February 7th, 2006


tropical paradise

When I was flying to Cuba, I saw an ad inside the Toronto terminal saying "Cuba: similar but different." I would certainly say the differences jumped out at me more than the similarities. I landed in the small Havana airport (to be fair, it's a bit bigger than Champaign, but Champaign is not a capital of a country with 11 million people) in mid-afternoon. My flight was shorter than the rest of my family's because, flying Air Canada, we could go directly from Toronto to Havana. My family flew Cubana airlines and had to go east from Toronto to go around the US airspace.

I grabbed a taxi from the airport, which turned out to be overpriced, and drove over to the so-called "resort" where we were staying. The first thing that caught my eye was the number of old cars, Russian and American, on the roads. You'd see old Ladas, cars from the 60's complete with fins (many in good condition), as well as newer cars like the taxicab. The second thing I noticed was the garbage dump just sitting by the side of the road, a part of it on fire, and the other parts being picked over by cows, birds, and people. This was shortly after passing a billboard with the face of Hugo Chavez saying "Welcome to the land of our brothers."

All the billboards, naturally, were various government slogans. "To educate is to create"; "Your ideas will persist," with a picture of Che Guevara, something like "defend and support the revolution." We passed Lenin Park — in Lenin's homeland, you'd be hard pressed to find anything named after him, but here his legacy persists, still.

Of course, the thing you notice most is poverty. It's tempting to blame the underdeveloped land, unmaintained roads, and falling apart buildings on the effects of communism, but it's not that simple. For example, the contrast between San Diego and Tijuana is perhaps even more stark than between the US and Cuba. And certainly, there is a world of difference between Moscow as I remember and Havana I saw this weekend.

One difference between Mexico and Cuba is that in Mexico, we saw a near-total lack of infrastructure; for example, most houses looked thrown together and made into shantytowns. In Cuba, you see a bunch of infrastructure, but it is all falling apart. We saw lots of buildings that were unfinished, with windows and doors and whole chunks still missing. The ones that had been finished were all falling apart, paint peeling, chunks falling off the facade. From what I can see, Cuba's problem is that it never had a viable economy of its own. It was financed (and in large part run) by the Soviets, until that support was suddenly cut off.

Of course, that happened a decade and a half ago, and it might have been possible for Cuba to rebuild. Here, the chief barrier was probably communism. I'm sure the embargo doesn't help, but even Fidel Castro recently acknowledged that it's not the US who is their largest problem, but internal corruption. As it is in much of the third world. Of course, the deep association between the all-powerful government structures inherent in communism and corruption seems to be lost on him. It will be interesting to see how Cuba changes after his death, but I was kind of hoping that this wouldn't happen until I left here (and until my family leaves, too), since the event is sure to be destabilizing.

[The biggest reason for coming to Cuba in the first place is that the Russian side of my family doesn't need visas to travel here. Some more leftover evidence of the old connection. Of course, when all was said and done, the problems with booking the hotels and flights, arranging complicated travel schedules, and staying in a hotel that was completely falling apart may have been worse than whatever visa problems there may have been on the Russian side, but what can you do. It was certainly an interesting experience.]