It’s been three weeks now since I arrived back from Cuba. Nils was way faster than me with his blogging about Cuba. Even worse, I wrote most of this already on my flight back but didn’t make it until now to publish it. As an excuse: I need all my free time to convince myself, that my Ph.D. is going just fine 😉 ! I hope you enjoy this article, it’s probably the last about Cuba for some time.
I will put a number of pictures inside this article, totally unrelated to the content. Just some eye candy.
Back in Germany! After three weeks I have to admit to be glad to have back fast information access, supermarkets, and a bathtub. Still, it was a really interesting time and I look forward to go back one day.
The journey begins
So, how to write an article of my experiences… Of course, now it’s no problem to include pictures and maybe let them speak for themselves. But I’d like to write some of my thoughts about the Cuban society, economy, and way of living. These are not based on any facts or statistics, merely presenting my impressions. Two of my colleagues are thinking of writing a more scientific paper of their views especially of the Cuban (socialistic) economic systems, which I will be more than happy to link here as an addition, if they decide to provide it on line.
Let me begin by saying a big thanks to our host families in Santa Clara: They were so friendly and welcoming, never made us feel like stranger but more like a part of their families. All of us agreed that we really had a nice time with them and can declare ourselves lucky to have found such nice people.
The lot of us in hotel Inglaterra. Unfortunately there's no picture including Nils.
In general, the people were very open minded, always helpful and communicative. I don’t know if this is connected to the social system, where people are “Socios” and have to support each other because of the scarce resources or if it originates within the Cuban culture itself, but it’s a nice aspect. Of course, there are many poor people, who just try to get your money one way or another. I’ve had more than one discussion, where someone just started to talk to me, telling my how good my (awful) Spanish is and finally starts to ask for some money. Or wants to have ridiculous prices, as soon as he sees we’re not Cubans – which is in my case being noticeable in an instant. Anyway, this is probably always the case in countries with many very poor people and I had similar experiences in Syria. But if you know how to deal with these and how to react, you will have no problem to see that the large majority are extremely helpful and interesting people.
That cows know how to live! By the way, you don't want to mess around with cows in Cuba... they are strongly protected by the government.
On the other hand, all of them, even the academics with good jobs, will never be able to make good money. Which is one of the bad aspects of the current situation. I met a young guy in a bus, who was reading “El pistolero” from Stephen King, which is the best series he has ever done. So I asked him about it, and first of all noticed, that his English was surprisingly good, and on the other hand he really loved to read so we had a nice discussion. Because I wanted to buy some books myself earlier, I asked him during our conversation for the price of the book, his job, and his salary. He is some sort of system administrator at the university, earning about 25 Cuc/month (which is about 22 Euro) and the book cost him 10 Cuc. So, he basically has to spend a large portion of his monthly salary for just one book, though having a good job. At the university Santa Clara we saw more Job offers, all ranging in this area. To give another example, a 1-litre bottle of seven year old Habana Club, which is in my opinion one of the best Cubans rums, costs about 12-16 Cuc. So, essentially, the good rum produced by the Cuban people is not affordable by themselves, but only by foreigners (of course, even the cheaper Cuban rum is still very good).
You CAN buy western goods in Cuba, but for prices not feasible to most of the population (prices are nearly the same in Euro).
This leads to many problems; I know of one case, where one Cuban academic who was supposed to study in Germany for some time, just fled as soon as he arrived on the airport. And, if I were in his situation, I do not know if would not deal the same way… despite his educational level, he would never be able to earn any high amount of money, or even have access to basic things which are easy to catch for ourselves. Cuban markets and restaurants often do not have everything that’s written on their menu, because it’s not possible to have e.g. a steady supply of cheese. Everything more “luxurious” like microwaves, car parts etc is even more expensive than in Germany, so the large majority of the population will never be able to buy any of these without the help of relatives outside the country. So, some of them try to flee to the United States, just don’t return, or maybe just resign. They have to choose between a live without too much wealth, or to never see their own country again.
If the U.S. want to attack by sea, Cuba is prepared!
The economic problems lead to the question whether this is a fault of the system. In my opinion, at least in general, capitalism is in one aspect just like democracy: It’s the worst system – with the exception of every other one (to be more detailed: I am a supporter of social capitalism, like we supposedly have in Germany). Yet, I do not think that a capitalistic system would have a good effect on Cuba, quite the contrary: First of all, one has to differentiate between internal and external factors affecting Cuba. The American blockade is a big issue, lowering Cuba’s chances by a big extend. Just to give one example, which is a big deal for someone as myself: The population (with exceptions e.g. for doctors) is not allowed to have internet access at home. Despite the fact that this is of course also for governmental controlling purposes, there is no other way for this, as the large internet cable connection between the U.S. and Europe is making a curve just 20 kilometres north of Cuba, just so they are not connected to fast internet. One could argue that this is a natural reaction, since Fidel nationalised the companies, which were mostly belonging to the U.S. Without going too much into detail, I think, this was the correct way to deal with the situation. The economy of Cuba was not belonging to the Cubans; the Cuban workers were merely better slaves. At the beginning of the 20th century the island was somewhat like the brothel of the U.S. All in all, I agree that the situation had to change and this was maybe the only way.
Broken pipe, no one really cares to fix.
But, there are also internal problems, which seem to be inherent to socialistic countries, mainly the inefficiency in almost all aspects of life. On so many occasions we saw open pipes, just pouring water out of them, without anyone taking action. The bus system is pure chaos, when you don’t know it and the other people around cannot help you, you’re lost; the signs at the bus stations are almost always incorrect, and the arrival times are not even noticed, since it’s absolutely irregular anyway. When you have to deal with permissions for something, prepare to take large amounts of time for that: Everything has to be signed, be taken to a chain of superiors, and when you finally manage to get the allowance e.g. for internet access, you either don’t need it any more of found an unofficial (speak: illegal) way to deal with it.
Enough of the Cuban landscape already! Show me pictures of you giving lectures!
Putting aside the inefficient, bureaucratic system, there is an additional fact, that would prevent a working capitalism in Cuba: In a former article I wrote how I like the relaxed way of life the Cubans have. And they really have that! One example: We were at a window to a shop, asking a guy sitting behind the counter for a bottle of water (which is quite expensive for non-Cubans like us). But he was not interested, maybe not in the mood or just taking a break. So he looked at us and made some unclear gesture. After some time we asked again, so he once again waved into the direction of a colleague, who was serving other customers. When we asked again, he just went away. They really need the money, but don’t you dare interrupting their rest, even when they are at work! In Germany this shop would probably loose all its customers, but for us it was quite funny and typical for Cuba, having it your way is more important than the money. Even though this can get on your nerves, you somehow have to admire it. But imagine this behaviour, if Cuba had to participate in the global, competitive markets.
The breakfast we got at our host families were fantastic
With the current ways of inefficiency, bureaucracy, and relaxed way of dealing with things, a large part of the population would be unable to deal with any kind of advanced competition. The time it would require to adopt would probably also lead to the ruin of many people’s lives. And even more, I ask myself, is the growth of wealth to be expected worth a level of stress, which the Cuban culture is not used to? I am not able to answer this questions. I just can say, the socialistic system may be less effective, it may not be able to provide a high level of wealth. But would, in the Cuban case, a capitalistic system really increase the happiness of the people? I think, change has to come. The blockade should be lifted, more freedom and efficiency enforced. But no one should expect or even try to trigger this in a short period of time; this would lead to the downfall of the Cuban way of life, the crush of the Cuban society.
Heya, found a picture with Nils. I think this was one or two days before going back home, smoking cigars and drinking batido de guyaba. Giving a good impression for the last picture, I think.
Ok, enough of this rather jumpy evaluation of my three-week-survey of Cuba. It’s just impressions. Others may have other impressions. All I can say is, have a look at this country. Try to gain a look into the real life of them, not being confined to hotels and tourist areas. It will raise your awareness of the thing we achieved in our countries, of things we take for granted. And it will show you what we lost in our countries. And, most importantly, whether you like the Cuban system or not will ultimately play not so big a role, because anyway, in the end, you will fall in love with the kindness and friendliness of the Cuban population.
P.s: The original phrase about democracy is from Winston Churchill: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
P.p.s: In case you wondered where the title is originating from: In the almost always overcrowded busses, if people want to get to the exit, they are always saying: “permiso” in a very unique way. You cannot have a busride without someone using this expression and after some time, especially in the way they are pronouncing it, we could not help but to find it more and more funny and started saying it among ourselves. So, it’s an insider joke, sry about that 😉 .