BY: JOHN DOWNING
It’s early. At home I would be snoozing, but with birds singing and fragrance from balcony flowers drifting in on a warm breeze, I don’t want to miss a thing. So I begin my daily routine. First the aspirin, which many take to help the heart, and with that tiny pill, I set myself apart from Cubans.
Aspirin, arguably one of the most important pharmaceutical staples ever, can’t be bought in the Cuban store. Only in pharmacies in resorts and hotels, and only for the U.S. buck, the currency that floats the country and is beyond the grasp of most Cubans restricted to their feeble peso.
Stories are told of Cubans begging Canadians not just for money to feed their kids but for help in getting medicines for their children from the dollar pharmacies, even simple ones like aspirin or asthmatic puffers. Cuba won’t import the basic drugs its 11.3 million people need, even though it shows off medical clinics to tourists and its leader boasts about the free health care and all the doctors he trained to replace those who fled to get rich with the Yankees.
As for treating the animals so important to the struggling Cuban farmer, don’t be silly. Mary and I have hiked with a hotel guide who quit as a vet because farmers couldn’t afford the treatment he prescribed for their animals. When he could find the medicine, he paid for it. Since they couldn’t pay his fee, either, he didn’t have enough to feed his family.
So when you come to resorts like Breezes on the Green Coast an hour north of Holguin airport, you tip the maid with items you take for granted in your home bathroom, everything from aspirin to toothpaste. And you try not to be bothered by all the neat men trying to look official who hope for a U.S. buck every time they can touch your bag.
That buck, or the bit the state lets them keep of it, can lift Cubans from the crush between the twins of the communist dichotomy - the bounty of medical care and education on one hand, and clenched in the other, no freedom and poverty.
The tourists who flock in, led by the largest group, Canadians fleeing winter, find A Tale of Two Countries. For the visitor, it is the best of times and places, a great bargain vacation. For the Cuban, it’s been the worst of times, 44 years under the world’s longest-ruling dictator.
Fidel Castro defeated home-grown corruption and the Mob but sold his soul. Cuba is at the top of tourist destinations, and at the bottom of Freedom House’s list when that respected organization rates the world’s worst regimes. Those who hate the tourists swarming here argue they help Fidel more than ordinary Cubans.
The biggest question at the swim-up bar, besides Iraq and just how many beers one can carry, is what happens after Fidel. After all, he will be 77 in August (or maybe 78, since it’s one of the many personal facts in dispute after the legend arrived as a 10-pound baby) and every time he pauses too long in his marathon speeches, his enemies hope he is about to be hammered by the actuarial tables.
Scholars argue that nothing much will change, that the regime has lasted so long it is more than just one man, no matter how charismatic. Cubans aren’t used to discussing this, what with all the secret police around. But surely the middle class created by all the tourist bucks pouring in - no matter how humble it is kept by the state grabbing more than its share - is now a new force.
Then there are the holes in the American trade boycott of four decades which have opened despite the pressure on President George W. Bush and his brother Jeb, the Florida governor, by the Cuban lobby in Miami which is an important voting bloc. Officially, Americans still are banned from Cuba, and the penalties are jail up to 10 years or a fine up to $250,000 US. Yet Americans are second only to Canadians in visiting. In 2001, 200,000 Americans came, only 50,000 sneaking in via Canada or Mexico, with the rest mostly visiting relatives from the million Cuban emigres in the U.S.
Last year, the U.S. sold $165 million worth of food to Cuba, making it unofficially Cuba’s 10th largest trading partner. And the supposed enemy got paid immediately - in cash - which infuriates other countries, such as Canada, one of the largest trading partners, which has had to impound Cuban ships in foreign ports until it got paid, and in the fiscal year ending in 2001 wrote off about $35 million in exports for which Castro refused to pay. European countries chase for their money, too.
But the cutest trick Castro has for Canadians wanting to run a business here is to insist they pay all the wages in American dollars - to his government. Then the state pays the workers. Where’s the catch? The worker gets paid in pesos, according to the official scale of one peso to the dollar, but the market rate is 23 pesos to the dollar. Castro’s government cashes the difference.
It’s enough to give Cubans a splitting headache, and they can’t even buy an aspirin.