People I met in Cuba

on the road in CubaAna Maria owns the casa in which I’m staying. She is talkative, enthusiastic, and helpful. When we entered the room I was to stay in, I put down my bags. She promptly moved them to what she felt to be a more appropriate place. Her advice on restaurants and buses and places to go has been invaluable. She appreciates what the revolution has done for Cuba, and has little time for the younger people who lust after Western lifestyles. In recent years, she tells me, she has been able to access a wider range of news sources via the internet, and nothing has convinced her that other countries are on better paths.

On my first night I met a Colombia-American named Carlos in the restaurant down the road from my casa. He suggested something from the menu and we chatted over dinner. He is an artist who now lives in Dallas, but hopes to return to Colombia soon with enough money to buy his own studio. He had been to Cuba a couple of times before and knows a few people. This trip to Cuba, he told me, was about overcoming his fears, for his last trip to Cuba had ended – before it had begun – in disaster. At the airport he was arrested for some posters of Che Guevara with Mickey Mouse ears he had printed in order, he claimed, to give to friends. To him it was a joke, but to the Cuban government it was a potential threat to the nation. They arrested him and held him for five days, much of the time in solitary confinement. His interrogation lasted 28 hours, during which they repeatedly slapped him awake when exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him. His friends had contact the US embassy, who on calling the authorities were told that Carlos did not exist. Eventually the authorities decided he had simply been naive, but deported him anyway, to teach him a lesson. On this trip Carlos had been nervous coming through customs. He had not been bothered in any way. Now he can shrug it off. “I come here because the people are great. The government – that’s another thing.” He tells me a story of a friend of a friend, a Cuban artist, who put up an image in the street of the two Castros as pigs – perhaps a reference to the long-banned but now permitted Animal Farm. He has now disappeared.

Carlos took me to see a torchlit procession to celebrate a Cuban sanctified as one of the heroes of Cuban independence. The procession took a long time to come. Carlos left to meet some friends. I went into a bar to drink a mojito while I waited. There I met a Dominican woman in Cuba to study a specialism in surgery. She was already a surgeon, but also, she was keen to point out, had three kids, which was a much harder thing to do. She looked less than thirty years old. She was keen to get back to the Dominican Republic. “It is too difficult to live in Cuba,” she said. It is too hard to get only the basics, and the queues are too much a feature of daily life.

The procession arrived, led by Raul Castro walking at the front. Most of the marchers seemed happy to be there, perhaps ten thousand of them, all students, streaming past holding torches and flags, chanting and singing. At the back were a few reluctant marchers, their faces bored, one or two of them leaping towards cameras to perform themselves as a way of showing their lack of interest in the proceedings.

The next afternoon I stumbled across a hipster warehouse party. There was a DJ booth, seats made of pallets, house music, beards and skinny jeans. While I did not meet the host, one guest explained to me that the food and drink were free, as they had no license to make money. The host had simply paid for the party himself, and got the permission of the local police. I didn’t stay long because the attendees of the party were, predictably, too cool to be interested in talking to a foreigner.

At a one of the urban gardens developed during the Special Period I met Reinaldo, who was pruning the guayaba trees. As a sailor he had travelled the world, had seen London and Liverpool and much else besides. He prefers Cuba, partly because of the weather. At 83 he is still working in the organoponico garden because he likes to work. He pulled up two lettuces and gave them to me as a gift. I went from there into the old city, feeling unsure what to do with the lettuces. I would have given them to the owner of my guesthouse but after a whole day in my bag they wouldn’t have been up to much. By chance where I got off the collective taxi I met the first beggar I had seen in Havana. She tried to explain her ailments to me. Feeling unsure if I was being insulting, I asked if she liked lettuce, and gave her the two lettuces. She began eating them there and then, tearing off leaves to put in her mouth.

The restaurant I ate at for lunch had no other customers so the waitress chatted to me as I ate. Her first question was whether I had a girlfriend. She asked if I liked Cuba and I asked if she liked Cuba. She did not. Too much work for too little pay, she said. When her flirting yielded no reward she overcharged me for the drink and demanded a tip.

Today I walked above Baracoa, the town I arrived in this morning. While wandering up narrow, muddy paths between smallholdings full of chickens and plaintains, I was accosted by a 13 year old girl who wanted to show me around one of the fincas where many fruits were growing. It was not the season for fruit but she made a valiant effort, also pointing out waterfalls, dogs and horses. Within ten minutes she had asked my age then tried to pimp her aunts to me. I knew at that point she would be trouble. Sure enough, at the end of the walk she asked for money and I gave her a day’s wage for a government worker. She protested that this was not enough to feed her family, who had no food, and her father out of work, and she went on talking and talking as we walked back down the hillside until I cracked and gave her the same again. Still it wasn’t enough and she encouraged me to think of her poor starving family until I firmly said goodbye. She invited me up to have breakfast with her family the next day, despite my poor performance as a cash register.

I bought a couple of sandwiches for the road at a non-tourist cafe. The cafe was rammed with people buying a late breakfast or early lunch and the staff seemed run off their feet. The young man serving me stuggled with the roll of cling film, losing the end on one side so that the film split as he unrolled it. As he impatiently picked away at the lost end he looked up at me. “Eh, Cuba,” he said. I assured him that losing the end of the cling film could happen in any country. It occurred to me as I walked out that he may have been desparing at his whole job rather than the low quality cling film.

There was no way to enter the nature reserve without a guide so for once I hired one. He worked as a ranger as well as a guide, working throughout the reserve to protect the environment. His father had worked in an agricultural cooperative. The cooperatives must sell a certain amount of products to the government at a fixed price and anything they produce above that they can sell on the market. They are not, I had read, particularly functioning cooperatives as the party often places people in the top positions, undermining democracy. Evidence of the recent hurricane was everywhere, in particular many coconut palms having been lost. The farmers were busy planting new ones. I asked if the government had helped them with this. The government provided loans, came the response, and when the new trees bore fruit they would have to be repaid. The government as disaster capitalist? I didn’t ask the interest rate on the loans.

I met Juan-Antonio on my first day of cycling. He came alongside me as we cycled uphill and asked what country I came from. We cycled together for a mile or so, he telling me about his finca, where he grows coconuts and timber trees, and about his other house in the village down the road. He called out cheery greetings to everyone we passed along the way. As we parted, me to go on my way, he to meet a friend to split a pig fifty-fifty, he invited me to his house if I was ever passing back that way. “It is very humble,” he said proudly, “But you are welcome.”

I found a place to stay, probably illegal, and there met the local barber, a friend of the guesthouse owner. He runs his own business in the village, cutting hair from his home. When asked whether he liked Cuba he said of course, it is his country. I pointed out that I had met Cubans who did not like their country. He threw up his hands. “But you have to live,” he said. “And God put me here. Of course the government is always a shit, but still you have to live and enjoy life.”

There I also met a German sex tourist. He was staying there with his temporary girlfriend from Havana, with whom he did not share a language. She was much younger than him, jolly and resilient in the face of his sulky whims.

Three days ago internet arrived in this town, but that is in the park up the road. This house is still disconnected, a few concrete rooms by the beach, and the weather is always good. The owner’s son was keen to talk, mostly about other tourists who come here, but he also talked about being a baker. He likes the work, despite the 3am start, but earns fifteen dollars a month. It will take him eight months to save up for a smartphone now that internet has arrived.

At my guesthouse tonight I got into a discussion with Juan, who manages the guesthouse for his brother in law and splits the profits with him. I ask him about the high taxes and he agrees that there are some months when guesthouses lose money, since they have to pay tax whether they have guests or not. When I ask if the taxes are well used by the state he enthusiastically endorses the government, including its newer economic strategies of attracting investment from China and Russia. Does he think, I ask, that Cuba is moving towards a mixed capitalist/socialist economy? All societies are a mixture right now, he says. At this point he reveals that he is a professor of economics trained in Moscow. The error many people made, he says, was in believing that socialism had arrived. It took three hundred years to progress from feudalism to capitalism. Socialism is the next stage of development, and why should we think it will happen overnight? All capitalist states will eventually become socialist, but for a long time they will move to and fro between more socialist and more capitalist modes. But Cuba is on the right path, with the state rather than capital as the main owner and director of the economy. Although it may appear to others to be on a path to more capitalistic enterprise, as it changes the law to attract foreign investment, in fact this is just a part of the great change. I realised that to Juan, even a move towards capitalism is a move towards socialism: the key is to realise that socialism is inevitable.

I ask Juan if perhaps socialism could be more decentralised. He insists on the need for a strong state to direct the economy, though he sees the value too of ownership beyond the state in cooperatives. He denies that in Cuba the Party places its own people in positions of power in cooperatives. The party is not involved in the economy in that way, he says, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. The state only intervenes when the cooperative fails or gets distorted and begins to create private property through, say, the dominance of particular individuals rather than the roles being shared properly.

Mariella went to some effort to find out whether and when the train I wanted would leave. Told to phone back at 3pm to see if the train was running, she did so, and was then told to call back at 6pm. Cuba is like that, she said. Meanwhile the girl hanging around outside her house, perhaps 9 years of age, told me that she didn’t like Cuba, that it was an ugly country. I asked her why she thought this but she had no answer. I assumed she was simply repeating what her parents or an older sibling had been saying.

I met Hamilton when I went to a bar to get a coffee. He was sat at the bar with a bag of shopping, ordering one then another beer, his face the burned brown of a manual worker. Asked what he did for a living he said that until recently he had worked in a soya factory, but he had recently quit and was starting his own business. He had bought a truck for sixteen thousand dollars and was investing a further eight thousand in doing it up. At that price the truck was old and falling apart. If you wanted to get a decent second hand truck you would pay up to eighty thousand dollars. The bank had lent him the money and would repossess if he didn’t keep up payments. He would have to make at least forty dollars a day or would go bust. But he preferred it to working for someone else, he said. He wanted to travel one day. There were very few countries Cubans can go to without a visa and without having plenty of money. He hoped to see the United States and Europe one day.

Later, in a more touristy bar down the road, I met the bar owner, a Cuban who had spent many years in the United States and Canada. He said he preferred being in Cuba with no money to being in the US with money. There is no social life there, he said. He came back to Cuba because only here is life truly social. He and his Canadian friend tried to explain to me why so few robberies of tourists occur in Cuba, but ommited the crucial information I learned later that the government had decreed much harsher penalties for crimes against foreigners than against Cubans.

Meanwhile I tried to ask the bar owner whether there was any government approved accommodation in a particular town I planned to cycle through. “In that town they have nothing to eat but oranges,” he told me. This turned out, of course, to be untrue, but I understood what he meant when I got there. The traffic constantly got stuck behind horse-drawn carts, and it seemed many people had nothing to do but start drinking at midday.

Marcia was working at my guesthouse and served me breakfast. I had become very relaxed about security when staying in the Cuban equivalent of bed and breakfasts. As I ate my breakfast this morning I remembered I had left my door unlocked. Given this was a large house with people going in and out all the time, and I had left valuables in my room, perhaps that was a little too relaxed. I got up to go and lock the door. I found Marcia in my room, her mop beside her and my money belt in her hand. She had opened the zip and was rifling through it. When I spoke from behind her she shoved it guiltily under the pillow where I had left it. Though in her fifties, she acted like a child caught in the act, pretending innocence. She turned out her pockets, showed me her belt pouch, even lifted her top to show she had put nothing in her bra, smiling as though it were a game. “I was just cleaning,” she said. I counted the money and checked the passport and credit card. It seemed nothing had gone, though I hadn’t previously counted the money exactly.

Back at the breakfast table a couple of minutes later Marcia was suddenly more serious. “Why are you angry? I just had to move it to make the bed.” I knew the money belt had been zipped closed, but since Marcia knew that too it didn’t seem worth saying. “I’ve been working here ten years and never had trouble,” she said. “Nothing was missing, right?” After she had repeated this a few times I agreed that nothing was missing. Perhaps it had been her first temptation, or more likely, perhaps she had planned to take ten or twenty of the two hundred and fifty dollars, on the grounds that I would never notice, and maybe she had taken small amounts multiple times and the money had never been missed. Even if I were the type of person who counted my money every day, anyone could make a mistake counting when twenty dollars is the highest denomination. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to the guesthouse owner, likely costing Marcia her job. Besides, I tried to rationlise to myself, if I really wouldn’t have missed twenty dollars, perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a great crime for her to take what might be equivalent to two weeks wages. Instead of reporting her I went for a bike ride up a mountain to work off my annoyance. She was around the house much of the rest of my stay in the guesthouse, making for an uncomfortable atmosphere – at least for me.

I met Irene, a consumate traveller, a management consultant who had worked in Singapore. Her other method of imposing order on the universe was to believe in karma. She argued in a collective taxi over being overcharged a few pesos, and was still annoyed about being overcharged half a peso earlier in the day. She was glad to have had her bag stolen in Mexico, as it was so much better to be travelling light. She thought I should post on travel websites about my experience with the cleaner at my casa, in order to warn other travellers. “But she will suffer anyway,” she said. “Karma really works.”

On the road once again, I followed the satnav rather than taking advice on the route, and ended up on a road that became a track, that became a rocky pathway. Two farmers on horseback pointed out the way, but twenty minutes later I was lost, and the path had turned to rocks, over which I had to push a fully loaded bicycle. I was on the verge of despair when the two men on horseback re-appeared to save me. They not only set me back on the right path, but seeing me struggling to push the bike over the rocks, they took a pannier each, surprised at the weight I had been pushing. They left me once we reached the main road and refused to take anything but their amusement in exchange.

In the small town where they have nothing but oranges to eat, I walked into the only proper restaurant in town at the same time as a Swiss cyclist, Max, heading in the opposite direction to me. We had both found illegal places to stay, he in a place that didn’t sound too good, me in a love hotel that even had air-conditioning. In his time in the town Max had met Maria, a hairdresser, who when I asked what she did for a living, showed off her very long extensions. She works for the government during the week and for herself at weekends, and had recently gone to the nearest big town to buy some silver Converse trainers she showed off to us. She did not like Cuba, because people have to work too hard for too little money. She is looking for a partner, but a good one. In Cuba, she said, the fathers rarely stick around, including her own. On hearing that I wasn’t married, she stroked my leg with her foot under the table. When I failed to respond she went from vivacious to sulky within the space of a minute. Having lost the chance of a visa, she was still interested in money. Later, she asked if we wanted marijuana. When Max was out of the room she leaned over and asked if I wanted a girl for the night.

Back at my love hotel, the family were finishing their own dinner. They asked me to join them but I had already stuffed myself in the restaurant. They invited me to drink rum with them instead . They were fans of English football and the royal family. The husband was enamoured of England, so I tried to say that at least Cuba was a more social place, repeating what the bar owner had said to me a few days previously. He told me that I don’t know my neighbours and want to, while he does know his neighbours and would rather not. His wife scolded him for this glib statement, pointing out that their neighbours are very nice. He asked whether black people were criminals in England as they are here in Cuba. I remembered that the train I had taken had gone through the most Afro-Cuban part of the country I had seen, perhaps 95% of people appearing to have mostly African heritage. It was also noticeably the poorest part of the country I had seen, many people living in wood shacks patched with corrugated iron. The area still mostly grows sugarcane, as I suppose it has for a hundred years and more. But my language skills weren’t up to a discussion and I was tired. I simply said no.

In met a man of Lebanese and Cuban parents and brought up on the island. He spoke Arabic, French and English as well as Spanish. He was about to marry a woman from Quebec and move to Canada with her – so that his children could have a better life. He was scathing about anything to do with the revolution and anyone who supported it. At first he refused to countenance that anyone believed in it at all. “Some people pretend,” he said. I said I was sure there were some genuine supporters, that I had met a few. “They are crazy,” he said. “They believe all the propaganda of the government.” I asked him about people on the neighbourhood Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. “They just like to watch what others are doing,” he said. “And they like to feel superior.”

At the next guesthouse the host regaled me with a long story to illustrate the apparently arbitrary way the government can choose to run the economy. For a while it was possible to get a letter allowing you to buy a reasonably cheap for Cuba ($5000) old second-hand car. This required her to produce all sorts of evidence about where she had got her money from – it seemed it should come from abroad, so was another government ploy to get its hands on foreign currency – and to travel to Havana to get the document. As a single mother running a bed and breakfast and holding down a poorly-paid academic job, a car would have made her life a lot easier, so she went for it. She did have to fictionalise some of the evidence, but finally she got the letter. Meanwhile a market had grown up between people who had also managed to get the magic letter. The government decided to abolish the system overnight, leaving all the letter-holders with worthless pieces of paper, and people who had been trading in cars with expensive white elephants it was no longer legal to sell. No explanation was ever given. The government rarely explains its decisions, or when it does you can’t be sure it is giving the real reason. When I asked why the government didn’t make more effort to fill the empty shops with cheap Chinese goods she shrugged. “We can trade with China?” I pointed out that all the newer buses on the island are Chinese, but I also knew that the government does a lot of business with China these days. “I suppose it is a government decision not to take these goods,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

Xavier, a Catalonian cyclist carrying a Catalonian flag around the island with him, had been further off the beaten track than me and had stayed in quite a few family homes in villages without official accommodation. “There are people here who don’t have enough to eat,” he said. “They are eating only one meal a day because they don’t have enough to eat more.” He felt something in common with the people of Cuba. “They aren’t the last colony of Spain,” he said. “That’s Catalonia. We still need to get our independence.”

Towards the end of my trip I decided to be a proper tourist and went to see a cigar factory. The tour was very poor, barely three minutes of explanation of the cigar-rolling business and the chance to watch it being done. But Diego, one of the rollers, spoke good English. He had been doing the job for twenty years, he said, and had learned his English by talking to the visitors to the factory like myself. He asked my job, and declared it to be a much better job than his. He earns sixty to eighty dollars a month, on piece-rate. This was twice the salary of the academic I had spoken to the day before. He admitted it was better than most government salaries. But the work was very boring, he said, very repetitive. They had to work eight hours and could work longer if they wanted to earn more, but eight hours was enough for him. He was married, and on hearing that I was not, pointed to a cigar-roller three seats down who he said was single. I took it as a joke and laughed, but she got up and came over to introduce herself to me as though taking seriously the idea of us as a match. When we said goodbye, Diego told me to say hello to the queen when I got back to England.


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