At a dull moment in the baseball match between Pinar del Rio and Villa Clara, I turn to look at the Cubans in the seats behind me. It’s easy to imagine them as a crowd in a stadium almost anywhere in Latin America: everyone well-dressed and apparently well-fed. Vendors wind between the rows of seats selling popcorn and peanuts. And as always, the Cuban mix of black, brown and white faces is complete.
A couple of weeks earlier, Barack Obama had shaken Raul Castro’s hand at the Nelson Mandela memorial event. Cubans seemed cautious about whether this means anything. But in the US, it brought out all the stereotypical views of Cubans living in fear and poverty. The irrepressible Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a senator born in Cuba, said there should be no change of attitude towards the ‘cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship’. Earlier last year, the International Republican Institute conducted one of its regular polls of Cuban public opinion. It didn’t seem to find any irony in reporting that 69% of respondents said they couldn’t speak their minds without risk of retribution, even as they answered the rest of the telephone poll. And while it’s true that in the newspaper Granma or state-run TV channels any criticism is party-approved, other outlets seem to have no difficulty in operating (the well-informed and often critical daily blog, The Havana Times, has run since 2008 with no apparent difficulty).
I’ve just spent a couple of weeks in agriculturally rich western Cuba, staying in different towns with three families who have become friends, talking to neighbours, taking buses and ‘maquinas’ (Cuba’s famous pre-revolutionary cars that serve as taxis) or persuading local people to join me on country walks. After eight years of regular visits my impression is that people are gradually becoming more prosperous: many now have mobile phones, some have computers; local travel no longer involves such interminable waits for a botella (literally ‘a bottle’ – a hitched lift jammed in the back of an ancient Studebaker or Lada). As ever, people are well-dressed. On the quality of daily life, the IRI survey reported that 54% of Cubans thought their family’s economic situation was ‘good’ or ‘very good’. (I checked this against the last Ipsos Mori survey on the state of Britain: 44% of us thought the previous year was ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good’ for our families. We seem to be lagging behind the Cubans.)
Yet everywhere people complain. Prices are too high, wages too low, they can’t afford more than the basics and the government imposes high charges and taxes. They know what they are missing: Cubans are not cut off from life in the rest of the world, even though few can travel abroad. Many have family in the United States or use the internet; everyone sees the ubiquitous telenovelas based on the lives of the rich in Mexico or Colombia.
Probe beneath the surface and a more complex picture emerges. As well as consumer goods, it’s difficult to get farm machinery or the tools needed to run the small-scale businesses now increasingly allowed. The government blames the US trade embargo, but would-be buyers say there is also corruption, excessive bureaucracy and artificially high prices. The government has just announced a free market in private cars, but prices are at least seven times what they would be outside Cuba. Interestingly, the official website Cubadebate has more than 200 comments on this news item, mostly critical, including ones such as ‘long live the black market’.
But on the other hand, Cubans respond positively when reminded what they would miss if there was a US-style free market. Their schools and free healthcare are probably the best in Latin America. Basic foodstuffs are subsidised. While you might get swindled, you can walk the streets safely. Levels of domestic violence and child abuse, endemic Latin American problems, are much lower than elsewhere.
Amy is a delightful nine year-old who faces a choice that encapsulates Cuba’s dilemmas. She has two families because her parents are separated. Her father owns one of the many small farms permitted under the gradual introduction of private enterprise. It’s a success: the family has a small but decent house, the tobacco they grow is sold to the state for cigar production but the rest of the produce they eat themselves or sell locally. The family’s earnings are low – perhaps $80 per month. But their costs are also low: electricity for example costs only a few dollars monthly. They always have a mix of dishes on the dinner table. What they don’t have is spare cash for day trips or for luxuries beyond a TV, fridge and mobile phone.
Amy’s mum has remarried: the husband’s a Cuban who lives in Miami and comes on visits. Her mother’s plan is to resettle in Miami and take Amy with her. Even at her age, Amy is clearly able to assess her options. Which is more attractive? – opportunities that might open up in Florida or family life on the small farm with her grandparents, with friends across the field and a well-equipped school across the road. She says she might visit Miami but she doesn’t want to stay there. Asked why, she says ‘my family’.
Discussing the dilemma as we walk across his fields, her dad says he thinks 80% of the Cuban population want change, while the rest (‘the older generation’) are happy with the status quo. But those wanting change are deeply divided. He thinks half want to change everything and live like North Americans. But half know what the revolution has given them and don’t want to lose it. They want to find a path that gives them more spare cash (‘to be able to go to town with Amy and buy her an ice cream’) but still provides good schools and hospitals.
The opposing viewpoint is shown by a sad episode that was still all the gossip in the small town of Las Palmas. In November, a man arrived there looking for people willing to put up $3,000 for the airfare to Serbia, where they would get three year’s well-paid work constructing hotels. He found 22 men who believed him. They began to borrow from friends or sell their houses to put up the cash. Before taking their flight, they were taken for a couple of nights in a Havana hotel. One of the recruits had a camera, and proceeded to make a video of the hotel to convince the sceptics back home that they were on their way and being treated like kings. He points to the man who is taking them and says ‘you think we’re being conned? – well the supposed con-man is right here!’ Another well-built recruit boasts that he feels like a ‘beast’: he’ll return to Cuba ‘with an Audi and five blondes’. No longer will he need a car that’s like ‘a box of matches’.
Things didn’t go to plan. We can see the film because multiple copies were sent back with wives and girlfriends and the whole of La Palma appears to have watched it. Not long afterwards, the first of the now shamed-faced recruits began to arrive home. It seems that the organiser set off to the airport, supposedly to collect a coach to take them for their flight. He never reappeared. They’d been swindled. A few days after the video was circulated, one of its stars was spotted in a rather ancient local taxi. A bystander shouted out ‘hey, beast, what are you doing in that matchbox!’
Most Cubans have learnt to adapt. In La Palma, streetside stalls sell all sorts of household ephemera. I visited a 75 year-old man called Tatto who has an enviable collection of tools he’s built up over the years, mounted on a toolrack in his flat with a blackboard alongside to record which of his neighbours has borrowed any of them. His flat is on the second-floor, and he’s built a crane on the balcony to lift heavy items up from the street. He shows me a washing machine he’s made from scrap, housed in a pretty wooden cabinet. His lathe is constructed of old bicycle parts. He’s got his own ‘organopónico’ (chemical-free small gardens promoted by the state to encourage people to grow their own food). It strikes me that with people like him Cuba is well prepared for a future world that has less to go around.
Cuba’s ability to survive hurricanes provides another example. Not long ago it had its severest test. Western Cuba was hit by two hurricanes in ten days in 2008: the first brought winds of over 200 mph and the second dropped torrential rain that caused massive floods. Over 80,000 houses were destroyed and crops were wiped out. But only a handful of people were killed, because everyone knows what to do before a hurricane arrives and has a safe place to take refuge (which might be the school, or a neighbour’s house with a stronger roof).
Rebuilding is still taking place. Several new schemes have been built with Venezuelan help. In one of them, a man called Misael explains how his old house was blown away by the hurricane and that his new one resulted from a personal visit from Hugo Chávez. He shows me the photos of Chávez hugging his children. New houses were promised on condition that the community provided the labour. Misael and thirty others worked for six months and now have attractive new homes. When Chávez died from cancer in March last year, Misael put a small handwritten sign in his garden at the entrance to the estate: ‘Chávez: the people love you’.
The baseball game in Pinar is almost finished when one of the opponents makes a spectacular catch on the boundary, saving the home run but crashing to the ground with an obvious injury. Stretchered off, he receives the afternoon’s biggest round of applause. On the crowded bus home (a converted lorry lined with wooden seats holding perhaps twenty people, while thirty more strap-hang in the middle) we learn that the player broke his leg in two places. He’s a member of the national team and will now miss the coming tour of Venezuela. The player’s fate gets more attention than that of the home side, whose place in the finals is still in the balance.
It makes me think of Cuba’s dilemma in international terms. It gets massive help from Venezuela, not least in low-cost petrol, and in return sends the trained staff needed by the health centres that Chávez built across rural Venezuela as part of his Bolivarian socialist programme. In many ways, its neighbour to the south replaced the Soviet Union, which until the late 1980s bought Cuba’s sugar and nickel in return for consumer goods. But on the other hand, and in defiance of the trade embargo, the IRI survey shows that a quarter of Cubans get remittances from abroad, mainly from the US. Which way should Cuba look for its future – north or south? Or might it, through trial and error, find a different path that could have lessons for all of us?