Of all the abuse that the term ‘authentic’ has come in for over the years, nothing can have prepared it for the outright torture it is subjected to in an advert currently showing on the metro in Rome for authenticcuba.com. Ordinary life for the average Cuban apparently revolves around a succession of five-star hotel lobbies, exclusive spa treatments and gourmet meals of the very highest international standards.
Although Cuban society is changing, it hasn’t quite yet reached that point of being synonymous with luxury and exclusivity. Maybe the people who made the ad got it confused with Dubai. As an erstwhile/occasional radical Marxist communist revolutionary type who also happens to speak Spanish, I’d always felt slightly ashamed of never having been there when it was more authentically egalitarian. My wife hadn’t either, because early until last year she worked for a (large human rights organisation which isn’t recognised there) defending Caribbean human rights and thus always assumed that she wouldn’t be allowed in. But given that (as of May 2016) we were living not very far away (in Mexico) and that she was leaving her job after seven years, it seemed not to foolish not to give it a whirl. As it happened, the day we arrived was the day after she’d left that job, and it only occurred to us as we approached immigration that if her name was on some sort of list it wasn’t like the hyperefficient Cuban bureaucracy would have removed it in the preceding 24 hours. It’ll be fine, I blithely reassured her, just as a uniformed official stepped in front of us and asked us where we were from and what we did for a living. ¡Ih!
After 15 or so minutes of slightly evasive light interrogation we were free to enjoy Cuba’s manifold splendors and contradictions, the most prominent of which was occasioned by our very presence there. While in Cuba we we spent about $100 a day (in CUC, the convertible dollar equivalent as opposed to the peso nacional, which is worth 25 times less), five times what very many Cubans working full-time in professional jobs earn in a month. Now, let’s imagine that where you live there was a huge numbers of visitors to whom $3,000 dollars had the same value as $20 has for you. You’d probably badger them, a bit. You’d might even learn to play the guitar, just in case they liked that sort of thing. You’d try to provide whatever services might be to their liking. So it’s easy to see why so many doctors, university professors, teachers and so on are driving taxis, renting out their flats or offering up the odd autentico sex act.
For various reasons (some frankly superstitious and some eminently sensible, given the embargo and the dangers of suddenly spiralling inequality), there are stringent restrictions on private commerce. Some forms of economic activity are allowed, others prohibited. The fact that food is not on the list makes for a startling contrast with Mexico. If you accepted all the offers you receive for cheap and tasty food in Mexico City you’d be dead within 15 minutes; in Cuba, even with (by local standards) an infinite amount of cash to spend, you can still find yourself if not hungry then certainly a bit frustrated.
Access to a small quantity of some daily essentials is guaranteed via a system of rationing. Every family receives a small amount of rice, sugar, matches, and oil every month. It’s not enough, but it is essential. Petrol is also cheap thanks to an ongoing (although maybe not for much longer) agreement with Venezuela, and public transport costs next to nothing. Healthcare and education are famously provided by the state. Both housing and private cars seem to be passed down and carefully maintained on a minimum of resources. People get by, some barely. A successfully waylaid tourist late in the month can mean the difference between eating and going hungry.
The dual currency policy is a useful educational tool for tourists. In other countries, the existence of a single currency disguises the fact that there are different economies in society, some in direct conflict with others. The London housing market is a good examples of this, and the imbalances in Mexican society, between those (like us) who can happily throw around 70 pesos on a cup of coffee and those for whom that sum represents 16 hours’ hard work, would be less avoidable if the poorest and the richest didn’t share the same currency.
One thing that actually shocked me about Cuba was the (lack of) printed media. There is essentially one national newspaper (‘Granma’) and it is absolutely dire, like a monochrome and cheaply-printed edition of Worker’s Power from 1985. Even that is not very easy to track down. Given that we unfortunately didn’t have access to TV in any of the places we’re staying, it was hard to figure out how state propaganda operates. One taxi driver was kind enough to explain it to me. According to him, political control is partly exercised through the (very) locally-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. The soldiers we saw knocking on doors around the country may be connected to this system. It apparently involves a lot of gossip and neighbourhood spying, like what Jane Jacobs called ‘eyes on the street’ but with a more sinister edge. Careless talk could mean an uncomfortable visit to or from the police. In the last few years Raúl Castro has unleashed crackdowns on dissent, especially in 2009 when he took power. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and of those who fall out of favour losing their livelihoods.
Although Mexico and Cuba are obviously very different societies, visiting the latter while living in the former made for some inevitable but hopefully not too misleading comparisons. In Mexico everyone complains, all the time, and quite rightly, about everything connected to the Government and the rateros who run things. There’s an extensive privately-owned media, subject to more brutal forms of censorship. In Cuba I heard no one talk about corruption. That doesn’t mean there is none; in a way Cubans are both better-placed to know what goes on behind the scenes and also less likely to be able to find out. The Internet suggests that there is a lot of bribery and theft (there are lots of references to informal ‘sociolismo’ and ‘amiguismo’), and the fact that the Government has publicly cracked down on it suggests it is an issue, but for all that people we met complained about the difficulties of their daily lives, it wasn’t mentioned.
I did get the sense that inequality is a growing problem. Most taxi drivers were chatty and open. They are among those to have gained most from the opening up, making up, along with waiters and (apparently, inevitably, depressingly) prostitutes, a brand-new middle class. Both they and the owners of the casas particulares (licensed private guesthouses) we stayed in seemed pleased and grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given. Of course, by definition we had limited chances to talk to people who’ve been left out of the tourist boom. It is also worth mentioning that almost everyone we came into contact with through the tourist industry was white.
The lack of Internet was something I at first found frustrating and then refreshing. Going online in any form involves buying a card for a certain number of minutes, or at least joining a queue and then doing so. Then there are only certain places where wifi can be accessed. As a result, such places are social spaces where people hang out, talk to friends abroad and use the internet as a public good. The restrictions may be motivated by political control and austerity, but for ten days I enjoyed the novelty of my enforced exile from the online world, obviously another privilege that very few Cubans share. It felt a bit like those resorts where you eat not what you want but what’s good for you, like holidaying in a high-end monastery. The temporary absence of traffic, internet, mass media, and the pressure of advertising felt like a breath of fresh air to me, but I know that for locals it is stifling, a source of immense frustration that in many cases can’t be contained, leading them to try their luck on rickety boats. The numbers leaving the island have increased since early 2013, when exit visas were automatically granted for the first time.
I did pick up the sense, however, that people in Cuba do still share an ethos. This is not the same as subscribing to a political ideology. The only times I heard socialism mentioned was in museums, on street murals and the couple of times I read the newspaper, and in publicly-broadcast announcements. There does seem to be a patriotic spirit which takes some pride in the achievements of the Revolution. How young people relate to that I have no idea. Graffiti artists and bloggers are among those who have been swept up in Raúl’s crackdowns on dissent. Cubans also face restrictions on movement around the island, a reality probably lost of most of those who, like us, sail round for the sake of air-con, speed and convenience on buses lines which are only available to tourists.
Not spending all our time looking at our phones means we get talking to other tourists. Some English people we make friends with on the beach are kind enough to pass on a recentish (sympathetic, but not uncritical) biography of Fidel Castro written by a German journalist in 2007. For all the drama of the Revolution itself and the immense sacrifices made to keep it going, with Cuban citizens occasionally removed to an age before the invention of the combustion engine and tales of Havana residents (illegally) farming pigs on their balconies, you’d have to admit that ideological madness was a factor in its survival. At one point in the 1960 Castro declared himself to be against all forms of private trade, right down to the ownership and exploitation of fruit trees. Even the most rabidly pro-Castro leftist would have to wince at some points in the story.
At the time the book was written the rising star of Cuban politics was Ricardo Alarcón. He was central to the policy of opening up some areas of private trade in the face of absolute economic oblivion. I asked a taxi driver what had become of him since. He’s off the scene, was the reply. Later I learned that he fell out of favour with Raúl and now works is an administrator in a hospital somewhere to the West of Havana, presumably earning the standard $20 a month.
Not that there’s anything ignoble about working in a hospital, of course. Cuban has some excellent medical services (I didn’t get the chance to find out how the glowing tales we hear abroad are reflect reality). But if those doctors had the chance to go and work abroad, would the system survive? This is just one of very many conundrums which a visit to Cuba opens up. I spent a great deal of my time trying to work out the relationships between embargos, imports and exports, balance of payments, foreign currency, emigration, remittances…as for whether or not tourism is a basis for development, other Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are not inspiring examples of sustainability or stability. Decent education, and health systems, a lack of widespread violence and corruption all seem unambiguously laudable. The post-Soviet Special Period (or at least the way it’s represented in this excellent-if-a-little-too-effusive documentary) is a genuinely heroic example of popular austerity and enforced environmental sustainability, one which I’ve sometimes thought that (as I’ve argued before) Greece could have learned some lessons from had it not opted to stay inside the EU.
Given the particular historical moment at which our visit took place, pretty much everyone we talked to told us it might be the last chance to see the country before it ‘changed’. I was and am sceptical of such predictions. The Government is keeping economic and political activity tightly controlled and I didn’t detect any signs of insurrectionary sentiment. Nevertheless, Obama in his last lame duck year did make some very significant changes in the relationship between the countries, and the pressure of big money will probably mean that even the most reactionary government in US history may not be able to reverse the momentum. Maybe they don’t feel the need. After all, Cuban Americans are neither as powerful nor as useful as they were in the 1960s.
Visiting Cuba taught me a lot. Since it’s one of the those places where it’s hard to relax and play the role of the tourist it problematised my view of the world in a useful way. Emotionally I still feel that the Revolution was worthwhile, and am inclined to believe the sacrifices since then are to some extent justified. It’s easy to forget that in the case of East Germany the Communist regime was partly fueled by revulsion and horror at what had preceded it, and in a similar way I don’t think anyone beyond far-right Republicans is keen to return to the brutal repression of the Machado and Batista years. But then, while browsing in a tourist shop I picked up a book of photographs taken by one of Fidel’s sons of those who visited him over the last few years. There was El Jefe Maximo with Lula, Chávez and Morales, but also with Assad, Peña Nieto, Mugabe, and Putin. Cuba’s spiritual leader was allowing his country’s legacy of radical self-sacrifice and principled international solidarity to be used as a cheap photo op by any passing tyrant. Irrespective of Cuba’s problematic-but-inevitable past dependence on Stalinist regimes, seeing Castro with Putin and Assad is particularly galling in the context of the current worldwide reactionary resurgence. Today I came across a truly bizarre pro-Assad Facebook group called ‘Love for Syria, Iran, Russia and Cuba’. Is support for Cuba now somehow part of the cause of global neofascism? Such geopolitical shifts require acts of mental contortion that it usually takes a lifetime to master. Perhaps, to paraphrase the documentary-maker Adam Curtis, given the current global political context, relations between the rest of the world and Cuba could not and will not be normalised, but rather hypernormalised. Cuba is not going to become ‘just another’ capitalist country – in a post-Trump world, such a thing no longer exists.