Understanding life on a different planet -destination Cuba.

Nothing could possibly prepare us for what we experienced in Cuba! We spent 21 days there, and only just returned a few days ago. My mind is still reeling from the experience, as is Alex´s. To be truthful, my head is in a bit of a scramble, as I try to collate my thoughts and ideas. What do I write? What do I tell you about? Alex suggested that I write it as it is, as we felt and saw it. Although it is not my intention to offend anyone, I can make no promises! Follow my thoughts and feelings as I try and unravel the most intricate web I have ever been caught up in; Cuba was both everything and nothing we thought it would be! No amount of reading or investigation could ever have prepared us. So, this is how we felt it, warts and all! Destination Cuba!

For me visiting Cuba had been the dream of a lifetime for many years, and as we boarded our flight from Cancun, I felt a surge of excitement. My dream was about to become a reality! I met Rita Garcia when I was only 12 years old, in my first year of high school. Rita was born in Cuba, and migrated as a young child, with her family. We soon forged a special relationship which still exists today. Over the years I also developed a special bond with Rita´s family, and to this day, they regard me as the 4th Garcia daughter, a title which I am very proud of! The Garcias often talked about life in Cuba, and it always seemed such an exotic and different destination, despite its obvious turmoil. So, I had made up my mind years ago that I would visit both their country and their family one day!

The flight was only a little over an hour, and we travelled with an airline called Cubana de Aviacion. Very basic! Nothing remotely modern about the plane, and even the upholstery was tatty. So long as the engines weren’t in the same sorry state, I could cope! But I must admit to wondering what we were in for! We landed safely, and were soon making our way through immigration. Unlike most other countries, Alex and I were not able to walk through as a couple…….a chance to be ¨grilled¨ individually, I thought. And right I was! Whilst they were happy enough with my address of ¨Havana¨, they wanted more information from Alex. They wanted the complete address. Cuba is a communist country where everything is controlled and everything must be reported, including if you are staying with friends or relatives, which we were. We would be staying with Ondina (Rita´s father´s sister) and her family, and even then (once through immigration) we were supposed to go to the local CDR (Committee of the Revolution) and report who we were staying with! It is all a bit of a culture shock for those of us who are used to doing what we like and when we like!

First impressions! No sooner had we picked up our backpacks than Alex noted and commented on the Cubans we were looking at in the airport, and that they appeared to have sad energy, very sad energy! Beneath the smiles and supposed happy faces belied a sadness that was quite profound. It would take us weeks to scrape the tip of the iceberg, in order to find out why!

The Cuban Revolution occurred in 1958, but with all the signs, posters and propaganda that we would continuously keep seeing over the next 3 weeks, one would have thought that it was yesterday! I had to keep reminding myself that it was almost 5o years ago, and by the end of our stay, I wanted to tell someone, ANYONE, to build a bridge and get over it! I dare anyone in any other country to tell me what happened in their country 50 years ago? Time goes by, things change, people and situations move on………not in Cuba!

Cuba´s communist system is an experiment that simply DID NOT and continues not to work, and I wondered why it was taking so long for the powers that be to get it! Cuba is a land of extremes and of contradictions. Cuba is amazing, Cuba is distressing. Cuba has poor people, Cuba has rich people. Cuba has doctors and free health care, but not enough medicine. Cuba has beaches and hotels that tourists can frequent, but Cubans can not. We can travel to Cuba, but most Cubans are not allowed to leave their country. Cuba has two different monetary systems, which is senseless in a communist society. Cuba has mojitos for USD $2.50 for tourists, whilst the average Cuban earns between USD $8.00 and $13.00 a month. We live, and Cubans exist, or as they would say “survive”! Capitalism has its flaws, and I am one of the first to admit that, but communism in Cuba has shattered its people and left many heartbroken, amongst them, Alex and I.

Cuba has a dual monetary system, which is a total oxymoron in a communist nation : Cuba has ¨moneda nacional¨ ( national money) and CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos). One CUC is roughly the equivalent of USD $1.00, and 25 moneda nacional is the equivalent of 1 CUC. Cubans earn in moneda nacional, but can change it into CUCs. The fun begins when you try and work out what to use for what, and what you can buy with what! Cubans have a rations booklet ( I felt like had been dragged through a time warp!), where they go to a place that looks somewhat like a bomb shelter, and collect their rationed goods – bread, rice, beans and other basic foodstuffs. It is no secret that the money they earn is not enough to see them through the month! They can also go to fruit and vegetable markets and buy what would be considered cheap for us, but is still expensive for them. Street food, like pizza and pork rolls can be bought for 20 cents a pop. Again really cheap for us,but in comparison to their wages, not so cheap for them. And then there are the ¨supermarkets¨, which could more aptly be described as mini markets, as the selection is so very small. All supermarket prices are in CUCs (or Divisa, as the money is also called). Let me give you a sample of what things cost: a 500 gram bottle of vegetable oil (olive oil, are you kidding, what’s that!) 1.80 CUCs, butter 1.70 CUCs, a litre of juice 2.25 CUCs, a 2 litre bottle of soft drink, 1.80 CUCs. How do they afford it? They don’t! Most Cubans will tell you that if they eat, they don´t buy clothes, and if they buy clothes, they don´t eat! Although their government may not like to admit it, the ONLY way that Cubans buy in CUCs is if their familes send them money from overseas, or if they obtain their money via ¨the black market¨. It is no secret that they are not staying alive on the goods that come from their rations booklets. It is supposed to be a safety net, but from what we could see, the net had gaping holes!

Now what is it that communists don´t like? Commercialism, marketing and branding, because we are all supposed to be the same and own the same! The theory sounds charming, but in practice what we saw simply was not working! But what about freedom of speech? There is NO freedom of speech in Cuba. Nobody can say a solitary word against the government, nor would they try, as this would get them a free trip to the slammer! We met an Italian guy who gave a yo-yo as a gift to a child, and his grandfather simultaneously received a fine, for talking to a tourist! I met the Italian personally, so I know this to be true. Alex and I would both agree that not one policeman looked us in the eye, for the entire duration of our Cuban stay. Indeed, although we said hello to many Cubans, many either did not respond or looked away. Most people are too frightened of what may happen! Remember that Alex and I speak Spanish fluently, which without a doubt gave us the insight and information that most non-Spanish speakers would not be privy to.

Internet? Ah yes, that popular communicative instrument. At a cost of 6 CUCs an hour (the average Cuban would need to work for over 2 weeks), let´s say that it really is not that popular! Well, not for Cubans, anyway! A nice way to keep the masses under control and uninformed was what flashed through my mind. Alex and I categorically refused to use it. One reason being the absurdity of the price, and the other being that we felt that it was wrong to be able to do what the average Cuban could not!

Eating out: Yes, we have street food, fruit and veggie markets, and restaurants, which can be split up into two categories – Paladares and State run restaurants. Paladares are usually privately run restaurants, where the owners at least make some money (although the government takes the biggest slice of the pie) and the state run restaurants are run by the state, and (surprise, surprise!) the state gets all of the money! So,whilst you are chowing down a meal that costs approximately 10 CUCs per head, the person who serves you does not even receive that in a month. Our solution? We categorically refused to eat in such places! Alex and I refused to give the state any money at all, unless we had no other choice.

Travel: As one professional Cuban told me (and there are many, as education is free and encouraged) as she looked across the sea, ¨I do not beleive that there are other countries out there. It is all an illusion. There is only Cuba!¨. So,whilst we can go to Cuba and see their country, they cannot come and see any of ours. I spoke to so many Cubans who would so love to travel, but even with funds, they cannot, because they are not allowed to. In Cuba itself, tourists can use trains, but the easiest and most used form of tranportation are the buses, of which there are only two companies, Astro and Via Azul. Astro has a tiny tourist quota (only 2 are allowed on each bus for any given trip) and locals can pay in national money (at a much lesser cost than us, and rightfully so) whilst tourists are expected to pay in CUCs (more money for the state!). Via Azul can be used by both Cubans and tourists, but with a trip from Santiago de Cuba( in the far east) to Havana costing 51 CUCs, it is mainly used by foreigners and “rich” Cubans….oops, there are no rich Cubans, right!

Propaganda: By the end of our 3 week sojourn, I was so over seeing propaganda of Fidel, Che Guevara, the Revolution, the fight and the cause. I felt like I was being forced to buy a product that I had no interest in! This was capitalism in reverse! But no better, nor worse! In capitalist countries they try and sell you a plethora of brands, in Cuba it´s just one. I wanted to scream out, ¨I do not want to buy Fidel! Give me another choice!¨. The thought of living in such a society horrified me!

Freedom of speech: What freedom of speech? You have one choice, like it or lump it! So, what choice do people have but to soldier on? They try and make the best of each day, as that is all they have! Cubans do not live for tomorrow, as the present is all they´ve got! How sad, this made Alex and I feel!

As one Cuban said to us on our last day, ¨Cuba is not another country, it´s another planet¨.

I would also like to add here, coming from the mouth of a travel agent who deals in flights to Cuba, that 80% of people who go to Cuba actually go for sex tourism. How sad and grotesque that this should occur. A person that kicks a dog when it´s down is the lowest common denominator.

Cuba has wrung its people to an extent that there is nothing left to wring, and then it has slapped them against a cement wall to see if they have truly been wrung dry….just in case! There is nothing left to wring! It is for this reason that tourists are forced to pay exorbitant prices in taxis, hotels (which we did not use) and restaurants. As much as we could, Alex and I tried to do it like the locals, but sometimes our hands were tied behind our backs, as we forced to do it like tourists!

So, before you don your Che Guevara t-shirt, or wax lyrical about life in a perfect communist world, I challenge you to put your money where your mouth is! Take a month off work, learn some Spanish, book a trip to Cuba, and come and see how communism works (or does not!) and how fair (or unfair!) this system is.

As you can see, there is so much more to Cuba than simply salsa. I know that this blog will be controversial, but when has Ombretta Zanetti ever been anything else but?! These are our thoughts, warts and all!

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this blog to all the Cubans who took the time to so generously chat to us, especially about how their system does NOT work! Names have not been used in order to protect the speakers involved. To each and every Cuban in Cuba – May your lives one day change, and may you be granted the wish that is your birthright – freedom of speech!

For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the system of ‘brainwashing under freedom’ to which we are subjected and which all too often we sere as willing or unwitting instruments.” – Noam Chomsky


Next: Places we visited in Cuba, and the marvellous Cubans we met and interacted with.

(Photos: 1.- Cycling past the 10 commandments of the Revolution…… oops, that is me being facetious…again! , Cienfuegos. 2.- Another Cuban classic…commonly known as a car! 3.- Old man in Havana. Quite coincidentally, he happens to be on the cover of the current Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba. This was picked up by the woman whom we stayed with in Cienfuegos. 4.- Avenida Prado, Central Havana. 5.- George W. Bush starring as the lead in “El Asesino” (The Assassin ), as seen on a billboard on the malecon in Vedado, Havana. 6.- A sign which says, ” Imperialist Sirs, we have abosolutely no fear of you”. 7.- Che Guevara image on the streets of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). 8.- A neighbourhood in central Habana. 9.- “Freedom is conquered with the edge of a machete” . No prior chats held with Gandhi on this idea!


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Alex & Ombi

Alex & Ombi

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of veryitchyfeet.com. She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!

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