Provocative commentaries on international issues, social development, and people and places by a veteran journalist
Brilliant travel essay by a young writer for The Gulf News
Published on December 22, 2007 By PranayGupte In Travel
By Vinita Bharadwaj
Special to Gulf News

It is perfectly easy to fall in love with Cuba. There is something in the air. Sometimes, it is driven by the seduction of revolution that still breezes past. At other times, it is the distant strains of the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack carried on a zephyr from Habana Vieja (Old Havana). By resisting might and money, Cuba, charming as it is, has also become a near antithesis of the modern, developed and capitalistic world.

"This is an interesting time that you've come to Cuba," 27-year old graphic artist, Fernando Junquet, says.

"It's the possible last days of Castro's Cuba," he says, unafraid. We are sitting in a prominent boulevard in Centro Habana, where Fernando and his brother are exhibiting their artworks. Since 1999, the Junquet brothers set aside a few hours every Saturday to take advantage of the public space the government allocates — free of charge — for artists to exhibit.

"Earlier we were allowed to sell. But now it's restricted to exhibiting. I don't mind if we are taxed for our sales but to just forbid completely is wrong. Like a lot of other things," Fernando says. That, however, doesn't prevent the brothers from a little under-the-table sales to people they are convinced are tourists. "No threat," the younger Junquet, Raul, says.

Like most youngsters one meets in Cuba, the Junquets are curious of the "outsider's" views of their country. For many, the tourist is a find. An articulate tourist with time on hand is a treasure. As we chat over the sounds of children running past us, the Junquets are free in their expression of artistic angst.

Yes, that same creative angst that is typical of artists everywhere.

I expect them to voice their dissent with caution and in code. But no. They are vocal. Sans fear. When they speak of their leaders, they are irreverent. It is time, they state, for change. "The ideals our leaders had were good in theory. Not practice. They are living in a different moment and they don't see what the younger generations want," Raul says.

Fernando, for instance, wants to be able to leave Cuba. And never return.

Raul, on the other hand, wants to go abroad for a couple of years. And return to better his country.

What they both decisively don't want is McDonald's or Wal-Mart.

"The idea is not to jump from one extreme to another. We're not looking for an American way of life. Just a little bit more freedom. To travel and return and not have to wait to be invited by a museum or gallery abroad so that we can visit a country," Fernando says. "I'm a graphic designer. My job on the other hand is to help out with some video filming crews. Raul is a photographer. But, we're creative people and there's not much professional scope for us here. What is wrong in working somewhere else?" he asks.

Falling in love with Cuba, they inform me, is the easy part. The loving, apparently, is another story.

* * * * *

It is not unusual to find dilapidated buildings in parts of Havana. While Old Havana is undergoing massive restoration, a number of old buildings seem on the verge of collapse.

As tourism increases — depending on the standard and facilities available — Cubans are allowed to officially rent out rooms to budget travellers.

Our host, Anna, whose 19th-century colonial house is an official casa, is all smiles — and no English — as she welcomes us into her family home. Located on a street in Centro Habana, with the famous Malecon less than three minutes away, Anna shows us our room, which in addition to the bed, dresser and loud wallpaper, also has a noisy refrigerator, a fully-functional air-conditioner and attached bathroom with warm water throughout the day.

Anna, I am told the next day, by Leo, my online reservation man, is part of the upwardly mobile Cuban class. "They have it good," he says.

Leo looks and sounds like Desi Arnaz, the Cuban-American actor-musician, but denies any knowledge of the original. Having never travelled, Leo's interactions with the outside world are restricted to the virtual. His website allows travellers to view photos, check prices, ask questions and book a stay in a real Cuban home.

A former tourist guide, Leo's small business is clearly profitable, as he is well-kitted with designer sunglasses, a spiffy mobile phone and a Palm 5. After a few rounds of "double PC" — polite conversation and political correctness — Leo helps me understand Anna's family better as he offers to play translator.

Anna's house was built in 1820 and bought by her grandfather in the early 20th century. Her father, Eduardo, 85, was a baker and lives with his wife in the family home, which is now managed by Anna, her partner, her son and daughter-in-law.

"Everybody has a role to play in the successful running of the casa," Anna says. "No role, no room." Her partner queues up every morning to collect their daily ration of soft, fresh bread. Her son and daughter-in-law pitch in with the general maintenance while Anna looks after her guests' meals, laundry and overall comfort. She has a cleaner come in on alternate days to dust, sweep and swab her home which is filled with little mementos which remind her of the foreigners who were part of her life — albeit for brief moments in time.

Eduardo spends his time on a wheelchair by their main door. He makes small talk with the passers-by and amuses himself by watching strangers' wary responses to his harmless dog.

Eduardo has lived quite a bit of Havana's history. He was born just before Machado's dictatorship, grew up during Batista's reign and became a father during the build-up to the Revolution and Castro's presidency. "The Revolution was good for some. Bad for others. Depends whom you talk to," he says, slowly.

"What does it matter what I think," he retorts on further probing and watches his great-grandchild receive polio drops from a nurse who administers them to the children in their neighbourhood.

Anna fills in the gap. "It was a revolution of ideas. I think for my father, he was into his life where he had other responsibilities and could not really understand the meaning of it at the time. We cannot say if it is good or bad. The point is there is a lot of good that has happened, but also some bad. But people who come here and stay with us say that it is the same everywhere in the world."

Anna, Leo and the others on her street will always love Cuba. With or without Castro.

* * * * *

Most Cubans have different sources of income. Although the Cuban government fixes a ceiling on the amount they can earn and work — regardless of the amount they work — they have found other ways to break that ceiling.

Our hostess Anna, for instance, in addition to managing a casa, also leases out internet access at a cheaper-than-hotels rate to foreign tourists and runs a thriving pirated DVD rental service out of her home.

It is not uncommon for a doctor — who by day is part of the world-famous healthcare system that has the world's second highest doctor to patient ratio (1:170) and cannot earn more than $20 per month — to be found waiting tables by night. Therefore, it was no surprise, when my guide of a few hours, Sasha, told me he was actually a chef at a famous hotel.

Like the Junquet brothers, Sasha speaks commendable English and is well-informed on the goings-on around the world. Cuban schools, he tells me, encourage a healthy environment of learning, with an anti-imperialist slant.

He talks happily of his life, his girlfriend and his dreams. "She works in an IT enterprise but she's a secretary. She doesn't want to leave Cuba. She loves it. I am ready to leave. I need the money," he says.

Embarrassed to state his exact wage, Sasha says it is somewhere between $12 a month (minimum wage) and $20 (doctors' wage). He lives with his parents in a three-bedroom apartment. His father drives a taxi. Food is not a problem. Nor is clothing, as Sasha points to his adidas shoes. His family has water and electricity, with the occasional powercut that most Cubans are accustomed to. They have cable television entertaining them 24 hours. He even goes to church.

But he wants more.

"I want more money. I can never hope to take my girlfriend to a restaurant and propose to her if I don't do this," he says.

And she won't marry without a proposal in a fancy Italian eatery?

"No. She will. I can propose to her by the Malecon with just a rose and she will accept," he says.

So, you don't need to work as a tourist guide on the weekends.

"That's what my girlfriend says. That I'm being greedy."

Conversations surrounding the conflict between need and greed are aplenty in Cuban society.

Sasha and a number of other Cubans say they are allowed to own a house. But not more than one.

They can own a computer. But not allowed to have internet access at home.

They are allowed to possess a TV. But forbidden from having cable television.

They can travel. But only after they have crossed 18. And only on invitation to participate in cultural, sports, educational or humanitarian causes.

And so we are left with questions. What does it take to keep loving? Are the basics not enough? Are the frills necessary to increase the longevity of love?

* * * * *

Che is omnipresent. Right from his mural on the Ministerio del Interior at the Plaza de la Revolucion that screams out Hasta la Victoria Siempre (Always towards victory) to the longly stretching Che quotes painted along the Prado, it is Che all the way.

The famous Alberto Korda photograph that launched a thousand berets, bandanas and t-shirts fills up souvenir stores targeting anyone who was inspired by Ernesto Guevara as a schoolboy, or infatuated with Che as a schoolgirl.

At the Plaza de la Revolucion, a group of Chinese men wander around nodding in approval as they pass the Comite Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba, which at one time used to be Castro's office. They pose at the Jose Marti Memorial with Che's mural serving as a grand backdrop.

"Food is a problem here. But otherwise, I think it's a wonderful country," says Liu, one of the members of the group. Liu has lived in Havana for four months and was showing his general manager visiting from China the important sites in communist history. "We work in the field of oil and gas. Cuba and China have good relations. And we are working to expand our economic relations," he says almost certain the Gulf News photographer, Rangarajan, and I, were a little more than simple sightseers.

Che would doubtless have been pleased with the progression of foreign affairs between Cuba and China. It is, after all, widely believed that the alleged rift between Guevara and Castro stemmed from a difference in opinion over which brand of communism to adopt. Che was a champion of Maoism.

The Che pilgrimage had to end at Santa Clara, in Villa Clara province, which is located in central Cuba. This town was the site of the last battle of the Cuban Revolution that overthrew the Batista government in 1958 and was led by Guevara. It is also the site of Che's mausoleum, which contains the remains of Guevara and 16 of his co-combatants killed in 1967 during the Bolivia operations. Che's remains were returned to Cuba in 1997, where he was given full military honours before his last burial.

Famous for its university that offers specialisation in various disciplines, Santa Clara is home to a tiny population of foreigners and claims to have had more than 1,000 graduates from 45 countries.

Sipping freshly brewed coffee from the mountains are four Chinese girls in their late teens, who are students at the Universidad Central de Las Villas and are moments away from their Latin dance lesson.

The girls — Lidia, Olga, Gloria, Ley and Sammi — are a giggly group who have plans to stay for up to three years as part of a plan which includes learning Spanish and not returning to China.

Their dance teacher is a Cuban lady married to a Spanish gentleman. She blows a whistle and a loud throbbing takes over the room. It is from the music system connected to an i-Pod which has the latest Latin pop music.

The girls, now dressed in shorts and tank tops, start to sweat it out as they warm up to a routine that is definitely more Shakira and less salsa.

"We love watching Indian dances. They're beautiful," Olga says. I manage a smile, pretty certain that they are not referring to any classical dance form.

As their movements get raunchier, the girls and their teacher work up a frenzy and manage to gather quite a crowd. For that one moment in time at least, Che city had sadly gone commercial.

* * * * *

Taxi drivers are a great source of information. And entertainment. Imagine our joy when Luis, the driver taking us to John Lennon Park, said his brother used to play baseball with Fidel Castro.

Truth or fib, it sounded great. And he knew it. So he played along with the whole "I'm from Holguin province [Castro also hails from there]" and let it slip that the Cuban people were tired of not knowing when he would return.

"Everybody in Cuba loves Fidel. They're scared of Fidel. We've learnt to live with him. But we need to see him. To know what is the future," he said.

John Lennon Park is named after the dead Beatle who was initially reviled by Castro — for producing blasphemous music — but later revered by Castro for his vocal anti-American stance. In Lennon's honour, a bronze statue of the Beatle sitting on a bench was unveiled at the park. Today, it is manned by 80-year-old Ronaldo, who spots curious tourists from afar and then arrives on the scene to place Lennon's glasses on his face.

"People used to steal the glasses. We had to keep replacing them. So now I make sure that during the park's opening hours, I place the glasses only when people take photos," Ronaldo tells us.

A former employee of the state, Ronaldo also has a black handbag in which he stocks pirated CDs of John Lennon's music. "This kid working at the [IT services] enterprise makes them for me," he says, adding that they are priced at $2 apiece.

"The Revolution is the best thing that happened to this country. For once, the people had something. It is only the rich who did not like it because they could not continue their exploitation," he says. "Castro eliminated class. There was finally hope for the poor."

Although there is still an obvious class difference — courtesy of two unequal currencies — in Cuba, he says, even if the rich get richer, the poor are not getting poorer. By appreciating the basics, Ronaldo, like a number of Cubans, is also loving the life.

* * * * *

Marti Moyal, a 70-year old former state employee, bides his time looking after his neighbour's home. His neighbour, Grace, a dancer, now married to a Spaniard and settled in Belgium, sends him a small amount of money every month for his services.

As we talk to Moya, the electricity goes off regularly, but returns within minutes. Each time it does, Moya raises his hands in jubilation. "It's like after the Revolution," he says. Moya is of African descent. His neighbour is Latino. "We live peacefully. No racism. They treat me like a human being. I'm not made to feel black or inferior.

"Right after the Revolution, there was so much hope. It was the best period. And things did get better. But, now, is the worst period," he says, shaking his head.

Grace's husband, Jose, elaborates on Moya's thoughts. "It's really a combination of the US embargo and the Cuban government's attitude towards the US.

"There's this refusal to accept aid out of pride. They don't want charity. But, it's the worst crisis. Families survive with what their relatives send them from abroad.

"After Fidel, no one knows what will happen. Some think it'll become worse, others believe there will be economic liberalisation. Hopefully, not all like America. Maybe like China," Jose says.

* * * * *

Condemning Castro and Cuba is very easy. Condoning Castro and Cuba, very trendy. But the reality is quite complex.

The sight of policemen in every area, the presence of Defenders of the Revolution in every block and the fear of informers everywhere does loom large. And yet, many Cuban families have cable television and some even have the internet — albeit illegally.

Fancy cars with 1950s American exteriors cruise along the streets, but chances are they are running on a Soviet Lada interior.

Crumbling houses on the outside are homes of solid structures with many storeys and large families.

The cynic would believe that through an unlimited and uninterrupted supply of rum and rhythm, a people have been tamed. However, the people are cultured, civilised and curious and highly opinionated.

There is definitely a strong sense of the people wanting change. It is undeniable that beneath their sometimes stoic, sometimes merry dispositions, there is a plea for change. But a change on their terms. A change that shifts the focus from destroying America's might to developing Cuba's society.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.

Casa system

A state-monitored system allows Cuban families to take advantage of the tourism boom. An official "casa" (home) that is registered with the state is denoted by a special sign outside its main door. If a Cuban family has an extra room to spare for tourists and can provide the basic facilities required, then they are eligible to use the house as a "casa". A family cannot have more than two rooms allocated for this purpose.

Needless to say, there is a tax which varies depending on the area the "casa" is located in. A "casa" in Old Havana apparently pays more tax than a "casa" in the suburbs. Taxes range from 250CUC to 350CUC per month and the owner has to pay the value of 13 months per fiscal year.

The system, however, is proving to be extremely profitable as many tourists prefer the comforts of a "casa". Not only is it much cheaper than hotels — a room can range from 15CUC-35CUC per night [1 Cuban Convertible is roughly equal to $1]— a hotel can't allow Cuban visitors inside their premises, though there are no such restrictions on "casas".

Economy and History

For most Cubans, history is divided into "Before the Revolution" and "After the Revolution". The period preceding the revolution is marked by figures such as the dictator Gerardo Machado and the military leader Fulgencio Batista, from whom Fidel Castro — who celebrated his 81st birthday on August 13 — and his comrades wrested power.

While Castro's presence is felt through his hour-long speeches that are repeatedly broadcast on state television and his writings in the print media, there are no streets named after him, no statues to commemorate his achievements, or even images of him on Cuban currency notes.

It is in fact Jose Marti, who like Che Guevara, is held in great regard by the Cuban people. Marti was the founder of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which led the War of Independence against the Spanish in the late 19th century.

He is a cultural icon in Cuban society and has impacted the country's education and ideologies so much so that he is just referred to as "El Maestro".

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy surprised its detractors by surviving.

In 1993, when Cuba seemed to be headed for economic disaster, the US dollar was legalised and Cubans were allowed to possess and spend foreign currency. This resulted in the emergence of a new class because families with access to US dollars were able to purchase goods and services off limits to other people.

However, in 2004, the US dollar was taken out of public circulation. Today, there are two currencies in Cuba — the CUC (Cuban Convertible) and the peso and 1 CUC is approximately equal to $1 and fetches 24 Cuban pesos at the exchange.

Tourists transact using CUC while Cubans are expected to use pesos.

As tourism increases and Cuba wakes up to the economic benefits this industry can generate, a parallel economy of sorts is emerging.

Right now, every Cuban is entitled to a basic 30-product food basket per month. This includes 2.7 kilograms of rice, 1.5 kilograms of sugar, 1 kilogram of brown sugar, 250 grams of beans, a little coffee, 2 kilograms of salt, 250 grams of cooking oil and 1.5 kilograms of pasta.

They receive one toilet roll every day and soap and toothpaste.

Depending on availability, chicken, hot dogs, fish and vegetables are distributed — as are 29 other products — on a slightly irregular basis.

Children under a year get two bottles of fresh or condensed milk per month and soy yoghurt on alternate days. Senior citizens, pregnant women and disabled persons are given special rations.

The rationed goods are sold at special government stores called "bodegas". Cubans admit prices haven't risen in years. There are stores that stock other products but these goods are priced in the convertible currency, which is out of reach of most Cubans.

Therefore, it is not uncommon for the odd Cuban to come up to foreigners and request them to buy milk powder for their babies from the "up-market" stores. The tourist who succumbs to such requests, may later discover that the milk powder or any such item he bought for the needy Cuban is bartered for something else.

Media and culture

The only "advertising" that one is likely to see in Cuba is in the form of large billboards spewing anti-Bush rhetoric and hailing new best friends, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales.

Endless landscapes that would make real estate developers smack their lips in glee are free of the commercial trappings and adornments of brands and continue to exist in their natural, green state.

Although officially limited to the national daily "Granma" — a boring propaganda read — Cubans in Havana seem fairly well-informed about both Baghdad and Beyonce. Apathy, however, increases as one moves away from the capital.

Although religion is permitted within the public domain since the late Pope John Paul's visit, churches are far from packed.

The subsidisation of cultural activity has helped inculcate an appreciation for the arts and literature in Cubans. Regardless of its size, every town has a Casa de Cultura which stages everything from salsa dances to comedy nights. Additionaly, there are hundreds of theatres and organisations that bring art to the masses — all free of cost. The quality of the fine arts available is staggering.

Cinemas are aplenty and they screen films from all over the world — including Hollywood. The Fine Arts Museum (above) is a magnificent building which is well-preserved and regularly hosts exhibitions. Cubans can visit for a mere 5 pesos. Entrance for tourists is 5CUC (120 pesos).

The older generations are well-versed in works by Said, Gibran and Tagore, while the younger ones stay clued in on popular cultural movements taking place around the world.

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