To understand Cuba would take a lifetime, not the mere two weeks I was there, but one thing is evident, Cuba is a survivor. With two revolutions, one to rid itself of its Spanish rule in 1898, and sixty years later in 1959 to oust dictator Batista, Cuba knows about adjusting. With the fall of the USSR in 1989 Cuba had to re-adjust to yet more new circumstances. With the loss of its trade relationship and economic support from the USSR, Cuba entered what Fidel Castro termed the Special Period. That this started in 1990 is well documented but when it ended is rather vague with some reports claiming 1995 and others up to 2005. Perhaps it does not matter because Cubans are still living with the effects.
Cuban imports fell by 75% between 1989 and 1993, with fuel down by 76%, transport equipment by 86%, chemicals by 72%, food by 53% and consumer goods by 82%. This invariably impacted on Cubans by changing the way many led their lives, with food production and transport most affected, and this is still very much in evidence. With loss of fuel and spare parts, Havana’s buses reduced from 1200 to 500. Vehicles requiring less maintenance were brought into use hence the Cuban camel was born – El Camello. Made from lorries, these massive buses can carry 250 and more often than not mange to squeeze on 300. Lorries have been fitted out with basic seats and with steps or stairs bolted on the back are now the most prevalent and cheapest from of transport.
There are also different grades of buses in use, both in cities and between cities, with a scale charges depending on its degree of comfort. People travel in every way imaginable – private cars (yellow license plates) are often licensed taxis and the large 1950s American cars roar round Havana carrying up to 8 people. While some are in immaculate condition others are held together by rust and pieces of wire. Under their bonnets are makeshift bits and pieces from other machines but they somehow keep going. Pedicabs can carry two plus a child or two, and small motorized bike-cabs carry two. Eight people can ride on a cart pulled by a horse, while six can be squeezed onto a horse and trap. Bicycles are also used, especially in the rural areas and smaller towns. Farmers ride horses but this is not frequent.
On the motorway hundreds of people hitch lifts but expect to pay for their ride. They hold their money in a fan of notes; the larger the fan the longer the journey. Official government vehicles (blue license plates) are expected to carry people too, which explains why we saw an ambulance (hopefully minus patient) drop someone off at the shop he worked in. Fuel is rationed and everybody must be able to account for what they use. Tourist buses (luxury compared with locals' buses) are strictly regulated, with drivers accounting for every litre of fuel used and kilometre travelled.
In the country, tractors are most often used for transporting goods. A tractor with a couple of passengers aboard pulling two trailers full of sugar-cane was a frequent sight. Because the tractors are used for transport, ploughing is usually carried out by oxen. I saw only three tractors being used for land work. The benefits of oxen include natural fertilizer to replace the previously imported chemicals, and they do not compact the soil as tractors do.
The name Cuba means fertile land, and I saw evidence of this everywhere. Apart from the main export crop of sugarcane - some cut by combine harvester, some by hand - I saw dozens of plantations of banana – used only for the domestic market – paddy fields of rice, and smaller fields of sweetcorn, cabbage, tomatoes, lettuce and sweet potatoes. Mango trees dripped with fruit, which would ripen in May. Pineapples, melons, guavas, papayas, coconuts and fruits whose names I never discovered all grow in the lush countryside. A little wheat is grown and a few potatoes but neither is a big crop. There are however thousands of hectares of uncultivated land, that looks as if it had never been used. I have read that some of Cuba’s soil is salinated but this was far from the sea and adjoined lush crops.
Sea food – fish, large shrimps and lobster all feature on tourist menus, as does pork, chicken and to a lesser extent beef. It is surely possible for Cuba to feed not only its own population but export food too, but many foods remain rationed for Cubans, and while no one starves, queues in Cuban shops for very little are reminiscent of Soviet communist days.
It seems that a fair amount of food is produced for the second largest source of Cuba’s income – the tourists. Even so it wasn’t uncommon to find restaurants that had run out of bread. Still, this was a small price to pay for the joy of being in the perhaps the only country in the world without a McDonalds. The only thing in never ending supply was rum. In the north-west grows the famed Cuban tobacco. The sweet heady smell of it drying in barns thatched with palms makes it hard to associate with a cancerous drug.
Cuban food is a curious mixture of delicious basic ingredients and total lack of imagination. The spit-roasted pork we had one evening was the best I have ever tasted, closely followed by some of the most delicious chicken – no water plumped supermarket fayre here - but their use of vegetables remains uninspired. Vegetables apparently did not feature highly in the Cuban diet before the Special Period. Now they are grown not only in the country, but also in the urban gardens. I saw several of these but only one in Havana, contrary to expectation. I was told most of them were about 15 kilometres away. They are more prevalent on the outskirts of the smaller towns, and provide an intensive way of growing fresh produce.
The farmer’s market in Camaguey demonstrated what Cuba can produce. In a riot of colour, trade was brisk: the quality of the fruit and vegetables looked wonderful. People were buying, among other things, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, pineapples, coconuts, bananas, meat, fish and plant medicines, which have also increased as medication is also in limited supply. However, I noted that none of the buyers left with large bulging shopping bags; everyone’s purchases were limited, as their pesos do not go far.
That Cuba survived the Special period is evident but it would be a mistake to consider these measures as a triumph or as permanent. In spite of the almost constant atmosphere of carnival that the many musicians create, life in Cuba for the majority is meagre. While health care and education is free and housing virtually so, homes are frequently in poor condition and overcrowded. Many lack necessities let alone luxuries. The down side of the socialist/communist regime is the lack of room for enterprise. Why would a farmer work hard to cultivate more land when the crop must be sold to the government with very little profit for himself? Better to do the work you must and sit outside your house enjoying the sunset, a glass or two of rum and perhaps a cigar.
In the last few years the government has allowed some people to run private restaurants – paladars - that can cater for tourists, but the owners pay high tariffs to the government whether they have many customers or not. One young man in Santiago de Cuba has honed his skills in charming tourists and won over our group of nine to dine on his roof terrace. His step-mother cooked while his father waited on us and 24 year old Marlon, whose day job is teaching chess, entertained us in his street-cool white jeans and shirt and dark shades. If ever there was a youngster with entrepreneurial skills it is Marlon, but he feels his hands are tied. They are limited to the number they may serve, as are those who rent rooms. If anyone is tempted to do extra unofficial trade they can fall foul of the authorities and pay heavy fines.
The Special Period measures were an answer to economic breakdown, but are not necessarily long-term solutions. Cuba is looking to Venezuela, Mexico and Canada as sources of oil so as imports increase it will be interesting to see whether Cuba’s mechanization increases or whether it invests in sustainable living.
There seems to be very little evidence of sustainable sources of energy such as solar power in spite of the climate – I saw only two establishments using solar panels. Cuba is yet again poised for change, but only time will tell what form this will take.
Published in The Greenacre Times (April 2008)