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Published: March 2nd 2009
Two years ago, I fell in love with Cuba. I liked the energy there, the music, the people that seemed mostly happy and hopeful, welcoming, curious about outsiders and how life is outside the island. A country with a fascinating history, unique culture and ideology.
Of course, I had noticed the omnipresent propaganda, the nearly empty markets and the lack of freedom, but 2 years later, these things not only got worse, but a more dramatic change seems to have occured: there is no joy in Cuba, Cubans lost hope.
The first few days, I didn't notice so much, I was still charmed by this country, and maybe I didn't believe things could change so quickly. And I was having fun. Living in a small village, having my own cabin, going for a walk in the mountains, in the village, eating fresh fruits everyday, etc. I also went to Maria la Gorda, a beautiful beach at the very tip of the island, and went back to Cayo Jutias with 2 guys from Slovenia that didn't speak English, Spanish nor French, and 1 Greek guy who was really nice and funny. An 'adrenaline junky', as he discribed himself, and we all played volleyball on the beach with Cubans. I lost all the games.
And then I went to Havana, and met a Spanish girl on the bus. It was amazing how little Spanish I could understand when I was talking to Cubans and all of a sudden, I could understand almost everything that this girl was saying. What a relief! I suppose it is like trying to learn French from a Quebecois... So we travelled together, shared a room in a super nice appartment on the 8th floor of Central Habana, with a patio on top with an amazing view on Havana and the ocean. We walked a lot in the city of Havana, went to many local markets, ate some pizza and fried rice in Cuban cafeteria, were invited in a house for some Santeria (Afro-Cuban religion) celebration where Afro-Cubans were playing some extremely lound percussion and dancing, some looked almost possessed, we took the local bus, visited the Callejon de Hamel, a little street with sculptures and paintings all over the buildings, visited the Cemetery, the museum of the Revolution, etc. We also met many Cubans, and the story was the same everywhere.
The story is, whatever the reason might be, the US embargo, the fall of USSR that once supported Cuba or the arrival of millions of tourists every year, Cuba is falling into some deep depression. Sure, they have a nice health care system: but they have very little medication. And the education system? Nice, but it pays less than 20$ per month to be a doctor, an amount a maid can make in a couple hours working in a resort. And I won't mention what a beautiful mulata can make in one evening with a rich old tourist. And there are many of those. No, they do not sell their bodies to have something to eat, as it was before the revolution, but they do it to earn some CUC, the money with with you can buy nice clothes, eat in a restaurant and pay for your cell phone.
There is 2 different currencies in Cuba: the CUC, or tourist dollar and the Moneda National or Cuban Pesos. Most tourists don't even see the Cuban Peso while travelling in Cuba. This is what you need to buy food in the markets, pay your normal phone bill, your electricity bill, take the overcrowded bus, and that is about it. With CUC, you can buy clothes, gas, a car, a washing machine, a CD, go to a restaurant, buy a soda, take the bus to go to a different city, etc. So most Cubans are trying to have access to CUCs. And this can almost only be done in an illegal way.
Here are some examples: they will tell you the room is 20 CUC but will only put 15 in their book, since they have to declare every tourist that rent a room in their house. The other 5 will go in their pockets. They charge you 8 CUC for a meal that will cost them less than 15 Pesos to make (although delicious), a profit of about 7.5 CUC. They will declare 4 or 5 CUC or maybe they will say you didn't eat there. The horse ride in Vinales was not declared, nor was the Casa in Varadero: in Varadero, only hotels are allowed and to have an illegal casa requires really good connections with the Government or the police. You want to eat 'langosta': no problem, we'll get you one, but don't tell anybody. Same with fish in some locations. If you want to get tickets for a concert, you can get it faster and better tickets if you pay some extra CUC to the right person.
But can they be blamed when they see how much money tourists have, when the government does almost the same thing by charging tourists incredible fees to change money, use the internet, and creates a parallel economy where the tourist feels like Cuba is trying to suck every single dollar out of your pockets. And not to mention that there is huge differences between Cubans themselves, in a socialist country where people are supposed to be equal?
And it is risky to do illegal business. One guy lost 5 horses last year after someone told the police about his business. Of course in a small village everybody knows what the other does, but this is probably why it works: why would you say anything when you do some illegal business too...
I think people were hoping things would change, maybe once Raul was in charge of the country. But it doesn't seem to matter if it's Raul or Fidel: it is the Castro era and even if they managed to do amazing things, the Revolution lost it's allies, Cuba struggles and with the presence of tourists, Cubans realize that there is an outside world, and they have no access to it. And Cubans, especially young ones, are getting depressed, fed up, and lost their nice smiles. And much worse: is many places, they play music because they have to, for the tourists; not for the love and joy of music, as it used to be.
What makes me sad is that Cuba had good ideas. The Revolution was something that improved many things in a poor country. Why did they repress their own people, what deprive them of freedom? If your system is good, why would people want to leave? Sure you gave them access to health care, but you forgot to teach them how to eat healthy and you send the good food to the tourist resorts leaving nothing in the markets for your own people. And yes, almost everybody on your island can read and write. But the only books available are the propaganda books, the history of the Revolution, the life of Che, and the poems of Marti. And writing? What is the use, if you have to find tourists to give a card to, to be mailed to your family once they go home...
On my last night in Cuba, I went to 2 different bars to listen to music. And I watched the locals. And all I could see was sad faces. The same sad faces I saw in the local bus during the day. And the same ones in the markets. Oh! I saw many smiles to, when they would come and talk to us, tourists. Cubans are very friendly, love to talk. But their story was not a happy one.
I left Cuba, after paying another 25 CUC for the airport tax. It was raining hard when we landed. We don't have a nice warm winter in Canada, but we have something much more precious: freedom.
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