So, I’ve again missed a few of these (almost) weekly posts.
But, rest assured, I’m not terminating them.
The truth is: this wandering soul just had to get in another international adventure before the curling season starts.
With some limitations in place, I decided to join a short 8-day Cuba tour. Hey, it’s a country I’d not yet been to, a country that I’d heard was immensely beautiful and with a rich history, a country that would facilitate my on-going quest to learn Español, and one which was close to Playa del Carmen (where I was due another appointment for my dental work.)
With five other travellers (from Australia, New Zealand and the UK) and a Cuban guide, we explored the western half of the country.
My friends were right: It is immensely beautiful, the people are friendly, the country is safe, and has a colourful history. We interacted with locals, and were treated wonderfully at the guest houses in which we stayed, the included breakfasts being “over-the-top.” And I even got to swim in the Bay of Pigs.
Some of the warnings were also right: internet will be sketchy, supplies limited, utilities uncertain (you might or might not get a hot shower), and the exchange rates all over the map. A lot of the online info was just plain wrong, though, as we learned on site.
It was an adventure, to be sure. And a thoroughly enjoyable one!
But also a very sad one. “This is an upside down country,” said our guide.
He was being charitable. My six-word definition for the country (see an earlier post) was: “How to ruin a country peacefully.” One of my colleagues compared it to Zimbabwe. The comparison was apt.
Due to government corruption and the abuse of human rights, the country is on a UN embargo. Almost no one will trade with Cuba, so they’re mostly stuck with whatever they can produce on their own.
Which isn’t much. In their communist system, for example, 90% of what the farmers produce on the agricultural reserves goes to the government. So, there’s no incentive to work. (They can keep for themselves what little they can produce on their personal plots, which is about the same as the 10% they’d keep from larger farms, so why work?) Much of the once productive land has returned to nature.
Our guide said that, of the 27 (?) sugar refineries once operating, only six remain (sugar cane having once been their dominant crop).
Pensions are $1500 pesos a month. We were getting 200 pesos to the US dollar for exchange, although the official rate is only 24 pesos. You do the math; how do you live on $7.50?
Everyone gets their food ration every month, though, and it’s woefully little, something like: 3 kilos of rice, ½ cup of beans, one cup of cooking oil, etc. About 20 products. Doesn’t go very far. They keep track in their official little books, the distribution centre signing off on each collection; you can’t cheat! Beyond that, you barter or buy from neighbours whose chickens might have produced a few more eggs than they needed and you can buy for $1 or $2 an egg. You make a little money in the underground economy to buy some fish or chicken or pork. (It’s illegal to slaughter cattle, though we found beef in every restaurant.)
Our guide took us into a pharmacy. The shelves were completely bare. “Drugs come every two weeks,” he said, “that is, whatever they can get. People line up for up to 2 days in advance to get their hands on what they can. If they can’t get what they need, well, so be it. If they die, the government doesn’t care.”
“In fact,” he said, “the government thinks it owns the country–and the people. So, most revenue gets siphoned off to the leaders and their friends who live very high.”
He, himself, had previously been a lawyer (paid at the prescribed government pittance). But, he said, “I make way more money being a tour guide, plus operating the Air BnB that I also own” (presumably acquired from his guiding income and tips.)
Throughout the trip, we never saw one piece of road maintenance equipment; they haven’t been maintained since the 1959 revolution (although I noted some fresh pavement in and around Havana.) And the highways were relatively bare, 50’s model American vehicles mixing with a few modern ones, some motor bikes and mopeds, and lots of ox- and horse-carts. They haven’t been able to import many vehicles since the revolution, so “everyone is a mechanic,” maintaining their pre-revolution ‘50s vehicles (“maintaining” may be euphemistic). But they have, of course, turned some of those vehicles into tourist attractions, which are properly maintained; we took vintage taxis for one of our excursions.
And we were told that not a single building has been built in “Old Havana” since the 1959 revolution, though many of them seem to have been well maintained.
It wouldn’t have to be this way. This country is so verdant that it could almost feed the world. In fact, it was, we were told, the 29th largest economy in the world at its peak. The decline began after the Soviet Union, its biggest supporter, dissolved in 1991, but most of it has happened within the last ten years due to government corruption.
It wouldn’t even be hard to turn this country around, I thought: restore human rights so that the trading embargo is lifted and incentivize the people to work. (I had plenty of time to imagine solutions while travelling in their modern buses, imported from China, and owned by a government company strictly for tourist excursions.)
But that would also stop the gravy train that starts with tourist dollars, flows through the poor country folk, who get to keep only a little of it, and eventually ends up in the hands of the ruling elite and their offshore bank accounts. (I should add that some business owners—Cubans living overseas–such as restaurateurs, get immensely wealthy from their operations, as well, their revenue by-passing the government inspectors.)
It was certainly an adventure (Did I not say a few posts back that I don’t do vacations; I do adventures?) And an eye-opener.
Why don’t the people revolt? We wondered. The next day we understood when our guide told us there were 200,000 (if I remember correctly) secret government informants. It might be your neighbour, who knows? And any complaint will get you instantly into jail.
They’ll revolt when they’re starving, opined one of my fellow travellers. Then they’ll have nothing to lose.
That time might not be far away.
Like all travel, it was a wonderful experience, opening my eyes to another part of the world, expanding my horizons, my sensitivities, and my appreciation for the diversity we have in this world.
And making me thankful for what we’ve got, despite my occasional complaints.
At least, that’s how I see it. . . .