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With Cubano-American relationships finally starting to warm after the Cold War, Persephone Fraser fears the loss of Cuba’s unique personality.
Cuba remains a totalitarian communist state, one where the Chief of State remains a member of the Castro family. Here, policy is defined by Raul Castro and the group of party loyalists close to him. Human Rights Watch remain concerned about the country, particularly of the limitations of freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement.
Despite the changes in the US ban concerning travel to the country, it remains illegal for US citizens to spend money in the country, visits must be part of a person to person guided travel group and only chartered flights out of the States are possible to get to Cuba.
Political relations have shown many signs of improvement, however, and pushes toward their normalisation have been seen and encouraged by US president Barack Obama.
Cuba’s relationship with the rest of the world has already changed tremendously, and it is profoundly positive for many reasons, primarily the freedom and prosperity of the Cuban people. The country’s self-imposed isolation (in terms of freedom of information and movement) and US sanctioned isolation (in terms of trade and international involvement) meant that for the people of Cuba, many of the improvements made in the 21st century have not been available to them.
When visiting Cuba, internet access is difficult to come across in the capital Havana, and even there, it is of such poor quality it is virtually useless. Outside of Havana, almost all roads are dirt and cars become more and more scarce. You hear a great deal about the beautifully preserved American cars of the ‘50s, but outside of the centre, horses are far more common.
The Cuban isolation has also impacted its economy; it remains difficult to amass much money as a Cuban citizen. Highly educated people in good jobs make only a little more than the people working in canteens. For the outsider, there’s a beauty in this. The choice of career path preserves a sort of purity and the demands of employment are generally much less. People don’t leave for work and return in the dark. They don’t wear the same clothes as each other and importantly, they also don’t have dramatically less than the people they are walking past.
There weren’t seas of suits and there weren’t people in rags at the feet of people carrying shiny designer bags. It’s certainly the closest I have ever come, and probably will ever come, to seeing a classless society. It is also the case that though there were many well-educated people we came across in our travels, I had several conversations with people who didn’t know of Australia. One such conversation sticks with me particularly, where a man was rowing us across a lake to see a waterfall and (granted my Spanish is bad) he asked:
“Where do you come from? Russia?”
“Yeah, yeah. Very cold there.”
“Oh no, not Austria. It’s an island?”
“Oh, a very small one?”
Given the difficulty we had reaching the outside world when needed, it seemed understandable that gaining much information on a country across the globe would require quite a bit of effort. I met people who did make that kind of effort (one outlier, a cricket enthusiast), but it was more common to meet people with interests closer to home.
When you walk down the streets of Havana, of Trinidad, Santa Clara and the towns in between, there are many people that are not rushing somewhere else. There are people sitting on the corner playing games of chess, there are men playing instruments together, kids play in the streets where cars pass infrequently, they gather and talk, know their neighbours, have no great commute home to start on, no traffic to sit in, no gym to get to. There is a great romance to it for the outsider, particularly in the way that you too are welcomed into the unguarded community of the people, who don’t suspect any ulterior motives and don’t expect to be accused of any either, which so commonly prevents conversations elsewhere – and of course, the lack of rush helps. They’ve yet to become sick of tourists, and tourists have not yet damaged the beauty of the place.
The purity of the landscape was profoundly evident to me.
Not once out of Havana did I see plastic along the beach, buildings didn’t block the view, fences didn’t stop you from going down to the water and we cycled for hours rarely being passed by a car, not seeing anything human for hours. Cuba’s beauty is impeccable. The lack of light pollution, un-cubed horizons, the perfectly blue water and white sand, is incredible. The people are absolutely part of that, the horse-drawn carts are part of that, the silence at night is part of that.
It would be horribly selfish to not wish Cuba to progress in the way it surely will with its absorption into the modern world, but with the positive change that is coming, I hope the people of Cuba continue to preserve the facets of their lives of which I was so envious. The purity of the environment is one thing that needs to be fought for. Another is the social harmony and community present, the incredibly immersive, unguarded and welcoming nature of Cuban communities, the way you are welcomed into aunts’ and nephews’ homes, into churches; to stay for dinner is another, and the way the people are not living half somewhere else, looking at their phone as they walk past you.
Some of these things are, of course, likely to be lost. The excitement and warmth with which you are met as a foreigner, necessarily, will be one of the first things to change. Tourism over time will lose its appeal, the outside world will be known and in fact seen, and eventually it will swamp Cuba.
As an outsider, I lament the loss of this preserved world, in part selfishly, because I myself so much enjoy the luxuries of our world, of my liberty and opportunities. Cuban people should be able to have the experience I did in seeing worlds completely outside their own, but it is also with the full awareness of the gloom of the modern world that I look protectively over the purity of Cuba.
From a place of intense exhaustion that involves consistent pressure, regular fear and a common feeling of isolation, thinking on the filthy highway I traverse, the graffiti and garbage I pass as I go to my incredibly broken down portion of a task, abstracted from the outside world, from other people and even from myself, and the loneliness of takeaway food and empty apartments, I feel the need to say: Cuba, do not take everything in, do not open the flood gates and take each development contract, each garbage import, every tourist group and each of their dollars in exchange for commemorative shirts.
Take the freedom, take the information, and see where we’ve gone in the last 60 or so years. Keep what has been preserved. That is, do not race to be one of us; there is something beautiful to come from the suppression and restriction you’ve experienced.
In saying this, it is interesting to speculate the place Cuba is likely to occupy in the world once it rejoins. In terms of geopolitics, the country that was so pivotal to compromising US power in the Cold War may not retain that kind of power. The low cost of living and wage levels in Cuba mean that production – as well as the tourism that is likely to boom – are a possibility for their economy. Cuba has a long history of sugar and tobacco production being refined into rum and cigars.
In terms of exports, these are likely to remain front runners and whether they are sold primarily refined or unrefined will have a large impact on the kind of wealth creation that will be generated, and whether Cuban assets and companies remain nationally-owned, privatised or become foreign-owned. Low-wage costs are something foreign investment will be able to exploit should Cuba reduce the amount of state-owned land and means of production – more so if the US lifts the ban on US money being spent in the Cuban economy. A country in Cuba’s position (geographically and financially) has a great deal to gain from the US, so a move toward warming relations is likely, but whether that means Cuba becomes more like a little Mexico in terms of relying on production and tourism funded by US money will depend on the choices made in the coming few years.