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Posted May 19, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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KAVI CHONGKITTAVORN | [url=http://www.TheNation.com]http://www.TheNation.com[/url]

HAVANA -“When is Cuba going to change?” an American tourist asks a Cuban guide.“See, those American classic cars in front of you?“the guide replies. “Cuba will not change as long as we keep those cars running.” Everybody laughs.

It is a bit odd that these left-over carros (cars) from the 1950s epitomise the longevity of the tight grip of President Fidel Castro since his revolution over four decades ago. Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles have become local icons and the most-recognised moving monuments along with motor scooters called coco-taxis and cyclo-taxis and bicycle rickshaws on streets of Havana.

Getting into Cuba is easy. An entry tourist visa costs 15 dollars. At the airport, the immigration booth manned by turquoise-uniformed officials is similar to ones experienced in Moscow, Pyongyang and Vietnam some 20 years ago. The official looks straight at your face without blinking his eyes until you look away.

“Why do you want to come Cuba?” he asks.

“I want to know the Cubans,” I reply.

Beyond the airport’s formality and suspicious eyes, Havana is a very charming city with a long history.

It boasts old Spanish baroque architecture which spreads throughout the city, especially in Old Havana. Often times, one can see poor people living behind ornate Corinthian columns. Certain neighbourhoods are like a fairy tale because of the numerous 16th and 17th century buildings.Some Cuban familiess dwell in these luxurious rooms, paved with marble and intricate mosaics, none of which gets any care.

One Cuban estimates that there are at least 160 colonial buildings, but they are decaying fast, with only a few taken care of by the government as showpieces

Behind the buildings’ decay and faded colours, the dull food and frugal lifestyle, lies the jolly spirit of Cuba. This is part of the famous Cuban irony, which attracted some of the world’s greatest writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene to live and write here.

My trip to Cuba reminds me of Vietnam during the early days of the doi moi policy. Back in 1986, people in Hanoi, like in Havana, were able to do small business, selling pho or noodles or baking cakes for passers-by. But Hanava is more lively and the use of dollars is common. Organic-vegetable stands are everywhere following years of disastrous agricultural schemes imported from the former Soviet Union.

Over here, Cubans are much at home with things American although the government continues to treat the US as Enemy No 1. When night falls, one can see people dancing to Latin music, enjoying tobacco and rum—a lot of it. And deep in the darkness of the night, one can hear the classic song “American Pie” by Don McLean.

But at bookstores and souvenir stands in Old Havana photos of Che Guevera, not Castro, still sell like hotcakes. Tourists continue to buy huge posters of the Argentine revolutionary who later broke with Castro and died in a Bolivian jungle.

The attitude of Cubans towards their country is harder to gauge. On the surface, they continue to live their lives without any resistance because of free education and medical services. But there are brave souls who have asked the Cuban government to take up reform, allow freedom of expression and free elections.

Recently, the Cuban government arrested a group of 75 intellectuals and writers and labelled them as “mercenaries of the US”. Among them was well-known journalist Raul Riveiro, who writes for the Miami Herald. Global outcry against the arrests has yet to have any effect on Castro.

Ordinary Cubans believe that the US trade boycott has damaged Cuba’s economic development and lowered their standard of living. Tourists from Canada and Europe are coming in increasing numbers and bring in hard currency for the cash-starved government.

Like the government, Cubans have to find ways to make money. At the pension where I am staying, Maria Elena, a single mother, is busying getting only son - Juan Pablo, 10 - ready for school. For the past four days, Juan has had a glass of milk and two hotdogs as breakfast.

He is part of the pironeros, or pioneers of socialism - schoolchildren with red banners around their necks. They are the future of Cuba and will continue to the flame of revolution - a phrase the Cuban leader likes to repeat.

Maria is torn apart by the reality of Cuba: the contradictions between a controlled economy and politics and the free-market system. The two systems are coexisting side by side - one dominated by dollars, the other by pesos.

But she knows that this presents a good opportunity she must not miss. As the Cuban government is opening up a bit more, she borrowed US$1,400 [Bt60,000] from her friends and turned one of the two rooms in her apartment into a guestroom. She charges $25 a night. But she must fill that room for at least two weeks every month to make it worthwhile because she has to pay a monthly $250 dollars in taxes to the government.

Others are luckier as they can make money without paying for any investment. Being a tourist guide, doorman, waiter, waitress and taxi driver are considered rich people’s jobs because of the possibility to earn dollars—a lot of them by the Cuban standard.

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