Sunday 5 May 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflection and Music

Shame, this country’s sinking in shame and it doesn’t even know it. My interlocutor was in his early 20s but his voice sounded like that of a man in his 60s. One of his feet was up against the wall outside the block of flats where I had grown up in Havana. People are angry, he continued, but that anger is projected either, inwards and therefore winds up as self-annihilation, or outwards towards the weaker ones. They know who is or are, rather, responsible for this country’s problems but no one wants to talk about it. Only in the church, nowadays, he said caressing, his crucifix, do you find the same morals and ethics you used to come across years ago.

Havana waking up
He might not have been older than twenty-five, but this young man was representative of the people I spoke to in my latest visit to Cuba. It had been more than four years since I had last been and there were changes to digest. I wasn’t sure, though, whether they were the right changes. Whereas four years ago I had had a similar conversation with four or five young people who discussed their dreams and hopes with me quite openly, this time I had the opportunity to sit down (or stand outside my building) with other youngsters. In my previous visit the news about Fidel passing the baton to his “younger” brother (almost eighty-two-years-old and counting) was almost the only topic my audience wanted to talk about. Nobody imagined in their wildest dreams that Modesto Castro was going to put his modesty to one side and go for an outright “sell-sell-sell” approach to solve Cuba’s economic woes. Houses? For sale. Cars? For sale? Bodies? For sale. Well, the latter had been on display since the late 80s when the first prostitutes, nicknamed “jineteras” (a variation of the Spanish word, “jinete”, “horserider”) sprang up overnight in the main streets in Havana and expanded throughout the country.

In 2009, however, when talking to these four or five young people, I realised that none of them saw the solution to their problems by relocating abroad. Whatever they were thinking of, leaving Cuba for good was not – at the moment – the immediate step for them. I remember them questioning me thoroughly on my job, what I earned (I didn’t disclose my salary, and told them that was private information), what my wife and I used our wages for and the cost of living in the UK. Each one of these late-teenagers of early-twenty-something gave me the same answer with variations: I want the same, mulato, and I want it now. I don’t want to have it when I’m sixty or seventy. I want to have the right to travel if I want to, to set up a business if I want to, and to send my child to school if I want to. The determination in their eyes (I spoke to each youngster separately) made me shudder a bit. What if they couldn’t have what they wanted? Would they rebel?
Che for sale

No. Four years down the line, one of those young people is in the States now. He didn’t want to wait, so he left for a country in which he won’t have free healthcare. But, I can hear him asking me, what’s the point of free healthcare when you don’t fall ill very often? What happens the rest of the time when you’re healthy?

This is the dilemma that the Cuban government hasn’t cracked for more than fifty years. It was OK when we had free subsidies from the former Soviet Union, but now that we are in a “normal period” (I’m fed up with the whole “special period” label. “Special” was when we had the full support of the old socialist bloc. This is what “normal” would have looked like since 1959) the state hasn’t got a clue as to what to do with the economy. In the meantime, though, it is haemorrhaging generations who are either leaving the country in droves or drinking themselves to an early death. Raúl and co. think that by conjuring the (very real) spectre of the US embargo, shout out a few revolutionary slogans and go on demonstrations people will be satisfied. That might have been the reality when I was a child, but it hasn’t been the reality for the last twenty-five years. That’s a quarter of a century, a generation lost to political incompetence and narrow-mindedness. The average salary of a Cuban nowadays doesn’t amount to more than ten pounds per month. Even those in higher wages, say, 800 pesos, struggle to make ends meet because erstwhile community spirit has given way to a dog-eat-dog type of society. It’s hard for a foreigner, regardless of where s/he sits on the political spectrum, to understand Cuba without living the life of a Cuban. It’s not a black-and-white issue like that affecting someone else in another developing country. Nevertheless, it’s a life whose complexity ought to be accepted and not condemned or patronised. Sadly, these are the default positions of those who opine on my country. And they won’t, unfortunately, contribute anything towards the elimination of that feeling of shame my interlocutor mentioned at the beginning.


Photos by the blog author

Next Post: “Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum”, to be published on Wednesday 8th May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Doesn't sound like an easy issue at all, not sure how any can live on that kind of income.

  2. really interesting to get a bit of an inside view on know..partly it reminded me of the former DDR when they tried to silence people with giving them jobs and free healthcare..but...of what use is it when you're not free to go where you want to...but there's always a risk and people prefer this wrong sense of safety

  3. i did some relief work in a very impoverished town in the states...and one thing i asked was why they didnt just leave...and was told it was all they had ever known...and it was also where family was and had always been...they would lose so much in opened my eyes to another you have today in reading this...

  4. Wow. Thanks so much Cubano, for sharing this glimpse of Cuba. I have longed to visit for so long. Everyone I know who has visited always talks of the beautiful Cuban spirit and the joy that is still evident. This is the other side that as foreigners, they probably don't see. i have been thinking a lot of Cuba lately. Assata Shakur, who has been living in Cuba since the 80s, after escaping unfair imprisonment, has just been declared a national terrorist, by the U.S. State Department, the first woman to make the list. A recent interview of Assata also talks of the beautiful Cuban spirit and sense of community. Did you not see any evidence of community or joy during your visit?

  5. Thank you for an insider's view, Cuban. Much to think about.

  6. Thanks for your comments.

    I read about Assata yesterday in the paper. I can't really comment on her case because I know almost nothing about it. Some of the community spirit still stays, but most of it has been traded for dollars, or CUC, A.K.A. "Convertible Cuban Pesos". One CUC is one dollar. One pound if roughly 1.45; 1.45 (the rate varies) CUC. Hence my calculation on the avergae Cuban salary was based on the exchange rate pounds to CUCs.

    Cuba is still beautiful. Maybe because it's my country and it will always I will always see it as a beautiful land, especially Havana. My city is dirty and uncared for but I still love it. Yet, it's almost impossible to ignore the rampant poverty and the "sale" signs on people's faces. Most foreigners who visit Cuba make a direct comparison between their country of birth or residence and Cuba. That is misleading in the extreme. We had the most radical revolution in the Americas. Not even Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution came close. But we've thrown almost everything away. I don't just blame the US blockade, which is wrong and illegal, but Cuba's self-imposed which downright dumb.

    Have a very nice week.

    Greetings from London.

  7. How frustrated you must be when you see your country struggling. Love listening to your thoughts on your homeland always interest us...and your music invigorates ~ especially has put a jump on my busy day ~ thanks!!

  8. I think always you will have these feelings when you go to Cuba; Cuba has a long and difficult road sometimes the people think only the govermment of countries (like Cuba and others) and donthink in the people what have TO Live there and dont have other possibilities; anyway we have here a lot of Cuban living here and we love them:)

  9. Thanks so much for this. It is so interesting to hear a report from an insider and from someone with your kind of longterm perspective. I would love to go to Havana sometime. k.

  10. A gripping post, in part I suppose because of the inherent sadness of it, but thanks indeed for the insider glimpse.

  11. This is very interesting. Like many people in the UK, I suppose, I had not been aware of the changes taking place in Cuba. I could say all kinds of things to criticise the situation you describe, but, as you suggest, it all comes down to unimaginative political incompetence. Then the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.

  12. Santana was a favoutire of mine long ago. Havn´t heard anything of him for years.

    I love the way you sound surprised of my photography. :)

  13. I used to listen to Santana all the time, so now you have me wondering why I do not anymore. I spoke with a young girl last summer who was wearing a Che shirt. She had absolutely no idea who he was.

    The young man in his 20s may feel as if he is in his 60s. Shame can do that to you. And anger too..which can lean toward worn resignation over time.



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