Over the past 10 years I’ve crossed Cuba many times—by train, bus, motorcycle and ‘57 Chevy, transported on the backs of produce wagons and horse-drawn carts, standing in peso trucks shoulder-to-shoulder with locals, and squeezed atop water carriers. Along the central motorway, down dusty trails that pass obscure rural villages, through seemingly impassible roads after torrents of rain, my drivers took a foreigner aboard, even if it was forbidden. Some even took me into their homes and allowed me to witness their lives.
Their kindness will stay with me always. So will their terrible plight.
When you travel to Cuba, the problems begin at the airport. The question is always: What will they tax? Arrivals once were hit with a one-time flat tax of US$100. But on my most recent trip, in December, 2005, it was worse. As I stood in line, I saw customs men removing every item from passengers’ bags, holding up underwear, snorkles and shave cream, each time asking “Is this a gift for a Cuban person?”
If the answer was “Yes,” the visitor was asked to pay the same amount in Convertible Pesos he’d originally paid in Canadian dollars.
Eventually, a female officer waved me over. She was older, with a kind face. I explained that I would be in Cuba for a month, and that all I’d brought were my clothes and personal effects. She picked out a child’s bathing suit and held it to my chest with a half-smile. She bent close and whispered, “How much do you think you have in gifts here?”
I croaked, “Oh, about 50 bucks.” She signed a paper indicating I should pay that amount, and then waved me through. No doubt, the 10 kilos of medicine I’d brought for her people—and which she’d seen in my bag—had softened her attitude.
Years ago, I wandered freely through Cuban hospitals and clinics. So did other journalists, reporting back about the supposed wonders of Cuba’s health-care system.
Those days are gone. While it’s true that every Cuban in need of medical care has free access to a doctor, there is also a shortage of critical supplies, including basic medications. During my most recent visit, “Mercedes,” a middle-aged Cuban friend, was recovering from a serious operation in one of Havana’s large hospitals. I watched the harried staff walk up 15 flights of stairs when the elevators failed. Their attention to my friend was boundless. She had one of the best surgeons in the city—a man who earned just $25 a month. He would pop into her home when his shift was over to check her incision.
But good skills and personal care can do only so much. On his second visit, he found a dangerous infection. The man was distraught because he knew there were no antibiotics in the government pharmacies. But Mercedes, a well-connected woman, was soon on the phone. She covered the mouthpiece and whispered, “Mercado negro!” and in 10 minutes, Penicillin arrived at her door. Call it two-tier medicine, Cuban-style.
I had booked a week in a nice Cuban hotel, a building that had once been used for vacationing officials from the USSR. Though it’s against the law for a Cuban to enter a tourist hotel without permission, the desk staff explained that I could bring a friend for dinner if I paid $15. I wanted to thank the doctor, “Roberto,” who’d helped my friend, so he met me two nights running. We shared local wine, pork, yams and black bean soup.
Roberto went back to the buffet table so many times that the server, hearing his Cuban accent, protested. He berated Roberto in front of the other diners. “That’s your third plate!” he said.
“Second!” Roberto shot back as he held out the platter for another load. Only someone who has known sustained hunger, as the Cubans did after the collapse of their Soviet patron in the early 1990s, could understand his reflexive cry for food and appreciate his ability to store extra pounds like a hibernating bear.
On the morning of my final day, Roberto surprised me by arriving early to say goodbye. He bounded into the hotel foyer and walked 50 feet to where I sat by the indoor pool. We started for the exit, but were stopped by a guard. He began to shout. Roberto tried to calm him down. But the guard hauled us into a basement room and a ferocious discussion ensued. Then Roberto was arrested for trespassing.
The police car arrived and the yelling continued. I watched in horror as the officers handcuffed Roberto and pushed him inside their patrol car. They told me to stay behind while they booked him at the nearest station.
He returned two hours later and we gulped four Cuba Libres in quick succession.
The hotel guards, it turned out, had spun a tremendous story, claiming that this uppity Cuban man had been impersonating a foreigner. The real story was more mundane. The desk staff had let Roberto in because they wanted to pocket the $15. Unfortunately, the guards posted in the foyer had seen the flow of cash. Angry that they’d not been cut in, they took it out on Roberto. At the station, he was fined three weeks’ salary.
After the debacle at the hotel, I fled to a quiet suburb of Havana to stay with a teacher, “Virginia,” and her family. It was Christmas Day, and we were determined to make the best of Virginia’s one-day holiday. (Christmas fell on a Sunday in 2005. Fidel went on the air to announce there would be no holiday on the Monday since “Communism is not Christianity.”)
Dec. 25 was quiet. I bought meat and black beans while my host Virginia cooked a wonderful meal. Her children played Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. There was only one knock at the door, a thin, elderly man in a frayed jacket, ironed with care, selling handmade brooms. He stood on the porch, shielding himself from a cloudburst. As I looked at him through the dusty window, I thought of the Christmas tale, The Poor Little Match Girl.
In that story, a ragged beggar girl stands in the snowy street on Christmas Eve in Dickens’ London and asks people to buy her matches. They are too busy shopping and ignore her, until finally at the stroke of midnight she burns her last match and falls frozen to the ground. And no one cares that she has died. This man, with his quiet dignity and utterly hopeless dream of selling a broom on Christmas Day, turned into Cuba’s Match Girl.
Later, I spoke with Virginia about the state of the teaching profession in Cuba. The schools, she told me, are crowded, because Castro has taken in thousands of students from Venezuela—a gesture of support to Hugo Chavez. And with socialist Evo Morales in power in Bolivia, more South American students may follow.
Teachers are overburdened, earning just $15 per month. Many of those trained in the Soviet era have already retired. With few replacements available, students in many classes are simply shown instructional videos.
The arrival of South Americans at the universities has brought social problems, as well. Though they may be from relatively poor families, Venezuelan students are rich compared to the average Cuban. They wear new clothing and shoes, something few Cuban students can aspire to. At university, Cuban girls veer toward these foreigners. Cuban boys can’t compete with cell phones and Nikes, and money to take a girl to a dance.
“Twenty years ago, when life wasn’t so bad with the Soviet money pouring in, we still had ... paper, books and pens to write with, and the Russians sent food from the Eastern Bloc,” Virginia tells me. “Oh, those plums from Poland! That all evaporated when the Soviets pulled out and then we had the years of famine. The kids today aren’t blind. They see what their parents’ lives consist of. I have to work like a dog to keep their interest from flagging in every class. I am not allowed to fail any student because it would make our system look bad. And even when they get a degree they will only ever earn $15 a month and have the same struggles as their parents.”
There is a feeling in the air these days that I can’t put my finger on—tension, unease and sadness all at once. Three years ago, I saw hope on the faces in the streets of Havana. Now, I see none.
With the support of Chavez and Morales, Castro has been emboldened. He has sought to re-entrench the chasm between Cuban people and foreign visitors. In addition, he’s announced a ban on all off-market commercial activities and satellite communication systems.
Young people have been hired as “social workers.” They enter every Cuban home and inspect the number of electrical goods and determine the salary of the owner to see whether there is a discrepancy. Then they test any electrical fans. If the fan works, it is taken outside, smashed, and tossed into a truck. The person then receives a chit entitling them to buy a low-wattage Chinese fan for several weeks’ pay.
The same routine occurred with light bulbs, with youth squads breaking up the good ones and replacing them with low-voltage Chinese versions. The stress from these personal assaults in one’s home was run very high, especially among my elderly friends. People stood astonished on street corners as their goods were destroyed.
Some things don’t change: Castro still speaks for hours on daily TV. And every evening, as people return from work, there is a program called The Round Table with communist party bigwigs and a moderator named Randy. They pound the table and gesticulate wildly, while showing footage of the day’s world news lifted from CNN (under a deal negotiated with Ted Turner). They yell “imperialistas!” and “yanqui bloqueo!” or praise the triumph of the Revolution.
There are about 40 seats in the studio auditorium, all filled with party members. Throughout the interminable show, they sit like zombies, wearing masks of affected seriousness. You can see them fighting not to fall asleep.
Whenever guests on his show are yelling and pounding, Randy the moderator is bobbing his head up and down in agreement with whatever absurd propaganda is being spouted.
The Cuban people have a tremendous sense of humour. A few years back, one of the local importers brought in those little bobble-head dogs that you put in the back of your car. The locals immediately named it “the Randy dog.”