What is Cuba like, Jane?

I’m here at the bus station here in Varadero, cash-in-hand, waiting to buy a ticket back to Havana. Despite the online booking system on my phone, within Cuba I can’t reserve a bus ticket. The US blockade of Cuba, in place for the past 61 years, means use of my VISA card is blocked. With a full waiting room and a single overbusy lady 2-finger typing into her computer, this manual process is laborious for this solebus company open to tourists. Three days previously however, my daughter Alice in Auckland had kindly reserved my ticket to get here online with no credit card issues whatsoever from NZ.

For me, not being able to access one international system, my credit card, is a minor inconvenience: for the peace-loving people of Cuba, I’m hearing just how far the long-standing US embargo reaches their daily life stifling progress.

In the beautiful old town of Havana, alongside jazz music, 1950’s Plymouth taxis, and bars selling rum-based Mohitos, I’ve become all too aware of long queues for what seem basic foodstuffs. A pharmacy seems to have all-but empty shelves, and outside the heavily touristed area of ‘Old Havana’, the buildings where people live are seriously dilapidated. But what does this all mean?

I’m particularly curious about how effective the socialist approach is in reality and also what the effect from 60 years of US sanctions has had on daily life for those in Havana. I’m pleased to discover a tour on the AirBnB website: ‘Understanding Cuba today with a Sociologist‘:

The Air BnB booking system unsurprisingly fails to work for me. However I am clearly not the first person to fail either to download a VPN or to reserve the tour prior to my arrival in Cuba, and read the note on how to circumvent the system, something it seems Cubans are well used to doing: **If you cannot book from Cuba, please send me a private message. You can still book our tour! Thank you! Doing exactly that and taking this guided 2-hour walk is one of the single best decisions I make during my stay in Cuba.

Is Cuba a socialist country? What are the major challenges of Cuban society nowadays?
How can we buy basic items in a currency we are not paid? How does the black market work in Cuba? Write down your questions, we will always give you honest answers.
We invite you to understand Cuba once and for all and experience what we experience every day, how our society has changed between generations since the Revolution, let’s talk about our economic and social struggles and how we value being Cubans living on this island, despite our difficulties. We will take you away from tourist places for a while so you can feel part of our people, and understand our daily lives and our mindset. First, we will be walking around Old Havana residential part. We will use local markets, pharmacies, and stores to explain to you the difference between two coexisting systems (private and government-owned). We will also visit a government store (what we call “bodegas”) to learn about the ration food system. Is it free? Is it enough? We will learn about “the black market” and also what a foreign currency store is, a place where almost all Cubans must buy most of their supplies every month. Is it worthwhile to live in Cuba nowadays? Discover it by yourself!

My tour guide, Cxxxx, is a 30-ish Cuban art historian, who after a scholarship to Madrid, found work in Germany for several years. I find her perceptive, fascinating and entrepreneurial, and learn that as well as working 3 jobs, she rescues and rehomes cats and dogs off the streets as well as volunteering for a medical charity. Part of an extended family based in Florida, 90 miles away – where she explains more than 2 Million Cubans live, sending remittances and parcels over for their family members – for Florida.

The ‘2+2=5’ slogan comes, I am told by my tour guide, from those seeking greater transparency from the Cuban government

My guide’s mother is a 61-year old Paediatrician whose monthly salary I am surprised to find is just 5000 Cuban Pesos (approx $NZ55). With a bunch of bananas selling on a street cart for 120 pesos, and 6 bread rolls the same, managing on a state salary seems a challenge.

Yet there is another side to Cuba, and I’m keen to understand this too. So far I’m finding it hard to see past my own neoliberal western capitalist view, to see past the shortage of goods, to the systems of sharing. From Cxxxxx, I learn how each Cuban owns a personal ‘ration’ card. Taking this card to their local ‘bodega’ enables receipt of a regular share of whatever staple foods that the state has available.

‘The responsibility and possibility for making a valuable contribution to the reconstruction of people’s alternatives to modern capitalism – that is, neoliberal globalisation – have fallen, unsought to the Cuban revolution ‘. Julio Luis Garcia – Editor – Cuban Revolution Reader

My gaping abyss of ignorance about this feisty little country is highlighted once I join 4 other Kiwis for this week’s ‘5th International Conference on World Balance’. I’m curious about a government whose ideals lead to hosting a conference of this scope and magnitude. I’m aware Cuba regularly sends teams of doctors and other specialists to troubled regions across the globe, but what prompts this tiny nation to bring together 1500 delegates from 80+ countries to share and discuss ideas on global cooperation, climate breakdown mitigation, peace initiatives, and new economic systems?

“A true man should feel on his cheek the blow against the cheek of any a man.”

Jose Marti Cuban Poet 1853 -95

The ‘NZ delegation’ has been coordinated by fellow Kiwi Quaker and Deputy President of the international ‘World Beyone War’ organisation, Liz Remmerswaal at the invitation of the Cuban Ambassador to NZ. I feel honoured to be here alongside Liz, her husband, Ton, Irish/Kiwi Peace Artist, Deirdra McMenamin, and former NZ Minister of Disarmament Matt Robson, yet I regret not understanding more about Cuba itself.

There is no way for me to do justice to Cuban history in a two week visit, though I optimistically purchase the ‘Cuban Revolution Reader: A documentary history of Fidel Castro’s revolution’, edited by Julio Garcia Luis. As I read stirring extracts from Castro’s speeches (you will understand the need for extracts when you learnhe apparently often spoke for 3-4 hours) my understanding deepens, and so too does my respect for the Cuban people. Now, if you too are curious to understand more, you may want to follow my personal take on recent Cuban history which follows below. If not, I suggest you scroll on down to the final pictures!

In 1902, Cuba gained formal independance from the USA, who themselves had taken over control from Spain a few years previously. ‘Independance’ certainly was not the same as ‘without US interference. ‘ By the 1950’s, President Fulgencio Batista had returned himself to power after a military coup supported by the US and US businesses were dominating the Cuban Economy, extracting $1 Billion over the decade. Meanwhile Batista facilitated criminal organisations and illegal gambling and the situation for the people of Cuba worsened. Across Cuba, 37.5% of the population were illiterate, 70% of rural kids lacked teachers while 2% of the population were infected with TB.

In the months following Batista’s March 1952 coup, Fidel Castro, then a young lawyer and activist, petitioned for the overthrow of Batista, whom he accused of corruption and tyranny. Castro’s constitutional arguments were rejected by the courts. Realising that the Cuban regime, heavily supported by the US at the time, could not be replaced through legal means, Fidel and others saw no alternative to armed revolution.

Surprisingly, John F Kennedy later saw it much the same:

” I believe that there is no country in the world, including the African regions, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime……. This is one of the most, if not the most, important problems in America foreign policy. I can assure you that I have understood the Cubans. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will go even further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries.” US President John F Kennedy 24 October 1963

Years of sacrifice with growing rebel action followed. Fidel and his brother Raul were imprisoned by Batista but later released due public outcry. By 1955 the Argentinian Revolutionary ‘Che’ Guevara and rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos were fighting alongside men and women, the cause strengthened by growing student movements. On 1 January 1959, the Cuban Revolution finally gained victory and by he end of that year Fidel Castro had taken up the became the leader of the socialist nation of Cuba.

Che & Fidel 1962

Relations between the US and Cuba rapidly deteriorated. Castro’s government resented the United States for providing aid to Batista’s government during the revolution; the US feared an outflow of ‘communist ideas’ through South America, as had been happening in S-E Asia. In 1960 the Cuban government nationalised all US property in Cuba, and the same year Eisenhower froze all Cuban assets on US soil, severed diplomatic ties and tightened its embargo of Cuba. The following year of course saw saw the humiliating defeat for the US at the ‘Bay of Pigs’ when the US government using a CIA-trained force of 1500 soldiers, failed to oust Castro.

Right now, 2023, the US embargo against Cuba is still in force and US occupation of the Guantanamo Bay area in southern Cuba and its use as an extreme military prison continues. While the Obama Administration loosened restrictions somewhat, this was more than reversed by the Trump administration in 2017. Last year Biden’s Administration relaxed certain limitations on remittances from Cuban nationals in the US and expanded authorised travel by its citizens. On this I respect the diplomatic response to from Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in a Twitter post: the US announcement was “a limited step in the right direction” but “the decision does not change the embargo, the fraudulent inclusion (of Cuba) on a list of state sponsors of terrorism nor most of the coercive maximum pressure measures by Trump that still affect the Cuban people.”

To support herself and her mother, Claudia supplements her role at the Museum of Modern Art with 2 further jobs. She works evenings as a restaurant waiter, and this tour guiding role that I am benefitting from today brings in necessary US Dollars/Euros, required. In some anomalous way I havent yet fathomed – to buy items such as shoes and clothing within the Cuban government-run stores requires overseas currency. I learn that many items are in short supply – single Ibuprofen tablets are apparently selling for $US2 – and condoms are in such short supply that lack of contraception is leading young girls are having serial abortions ( abortions are legal in Cuba).

At the hospital where her mother works, access to medications is severely limited. When specific cases require it, Cxxx, my tour guide calls contacts in Germany who access medications from Bayer Pharmaceuticals. These are then , which brought by Airline Cabin Crew within their personal baggage to Cuba. Cxxx then heads out to Havana Airport to collect each package of life-saving medication.

“No enemies but ourselves, but our own errors, remain. Only our own errors will be able to destroy the revolution! ” Fidel Castro 1962

It is easy for me to celebrate Cuba’s revolutionary ideals. Socialist rather than communist as Che Guevara pointed out.. What is not to like about resources shared willingly by the people for the people? The vision of 19th century Cuban poet Jose Marti regarding the importance of dialogue and collaboration inspires this week’s conference.

Yet I’m looking in from the outside from whence admiration of others’ ideals comes easy. I am not the one to sacrifice so much: I have not stood courageously in the face of the neocolonial power of the United States, pushing back for the last 60+ years, striving to build a more equitable alternative to a capitalist society.

Eduardo the engineer-turned-taxi-driver explains how he works 7 days a week. He longs for his 3 daughters to thrive and for him that means they utilise the free tertiary education system to get qualifies and then seek work overseas. “It is too hard, the laws are too harsh. They need to change the laws,” he says, giving me an example of how he longs for the opportunity to import a car from neighbouring Mexico, but the government controls all car imports, he explains.

Claudia’s mother, the paediatrician, who works under the hardest of circumstances, is now tired from her lifetime of passionate struggle on behalf of others. She longs for greater ease and comfort and is considering a move to Florida with Claudia if they can.

My 2 weeks will soon be up. It’s a challenge to process all I have learnt yet two things seem clear:

1. If you have the opportunity to visit and/or to connect more deeply into Cuba’s soul and her people, take it. My spirit is now more open to alternative possibilities; I imagine for you it will be the same.

2. As I see it, it is time for me, US citizens and the rest of the world to insist the US backs off Cuba. To bring about a world that works for all, there is no place for an insidious military prison on occupied Cuban land at Guantanamo nor for an embargo based on historic fears.

How do you see it?

“If I were to make a suggestion to the illustrious visitors gathered here, it would be someting that I can see you are already doing. Nevertheless, at the risk of tiring you, I will allow myself to repeat and reiterate: in the face of the sophisticated and destructive weapons with which they seek to intimidate and subject us to an unjust, irrational and unsustainable social and economic world order: sow ideas! Sow ideas! and sow ideas! Build awareness! Build awareness! and build awareness! “

Fidel Castro 2003: speech at the 1st Conference for World Balance


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