Sunday, October 16, 2005

Havana nice time (or what I did on my holidays several months ago)

The taps said it all. The hot tap in our hotel room turned clockwise, the cold, anti-clockwise. This is Cuba, a country pulling in opposite directions and yet, somehow, pulling together at the same time.

Take the Cuban economy, or should I say economies. Pesos for the Cubans and Convertible Pesos for tourists. There are separate shops for pesos and convertibles which work to different pricing structures. This is necessary because the average Cuban earns about £10 a month but the tourists can afford to buy a whole street at peso prices. Having two economies is the only way of getting in money and protecting against tourist driven inflation. The cheapest tickets for La Tropicana rock in at £40. The tourist industry is so potent within the Cuban economy that taxi drivers earn more than doctors. 3% of GDP is generated from US based Cubans sending home money.

The city itself is made up of perfectly restored colonial squares linked by wide leafy boulevards. These are punctuated within with slum-like alleyways where locals sit playing chess listening to loud salsa on poor quality stereos.

The streets are dark and could be perceived as menacing, but Cuba is surprisingly free of crime, especially violent crime. That said, you can’t walk down the street without a street hustler trying to sell you cigars, accommodation or prostitutes. Some simply shout at you (one broke off a date to try to talk to us). Others are more sophisticated spinning a yarn about needing milk for their babies. Apparently if you buy milk for them the shop will try to charge you about 6 pesos (£2). If you fall for that, the Jinetero simply returns the milk to the shop and splits the difference on the over inflated price with the shopkeeper. We were actually hustled by the same guy twice in two days; the first time we fell for it (he asked the time and said he had a friend in Cornwall; they all have friends in UK), second time we ignored him and he shouted “So you don’t speak to the Cuban people then?”.

The country is desperate for outside investment, and everyone is looking for money (the bellhop said he was quite happy to take our pounds when we arrived and our room cleaner told us that Friday was her day off, so we should remember to leave a tip on Thursday). Despite this, communism and Fidel is everywhere meaning the Americans and Japanese (the biggest source of tourist income) are notably absent. At the airport there are three TV’s showing departure times and 8 TV’s showing Fidel speeches. There are pictures everywhere that use brilliant revolutionary rhetoric of “glorious victories” and “gallant heroes”. Then is the CDR, a neighbourhood watch scheme designed to ensure that no Cuban gets too rich; anyone who gets above their station is reported to the authorities. Oh and there is an oppressive and pointless bureaucracy; 2 minutes per passenger going through customs (that’s 3 hours to process a jumbo jet of tourists).

Tell people you’re going to Cuba and they’ll tell you about the immaculate 1950’s vintage cars, the beautiful buildings, the salsa, the cigars and the rum. But this is re-branded Cuba and tells only part of the story. The real Cuba is sometimes like that, but the 1950’s cars are often seem held together with jam, the streets stink of diesel from the inefficient engines, the food is sometimes absolute garbage. These contradictions are what make it so interesting, it won’t last, the dollar is too seductive and the Cubans too desperate. When the US and Cuban governments finally grow up Cuba will undoubtedly become a more pleasant, but decidedly less interesting place to visit.


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