By Daniel Margrain
In this, the second of three ‘travel in Cuba’ installments as part of my ‘authenticity series’ of posts, I will discuss the events that followed my two hour bus journey from Trinidad to the French-influenced fortress port city of Cienfuegos. As I highlighted previously, many Cuban’s have a kind of resigned pragmatism regarding the countries likely future transition to capitalism.
The then recently-elected Obama was widely regarded to be the catalyst for change in the country. But these changes were envisaged as only being possible within the context of a transitional Cuban government of which the lifting of the embargo would be the first step in the cooling of US-Cuban relations.
Due to the 1996 US Helms-Burton Act, the tightening of the embargo was pulled up a notch not loosened. The hope – which has yet to materialize – was that under Obama, Helms-Burton would be repealed. But even if a radical shift in Cuban politics occurs following Fidel’s death, it is unlikely – given the perilous state of the US economy – that an effectively lame-duck president or either of his successors – Trump or Clinton – will make Cuba one of their main priorities in the immediate future.
During my time spent in the country, I stayed in a variety of different sized accommodations from the small apartment to the large family house and I wondered how this disparity could be explained given the nature of Cuban society. I also wondered how in practical terms, Cuban people managed to move home and set up new lives in new cities and towns within the context of a country where private property is non-existent.
I discussed these topics, as well as the comparative notions of democracy and human rights in Cuba, with some British travelers whilst on a boat trip around the crescent shaped coast of the ‘Jewel of the Caribbean’ on a cloudy and relatively cold night in December 2009. Like myself, my fellow travelers had been unable to get any answers to these questions. It was clear that I was not going to be able to satisfy my inquisitive mind in the charming laid back atmosphere of Cienfuegos where the notion of time had appeared to have come to a standstill.
What struck me most about this beautiful country, is that the things we in the West take for granted, like the notion of time, appear to have no real meaning or relevance in Cuban society. This apparent irrelevance of time, squares with Peter Linebaugh’s contention that the essence of time and the spaces it fills in the vacuum left over from unprofitable ‘surplus’ free time, are necessarily constrained by a capitalist economic logic that prioritizes the accumulation of profit above all other human activity.
As Linebaugh asserts, the emergence of the mass-produced time-piece during the 18th century, reflects this overriding obsession with time and its coersive affects in perpetuating and reproducing the disciplining of workers as part of the prevailing capitalist order.
The Cuban people’s disrespect for time was no more evident than in the streets of Cienfuegos – arguably the most authentic of all Cuban cities. The relatively well-maintained streets, squares and open spaces in the centre of the city, provide the backdrop for idle chatting, drinking, eating, the playing of dominoes, chess, baseball and general relaxation. Cuban’s of all ages embrace, kiss, talk and laze about – it’s an intrinsic part of the way Cuban folk spend their time together.
I witnessed joy and happiness, as well as sadness and despair on the faces of the people on the streets of Cienfuegos, much like anywhere else on the planet. But of all people in ‘third world’ countries, the Cuban’s are by a country mile, some of the most humble and dignified of any people that I met on my travels. This is despite the fact that they suffered terribly following the break-up of the Soviet Union during the three years 1991-94.
The current crisis in the Cuban economy can be traced back to this period as a result of the ending of Soviet subsidies that had effectively sustained the economy for 30 years. By the end of the decade there was growth based on a rapidly expanding tourist industry. But this growth was fragile because it did not reflect any deep transformation of the economy.
However, despite this, I saw no evidence of the horrors which characterized that particular period of Cuban history. In Cuba, unlike for example,’democratic’ India, I did not see emaciated and starving people, neither did I see vast inequalities of economic wealth, or witness the social fabric of a country at the point of collapse. Civil society in Cuba – albeit limited by Western standards – functions relatively well when compared to many other countries that we prefer to call third world ‘democracies’.
Further, the perception of street safety and well-being was, in my experience, a reality in the towns and cities I visited throughout the country. Whilst widespread alcoholism, drug addiction, petty theft of property and other social misdemeanors, are a regular feature of everyday life in a modern country like Britain, in Cuba this is not the case. During the odd occasion that I had brought up this particular topic with Cuban people, the response was often one of total dismay and incomprehension.
Women can, and frequently do, walk the streets of Cuban cities alone and in safety. This may appear to some folks to be somewhat of a caricature, but in 2009 it happened to have been true. It is also true that Cuba places a high priority on education which is 100 per cent subsidized by the government, meaning that Cuban students at all levels can attend school for free. The government also operates a national health system and assumes monetary and administrative responsibility for the health care of all its citizens. In addition, housing and utility costs throughout the country are minimal to non-existent.
Cuba ranks as having among the world’s best patients per doctor ratios and has levels of infant mortality and life expectancy rates that compare favourably with many of the first world nations of the industrial world. As of 2012, infant mortality in Cuba had fallen to 4.83 deaths per 1,000 live births compared with 6.0 for the United States and just behind Canada with 4.8. I will remind readers, all this has been achieved within the context of an extremely damaging and punitive US-initiated trade embargo which has seen Cuba marginalized and isolated – both economically and politically – from much of the world.
It is also a nation that remains effectively at war with the most powerful country on earth. It is true that democracy as we have come to understand it in the West, has been ‘suspended’ in Cuba on the pretext that it is a country at war, in much the same way that democracy was suspended in Britain during WW2. The draconian embargo is a reflection of this war-footing, which goes a long way to explaining the queues and food stamps.
In keeping with tradition, my Cuban hosts in Cienfuegos were friendly, charming and hospitable. I would often eat dinner at the home of my hosts who occupied a rather grand house close to the centre of town. While staying there, I occasionally took the opportunity to watch some television. Cuban television output is not unlike most national media throughout the world in terms of its targeting of a specific demographic at different times of the day.
In London, I have the potential to be able to tune into approximately 100 virtually identical channels. In Cuba the number is a diverse four. During my stay, I managed to watch an episode of The Sopranos and the movie Goya’s Ghosts. News and current affairs output and debate in Cuba is clearly more incisive and truthful than its British state broadcasting counterpart, the BBC. For example, there appears to be none of the fake probing and bating in the interviewing style of Paxman, or any of the dubious claims of impartiality and objectivity that typify the BBC.
In terms of the Cuban news media more broadly, the emphasis appears to be focused on Latin American affairs as one might expect. Studio debates seem, by and large, to be genuinely heated, spontaneous and passionate which, at least as far as I was concerned, made for a refreshing change from the kind of bland European and North American-focused, and often contrived, output that passes for news in much of the West. My hosts allowed me to peruse the TV output late into the night while they were asleep.
The income generated by travelers like me was highly valued by my hosts who not only ensured that my every need was catered for but being a guest of theirs, also provided their young son and daughter with the opportunity to practice their English. As there was a big gap in my hosts future bookings they seemed reluctant to let me go. But this was not the only reason. I felt that a genuine mutual friendship had developed between us.
Nonetheless, as much as I enjoyed Cienfuegos, my time in Cuba was limited and I felt the time had now come for me to move on. I wanted to get a taste of the Cuban experience within a tourist package environment. This meant only one word – ‘Varadero’ – a relatively developed ‘package resort’ 184 kilometres from Cienfuegos on the Atlantic side of the island.
Final part to follow: Varadero and my trip back to Havana.