Your Cuba 101 course
Cuban-Americans like me are very passionate about the truth of the communist regime, especially the political prisons and repressive climate of Cuba. We've all had experience with it so that's where the passion comes from. My dad's cousin spent 14 years in a political prison without a trial so forgive me if I get irritated when we greet a dictator with a handshake.
The battle continues even on the day that President Obama shook Raul Castro's hand: CUBAN DISSIDENTS DETAINED ON HUMAN RIGHTS DAY
A couple of years ago, my Canadian friend Brian Lloyd French wrote a novel about Cuba, "Mojito". It is a very entertaining story that tells you what life is really like in the island, from the "mask" that most people wear to coexist with the regime and the survival techniques that keep 1950s cars running.
Brian explained his impressions of Cuba in a great article: "The island of lies"
"A few weeks ago I clicked a Facebook ad for luxurious "Boomer Tours" in Cuba. Being somewhat interested in that topic, I clicked a little deeper. I noticed that one of the local guides proudly made a claim to be a personal friend of Che Guevara - who, of course, wasn't exactly a role model for those interested in human rights. Except perhaps for those interested parties that wish to learn how to execute and imprison political opponents and get away with it.
A click later I learned that the organizer of the tour is a self-confessed Trotskyist. Which is fine - our society allows anyone to pursue any philosophy they wish. And any party, if it gets a sufficient share of the votes in an election, can receive federal funding for their party. I have many friends within the entire spectrum of philosophical positions - and we get along because we have more in common that we have in differences.
Which is the way that democracies act.
But it's not exactly that way in Cuba. Down there if you speak up you risk a term of re-education in a resort called Villa Marista. Which ain't five stars.
To the organizers' credit, they don't try to hide their beliefs. A click and a Wiki search and it's all there. Cuban propaganda is alive and well, and the internet does set us free. It's easy to discover a bias that a writer of an article might have or, like Yoani Sanchez, to actually blog from Cuba about government abuses of the governed.
Lenin described those westerners who support communism as "Useful Idiots" and he would be smiling in his hereafter about this if he hadn't been such an atheist.
A few years back, I was encouraged to write a novel as a sequel to one written by a famous friend of mine. We decided that Cuba would be a terrific place in which to place the plot and characters. Since then, I've spent a lot of time in Cuba with lots of Cubans, and I think I have a pretty good understanding of how they live day-to-day, even though I will never have to worry about what I say in public, or whether my family will eat protein at least once this week.
When does a revolution stop becoming a revolution and start being recognized as a misguided philosophy with a status present that is an insult to all those who believe in human rights?
Lies are a permanent part of life on the Castros' island paradise lost. Younger Cubans have to lie about their opinions of the government, its leadership and their opinion of the United States. Old Cubans lie about Fidel Castro because those lies are the only opinion they've ever been allowed to have. The Cuban politburo lies about everything it does, and just about everything everyone else does; especially the USA. The Castros spew lies constantly but are so absent from reality that they seem to believe them.
Fidel has always lied about his form of democracy. It started with his "temporary" suspension of free elections soon after he took power. Lie. While every few years Cubans are forced to go to a ballot box and vote for Socialist Candidate tweedledum or Socialist Candidate tweedledee, this temporary suspension is older than I am, and not likely to really become temporary any time soon.
Another great lie is that Cuba is an egalitarian paradise; where all are equal and everyone gets a great education and has tremendous health care. But as in Animal Farm, the pigs are more equal than others. In Habana, for example, loyal Fidelistas, virtually all of Spanish extraction, are rewarded with pleasant accommodations in nicer areas like Vedado and Miramar. Those who unfortunately are not in favour, who are mostly black, live in tenements in Central City on narrow streets filled with rubble that serve as both sewers and playgrounds.
There is only way to survive in Cuba. Theft. At least Fidel considers it theft. It's participation in the black market. A typical family stipend is between 10 and 20 dollar equivalents per month. Families are provided with housing (of a sort), a ration booklet that provides rice, beans, potatoes, milk (if you're a pre-schooler) and a few other staples. The ration coupons have some value as they that can be used for items to trade. Sick looking green onions and tiny garlic bulbs can be purchased at markets for a pittance. But meat isn't on the menu and eggs are treated like they are laid by a golden hen.
But what a family really has to do to survive is to somehow scrounge for something, anything of value that they can trade. It might be a coupon for a pair of shoes (size 11, men's black). They might be given chintzy curios and mass produced Cuban art to sell to naive turistas. Every month workers in tobacco factories get a box of cigars to smoke (but really to sell to gringos).
The young and old share the responsibility to come up with stuff to trade. Grannies dress up in Santarian priestess costumes to have their picture taken by tourists for a fee. Children look for kind foreigners who will give them a buck because they're cute. Some young Cubana's dream of having a child with a rich tourist and, if the Dad has at least some ethical standard, an annuity by way of child support.
Yes. There is prostitution. And yes many "northerners" from Canada, Germany, Italy and England conduct the most heinous of all acts of economic imperialism; they travel to Cuba to have sex with young people, mostly girls. White haired Decembers from the north are often seen with dusky Aprils from the South. I try to show my disdain any way I can when I see this. I'm hardly a moralist, but these guys feel rich and handsome in Cuba by throwing ten dollar bills around like man-hole covers and I don't like it.
A key source of income for families is to have at least one family member that somehow has access to tourists. They may work in a hotel, restaurant, drive a taxi (legal or illegal), or act as "tour guides".
Almost all the official jobs that are tourism related are given to those of the Spanish persuasion. The "tour guides" are almost all black and risk their freedom if they get noticed doing the wrong thing by the wrong people. You will know them by their furtive catch phrases as they pass you in the streets of Old Havana, "Chica, Senor?" "Cigar, Senor?" "Restaurant, Senor?" Trust me. Chances are almost 100% that the cigars are fake, the girl is somebody's daughter who despises her source of income, and the restaurant will be over priced. (Private restaurants - paladares -were the only way to go up to a year or so ago when Fidel started taxing them to death and dropping the prices at government restaurants. He has succeeded in pricing these entrepreneurs out of business. But I'd not be the least bit surprised that even if they're without customers that they are still forced to pay protection money to the boss.)
Public Health? Cubans have admirably healthy people at least partly because their lifestyle prohibits them from enjoying the goodies that make us die prematurely. They pretty much can't help but avoid obesity - they can't get their hands on enough food to get fat. Rum, even at a CUC (dollar equivalent) a bottle is really beyond their budget. Drugs? Really, really beyond their budget.
They don't die in car accidents because no one has cars (but the few vehicles there do put out an admirably unhealthy quantity of exhaust). Cuba brags about it's low level of infant mortality, and the lack of unhealthy life choices helps this, but so does abortion on demand which isn't reported in any of their stats. And as far as drugs, ordinary Cubans do not have access to any, from Lipitor down to Aspirin. I had a friend die last year - a great musician - who died of a staph infection incurred when he was having his back scoped.
But if you're down there doing a documentary, they'll invite you to have a kidney or cornea transplant.
Schools are pretty good but all the kids are members of Fidel's version of the Young Pioneers, which was such a rousing success in great democracies like the USSR. Fortunately, around about the time that testicles start dropping and breasts lifting, the political indoctrination of the Communist Party on Cuban youth is forgotten and replaced by a huge desire to have nice clothes and a moto to drive your sweetie around in style.
Safety? Cuba is a police state, so tourists are likely as safe there as in, say, the guest lounge in a Canadian penitentiary. There is at least one para-military on every street corner that tourists frequent. So we're safe. The entire Cuban security apparatus, including their neighbourhood spies, are there to protect Cuba from Cubans, not to be a significant factor in fighting Bahia de Cochinos Dos.
For locals, nobody has anything so there really isn't very much to steal. But I do have a friend in Havana who runs an organized crime organization, and there is crime. Just not on an Ocean's Eleven scale.
Cuba's "friends" in Canada and the USA brag about how well Cuba manages through a fairly regular procession of hurricanes and tropical storms. But they fail to mention that there is very little in property value there to be lost in a killer storm and Cubans are savvy enough to get out of the way of hurricanes. Unlike more wealthy Americans.
The big lie, or course, was the first one. Fidel Castro, according to himself and his Bolshie buddy, Che Guevara, took over Cuba to rid it of a torturous tyrant in Fulgenio Batista. To let his people go.
But, history does not absolve Fidel, as he predicted in his legal defence when jailed for fomenting rebellion in Santiago de Cuba in 1953. History has proven that he is a whole lot worse than his predecessor. Cubans traded one despot for two; either and both of whom are at least as nasty as their predecessor.
First off, Batista was mulatto, not "pur laine" Spanish, and mixed race and black Cubans had lots more opportunities to get ahead under Batista than ever under Fidel.
Pictures of the time reveal that Batista's Havana was a true jewel - among the most civilized of all Latin American cities with the highest standard of living and a thriving middle class. The architectural look of the place was spectacular and photos of Cubans on the main shopping street, San Rafael, reveal an eclectic population of well dressed, multi-hued and happy people shopping and having fun.
And in terms of treating political opponents badly, Batista only sent Fidel to jail for 3 years for starting a bloody rebellion. Fidel throws drunkards in the slammer for complaining about not having food to eat. And he provides vacations for newspaper journalists who don't appropriately honour him with praise.
The next big lie is everything about Commandante Ernesto Guevara de la Serna. And the one after that is the myth of Fidel ever ceding power to his younger and much dumber and meaner brother.
But those are tales for another day. Meanwhile, Fidel has a lotta esplainin' to do."
So why go out of your way to shake the hand of the leader of 'the island of lies"?
P. S. You can hear my chat with Brian Lloyd French here about the Obama/Castro handshake & follow me on Twitter @ scantojr.