Live From Cuba

While I won’t get to post this right away due to not having Internet access, I’m composing this post from the Hotel El Bosque in Havana, Cuba. I’m at this hotel right at this moment to get changed and freshened up before heading to the Tropicana Cabaret to see Cuba’s most famous cabaret show.

My wife and I came on a last minute trip to Varadero via Toronto, and have been staying at Be Live Turquesa, one of the numerous resorts along a peninsula on Cuba’s north shore about two hours east of Havana. The resort has been quite nice, relaxing with no shortage of rum, beer, and food. Today we are on an excursion and have spent the day touring the Old City before going to the show.

Cuba is, of course, a socialist/Communist country, one on a very slow track to reform despite the failure of most other such regimes. It is one that mostly manages to survive, even thrive despite the US embargo. Tourism is no small part of that, and Canada is a driver of that. Some 60% of tourists who visit Cuba come from Canada. When the Soviet Union disappeared almost overnight and with it the aid that sustained Cuba it was the development of the tourism industry that brought in desperately needed hard currency.

This is my first real visit here. The contrast between the “real” Cuba in Havana and the resorts is stark, though people seem to have a different view. Cuba is poor but its people are generally happy because they are relatively well off in the sense that their basic needs are met, at least to some degree, by the state. Housing, education, healthcare, and basic nutritional requirements are supplied adequately. Luxury goods are not impossible to get (there is a United Colors of Benetton store on Plaza Viejo in Old Havana, its presence surprised me!). It just takes some willingness to save and work hard.

Some Cubans have getting money out of tourists down to a well-honed art. One of the guys in my tour group today quipped, “Everything is free in Cuba, until it happens.” People will show you around museums, draw caricatures of you, play live music (which is everywhere here), and it’s all “free”, but at the end expect a hard push for a peso or more. Yet you don’t feel unsafe with it happening, it just gets annoying fast. They won’t push the issue much, you see.

It’s sort of a microcosm for the country – they’ve found ways to get around their plight very smartly. Cuba now has a new benefactor – Venezuela – which supplies it with oil it desperately needs and cannot produce in quantity. That said I saw several massive drill rigs flying Chinese flags, apparently CNOOC is partnering with Cupet to produce more domestically. Cuba has also taken to exporting human capital – doctors mostly – to other countries to earn both goodwill and hard currency. They then come home and pay that in taxes which provides general revenue.

And the embargo? Worthless. You can find almost anything in Cuba shipped via third countries since no one else actually participates on the most nonsensical American foreign policy ever. What the embargo does is drive the prices up and keep the country poor, and give the Castro regime a bad guy to point at to justify their revolution. Cubans don’t seem to need to be blasted with propaganda (though it’s everywhere) when they can see the comparisons easily. They can even watch CNN!

But that’s politics and a whole other issue.

I’ve been overall pretty impressed and understand, in large part, why there is such a draw to come here. People are friendly, welcoming, and it feels much safer than most of the tropics – certainly more so than anywhere I’ve been in Central American in terms of large cities. The contrast is remarkable.


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