Hannah Smithies (UK, AC 08-10)
Cuba is at an interesting stage of its history. With Obama’s election coinciding with Castro’s decline, there is potential for great change on this controversial island. Although officially Fidel Castro is still in power, he hasn’t been seen in public for some time and as one woman we met said, “He’s gone already.” Fidel’s younger brother, Raul Castro seems to have taken over position of leading figure.
The Cuban Government’s opinion of George W. Bush was about as secret as Madonna’s last adoption. Billboards of Bush as a blood-sucking vampire adorned roads until very recently and an unflattering caricature of him in the Museum of the Revolution, Havana is captioned with an ironic “thank you” for keeping the spirit of revolution strong. However Obama’s decision to pull out of Guantanamo and open boarders to Cuba is well received. It is thought that it will certainly help tourism.
Tourism though has its downsides. There are two currencies in Cuba: the Peso for day to day use and the Convertible Peso or CUC (hard currency that on par with US$) for tourist’s to use. Minimum wage is 225 pesos or $9. With a taxi ride to a cigar shop down the road and back costing more than that it is not difficult to see why many Cubans turn to the tourist industry for a career. This has resulted in brain drain and a lack of doctors and other professionals. Even in this supposedly equal society there are still groups of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.
On the other hand the spirit of the Cubans is addictive, inspiring and impossible to miss. There is a national culture of sharing and fairness, you only have to look at how accepted and well organised hitch-hiking is. This is mixed with a universal free-living, sociable and musical identity that makes Cuban life very appealing to a foreigner despite the hardship that its people must face. It’s all too easy to forget you’re in a country where freedom of speech is suppressed and there are jails filled to the brim with political prisoners.
As a tourist (especially one without as good a grasp on Spanish as she would like) it was difficult to actually understand what the government were doing while we were there. It felt like we were being kept in blissful ignorance, which of course, we were. There remains only reminders of history, billboards bearing slogans of “Hasta la victoria siempre!” and eerie ‘roads to nowhere;’ abandoned bridge building schemes which are telling relics of Soviet Russia’s involvement.
How can you know what time has in store for a country such as this? Even the Cubans themselves didn’t seem to know or maybe they didn’t want to tell us or maybe felt they couldn’t. But the next few years are key. This is a make or break moment of history and the eyes of the world are watching with baited breath.
-United World College Student Magazine –