Cuba. Why Cuba?
In 2003 in New York, I went to a photographic exhibition near Times Square. I still remember many of the photographs vividly, but one in particular was a large photograph of a city streetscape. Old American cars parked in the street, African American looking people, but not dressed in 1950s era clothes (which would have matched the era of the cars). It looked like a snapshot from another era, but the photograph was too large and its resolution, its detail, too fine.
It had to be a recent photograph, but it looked like it was American Graffiti meeting the depression era photoessays of Dorothea Lange.
A closer look at the caption revealed it all. Havana Street, 2001.
With an inappropriate reference to 30 Rock (which didn’t even exist then) I thought of a quote Liz Lemon has said: “I want to go to there”.
We travelled to Cuba in December 2006, via Los Angeles, via Mexico. If there’s a place that has not been touched by commercialism, in particular American brands, Cuba is it.
Even though Cuba is within 100 miles of the Florida Keys, the trade embargo imposed since 1960 has helped to freeza Cuba in time.
The upside: Cuba has been able to hold onto its culture. The sounds of Mambo, Rumba and Salsa actually come from people’s houses as you walk down the street – it’s not just put on for show for tourists.
There are no Coke signs, no McDonalds, no Starbucks – nothing American – at least, nothing American since the 1950s. Cuba is like a car yard time warp. Old Dodges, Chevies and Fords are keep alive – you won’t find a 2003 Ford Focus or a ’96 Jeep Cherokee on Cuban roads, because you just can’t get them. The mix of cars is topped up with Russian Ladas that were available here before the Soviet Union collapsed and financial support from the Kremlin disappeared.
Americans were not legally allowed to travel as tourists to Cuba in 2006. This will slowly change – Cuban Americans are slowly being permitted to travel there now, and eventually all Americans will be able to return. But in 2006, in two weeks of travel throughout the country, we met just two Americans – one of which had gained Australian citizenship.
Americans illegally travelling to Cuba had to fly there not directly from the US, but stop via a country such as Mexico or Canada.
The downside of the embago: things are just hard to get. People live a basic life compared to the modern word. No iPhones, XBoxes or plasma TVs here. With an average monthly wage of about US$20, gadgets are out of the question. Internet access? If you’re a Cuban, forget it. Even if you could, the going rate for an hour’s access was about a week’s wage. I know where I’d be using my money if in that position: not on the internet.
The Cuban government heavily subsidies the basics: food, medical care and such. But other things, such as pencils, clothes and even soap are classed as luxuries. If you ever travel to Cuba (which you must) take spare t-shirts, socks, pens and soap. People ask you for it – they don’t hassle you – but if you can make someone’s life a bit easier, you’ve made a connection that is much more important than buying a junky souvenir.
The embargo has been used by the Casto government as a convenient excuse for everything that isn’t right about Cuba. In any western city where you’d find advertising (billboards, signs, street art) you’ll instead find Cuban government slogans:
Patriotism or death.
Long Live Fidel!
Socialism or Death!
Long Live the Revolution!
Faces of the heros of the revolution – Che Guevara, Fidel Casto and Raúl Castro – are everywhere. Che seems to be loved. Fidel is the father you’ve known all your life, and you’re not too sure how you feel about him.
The Castros have held power in Cuba for over 50 years – that’s at least 3 generations of families. Think about that for a moment.
There did seem to be something like a Centre for the Revolution in every town, and every so often in larger cities. There’s nothing like a little taste of East German informing on your neighbour. The government is the only sanctioned source of news. No BBC, no CNN, not even garbage like Fox News.
The economy is crippled by the embargo. While things are reportedly reforming under Fidel’s brother, Raúl, the government controls everything. When we were there in 2006, privately run restaurants could only seat very small numbers of people (I recall it was less than 20) so as not to compete with government run outlets. To me it was hard to tell what was government run, but I guess it was, well, everything.
It did leave me feeling though that if you can’t get it, you don’t want it — and you’re probably much happier without it. Consumerism is a dangerous drug we’re all addicted to if we like it or not.
But oh, the taste of rum, the smell of cigars, the rhythm of the music. Ooooo, it was intoxicating in its own way. Granted we had access to the best food, the best drinks, clubs, bars and restaurants that were available – and not within reach of locals. But Cubans love music, they love to dance, and Cuba will only ever be the place to have a mint soaked, rum filled mojitos.
If you have the opportunity, get to Cuba. Get there before McDonalds, Hersheys and Proctor & Gamble get there. Get there before Cuba changes too much.
Viva Cuba Libre!
Photos from Cuba – click the thumbnails for larger images.