Canada’s travel advisory for Cuba:
Cuba — There is no Official Warning for this country. …Normal security precautions should be observed while in Havana and other Cuban cities….
U.S. State Department’s travelers advisory for Cuba:
Cuba is a totalitarian police state which relies on repressive methods to maintain control. These methods include intense physical and electronic surveillance of both Cuban citizens and foreign visitors. Americans visiting Cuba should be aware that any on-island activities could be subject to surveillance, and their contacts with Cuban citizens monitored closely.
I stood transfixed on the third floor balcony of my hotel room in Old Havana and watched what looked like a carefully choreographed game of chicken in the huge, bustling, intersection below. Bicycle taxis, horse-drawn carriages, vintage cars circa 1955, cabs, motorcycles and pedestrians all rushed through in different directions at the same time. With no traffic signals, lane markers or pedestrian cross walks, this intricate, strangely civil ballet with its hundreds of moving parts played out from sunrise to dark every day. Despite the horn honking it appeared that no one ever got hurt, not even the drunk who passed out in the middle of the hubbub.
With its free education and health care, with food and other rations for the month costing only pennies, with a stable government and apparently incorruptible leaders, Cuba had always been an anomaly among poor countries. When U.S. travel restrictions loosened last January, I had to see for myself.
The first things a visitor familiar with the third world notices in Cuba are the roads and the drivers. The highway from the airport into Havana was as good as any in the U.S. As we toured Western Cuba I kept looking for the rutted, impassable roads that are common in countries without the tax base needed to create adequate infrastructure. We never saw any. Plus, there were gas stations, fittingly called Negro Oro (Black Gold) at reasonable intervals.
Even more surprising were the Cuban drivers. Unlike all other third world countries I’ve visited, not to mention a number of industrialized nations, the driving was surprisingly sane. There seem to be several reasons for this. One is that drivers are licensed, something that can never be taken for granted in most poor countries. The second reason is enforcement. In Cuba there was a quiet and unobtrusive police presence on the roads as well as in the cities. Order on the highways is a great gift to citizens, not least because it cuts mortality. Maybe it is also the mark of an orderly society.
After being wowed by the roads, we were stunned by the state of decay of what was once, clearly, a glorious city. Many buildings in historic Old Havana are in such a state of disrepair that it is unlikely that they can ever be restored. The relatively small number of buildings that have been restored are interspersed among the ruins, creating a surreal landscape of elegance literally next door to devastation. In any case, it is easy to understand why Earnest Hemingway fell in love with 1950s Havana.
Although we were warned not to talk politics with the locals, it seemed that everyone we met was willing to discuss the details of their lives. Here are some of the things we learned:
– The average salary in Cuba, paid by the government which holds almost all property, is less than USD $20/month. Doctors and police (!) make about $40/month. Entrepreneurs like the owners of bicycle rickshaws or taxicabs pay the government a set fee. The moneyed class in Cuba consists of those who work in tourism because tourists leave tips that are not taxed. Our tour guide’s parents were both physicians but his income was many multiples of theirs, combined. Taxi drivers and waiters we talked to also considered themselves fortunate to have high paying jobs. As in other third world countries, waiting tables is almost always a man’s job.
– The number of cattle in the country is strictly regulated. The government recognizes that cows are one of the least efficient uses of land and are unnecessary to a healthy diet, so it insists that property be used in other ways. Pork, fish and chicken are more readily available.
– Cuba has a population of about 11 million, 4 million of whom live in Havana. What keeps Havana from turning into another Calcutta or Los Angeles? Immigration policy, that’s what. As in many countries, Cuba requires a national identity card subject to random checks by police. The Cuban government recognized long ago that a city could easily out strip its resource base and become unmanageable. Official permission is required to move from the countryside to Havana.
– The U.S. lease on Guantanamo expired in 2001 and, predictably, was not renewed by Cuba. The U.S. sends Cuba a check for a few thousand dollars every year which Fidel tears up and tosses into the trash. (OK, maybe Fidel doesn’t do it himself.)
– Cuban society is so controlled that it allows only limited personal expression which is the source of much popular dissatisfaction. In the late 1950s, Fidel and his revolutionaries were determined to throw out the capitalists who prevented most Cubans from benefiting from their own labor. In fact, it was the nationalization of the American sugar industry that precipitated the U.S. embargo. It is the lobbying of Miami’s Cuban ex-pat population that keeps it going.
– The arts and sports of all kinds are supported by the government, from the ballet to choirs to boxing, you name it.
– Every Cuban is familiar with the wet-foot-dry-foot policy of the U.S., which gives any Cuban reaching land the right to stay, collect a stipend, get medical care through Medicaid, food stamps, a green card in one year and citizenship in 3 years. A number of Americans on the tour with us couldn’t believe their ears.
– Why does anyone stay in Cuba, you ask? Cuban citizens, to a person, expect their economic fortunes to change with the passing of Fidel. There seems to be a deep reservoir of good feeling for the old man who, 50 years ago, redistributed land, guaranteed that no citizen would starve, provided free education to the university level as well as free health care, and raised the standard of living and quality of life for 75% of the population – those who stayed. Most people in the third world would think they had died and gone to heaven if they had such assurances.
In addition to being an intellectual and a visionary, Fidel Castro and his brother, Raoul, to whom he has passed the presidency, are recognized by Cuban citizens as a men of scrupulous integrity, a stark departure from the leaders of most third world countries.
I hope Cuba can find a way to keep the accomplishments of Fidel without Fidel. There is already talk of eliminating the ration system and raising salaries. No one seems to be asking if salaries can be raised enough to compensate for the price of food.
The Dominican Republic is the next island south of Cuba and there is no comparison whatever between the two. The Dominican’s roads, except in tourist areas like Puerto Plata and the capitol, Santo Domingo, are usually next to impassable due to potholes. The joke is that you can drive into one side of a Dominican pothole and out the other. Parents pay a fee to send their kids to school, and in an impoverished country you can guess how well educated the population is. Neither health care nor food are ever taken for granted and police protection seemed nonexistent.
You can drive for hours in the DR without seeing a gas station. Roadside mom-and-pop stands sell gas by the liter or part of a liter, literally in soda bottles. We saw one boy on a moped drive into the only gas station we ever saw and fill an empty Coke bottle with gas. He then roared off into the potholes with the gas wedged next to the steering column. He was a rolling Molotov cocktail. We saw nothing similar in Cuba.
Government graft has been a major problem in the Dominican as in Haiti. Many accounts blame invasions by the U.S. and U.S. support for corrupt dictators as a major influence on the dismal economies of both countries.
U.S. influence has, of course, been mostly absent from Cuba, except for the embargo and numerous CIA assassination attempts. Fidel jokes that when he dies no one will believe it. After a body guard estimated 638 CIA assassination attempts in the years since 1959, Castro said “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.”
The CIA may not have been able to kill Fidel, at least so far, but it has succeeded in making his life difficult. For years he has rotated between a series of safe houses.
The last assassination attempt is believed to have been in 2006, but to this day the U.S. remains a neighbor from hell.
There is no American embassy in Cuba but there is an ‘American interests’ facility that functions like an embassy. Cubans still talk about the ticker tape scroll denouncing their country that was posted at this embassy-that-isn’t by their American guests.
The embargo and American insistence that other countries fall into line with it has left Havana’s harbor still and virtually unused. By depriving Cuba of needed supplies, the U.S. and complicit Cuban ex-pats in Miami hoped to dislodge the uppity government that stands in the way of profiteering.
After 50-odd years, maybe its time to give it up.