Editorial: Cuba Travel Essay - Publication: Glitterati Magazine USA Back to Editorials

Cuban Heals

Culturally rich, architecturally stunning, geographically breathtaking - Superlatives abound when it comes to Cuba. Definitely minimalist for those accustomed to the average western vacation – but that really is its appeal.Yep, Cuba isnt Malibu. Forget the accoutrements of the over indulged ( at least in the American sense).

Cuba, and its capital –La Habana ( Havana), a starting point for me on my exploratory path, is all about romanticism. Not only are aesthetics captivating but its sense of history is overwhelming. Historic visions are everywhere. From the central square to the myriad of hotels, bars and restaurants that have all remained frozen in time.

Haggard propaganda posters and graffitied slogans are everywhere, capturing ageless visions of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, adored warriors summoning the people, cigars in hand, beards flourishing. Unlike other Eastern block nations, whose struggling economies and yearning for all things democratic sees them as mere parodies of their former selves, Cuba serves as a seemingly exotic template that communism might just work, or at least it still looks good trying.

Like any left of field child of an era too long ago, Ive flirted with the notion of communism. During my university years I read Marx, squatted in communal houses, survived poverty and wore the same unlaundered clothes repeatedly. I even got involved in organized groups calling themselves communists. Enduring a series of dreary meetings with legions of overweight and eternally unemployable types, each loitering on a collective quest or some "higher," ideal.

Even if you don’t buy that politicized sentimentality, Cuba is still cool. From author and local hero Ernest Hemingway’s fave bar and hangout, now known as (what else) Hemingway’s to the surprisingly chic $40 a night luxury hotel Lincoln. There’s also excellent mojitos, hot chicks galore and miles of unpolluted beaches.

For those determined to adhere to a "free enterprise," styled comfort zone, avoid straying from the more commercial central area and you might as well be at a frat party in San Diego. That’s as long as you don’t mind handing over your passport and waiting around 40 minutes for dial up internet access or being hit up to buy milk from desperate parents whose monthly ration has been used up.

As a pampered white boy who has chosen to live in the US, (yes Im Australian but its basically the Us with a different accent) its hypocritical of me to lavish compliments on Cuba and its political climate. Cuba may be the very antithesis of a culture weaned on too much TV and mall visits, but their tanned toned and poverty stricken utopia does have a big downside.

With many earning around $25(US) per month, the average Cuban's standard of living remains at a lower level than before the downturn of the 1990s, caused by the loss of Soviet aid and domestic inefficiencies. The country is now slowly recovering from a severe economic downturn in 1990, following the withdrawal of former Soviet subsidies, worth $4 billion to $6 billion annually. Cuba portrays its difficulties as the result of the US embargo in place since 1961. Raul Castro’s new leadership implies economic promise, but the process will be slow. Raul’s boldest break yet from socialism, sees Cuban state companies set to overhaul their salary structures to one that pays hard-workers more than slackers.. No more will all Cuban workers doing the same job receive the same pay. Now people who do more will get more.and those who offer quality service will be rewarded newspaper. Human rights is a bit of a concern too. According to the US Department Of State, "The Castro Government has long waged war on the basic human rights of its people. It controls all aspects of daily life through an elaborate and pervasive system of undercover agents, informers, and neighborhood committees working to detect and suppress dissent and impose ideological conformity."

The department adds, "Spouses are encouraged to report on each other, and children on their parents. Independent voices have been arrested on charges as vague as "dangerousness" or as clearly political as "disrespect for authority." ":Dissidents are routinely and falsely labeled foreign spies, mercenaries, and agents of the United States. Access to information is tightly controlled, including access to the Internet, and publications such as the Boston Globe are labeled "enemy propaganda," the possession of which is a criminal offense."

Meanwhile, the department claims Cuba is a source country for women and children trafficked for the purposes of "sexual exploitation and forced child labor;. It claims, "Cuba is a major destination for sex tourism, which largely caters to European, Canadian, and Latin American tourists and involves large numbers of minors; there are reports that Cuban women have been trafficked to Mexico for sexual exploitation; forced labor victims also include children coerced into working in commercial agriculture."

Apparently, so says the department a solution will be sought by "empowering and respecting the sovereign rights of the Cuban people. Empowering them will mean improving their economic and social well-being, helping them reconstruct a democratic civic culture through education and institution-building, and supporting them as they transform themselves and Cuban society."

Ok – so that filled some space right, educational too ? Back to my indulgent journey. After a few days in Havana I headed to a lush seaside resort called Varadero, a two hour bus ride away.

A sanitized and generic euro styled resort, Varadero is often regarded as a radical departure from the "real Cuba," 13 miles of pristine Atlantic coastline, with crystal blue water, largely attributable to Cuba’s nascent industrialization. It is also the largest resort complex in the Caribbean, with more than 50 hotels and stores to cater for western travels, Cubans aren’t permitted to stay at the hotels or shop there.

Cuba’s response to the US embargo sees its own blockade on US trade. I experienced this first hand while in Varadero. Despite a presence of the occasional dated ATM brandishing a Mastercard logo, there are no networked links to US banks.

As a result I was down to my last $20 with three days of my trip to go. After being approached by a benevolent Cuban in the street late that night while contemplating a beachside slumber I was offered shelter and a meal for my $20 by a haggard old guy named Jose

Jose, a retired mechanic and decidedly youthful for his 60 years lived with his three member family in a minimalist three bedroom home a block from the beach.

An oppressive regime leads to a sense of resourcefulness and honesty that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. Jose and his brood didn’t see me as a walking transaction, rather a person in need of assistance.

I was welcomed into the home, offered a meal and asked "where am I going in life," I discussed art and fishing and Jose was concerned why I had chosen to move to the US from Australia. He seemed fearful of Americans.

Bidding farewell to what seemed like a surrogate family after just a night. I lucked upon a Dutch airline hostess the next day while checking the bus timetable. She was trusting enough to spot me $100 and keep me afloat for the remainder of the trip. If you’re reading this Marolin I will pay you back and Im truly sorry I blew you off in NYC – email me. I live on the frugal earnings of writing freelance – honest.

Written by Craig Stephens

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