Like most everyone I’ve met; Cuba and Havana were firmly on our ‘bucket list’ of places to visit. There is an allure to visiting one of the last communist countries in the world. The practicalities of this are overshadowed by the romantic notions of Caribbean climate, Sala, classic American cars, rum and happy people. Somewhere in that image is an idea that people under communism are free of all the consumerism and worry that drives us capitalists I.e. Waking up wondering how to make a buck. In this construct we imagine that this leads to a different, simple but more carefree life. If you came to Cuba on an expensive package tour and stayed in one of the ridiculously expensive government run hotels and you wandered around the carefully curated 10 city blocks around the Capitol, you might be forgiven for maintaining that view.
Step slightly off the beat and track, as we did, and the view changes markedly. To add some context, we stayed in a very nice Airbnb in an area called Playa. The house was very clean, comfortable, well maintained and the family were extremely helpful and assisted with our logistics. The area was nice, small city blocks and properties just up from the embassy belt. For our South African, Cape Town, readers it would probably have equated to Claremont in stature. That is, however, where that analogy ends.
As with everywhere, we try to maintain a balance between eating out and cooking simpler meals at home. That was, at least in part, the reason for renting the Airbnb rather than a hotel or Casa Particulaire (similar to a homestay). So off we headed to do some shopping and stock our fridge. How bad could it be.....right? First up, there are no supermarkets as we understand them in the western context. So, finding anywhere that sells food is a trick in itself. There are a few small stores, ‘Mercado’s’ and the odd fruit and veggie stall.
We eventually found one and went into the store. We were greeted by shelves and shelves of mayonnaise and pickles, reasonable supplies of booze and wine, German chocolates and biscuits but as you move back in the aisles, there is nothing on the shelves. Walk past the large deli counter and there is polony and some questionable cheese. Eggs, lots of eggs but usually cracked and old. No fresh ingredients at all. We feverishly started to play mental master chef. Chicken noodle soup? No Chicken stock, no stock of any type, no fruit, no yogurt. No edible protein sources, bar polony and beans. Let’s make bread, no yeast, no white flour. We grabbed a bottle of nice red wine from David Niewoudt’s Chilean partners, the Bouchon family, (a steal at $10) some pasta and a tin of tomatoes and decided to regroup. Surely this wasn’t normal? Let’s go closer to the embassies and hotels. Shops must be different there......right? In the subsequent days, we tried 5 other Mercado’s with pretty much the same result. In short, the joys of soviet style central planning are evident everywhere. For capitalists like us, the notion that no matter how many dollars or CUPs (the tourist version of Cuban currency) you have in your wallet, if it’s not available, it’s not available, was really, really weird.
The following day, we went on a walking tour with a young Cuban economist. As he explained the practicalities of real Cuban life, we began to join the dots.
First up, private business is frowned upon and largely illegal. All hotels are government run and controlled. The last permit allowing any private enterprise was issued at the end of 2016. When we say private enterprise, we mean everything, restaurants, tour guides, taxis, Airbnb’s. There is literally no concept of supply and demand. For example, Jorge explained, all supermarkets are state owned, a central buyer in a ministry buys what here or she can find cheaply on world markets and that’s what’s on the shelves. Sometimes that results in some nice high end ingredients but most staples are not often available. In terms of incentives to change, there are none. Everyone in the country is allocated a job after university. Doctor... salary $35 per month, cashier salary $35 per month, pilot salary $35 per month. No matter what you do or how you perform, salary $35 per month. Ok, I hear you ask, but what does that buy? Maybe it’s enough? It buys about 35 beers. Whatever currency you work in, let that sink in. The buying power of 35 Amstels for the month. Even in Cuba, no one can survive on that. Admittedly, everyone gets monthly food rations of eggs, chicken and rice and beans but in reality the amount provided can only feed someone for about a week.
What about beef, we asked, as it’s part of the national dish, Ropa Vieja which is a shredded beef. Jorge laughed, the penalty for killing a cow, he explained is greater than that for killing a person. Seafood and beef are not allowed to be consumed in private homes without a permit. Enter the black market. According to Jorge, given the lack of supply of goods, which apparently is as dire in household items as FMCG and the fact that everyone needs to supplement their income, the black market is flourishing. Because private enterprise is prohibited it’s all well-hidden but, he assured us, it’s there and growing.
This brings us to the next thing, communication. Our guide pointed to papers with phone numbers on tear off strips like ones we would expect to find on a smalls advertising board in a rural supermarket, stuck on pillars in public spaces. They were adverts asking for things or offering goods and services. What about the internet, we asked? Jorge laughed again. We had read stories about no internet access in Cuba. Somehow it has become so ubiquitous in our lives that we were unable to compute what that actually meant. There is no Wi-Fi allowed in private residences or private places in Cuba. There are Wi-Fi parks where one can buy access for an hour at a time. As travellers, the impact of this is massive. We are so used to Google maps, not only for directions but to find and recommend restaurants, tell you how to use public transport and of course to find and communicate and book tours. Even though we could go to the park, anyone we wanted to book with was subject to the same internet constraints. Even though we downloaded Google maps, offline it was like having one hand cut off. How did we possibly survive in the days of Lonely Planet Guides and before cell phones! J Cubans like many other people who live under difficult constraints, make a plan. The one thing available everywhere was memory sticks for $1 with the latest updates to American and English series with subtitles. So even in Havana, binge watching is a thing.
Despite this, through Jorge the economist we organized another tour out to a typical Cuban farm, outside Havana, to experience the realities of rural, rather than urban life. We were picked up by the charming Jorge II, apparently a relative of Jorge I, in a 1952, bright green Chevy. We trundled west out of
Havana on largely empty highways with the odd donkey cart, classic American car and very occasionally a new Audi or Hyundai passing us. We headed toward the coast, up into the hills to meet his (Jorge I) parents in law, and their neighbour, Alexandro, who farm in the area. Again, what contrasts. Warm, salt of the earth people, they welcomed us into their homes. On the one hand we had discussions about the recent departure of Mr Zuma and the policies implications of Mr Trump (also the name of their Ginger haired cat) on the other hand we were shown people whose lives are subsistence, at best, with no mechanization and no modern farming techniques. Everything is manual and there is no structure to their planning or cropping. Upon inquiry we learn that 90% of all production goes to government. No input, advice or assistance is provided. Having walked the lands, we assisted with the preparation of lunch and concluded with a lesson on how to play dominos (the national game of Cuba), drink rum and smoke cigars.
Where do we go with this? How did we experience Cuba as a family? Was it good or bad. Would we go back in a hurry? Even sitting in Florida, in the land of plenty (some may even say excess) those are difficult questions to answer. The easy first observation is summarized by Jorge II. When we asked him about Cuban’s general happiness, particularly considering the earlier observations, he responded, “Cuban’s are not happy, everything takes a lot of effort with the way things are. They are not happy, they are resigned....”
Given where the planet is, the Cuban’s ability to reuse everything and the willingness to waste nothing is a lesson to all of us, particularly when contrasted to the amount of waste and disposable nature of everything in the plastic world of Disney. Cuba is a bitter-sweet experience. We loved it and resented it, all at the same time. Charlotte’s voice could be heard reciting the now comical catchphrase, ‘Come on guys, it can’t be that bad, right....?”
In short, we are glad to have visited, to have seen it, as is, before the changes come, and come they will. The catalyst will be when internet access opens. Not for all the Arab Spring reasons that the regime fears so much but rather economics. PayPal, crypto-currencies (i.e. not controllable by government) and the ability to advertise and transact will reform the economy by itself. The black market, now in the shadows, will start to take over and once the flywheel is turning, it will be very difficult to stop. Depending on how fast and controlled the opening is, there may be casualties, and that would be a shame but the weight of the momentum is already too great....