After about fifteen hours on a Viazul express bus, I arrived Habana after exploring eastern Cuba as far as Santiago de Cuba. The bus ride was comfortable. I caught a taxi driven by Yani, one of the five women taxi drivers in Habana. She is lovely but tough. A no non-sense street-smart kind of person. Perhaps the occupation dictated her behaviour. She was skilful in negotiating the narrow and busy streets. She lived with her two-year old grandson, daughter and her sister. She is separated. So is her daughter. Drinking and some other reason which I could not understand had caused the family break-up. Mind you, all conversations were in Spanish. Nearly all the women I spoke were separated and alcoholism, especially amongst the males, is a major issue. It is breaking down families. She was delighted to talk about her grandson. However, with a sigh, she is saddened that her daughter, only twenty years old with a son, is single. I asked her if her income is sufficient. She said……all well. I liked her. I made arrangements for her to pick me up the next day for a ride to the airport. She stressed several time, be ready sharp at 10am.
After settling into yet another casa was organised by ‘my casa’ operator. He called it “Associates Casa”. This, like the earlier one, did not have the official blue symbol on the door. I did not care. Thereafter, I headed straight to Pastelaria Francesca. I settled down with a hot cup of Cuban coffee and some sweet pastries. Middle-aged single male Europeans chatted intimately with young Cuban women. Sex trade is prevalent but low key. I am not judging but some girls were just too young! I enjoyed the views on the streets and savoured my last day in Cuba.
Manfred, an elderly Australian man joined me. He lived on his own and had lived here for over ten years. In his own words, “I am a true Socialist. I truly believe in the Revolution and support everything Fidel had done. He had fought against the mighty US and its corrupt practices of suppressing Cuba and its Revolution. Castro had given its people a mandate and they had chosen to go with his ideas”. This was from 1959 onward. With the US blockade, the people had suffered in many ways. “But Castro asked his people, do you want to give up or fight back. The people choose to stand up”. In 2015, those sanctions were still in place with talks of thawing this blockade is just beginning. “Electricity is subsidized. There is no poverty or hunger in Cuba”.
I accepted this, from my own experience. “There is no hardship”. This thought was in contradiction to the people I engaged with – Angelo, the bici-taxi driver in Habana; Adrian, an engineer at a shipyard; Antonio, a casa operator in Santiago and the average man on the street. How about people like Diana and Sarasi, a single mothers with kids – feeding, clothing and schooling.
Manfred is certain that there is little unemployment. There were hundreds, particularly youth, standing around parks, boulevards with nothing to do. He reckons there are the guys whom don’t want to work. He added, that some people worked a couple of days and hung around on their days off. What about the low stocking levels and high prices in retail shops I had visited? He argued that there is plentiful and the prices are subsidized. Cooking oil cost 8CUC? He deferred. Only 2 CUC. What about people wanting to form an opposition party? This is not allowed for a simple reason. Manfred argued that these parties will be financed by the US to plot against Castro. He continued, “Cuba is teaching the world how to manage a country where everybody is happy”. Really? This is subjective as to whom you speak to. Generally, people are happy. Perhaps that they are all in a similar boat and this happiness comes from within. I don’t think it is a “gift” from the State. Helping each other and had created a strong sense of community. This attribute is born out of necessity. Yes, there is little corruption and yes, there is low crime rates. Everyone told me that it is safe to walk a night. I am sure there are small pockets where no one talks about. This is expected in any city and towns. One final question Mr Manfred, why are there numerous spy cameras around towns? Manfred’s response is “to keep the tourist safe and to keep crime rates down.” Is it not obvious that these gadgets are fixed to monitor the general population? “Definitely not”, he said with conviction.
We turned our conversation towards the Chinese and Indians economies. Manfred continued, “don’t trust CNN, Fox News and BBC. They tell lies. There are programs that claims China had reduced poverty; elevated poor population by numerous percentages; committed and moving away from burning fossil fuels; giving people wealth. The Chinese people are happy. This information came from one of the news programs here.” On one hand you mentioned that the media is misinforming. However, the local media program is telling the truth!
“It is. It is made in Venezuela, I think”. “Who is Cuba’s best buddy, Chavez? Although no longer around, there is still strong support”. I said that China’s economy is a false economy. The growth is propped up by the central government to show the world that it is growing. There are numerous buildings that are empty. I had seen whole townships completely devoid of people. The locals know it. I continued, in China, the central government can direct people to move, like it or not! Remember, the Chinese people are happy. Slogans like this are advertised at every train stations and prosperous towns. When Chinese people are interviewed, the say everything is good for them now. Turn off the camera, away from the prying eyes, you reckon the story is the same? Fear from punitive actions by the State, represented by plain clothed cops, ensure this party line is towed by everyone. As you speak highly of the Chinese, from a trusted media, what about the same in Cuba? I did not wait for an answer.
I left the cafe with mixed thoughts about Manfred. Is he for real or is his desire to support Socialist deeply rooted that he can’t see reality. However, he is not in the same boat as the ordinary Cubans. Cuba is thought provoking and the reasoning is challenged by your own thoughts and perspective. There are no answers, just questions with perhaps no answers. You can only see so much, hear so much, feel so much which leads you to formulate your own limited thoughts. The good, the bad and the ugly is all there to witness today. It has been a contradiction since the 60’s.