So, shortly after New Year 2014, I found myself on a plane headed for Cuba, along with my travel buddy Alex, a fellow Brit working in Colombia. Cuba had always been a place that I’ve been curious about, simply because of the fact that it is a country that has been on pause since the ‘glorious’ 1959 revolution. I’d heard many different opinions on the country, ranging from ‘incredible’ to ‘complete shithole’ and thus I was keen to find out for myself what it was like.
Quick history lesson for those of you readers who don’t know too much about Cuba’s history. The Cuban Revolution took place between December 2, 1956, and January 2, 1959. It became an armed civil war in which the guerrilla forces under Fidel and Raul Castro, fought against the government army to topple the government of Fulgencio Batista, a dictator who had got into power through a military coup in 1952. With its iconic figure of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, the Cuban revolution has been glamourized all over the world, mainly by socialists, lefties and hipsters with their printed ‘Che’ t-shirts and satchels. I was pretty sure they were idiots before, but actually going to Cuba and seeing it first-hand simply confirmed that theory. There is nothing glamorous or idealistic about living under a Communist regime.
Like I said, I was expecting a completely different experience, something as far removed from Colombia as possible, and I wasn’t disappointed. When you step off that plane into La Habana airport you feel like you’ve just travelled 60 years back in time. The airport itself is old and musty. The first thing that I noticed was that it smelt vaguely like an old-school Barber shop back in the UK. I still haven’t figured out why. There were no fancy billboards and flashing advertisments like in the modern Panama City airport we’d been in few hours earlier that day. Instead you get 1950’s décor and a smoking room in the boarding lounge.
As we passed through immigrations, unsure what to expect from the officials, it went surprisingly smoothly. I took the opportunity to ask the official about the laws concerning travellers with Cuban stamps in their passport and the United States. She confirmed what I’d been told by other people, but had been very sceptical of – even British citizens cannot enter the United States if they have a Cuban stamp in their passport.
Now this is almost as ridiculous as the law against Cuban Cigars in the USA. What right does the US government have to prevent citizens of other countries from having a Cuban stamp in their passport? The Cuban cigars issue is a massive inconvenience – we both bought boxes of Cuban Montecristo No.4 cigars. Alex may be okay, but my return flight to the UK in June has a stop in New York. I checked the US law regarding foreign nationals with Cuban cigars in transit through the USA – I wasn’t surprised to find:
‘No. According to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, foreign nationals may not transit the U.S. with goods of Cuban origin. Penalties include forfeiture of the cigars and possible fines.’
US Customs and Border Protection
Securing America’s Borders
Securing America’s Borders? Yeah? Fuck off.
Yes I’m bitter about not being able to take my cigars home with me. C’mon guys, the Cuban Missile Crisis happened over half a century ago, chill the fuck out, no-one cares anymore.
So anyway, because America has retarded laws that prevent not only its own citizens from visiting Cuba, but also cause problems for citizens of other countries, all foreigners in Cuba are given a tiny slip of paper with the entry stamp on instead of on a page of their passports. We were told that if we lost the piece of paper, we would be stuck in Cuba unable to leave. I made extra sure to look after that piece of paper, and yet we nearly got stranded in Cuba anyway. But more on that later…
We made it out the airport to be greeted by a friendly Cuban called Ivan – our taxi driver. He led us across the car park to his taxi – a Russian made car from 1952. This is by no means unusual in Cuba, his car was surrounded by many other cars of similar age.
Until recently, it was impossible to import and sell new cars on the island. In the past month or so, Raul Castro has allowed a law-change permitting Cubans to buy cars made after 1959, but this won’t make much difference. They are selling far out of the price range of all but the richest, and thus most corrupt Cubans. For example – a new Kia Rio hatchback that starts at $13,600 in the United States is now selling for $42,000 in Cuba. A new Peugeot 508 family car, which costs approximately the equivalent of $53,000 back in the UK will cost Cubans around $262,000. The average wage in Cuba is $13-$20US per MONTH. See the problem?
That’s barely enough to live on using the national money, but if Cubans want to eat in nice restaurants, go to bars or clubs, or travel, they need Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) which are worth roughly 1.3 to the Euro. One CUC is worth 24 national pesos. Only rich government officials and diplomats will be able to afford new cars – the rest of the population struggle to buy new clothes, let alone brand new cars.
Oh wait, you say you thought this was a communist society where everyone was equal? Not quite. Everyone is equally poor, apart from the people running the place. Great system, right? As a ‘motivating’ poster with Che Guevara on the wall of the currency exchange office proclaimed: ‘Sin control, no hay socialisimo’. There can be no socialism without control.
However, on the flipside, the government does provide certain necessities. It’s a complicated system but the basics are as follows:
1. A basic rationing system that provides every single citizen with enough food to survive on
2. Heavily subsidized basic living expenses such as cheap to almost free: Housing, electricity, water.
3. Free health care and free education.
This has one fascinating side-effect that took both me and Alex by surprise. Cuba is remarkably safe. As both of us live in Colombia, we have several ‘facts’ ingrained into our psyches that proved difficult to shake off;
– Dark streets are dangerous
– Large groups of people are probably dangerous
– Small groups of people are probably dangerous
– Lone people walking around at night are probably dangerous
– … but a street that ‘looks’ empty is worse.
– Don’t walk around drunk.
– Dark streets are dangerous.
– Unlike the UK and Europe, parks are not nice places. They are dangerous. You avoid walking past parks at night, and NEVER walk through them.
– Asking strangers for directions at night. Just don’t do it.
– If in doubt, take a taxi. Don’t get into unlicensed taxis.
– Did I mention that dark streets are dangerous?
Yet in Cuba, NONE of those rules apply. The electricity grid in the city is clearly badly maintained and there are little to no street lights. EVERY street is dark. Rubbish lies uncollected in the street, the pavement is broken and full of holes, and after 9pm, there are nearly zero cars driving around. The city becomes a ghost town. The entire city of La Habana at night looked like those streets and barrios in Colombia that you just DON’T go to at night, period. For the first few nights we were overly cautious and paranoid, constantly sceptical of the ‘Cuba is so safe’ that we’d been hearing from everyone. But they were right.
We walked blocks and blocks through the city, often getting lost. This is at night too, walking around with beers in hand, talking loudly in English and being unmistakable foreigners. One of the things I always avoided doing with my Brazilian friend Thais was talking in English when we were walking back from bars in Manizales. We simply switched to Spanish, or didn’t talk at all. Had we walked around like that in many places in Colombia, especially Medellin or Bogota, we wouldn’t even have had time to finish the beers before someone jumped us.
It was a very nice change. Both of us enjoyed being able to relax and not be constantly watching our backs at night. The thing we couldn’t figure out though, was exactly why it’s so damn safe there. Since being back in Colombia, I’ve been doing some research into Cuban politics and the exact nature of the government in the country, something that I neglected to do before the trip. Whilst I’m sure there are many other factors involved, it would seem that the biggest reason for the safety is simply that there are no homeless people and street kids. The government provides homeless shelters and state institutions that take care of people without homes, but even that’s only a last resort. Most people live with their families and never have to resort to living on the streets.
However, compared to Colombia, the difference is dramatic. The vast majority of the criminals and robbers in cities in Colombia are homeless people and gangs of kids who’ve spent their entire lives living on the streets. After years of living on the streets, they often end up getting into drugs ranging from sniffing glue to taking basuco, a cheaper, but highly contaminated and dangerous form of cocaine that does not meet quality standards for exportation, so is used on the streets in Colombia. All of this further spurs them onto committing more crimes. Colombia has no such socialist welfare system for those in need –people without jobs, homes or families to care for them are just discarded, ignored and kicked into the gutter to fend for themselves.
In fact, I can give you guys a true example of just how messed up the situation regarding homeless people is here in Colombia. I was told this by a friend, but then checked and got it confirmed afterwards. In Manizales, we’ve just had Ferias, which are an annual festival in which thousands of people come to visit the city and it becomes absolute chaos.
Of course, having lots of homeless people on the streets, even if they’re not thieves, makes the city look bad, and the mayor doesn’t want that. So what do they do? Every year before big events such as Las Ferias, the police go around the city in trucks and literally round up the homeless people they can find, put them in the back of these lorries, then drive to Pereira (another city about 40minutes away) and simply dump all of these homeless people in the other city. Besides from being somewhat inhumane, it’s also completely pointless, because the police in Pereira do exactly the same thing in reverse, and dump their undesirables here in Manizales.
So, I’ll be finishing up discussing Cuba in part 2 of this article, where I’ll talk about the main side effect of the low wages and lack of opportunities in Cuba – rampant prostitution and taxi drivers with law degrees. I’ll also explain how Alex and I very nearly ended up trapped there, being told at the airport that we would lose our flights and couldn’t leave the country…