Some personal ramblings on Cuba from Tom


There is nothing like a trip to Cuba to make one reflect on politics and mankind’s failed attempts to improve its lot.  Dictatorships are dying daily as the internet empowers the young as never before.  Mubarak of Egypt is gone, the Tunisian bloke too, Cuba is westernising daily and I bet a global review would show that the number of stable democracies is expanding every year. Of course the most stable ones are almost all in an economic mess just now, and that’s what tends to empower the dictators and their soldiers, but hopefully total chaos will be avoided, and so the risk left is that old useless dictators are replaced by more hostile and active ones as a result of the new practice of holding one election and once that’s won rigging all future ones.  That’s the way in Iran and Russia and many other places and is Dictatorship by another name, but perhaps not quite so blockheaded normally.


Cuba, the 52 year old mother of all surviving Dictatorship, is a fascinating anachronism.  It takes a day or two to realise that what’s missing most of all is that nowhere can you see any form of advertising, apart from the odd revolutionary slogan on a wall. No Coke, no Ford, no Beyer, Peugeot, Gillette or Sony either. It’s not just the Americans who are forbidden promotion, it is everyone bar the Revolution. It’s a phenomenal uniqueness – is there another place in the world similar? Let’s hope that as they liberalise they keep that unique rule, it could be the making of them, as could the delightfully straight fixed and universal exchange rate.


Most dictatorships breed endemic corruption, but it appears in Cuba that the rules are kept. Perhaps there are heavy sentences for those caught.  So while as normal, a dictatorship means a feared police, in Cuba these seem to be relatively honest and very low profile (as were the army surprisingly). That makes crime, or at least serious crime, rare and while I bought a cigar for $1 that turned out to be made of banana leaves, there was no serious tourist con in evidence and I never felt threatened, even exiting bars onto empty streets, holding up zombie like Barbadian’s and Mancunian’s late at night! 


So the place seems mostly slightly crooked, but not really criminally so, and while poverty is clearly the norm – communism really does not work as it should to change that sadly – the gap between the richest and the poorest is not really visible.  I suspect it’s there, the middle class few I met seemed very 1st world indeed – but it’s kept well hidden by its beneficiaries, which is where free society always goes wrong.  There is no bling in Cuba and the celebrities walk the streets and catch buses like anyone else. Their houses are just painted and they have TVs, and even the odd car, unlike the proletariat.


And in theory they all work for the same employer – the government – I think at the same paygrade too, though in practice the majority of each individual’s economy is the black market supply of something or other home made. Technically that makes it a low tax, entrepreneurial economy, as grift and back-door trading are clearly tolerated, which will explain the clear signs of regeneration in even the poorer or more rural quarters.


That regeneration is most obvious though in the areas focused on tourism, there is a huge effort at renovation, but, as in Tuscany since the Renaissance, an effect of prolonged poverty is to preserve the architecture of the belle époque that preceded it.  So the villas of Miramar, or the alleys of central Havana (not to be confused with the beautiful and restored colonial classics of Old Havana) are as they were in 1959; preserved by dictatorship against the nastiness of 60’s and 70’s modernism and the glass stumps of the 80’s version.  In this respect Cuba is a model of conservation and conservatism.  One would not want to be the peasant ploughing his field with a bullock, and one can’t explain why his neighbour has a tractor doing the same job, when all are equal; and one doesn’t want to drive the ancient and and-home-made, but beautiful, agricultural vehicles we found while we cycled along; but all are picturesque and their owners seem fit and well and inclined to smile. And likewise the 1950’s winged American highway cruisers – now more for tourists than being the only cars in town as they were 10 years ago – are a beautiful by-product of the US sanctions and the consequent official certainty that 1959 was as modern as a society need ever be; even if their engines sound like those of Massey-Ferguson and the clouds of smoke they produce choke a cyclist as no cigar ever did.


So Cuba works OK after a fashion. Castro and his family have clearly avoided the worst temptations of the dictatorial tribe, and while the 1989 end of his Russian supply line clearly plunged his people into real misery for a decade or more, he and his junta have now allowed the West’s and East’s wealth to creep in and for tourism to develop as the huge wealth generator it can and surely well be if they keep the island as impossibly unspoiled as it now is.  From the very respectable airport, to the plush tourist bus to the 5* Parque Central Hotel, upmarket tourism is sharply on the rise. Cheaper stuff is available too, and the gap is amusing.  The country hotel near Matanzas was as a failing Butlin’s circa 1975 might be, with good design intentions everywhere and none of them delivered amongst the mould and cracks. The difference is though, that the open fire pig spit roast was quite spectacular and the beer cost the same as it might have in Butlin’s in 1975.


The country side, towns, coast are all wonderfully unique as are the people and indeed the government. There really is music everywhere and dancing on the street, cigars are bliss and nearly free, the girls beautiful, the beer cold, the language musical and I even fell in love with rum. Imagine that.

Viva Cuba; Cuba Libre, keep out USA!   


Tom Baigrie



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