A Post Card From The Enigmatic Island

A two-hour drive from the noxious fumes of Havana takes us to Vinales, in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s western province. Fidel Castro has ordered all nooks and crannies of the city sprayed so as to eliminate the dreaded Aedis Egipsis, the mosquito that haunts the Caribbean and whose bite causes dengue fever which, in its extreme form causes serious illness and even death.

In the picture postcard setting, the hotel overlooks a valley filled with manicured fields of tobacco leaves and palm trees, with farmers guiding yokes of oxen pulling ancient wooden plows. Seated at the next table, a middle aged woman, dressed in expensive plain lace dress, with a high collar and long sleeves, pronounced, in a voice resembling Margaret Thatcher:

“I find this place just like China. I hated it, you know, but it fascinated me.” I listened and watched in disbelief as the man seated across from her, presumably her husband, dressed perfectly for the tropics in a blue blazer, starched shirt and public school tie mumbled his assent. Perhaps all those layers shield him from mosquitos?

I imagined people like these nouveau upper class English tourists in the 1920s visiting their colonies in Africa, sipping their mojitos and smiling disdainfully at the dark skinned Cuban waiter vainly intent in extracting a large tip from these parsimonious vacationers.

This is one view of “revolutionary” Cuba, 2002, a country that relies on stingy and judgmental European visitors, some of them unfortunately drawn to the island by the lure of gorgeous young women and men – or even girls and boys. But Cubans living in Florida and elsewhere have become even more important than tourism for the Cuban economy.

Cubans living abroad contribute almost a billion dollars a year to members of their families who live on the island. The dollars end up in Cuba’s central bank.

How ironic! Fidel’s foremost enemies have become the mainstays of the economy they swear to destroy? Not only did he induce the United States to import his most ardent foes, people who now cause problems for us instead of for him, but his very presence as the eternally disobedient one provokes Washington to maintain a trade embargo that has led to downright implausible economic scenarios.

In a recent 60 Minutes episode, Armando Perez Roura, one of Miami’s leading Castro-hating windbags, argued that the US trade embargo and travel ban remained necessary measures so as not to provide the hated “dictator” with one cent.

Yet, the same Castrophobe admitted that he regularly sends his baby brother on the island $300 remittances – like many of the decent, family-loving, Castro-hating Cubans living abroad. Otherwise, he opined, they would starve to death. Not true, of course, but the fact remains that Castro’s fiercest enemies have become his economic backbone — without most them daring to admit it to themselves.

Together with tourism, remittances from Cubans living mostly in the United States make up Cuba’s main sources of foreign revenue. Mining is third and sugar has become a distant fourth. But the Cuban economy is hard to discern. In the streets, idle men congregate on corners; those working don’t overly exert themselves.

Yet, Havana is also a city of people in motion, or waiting at bus stops or trying to hitch a ride. Where are they going? In the short term, to work, home, school – to a tryst or a meeting. In the long term? The expression on one woman’s face reminds me of Edward Munch’s painting, The Silent Scream.

How odd to see the ubiquitous billboards with revolutionary slogans urging the people to strive for the purity of purpose – including hard work — that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the bearded guerrillas brought to state power some 43 plus years ago. Alongside this exhortation, carnality and commercialism blast their messages, inherent in the kind of tourism that flows to tropical islands.

I remember a Cuba that from the early 1960s through the mid 1980s had almost no tourists. Instead, the late Soviet Union provided the island’s population with basic needs, not luxuries, not anything that could even mildly suggest that consumption could offer a viable way of life for a sane society.

Now, tourism, the necessary but very double-edged sword that helps maintain Cuba’s economy, has offered its devilish temptations to Cubans and the shiny glitter of individualism beckons a people whose heroic sacrifices helped change the destiny of several African nations and indeed altered the course of history in our own hemisphere.

I watch the English tourists stroll down the country road in Vinales and chat with the farmer whose tobacco plot adjoins the hotel land. He will, of course, try to sell them his own hand rolled cigars for a much lower price than the stores or the street hustlers in Havana, who offer either fakes or cigars stolen from the factories to the tourists.

They, like the farmer, need dollars to survive in the modern Cuban economy. Later, sitting on his back porch, sipping the sweetest grapefruit juice I’ve ever tasted – from his tree – I ask the farmer to assess the current situation.

The sixty five year old man wipes his brow, smiles at his wife who has served the fabulous juice, and replies: “my kids have all graduated from the university, my grandkids are all in school. But I was born here in Pinar del Rio [Cuba’s western province and choice tobacco soil] and got no education.”

He lights one of his own “tabacos” and continues: “I was diagnosed as diabetic a few years ago. Twice a day I have to inject myself. It costs nothing. Sure, there are shortages, but we farmers understand that life means uncertainty, hard work. And everyone makes mistakes. I have no complaints,” he smiles at his wife, who does have gripes.

The stuffy, upper class English tourists, for one thing, drove a very hard bargain for the cigars and behaved as if the old couple were lesser people, “as if they were superior to us.” She scowled. “Who do these people think they are?” she asked rhetorically. “You shouldn’t have sold them anything,” she scolded her husband.

He smiled at his wife’s pride, her dignity. “We don’t need their $10,” she snorted, referring to the price they paid for 25 first class cigars. But they did need the dollars, to buy necessities for their grandchildren – items the state used to provide before the Soviet Union, the sugar Daddy, collapsed.

It’s Cuba, 2002, the last socialist country or island in a sea of turbulent capitalism. Fidel still preaches the old values, reduced to billboard slogans and sermons on the daily television round table. Socialism, revolution, anti-imperialism – words that put a glaze over the eyes of many of Cuba’s youth who think of the United States as paradise.

These kids feel deprived because in their childhood they received their needs from the state. Now that the state has been forced to reduce its subsidies, people complain. But most mature Cubans realize that their free health care and education, with all of its problems, means more than a shot at becoming a millionaire in the United States.

I think of Cuba’s continued survival as a kind of miracle after the Soviet Union collapsed. Up to now, Cubans have not discovered great reserves of oil nor found strategic mineral deposits. Cuba’s government has refused to make concessions to the greedy multinational investors looking to exploit both workers and resources.

Its people still receive subsidies to meet part of their monthly needs – albeit less than a third of what they received when the Soviet Union provided them with its beneficence. Cuba continues to offer scholarships to third world youth who want to study medicine and Cuban doctors still treat the Ukrainian kids who suffered radiation poisoning from the Chernobyl disaster.

“This place is totally unrealistic,” a Cuban-American complained to me at the airport, referring to the difficulties Cuban government officials placed in the path of investors, in the path of capitalism.

I agreed. Cuba, I thought to myself, seems like an airplane in a decade-long holding pattern, with no clear plan of how or where to land yet determined to convert non convertible material into fuel. Fidel has turned his enemies’ hatred into economic support, his people and natural resources into lures for tourism.

It’s far from perfect, but who in Washington would have bet ten years ago when the Cuban economy seemed headed for Hell that Cuban socialism under Castro would both survive – and offer gradually improving material life to its citizens?

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