Sunday, 9 August 2009

Thinking back

Memories, of course, lose something with time. It might not be the facts, but it could be the smells, the colours, the touch of someone's hand. So writing about Cuba now, over a week since I left it, seems like a failure. I will have lost something of the immediacy, the vibrancy which makes the island unique.

It is, above all, an island of colours. This includes the colours of the skin of its inhabitants, the colours of the cracked and peeling paint, of the omnipresent propaganda, the 50s cars, the pure sea and sky. It is beautiful in so many different ways. There is the impossibly white sand of the beaches, the bright turquoise of the sea, the timeless (and overused) look of Havana's old streets.

I am slipping into tourist brochure clichés. They are, in fact, mostly true in what they say about the buildings and the cars and the rum and the cigars. But tourism is where the country's contradictions are at their strongest. Often, we as foreigners are herded into a tightly controlled "version" of Cuba...we use different money, stay in different hotels, even visit resorts which Cubans cannot enter. So much for socialist equality, you might think. Indeed, the inequality is worse in that Cubans working in the tourist industry earn many times more than just about anyone else. The result is that you hear stories about doctors and lawyers becoming taxi drivers and waiters, simply because they earn so much more. I could write paragraphs on the phenomenon of jineteros, people who will approach you on the street offering rum, fake cigars, a place to stay, etc. It is a sad fact that the line between a Cuban being friendly and a Cuban wanting money is often (not always) scarily thin.

And yet, there is a magical sense of community. I could walk back through central Havana and the suburbs at midnight and be totally at ease. Old men were out rocking in their chairs, playing dominoes and smoking. Kids kicked a ragged football round the corner. Women hung washing from aristocratic balconies. What's more, nothing seemed too big a problem. When I struggled with the outdated banking system, the crazy money or anything else, my hosts (staying with families is the way in Cuba) would always be completely relaxed, and ready to sort things out. I guess it's a necessary skill in a country where most things are illegal.

I don't really want to get into a detailed political analysis of the government here, but what I heard from most Cubans was that Raúl has none of the charisma or personal charm of his brother, and that nothing seems to be moving forward or getting better. I don't think much needs to be said about personal freedoms, other than that they don't really exist. All I will say is that after 50 years, I think it's time for a change of some sort, even if it's just a new generation of leaders. I would have thought that the concept of "revolution" would encourage that.

What I do want to talk about, however, is the culture and the arts. These, to my mind, are Cuba's greatest treasure. In every city, there are museums, art galleries, theatres and all types of street music and dance - all of which is easily affordable for Cubans. It is a democracy of culture, in that there seems to be little division between "high-brow" and "low-brow" entertainment. Best of all, the quality is universally very good, because people's hearts are in it.

I will finish this hugely inadequate summary of Cuba with a few images that still stick in my head, even after a week. The first is a bike ride I made from the town of Trinidad to the sea, passing clapped out Chevrolets, horse carts, deserted beaches and roads filled with crabs.

The second, the look on a newspaper seller's face as I gave him the wrong money by accident for the newspaper, and so paid him 25 times too much (about $1). I think I made his week.

Lastly, a disco I went to in the town of Cienfuegos. The young people and kids were dressed just like any others you'd see in the US or the UK (though the dancing was infinitely better), and were dancing to the same music as the rest of Latin America. I spoke to a few kids during my time on the island, and the hatred of the US encouraged by the government doesn't seem to have transmitted - which is not to say that they're not proud of their country. Given that, I feel like Cuba's next "revolution" isn't too far off. I'm not sure it will involve tearing down the ubiquitous Che posters, though.

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