Saturday, November 22, 2014

Communism in Cuba Today


This translate as Homeland or Death but had a more popular meaning of "We Shall Overcome"

 Today, official communism remains in only five of the 46 original countries - China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and Cuba.  Communism still dominates Cuba but capitalism is gradually cracking open the door to greater economic and political freedom and Cubans are responding.

Billboard supporting the Cuban Revolution
Billboards preached Fidel Castro’s political teachings.  “Patria o Muerte” translates as “Homeland or Death” but means “We shall Overcome”, a leftover phrase from the revolution in 1959.  “Gracias Che’ Por Tu Ejemplo” or “Thank you Che’ (Gueverra) for your Example”.  Or even a dig at the embargo placed by the United States to prevent most commercial activities between the two countries – “El Bloqueo- El Genocide Mas Grande “ – “The Blockade – The Biggest Genocide.”  Most of the other vestiges of communism were more subtle and required conversations with Cubans.

A Cuban Food Booklet - all Cubans are entitled to this
Much is provided to Cubans by the government but with a catch.  All have free medical care but few prescription and non-prescription drugs are available.  We were asked to bring anti-acids for an employee at the Episcopal cathedral since no pharmacy has these.  All receive monthly food coupons but shelves are often empty.  Powdered milk is reserved for babies and mothers, making cafĂ© con leche a luxury for many Cubans.  Yet, we didn’t see the grinding poverty that burdens so many Latin American countries. Several Cubans confirmed it doesn’t exist there but neither does the very wealthy class.

An owner offers both a restaurant and a bed and breakfast
Signs of capitalism creeping in were everywhere.  Fidel’s brother, President Raul Castro, has allowed individuals to open up their homes as a bed and breakfast (casa particular) or as a small restaurant (paladare).  The latter were originally just Ma and Pa places with a limit of six tables allowed.  Today, options have expanded and restaurants were varied and everywhere.  In Old Havana, we walked down an alleyway and into a very small paladar with daily specials.  We watched through a window as the family freshly cooked each order on a four burner stove.  In contrast, across the street from our hotel, a luxurious paladar filled a penthouse apartment.  During a stormy evening, we dined on white table cloth enjoying a view of the Vedado section of Havana. 

Cubans are now allowed to work two jobs.  The first may only pay $20 to $50 per month.  The dream second job is in the tourist industry where tips greatly enhance a family’s standard of living.  One of our tour guides was a photographer by day and a guide on his days off.  A taxi driver supplemented his meager retirement income with fares.  At our hotel, there were so many doormen, we could hardly keep track of their names.  This allows full employment but most of them were also working elsewhere.

After Russia pulled out its heavy subsidy of the Cuban government in 1995, Cuba had to reach out to foreign investments.  Because of the embargo, the United States could not participate.  But companies from 60 other countries invested in Cuba even though the Cuban government had to own 50% of the Joint Venture.  Their headquarters fill the lovely Miramar section of Havana.  Cuba also exports an interesting array of goods and services – minerals, natural medical drugs, cigars, rum, coffee, fish and professionals such as physicians.  Eleven thousand Cuban physicians work in Brazil and send money home.

A bakery paladar with an English name
Cubans are not dower as many people are in communist countries.  They laugh easily and often tell jokes about their government but always in a conspiratorial whisper.  Why did the Pope come to Cuba?  Answer: To see the devil (code for Fidel Castro), to see hell on earth and to see how Cubans live on miracles.  The government still has neighborhood watch groups whose job is to report on neighbors.  After a driver told us the Pope joke, he looked hard at me and asked “You’re not a communist, are you?”  And then we laughed together at the idea that I could report on him.

Cuban flag is everywhere
A good question was asked by a European to a tour guide.  “Are you better off with communism than you would have been under America’s influence?”  I thought the guide had a diplomatic answer.  She said, “It depends,” explaining that her grandmother had been a talented artist from a very poor family.  They could not afford for her to go to college.  Yet, under communism, her granddaughter got a free university degree and is now a tour guide, making her very proud and grateful.  Our guide went on to say that if you had a business that was nationalized when Castro took over power, you would not think so highly of communism.   In fact, you probably fled to America. 

Today, it’s not a question of whether Cuba will become more open and capitalistic but when.  The government is trying to balance the benefits it has provided all these years with the need for more commercial activity.  It’s an experiment worth watching.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On the Roads of Cuba


1950's Chevrolet convertible in front of Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba


Let’s start with Havana.  All have seen beautiful photos of the 1950’s cars, preserved  when  Fidel Castro’s revolution stopped time in 1959.  Havana’s close association with the United States meant almost all then existing cars were American brands.  Because of the U.S. embargo, import of new cars came to a halt as did car parts.  The latter was solved by ingenuity and determination.  As one  taxi driver told me,  in Cuba, “todo tiene valor” or everything has value.  Their cars were not repaired with genuine Chevrolet parts but somehow have continued to run.   

Not all cars have been maintained.
There were far more classic cars than I expected.    As I walked  a block on a fairly busy street in a tourist area, I counted 25 passing by or about half of the cars.  Called almendrones for their almond shape, many are used as taxis on a set route while nicer ones are individual taxis that cost a bit more than their Soviet taxi counterparts.   The famous photos are of those in pristine shape but many look better outside than inside.   These 50’s cars have been declared a national treasure and can be sold only to fellow Cubans.   American collectors may have a long wait to get their hands on these.


Soviet Lada used as a taxi.
This one looked nicer on the outside than the inside.
In the suburbs, the numbers of Eisenhower era cars diminish and dilapidated Soviet Ladas from the 70’s and 80’s appear.  Originally used to reward workers, these make up much of the used car stock.  Most looked rode hard and put up wet.   It was only in the wealthier Miramar suburb,  where the imposing Robocop shaped Russian Embassy stands with other embassies and ambassador’s homes,  that I saw a BMW, a couple of Mercedes and newer Japanese cars.  They are rare and notable.

On the highway, an array of cars, trucks, buses and horse-drawn carts make their way down an impressive set of highways.  To Cuba’s credit, the Central Highway of Cuba was originally built in the 1920s and extends 700 miles on four lanes linking the island east to west.  Tributaries now run off the main road to smaller towns.  Yet, the amount of traffic on these nice roads was minimal, an indication of how few Cubans own cars and how expensive gas is.  On a bus ride west into the Vinales province, I would occasionally wait minutes before seeing another car.   But ox drawn plows and old tractors with vertical exhaust pipes still dot the landscape, moving at the speed of yesteryear. 

Baby carriage in back of horse drawn cart
What was numerous on the roads were Cubans hitching a ride, lined up wherever the road widened.  It wasn’t important if a bus came first or an almondrone on a set route or an individual lending a hand, or even the classic horse drawn cart.  The latter was often a covered cart with benches down the side and an open back.  One woman lifted her baby stroller into the cart before she hopped in.  These are still in widespread use by passengers and farmers.



Taxi drivers outside Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba
Taxis were plentiful and we found  their drivers a law abiding bunch.  All stopped (or at least slowed significantly) at railroad crossings.  Most seemed to stay close to the posted 60 mph speed limit on the highways.   All waited for traffic lights to change.   There was no passing on the hills that I’ve experienced in other Hispanic countries.  They were also chatty and wanted to share their experiences in Miami or tell of their family there. 

We got to know Raul, a retiree who drives a taxi for extra money.  His “taxi” carries no sign so negotiations were required for each trip.   Raul’s monthly retirement check is $10.   He still gets a food allowance and free health care but it’s hard to make ends meet.  He sported a 1957 Peugeot with torn seats, rear view mirror that fell regularly,  and shoulder belts drawn over the shoulder only when passing a policeman or a security check on the highway.  The car also stalled at most stops.  But we managed to twice get to San Pedro de la Norte, 30 miles east of Havana, and back.  We took on a hitchhiker at one point to help find an out of the way village with a small Episcopal church.  But we never felt in danger on any of our taxi rides and enjoyed visiting about their other job, their families, and even politics.


Bicycles used creatively to carry passengers
Santa Cruz del Norte, cuba
When the U.S. Embargo is lifted, Cuba’s snapshot in time will gradually fade.  More tourists will arrive.   Money will flow.  New cars will be imported.  Cubans will be able to purchase them.   What I do hope remains is the lesson learned from Cuba’s years of scarcity, a lesson our throw-away society could use – todo tiene valor.   

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