It took a weekend in Havana a couple of years ago to remind me that my travelling days are over. It wasn’t as much fun as that sort of thing used to be. The last time I had visited a “new” country was 1989, and the country was Grenada, where the natives speak a wonderfully melodic variety of English. In the parts of Havana where we visited, half of the natives spoke even less English than we did Spanish, for goodness sake.
We met a young chap whose father had been born in Jamaica, moved to the Isle of Pines, sired a son in New York, and now lived back in Cuba. He (the son) was one of only two Cubans we met who had ever heard of the Cayman Islands, a hundred miles to the south. The other was a retired maths teacher who was selling off his collection of books and minor heirlooms from a stall in one of the Plazas in the Old City every weekend.
The teacher’s pension was ten US dollars a month plus (I think) free accommodation and rationed utilities. There are no frills to life in Cuba, thanks partly to the power of the civil service (which owns or licences all economic activity) and partly to the American blockade of the past fifty years. Everybody with some service or goods of value to tourists does relatively well; the government makes concessions to them.
We were there in the off-season, but tourists were thronging the streets and squares of the Old City. They were mostly Latinos: our sightseeing bus was packed with a tour-group of Colombians. We heard English spoken by only two couples the whole weekend – one from England, the other from Canada. No English-speaking West Indians at all.
For US$30 a night, we rented a room in a run-down private apartment on the edge of the Old City – now a beautifully renovated tourist trap. Little putt-putts were cheap, and young men on tricycles seemed glad of $3 to pedal us home through the dark streets at night. The town was as safe as houses – somewhat safer, actually, considering the state of the poorer dwellings.
Our room looked down on the roof of a block of flats where four dogs, uncounted chickens and an old man lived all together in a nest of lumber that vaguely resembled a shed. Did he sell the eggs and fatten the dogs for their meat? Who knows? It was a bizarre example of urban poverty – though not unique in our region. I’ve seen a lot worse in Haiti and Jamaica.
Many people, when they think of Cuba, think of the longtime US military occupation of Guantanamo Bay and the torture camp there that gives the Island a bad name. The unelected government of independent Cuba no doubt has its own torture camps, though it does have the grace to be embarrassed about their existence. Cuban nationals in ramshackle boats wash up in Cayman from time to time; but no refugees from the American camp ever do. Independent Cuba may, arguably, be the less oppressive place.
The mainstream US media organs all reflect the fact that the US’s rulers classify the Republic of Cuba as an enemy. In fact, Cuba is a long way from the Big Bad Communist North-Korean Hell that most Americans are ignorant enough to believe it is. (These days, of course, Big Brother is as much of a presence in the US itself as in most of its enemies! As the preacher said, “To every thing there is a season...”)
The people of Havana seem to be a delightfully cheerful bunch, on the whole. The Latino temperament is amazingly resilient. Just about everyone works for the government, and their pleasure in what they do – and the loose discipline – is probably the same as any governments’ employees’ is. In Cayman, too, government provides a regular wage to its Civil Servants, plus the opportunity to make some private money on the side. Havana is a very Caribbean town, as well as a very Latin one.