Saturday, February 06, 2010

Viva la Revolucion

There's a lot to say about Cuba. Few countries have a recent history as compelling - a former playground of rich, hedonistic Americans and mafiosos; maybe one of the only truly idealistic revolutions in history; site of the crisis that was the closest the world ever came to to nuclear war (FYI, both Fidel and Che said they wanted the Soviets to launch the nukes, despite the fact that it probably would have meant the destruction of their country); a tiny island and long-standing bastion of communism that has stood up to the world's greatest power (and most fervent anti-communist country) only 228 miles away. Following a disastrous invasion by Fidel, Raul, Che and their fellow guerrillas in 1956, there were only 22 mostly unarmed and disoriented men wandering the mountains. Amazingly, these guys managed to take control of the country and piss off American politicians for over 50 years.

After this trip, my conclusions about the country are more or less the same as they were after my first trip eight years ago. Most people respect the revolution, but have had enough. Communism's just not really working out. A few examples:

Doctors make something like $20 per month. A good hustler can get that from a tourist in an hour. When the financial incentive is for the best and brightest to be wandering the streets of Havana looking for tourists, there's a problem. Ironically, this has created a situation where Cuba has become a prime destination for sex tourism - kind of like it was before the revolution.

People can't travel. Never a good sign.

[This notice, in a taxi, explains how to prevent catching H1N1. At the end, it asks, "Can I travel?" Well, no, you can't, but it has nothing to do with H1N1.]

Despite what you might think from having eaten at Cuban restaurants in the US or Europe, Cuba has some of the worst food in the world. The most commonly found meals are frozen pizza, hot dogs, rice and beans with a few scraps of meat, mayonnaise sandwiches, and ice cream (Cubans eat an astonishing amount of ice cream. Literally, everybody with like seven scoops of ice a slice of a sundae. No joke.) The lean economic times following the fall of the Soviet Union and central planning of people's meals has all but destroyed Cuban cuisine.

["Light food: fried chicken, hot dogs and steak"]

One might think that at least Cuba would be free of annoying advertising. Nope. It's just that all the advertising is for one product: the government. There are basically two news stories in Cuba that are repeated incessantly in various forms in newspapers and on the radio and TV: Cuba is unfairly on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism (they have a point) and the five "Cuban heroes" are unfairly detained in the US on spying charges (This happened in 1998! This was also the top story when I was there in 2002. A little obsessive are we?)

[Photo courtesy of the Cuban embassy in Nairobi website. I rest my case.]

I don't really know the details of this story. Cubans told me the Five were trying to infiltrate and sabotage groups of Miami Cubans who were plotting against the Cuban regime, which sounds quite a bit like spying to me. Either way, are these really the country's biggest problems? When the Haitian earthquake hit, the news just talked about the great work the Cuban doctors were doing there.

I'd have to say the best thing about communism in Cuba, besides the obvious free health care and education (I'm dismissing these jokingly, but yes, they are truly remarkable achievements and something my country should be trying to learn from. I think my discussion of this after the first trip was a little more balanced), is the Russian (former Soviet) embassy. It may be the coolest building in the world. Look closely...I'm pretty sure it's a Transformer.

[Photo credit: Daniel Norlund]

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