by Daphna Whitmore

While holidaying in Mexico I took a side trip to Cuba last week. Here are just some initial impressions.

The first impression getting a taxi from the airport was that the roads were good and the buildings looked adequate, but  nothing very new looking. Once we got to old Havana where we were staying the run down state of the historic area was very evident.  Closer to the centre of the old city there was a lot of really good restoration going on. Possibly 20% of the old buildings have been restored and look amazing.

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Old Havana is very rundown but restoration is underway

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The people were great, and the music was stunning. Really fantasticmusicians playing on the streets and in the cafes and bars. What talent. It struck me as rather like New Orleans where a whole city is dedicated to music.

The food was either not good, or extremely good. The food was more Spanish style than in Mexico, which makes sense as Cuba’s indigenous population was wiped out rapidly after colonisation. There was also a bit of Caribbean influence in the cuisine. Our hotel was grotty and overpriced. Generally it wasn’t expensive to eat, drink and get about (though we mostly walked).

Cuba is clearly a poor country, but the people look healthy, and the positive aspects of the revolution such as universal education, and excellent health system and a lack of disparity were evident.

The tourism industry has grown enormously andis pumping quite a bit of money into the economy. I imagine it must engender a two-tier economy wherebig money can be made in tourism compared to working in industry or agriculture. It must surely erode a socialistic outlook too. On the other hand what is the alternative?

The expansion of tourism has left some services straining. At the airport catching our flight was an experience. Fortunately we asked some Americans who we had
seen in the check-in queue in front of us earlier what was going on when our flight number dropped from the departure board. We had never been assigned a gate number and the board just said checking in. Once the departure time elapsed
the flight seemed to no longer exist and there were no announcements either. The American group had been a few times and said it’s often like that, and one of them went downstairs to another departure gate as a process of elimination. After about an hour he rushed up and said we were boarding via a bus. There was no way of knowing this unless one happened be right there on the spot! We then had to wait for some time until they found 10 missing passengers (no wonder given the lack of communication).

Anyway, we got to Cancun a few hours late but not a big issue. In fact we’d had a much bigger delay leaving Auckland when our Hawaiian flight got delayed for more than 24 hours and we had to go back home after waiting for hours with not great communication either.

I wonder if it is possible for Cuba to continue developing capitalist enterprises and retain socialised health and education, as we have in most developed countries, or will they go the way of other poor countries?

I didn’t get any sense of whether the Cuban people – or significant sections of society – are committed still to the revolution. Not having much Spanish I couldn’t really
discuss politics or read the newspapers or follow TV discussions apart from reading an English edition of Granma.

Fidel’s wishes not to be depicted in  statues and other symbols of the cult of personality appear to have been respected. There were a few billboards about the place that looked like they were there before his death proclaiming the revolution, extolling healthcare for all and education for all, that sort of thing. But no big Fidel posters or statues. There were some posters stuck on walls saying Fidel is always with us, that type of thing but quite low key. It was good to see, but also, there was nothing to suggest a revitalisation campaign. Probably hanging on to their gains will be an achievement if they can manage it. It must feel strange to be virtually the only ‘socialist’ (I’m not counting North Korea) country in the world. Like being the last Moriori!

While I was there I saw a programme on TV about Silvio Rodriguez who is Cuban and one of the most popular folk singers in Latin America. He lives in Havana and is very connected to the people, and plays concerts in the streets in the barrios etc. Although I couldn’t make out most of what he was saying he sounded optimistic. He’s now 70, and I remember his music from my time working on Nicaragua solidarity in 1986-87. Then there seemed to be so much hope. Again more recently with the rise of movements in Latin America, but now the tide seems to be going out again.

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