana. Her neighbor, the one from the DCR, rents out 3 rooms of which only one is legal. She’s noticed that at Mari’s house there is much coming and going of foreigners and has deduced that we are not guests but rather that Mari is doing business here. She warns: either you pay her a certain amount of money or she’ll denounce Mari to the Party. If denounced to the Party, loss of your residence is a given. Mari pays and we must leave. We don’t want to cause problems for other acquaintances so we go to a legal residence which costs us about 30 euros a night.
It is difficult to leave the circuit established for foreigners. Because of ignorance and by not wanting to put anyone in trouble, we spent a considerable amount of money in comparison with other travels, not only in South America, but even in Europe. If the cost of living in Havana seems high to us, how do the Cubans manage? It’s neither by guile nor magical realism. It’s through misery, moral mendacity and abuse. Abuse to the pointing of vomiting, because tourism brings millions of euros that never reach the people on the street; because resources are wasted; because they choke off access to information in such a way as to not allow the remotest possibility for people to choose. They won’t let you leave and they’ll asphyxiate you slowly if you stay. Because they’ve managed to sell themselves to the youth of the world as the paradigm of the struggle for freedom and equality. Because the Left in my country won’t use the word DICTATOR and the Right criticizes while at the same time its founder toasts the Castro family, with the owner/controller of all Cuban tourism enterprises. Because they sell populism and demagoguery for solidarity. Because the Blockade is responsible but Castro is culpable. Because the fields are fallow and that to kill a cow is punished more severely than to kill a person. Because official statistics deny the incidence of AIDS but screwing is the only resource they have left and condoms are not included in the limited ration card.
Guadalberto wondered if this was the first time we had been to Cuba. The first and the last, we responded. Of course, he deduced, you prefer returning to your Soma. I didn’t refute him, but it is not my material world that I miss but the impossibility of him changing his life that causes me anguish. It’s easier to assume the shame of living in a Happy World where no one is aware of the opportunities he has. Simply by being able to choose.
In summary, the glorious Revolution has been a great failure. But one thing is certain, the Castros and their group of powerful commanders “instill fear”. They live better than we do and are kings compared with that impoverished and demoralized people we met in Cuba.
It is unjust and it is time we woke up to the harsh reality of this beautiful but abused people.
Flee from a land where a single man controls all powers, because it is a land of slaves.