It’s been a mild winter so far here in Gibsons; no snow, no freeze ups, no icy roads. Mind you, winter isn’t over yet but so far so good, as the saying goes. The days are getting longer, about two minutes per day which translates into an hour per month. Our small town is pretty well shuttered and most of the xmas decorations are coming down to be stashed for another year. I leave our gable lights up for the whole year and just unplug them.
Clare and I have been on an unusual holiday to Cuba
where we had been once before, ten years ago. We flew directly to Havana where we had rented a Casa Particular in Vedado, once upon a time the quarter of the sugar barons of Havana. The arrival lounge was a chaotic melee of humanity, all wanting to get out as fast as possible from the old fashioned arrival hall, paved with shiny beige tiles, many of them cracked or even missing and the AC in overdrive. Once past the bored passport control officers we all huddled along the antiquated, rattling conveyer belt hoping that our luggage had made it. Ten years ago our friend’s suitcase was a couple of days late in arriving. And then we stepped into the warm humid air of our first Havana evening, grabbed a cab, arranged a fare, and we were off into the light traffic along dark, unlit buildings, on sparsely lit roads towards the center of the old city.
“How was your Cuban holiday?” Camp inquired as soon as I sat down at our usual table on the veranda overlooking the dark waters of Gibsons harbour. “And how is that experiment in human engineering working out for the Cubans?”
“Well,” I said, taking a sip from my pint. That first taste is always the best. “They have good beer and rum, great salsa, rumba and chachacha music which usually starts well past our usual bed time, but as far as the experiment in human misery goes, it keeps on going,” I said. “There are still big billboards proclaiming: Socialismo y Muerto – socialism or death. I think it’s more like death by communism, imposed by an unyielding, intransigent military and some very old and still powerful survivors of the Granma’s landing in 1956.”
“You mean to tell me that Cubans do not live in the communist nirvana Fidel and Ché envisioned?” Camp asked, raising one of his bushy, grey eyebrows. I also detected a note of sarcasm.
“If crumbling buildings, endlessly patched and broken water and sewer mains, cratered and pot holed roads, broken side walks, garbage strewn alleys and empty shelves in badly lit grocery stores are an indication of a city’s or country’s health then Havana is an ailing and sick town, ravaged by erosion, neglect, hurricanes and the lack of everything.”
“Sounds like a lot of third world cities. I thought the Cubans were pioneers in social equality and distribution of wealth,” Camp said, playing the devil’s advocate.
“Yeah, but I didn’t see a lot of wealth to distribute. New wealth like cell phones and electric scooters are all due to the inflow of money from the Cuban diaspora and the only affluent Cubans we saw were the visiting relatives from Miami, all decked out in ball caps, shiny new sneakers and 9 carat bling.”
“What about the farm co-ops and the great medical schools?” Camp said.
“90% of the agricultural yields go to the government, which leaves 10% for the Tabaco or sugar cane farmers to live on and pander to the tourists. We saw oxen pulled hoes just like in the middle ages and the few ancient and rusting Russian tractors do not make for modern farming methods. We drove by hundreds of acres of unused and fallow farmland, almost like it was abandoned. There is no incentive or motivation for anybody. And the only medical doctors we met were taxi drivers and waiters. It’s a better life, Ramon, one of our drivers said, as a doctor I only make $ 40 a month.”
“So the communist dream is actually a living nightmare?”
“On the upside we did see a stunning performance by the Cuban National Ballet of Swan Lake with a full orchestra at the Alicia Alonso Theatre, a classic, baroque 5 tier opera house. It was to commemorate the 60iest anniversary of the revolution. For the occasions they even brought out the old girl herself on stage, blind and in a wheel chair but at 98 years of age still able to gracefully acknowledge an adoring crowd. You know she first started dancing professionally in 1938.”
I finished my pint, looking out at the wintry and grey water, thinking of the beautiful lush and green landscape of Viñales, a UNESCO site where some of the world’s best tobacco is grown. “I hate to admit it but I wouldn’t want to live under that kind of regime. I guess it looks good on paper but people are individuals with different desires, needs and wants. They’re not ants.”
“Ok, New Zealand is roughly twice the size of Cuba and has less then half the population and yet it manages quite nicely. Yes, it’s been part of the English Empire whereas Cuba has always been a vassal state, of Spain, even France and then the US, until the revolution. A desperate history, from slavery to serfdom; from poverty to misery and then the hopeful revolution and by your account back to endemic poverty,” Camp said.
“Maybe we need to see the bigger picture,” I said. “Cuba with all its problems has 99% literacy, an excellent healthcare and education system; nobody is starving or homeless and everybody has a job.”
We both finished our beer and contemplated the mysteries of the universe for a beat. “What do you think about the standoff about the silly wall,” Camp asked.
“I think Trump should listen to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and do a 180 degree turnaround: cancel the wall, open the border, let the 4 million impacted citizens get back to work and take a long golfing holiday.”
“Amen,” Camp said.
“How was your holiday,” Vicky asked, setting down two fresh ones. “Where was it? Cuba? Sounds exotic. Cigars, sun and rum and dancing in the streets.”
“Yes, the weather was certainly great, I didn’t smoke any cigars but the music we heard was excellent and we had a few mojitos I have to admit.”
“Welcome back to our boring little spot on the west coast.”
“I’ll take boring comfort and security any time over exciting upheavals and experimental unhappiness,” I said, “but maybe I’m just showing my age.”
“Age is but a state of mind,” Vicky laughed.
“Yes, that’s what I thought when was young,” Camp said, hoisting his mug of frosty golden liquid, “but these days I’m just happy to be awake.”