Under Cuba's Skin
Cuba's antique cars
Cuba is stuffed with lovely old cars left behind by people fleeing the revolution. These were promptly nationalised and given to government ministries, which allocated them to officials. When it came to these goodies, there seems to have been an element of class conflict between the idealistic middle-class revolutionaries and the working-class lads made good.
Che, son of a well-to-do Buenos Aires family, was keen to show that he was a man of the people and he wanted the people to know it. Even though he was a senior minister in the revolutionary government in 1959, he refused anything showier than a Chevy Impala, roughly equivalent of a Ford Mondeo.
One of Che's young proteges, Orlando Borrego, had very different ideas. During a visit to a cigarette factory as vice-minister Borrego spied a shiny, new Jaguar sports car and promptly commandeered it.
"Chulo!" pimp Che yelled at Borrego when he spotted him a few days later. Che made the likely lad return the Jag and use an Impala like his own. But Borrego still contrived a degree of one-upmanship. He wangled a two-tone model.
Most of the 1950's American Cadillacs, Pontiacs, Studebackers, De Sotos, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles have long since filtered down the social food-chain. They are usually the only cars ordinary Cubans have access to and cost them around $2,000 about 15 year's wages. As a result are kept together with Cuban ingenuity and chewing gum many years after their cousins in the States have gone to the great celestial scrap heap. Russian cars also feature on Cuba's streets, mainly sturdy Ladas, sometimes stretched into taxi limos, and the more stately Volga, the 'Volvo of the Soviet Union' much loved by Soviet middle-ranking officials.
Russian parts also keep the old American cars going. After the war the Soviets found it easier to copy American products than to design their own unfortunately they forgot the bit about updating them every four years, so '49 Chevy look-a-like trucks still trundle across the Steppes. The Soviets also copied the huge V8 petrol engines which then powered American trucks as well as cars. As a result blocks, big ends, pistons and rods from obsolete Russian trucks keep antique American cars on the road in Cuba, though many now have smoky old diesels installed.
Cubans are not allowed to sell their cars to foreigners or export them. But they will almost always be pleased to give you a ride for a few dollars. Technically this is illegal, but Cubans are proud of their old cars and usually need the cash. Expect to pay a couple of dollars for a short ride or $4-5 for a half-hour ride across Havana, though some touts will ask up to $20 for a "tour" of the city. Old American cars are also used as shared taxis to the outskirts of Havana and one Havana tourist firm offers rides in a fleet of reconditioned '50s cars at western prices.
In a world where Lenin, Mao and even Castro don't quite have the pulling power they once did, Che is the one unsullied communist icon with real global brand-value.
Che's fame is in part due to the ubiquitous brooding portrait of a long-haired young revolutionary, fashionably unshaven, implacable, with doomed eyes staring longingly from beneath the star on his beret at the Utopian peaks beyond the foothills of guerrilla combat. The photo, entitled Guerrillero Heroico, was snapped in 1960 at a mass rally protesting the death of 100 workers, soldiers and sailors killed when a shipload of Belgian arms was blown up by anti-revolutionary saboteurs in Havana harbour.
As Fidel spoke from a balcony flanked by other revolutionary leaders, Che uncharacteristically stepped to the front for a few seconds. A photographer, Alberto Korda, clicked the shutter to capture an era and become Che's personal photographer.
The photo went on to adorn millions of student rooms and T-shirts only after an Italian publisher named Feltrinelli cropped the photo and began selling posters with the grainy, enlarged image of Che. In the age of Vietnam, two million copies were sold in six months. Korda never recovered any royalties because he failed to copyright the picture. In 2000, however, the photographer finally snapped, taking a British advertising agency to court for using the shot in a light-hearted advertisement for spicy vodka. He won £33,000 in damages.
Ernesto Guevara began life as a moderately conventional Argentine middle-class kid. The son of a planter turned construction engineer with Irish ancestry and a mother of impeccable Spanish blood, his family became more bohemian in proportion to the failures of their father's dubious business schemes. As a medical student, Che set off with his best friend on a journey around South America. It became the ultimate gap-year trip, the sort dreamt of by students perspiring over A-level revision notes.
The friends roared off on a battered Norton 500 named La Poderosa II 'the powerful one' which didn't like hills and after several spills was just about held together with wire. La Poderosa finally grunted to a halt in Chile and the two students were forced to hitch.
Che's diaries show a gloriously politically-incorrect proto-lad. He was particularly eager to get to Easter Island in the Pacific where he had heard the local girls considered it an honour to have a white boyfriend. "You don't have to work, the women do everything - you just eat, sleep and keep them happy," Che wrote.
Sadly they just missed the Easter Island boat and the next one was due in a year, so the pair consoled themselves with numerous local chicks and frustrated wives as they travelled north.
For Che, the turning point came when he met a couple marooned in the cold north Chilean desert. The man was a miner from the vast, American-owned copper mines. He had been imprisoned for striking and just released.
"The couple," Che wrote in his diaries, "frozen stiff in the desert night, hugging each other, gave off a mysterious and tragic air. It was the time when I felt a little more in fraternity with this, for me, strange human species."
Guevara began a second trip in 1953 after qualifying as a doctor. In Guatemala he witnessed at first hand the true extent of American corporate power. The American United Fruit Company ran banana plantations, railroads and shipping lines all over Central America, giving the company effective control over what became known as 'banana republics'. United Fruit also had clout in Washington. While Guevara was in Guatemala, a coup backed by United Fruit and the CIA ejected the mildly radical elected government and he was forced to seek asylum in the Argentine embassy before fleeing to Mexico.
In Mexico City, the Argentine met and joined a young Cuban lawyer who the previous year had been odds-on favourite to win a congressional seat before Batista staged his military coup. The lawyer, Fidel Castro, had led a rebellion which in true Cuban tradition was a near farcical failure. On July 26th 1953 Fidel and his friends had attacked the Moncada army barracks in Santiago in the south-east corner of Cuba. It was carnival time and they reckoned the soldiers would be staggering around drunk. The rebels promptly ran into a patrol and were badly shot up.
Castro could easily have been killed and remembered only through the municipal statues of forgotten heroes whose size is in inverse proportion to their subject's achievements. But he just escaped into the nearby foothills. Although he was captured a week later by an army lieutenant, the soldier fatefully disobeyed orders by taking Castro to the main jail instead of shooting him. During his celebrated trial, Castro made a defence speech lasting two hours. As a lawyer he probably thought the longer he went on the more he would be rewarded.
Imprisoned, but later freed in an amnesty, Castro left for Mexico to join other Cuban exiles preparing to invade Cuba. The Cubans took to the young shagabout Argentine doctor who befriended them and quickly nicknamed him Che, Argentine slang for 'pal' and a common Latin American slang term for Argentines. Che became the revolutionaries' doctor and during Castro's ultimately successful second rebellion he emerged as one of his most talented military commanders.
After the revolution Che was made president of the Cuban National Bank and then Minister of Industry, but he tired of administrative life. In 1965 he left to join a Cuban-backed rebellion in the Congo. The next year he launched a guerrilla campaign in Bolivia hoping to spark "a second Vietnam" as the first step in the liberation of South America. There, he was captured and shot by the Bolivian army who cut off his hands as proof of his death.
There is something to be said for dying young. Che at least did not hang around to become another compromised visionary, boring people to death with five-hour speeches and stiffly choreographed applause. He remains the ultimate romantic revolutionary, his iconic image and ideals forever young, while Castro has been condemned to live on to an over-ripe age and watch as attempts to reconcile the contradictions inherent in Marxism ever more obviously fail.
In the meantime, as a major contribution to these contradictions, the Party makes as much loot as possible out of the Che brand. Korda's photo on T-shirts, posters, books, berets, post cards and even beach towels is on sale everywhere in Cuba.
You won't be in Cuba for very long before long you will see a billboard the slogan 'Bloqueo = Genocide', a slight over-statement. One of the great spins of recent times is that Cuba is a basket-case economy because the yanquee imperialistas have enforced a cruel trade blockade in a fit of pique at their failure to overthrow Fidel. Nearly true.
The American embargo began in earnest a couple of years after Castro's take-over when the Cubans nationalised $5.6bn of American-owned assets without compensation. In return the Americans behaved towards Cuba like a spoiled bully who doesn't like the squit fighting back and winning.
There is, though, a suspicion that Cuba uses the embargo as an excuse for the fact that its GNP has not budged since 1960. The Cuban government has even quantified the cost of the embargo and is suing the United States for exactly $121 billion.
In fact the Americans do not physically blockade Cuba. They just prevent Americans from trading with the Cubans. US investors can also take action in the American courts against foreign companies using former American assets in Cuba. But that does not stop virtually everyone else trading freely with Cuba. Canada and Mexico are particularly keen traders with the island, using Cuba to show their autonomy from their powerful neighbour.
Most of the world buys rum, beer, coffee, sugar, fruit and cigars from Cuba. In return they sell whatever the Cubans can afford to buy - mainly Chinese bicycles and second-hand cars. And there are the tourists, of course, now a big industry for Cuba. Spanish, Canadian, German and French hotel chains have invested billions.
In effect the Americans have contrived to get the worst of all worlds. Their embargo may prevent Cubans from buying Coca Cola (though 'grey' imports come in from Mexico) but is also stops American hotel and other industries from investing in the last great under-developed tourist destination in the region.
The Americans do allow privatised aid in the form of dollars from American Cubans. The million and a half Cuban-Americans who live mainly in Miami remit money back home to relatives to the tune of about a billion dollars a year. Of course the most effective policy for the Americans would have been to have swamped Cuba with products and aid. The regime would probably have collapsed in a few weeks.
Apart from all of this, the Americans have handed Castro a great excuse for his economy's hopelessness.
Castro may not have delivered prosperity, but he did set up Latin America's best health service with a life expectancy of 76 the same as the US, as it happens. It helps having one doctor for every 270 Cubans one of the highest ratios in the world. And like good communists, they sell health to capitalists. One of Cuba's main sources of dollars is now budget-priced private medical attention for foreigners.
Cuba also houses one of the world's most successful biotech research parks just outside Havana, helped by workers earning $10 a month as opposed to $5,000 in the US. Cuban medical firsts include vaccines for hepatitis B and meningitis B. Western multinationals are among the keenest buyers of Cuban medical technology. Less promisingly, the Cubans have also developed a transgenic fish.
However, Cuba's health service was largely built with Soviet aid. Since that dried up more than a decade ago, Cuba has fallen back in health provision. The fact that doctors are never allowed to change jobs and earn less than tourism workers has stemmed the flow of people entering medicine, as do very strict controls on doctors travelling abroad, though Cuba does send doctors to the Third World. Many of the hospitals are decrepit; and however poor, Cubans have to buy drugs from dollar pharmacies unless they are hospitalised; there is also a suspicion that getting a hospital bed can often involve dollars or contacts.
Cuba's boat people
Cubans have been playing Cold War ping-pong since the revolution - using themselves as the ball. Up until 1970 Cubans could leave for the US fairly freely and around 500,000 did before emigration rules were tightened up. Cubans then resorted to rafts and small boats to escape illegally. This exodus peaked in April 1980 when emigration rules were again eased and 120,000 Cubans reached the States from the small port of Mariel, the shortest point to Florida. Wily old Fidel made a virtue of necessity. He tried to destabilise America by inserting into the exodus a good proportion of the country's criminals and imbeciles. Of course, they fitted right into Miami.
Castro then changed course again and clamped down, leading to American accusations that he was using force to prevent political dissidents from fleeing the evils of communism. So in 1994 Castro changed tack once more. He ordered his Coast Guard to let the emigrants go. Another 35,000 Cubans took to the sea in anything they could find.
President Clinton responded by decreeing that these Cubans were not after all political refugees, but economic migrants and the open-door policy was rescinded. Eventually a compromise was reached. The Land of the Free agreed to take 20,000 Cubans a year. Every day, under the watchful eye of the police and plain-clothed security men, a long line of Cubans stretches round the block from the United States Affairs office in central Havana which sits incongruously in the heart of the enemy state. Anyone found in US waters without an immigration visa is sent back - unless they make land-fall.
By 1999, however, the economic situation has taken one of its periodic turns for the worse and the unofficial exodus of Cubans resumed. The biggest headlines were grabbed by six-year-old Elian Gonzalez just before Christmas 1999. The Cuban boy survived by clinging to a tyre inner tube after his mother, stepfather and 13 others sank aboard a skiff in stormy seas off Miami. Elian's stepfather had already fled to America once, but missed his family. So he stole a speedboat in Miami and headed back to Cuba where he was promptly jailed for two months. On his release he plotted to take most of his close family back to the United States. He raised the money by moonlighting as a taxi driver and bought a boat made from scrap aluminium and powered by a home-made engine. But the craft was dangerously overloaded which led to the tragedy. Elian and two others survived.
The boy was rescued by a fisherman and taken in by his great-uncle in Miami. With a wary eye on the media, the US government initially insisted that he should stay. Castro detonated. He accused the Americans of kidnap at length. Huge posters of the boy were erected in Havana, mass demonstrations organised and the boy's father made an emotional plea on Cuban television for his return. This probably made a welcome change from the normal local broadcasts of half-day long Castro speeches, Spanish guitar recitals and the odd Brazilian soap.
The US Immigration Department eventually decided that Elian should live with his father, a decision backed by the US government. But being the Land of Litigation, this was then challenged at length by Cuban-American groups in the courts. Finally, in Spring 2000, Elian returned home to Cuba.
Cuba's regular police, the Policia Nacional, have in recent years been supplemented by a special force. This new, incorruptible police corps has been especially recruited from outside the fleshpots of Havana and paid twice the salary of a university professor. The idea is to reconcile a problematic contradiction which exercises Cuba's leadership: they need foreign dollars, but they would prefer this not to compromise Cuba's revolutionary purity.
So the new force tries to keep Cubans away from tourists. They especially try to keep the chicas at bay. The new police are especially in evidence on and around beaches where Cubans and tourists mix. As soon as a Cuban talks to a foreigners, or vice versa, they swoop or take photographs. They can, however, be useful in places like Havana Centro and Santiago de Cuba where touts can be persistent.
With its chic image and warm tropical communism, it is easy to forget that Cuba has one of the planet's less inspiring human rights records. Not in the Soviet or Chinese league, certainly, but Cuba has been and still is guilty of abuses. Thousands of Batista supporters were done away with after the revolution. In the '60s Cuban gays were sent to forced labour camps for rehabilitation and rock music was banned - including the Beatles. Political dissidents are still summarily imprisoned for long stretches and there is no free speech or press.
Sugar brought the Americans to Cuba. It brought African slaves too. The first Spanish setters slaughtered most of the local Indians and used the rest as forced labour, despite attempts by the first governor and the Spanish crown to curb the worst excesses. One Indian leader, Hatuey, resisted with some success from the swamps of Zapata, close to the Bay of Pigs, but he was eventually captured and condemned to be burned at the stake. As a Franciscan monk tried to baptise him on the stake, Hatuey objected that he never wanted to see another Spaniard, not even in heaven.
Having killed off most of remaining Indians with imported diseases and slave-labour, the Spanish settlers replaced them with African slaves. All of the colonial powers were great slavers slaves were crucial to sugar production in the intensively cultivated plantations which involved back-breaking labour cutting the cane.
This fuelled a huge trade triangle involving up to 1,000 vessels at any one time. Ships would leave Europe bound for West Africa where manufactured goods were bartered with local African rulers for slaves who were then transported under horrendous conditions to the Caribbean and the United States. Here the human cargo would be exchanged for rum and sugar which were taken back to Europe.
The British were the first to abolish the practice and had the power to try to impose their ideals on other nations. In 1820 British pressure forced Spain officially to halt the trade. But the slave trade continued and even increased. 600,000 slaves were imported during the nineteenth century to work in the sugar fields, most coming from a few West African tribes whose traditions still survive in some areas.
Slavery was abolished by the Spanish in 1879 and the independence movement was by then largely led by men of strong anti-racist convictions and indeed some of the independence fighters' leaders were black or mixed race. But blacks were still repressed, even after independence from Spain in 1898.
3,000 black demonstrators were killed in 1912 by government troops. The same year, US troops intervened to put down a revolt by former slaves. Cuba remained stratified: pure Spanish on top; mulattos in the middle, often acting as plantation foremen; blacks at the bottom working in menial city jobs or on the estates. Very few had land and many municipal parks were segregated.
Castro's revolution was largely an event of the radical Spanish upper-middle classes. Although one of his firsts acts was to abolish racial discrimination and his own commitment is beyond question, ever since the majority of his cabinets have been of almost pure Spanish descent.
Cuba's racial mix is unusual in the Americas. Most of the Caribbean is predominately black, while Latin America is mainly Indian or mestizo - mixed Spanish and Indian with a small proportion of people of largely Spanish descent. Cuba, however, has no Indian population, but a large Spanish one, as well as people of African descent and people of mixed race mulattos, as they are called in Cuba where the word is still widely used, despite now having racist connotations in the West.
Officially the present population is 66% white, 12% black and 22% mulatto, but because emigration from Cuba has been predominantly by whites, the proportion of blacks and mulattos is now higher, something which is very apparent in the poorer areas of Cubans towns and cities. Racial problems in Cuba remain largely bottled up and covert racist attitudes are still often not far beneath the surface.