Apartheid en Cuba
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    Cuba waits on Castro

    Cuba waits on Castro
    The Irish Times – Saturday, October 9, 2010

    Cuba is milking its tourists like never before as all await what will
    happen post-Fidel, writes FRANK MCDONALD

    POWDERED MILK. That's what was so amazing about it. The young
    coffee-coloured Cuban guy who was trying to sell us cigars on our first
    night in Havana said he needed the money to buy milk. Not beer, rum or
    even Coca Cola (imported from Mexico), but 1kg leche.

    On the dimly-lit Paseo del Prado, under dense evergreen trees, it seemed
    like a tall tale. A passing policeman saw us chatting and intervened,
    asking the young chap to produce his identity card, which he did. After
    being upbraided briefly by the policeman, he slinked off.

    Not long afterwards, I met a Cuban doctor – friend of a friend in Dublin
    – in the Telegrafo bar and we got around to talking about what
    it's really like to live in Cuba. Incredibly, it was his first time to
    visit a hotel bar; until recently, Cubans weren't allowed in.

    He was wary at first, but opened up the more we talked. Speaking in a
    hushed voice, he eventually told me that he was shocked at something he
    had seen lately – an interview with one of 's former
    bodyguards, given to a Cuban emigré TV station in Miami.

    Lieut Colonel Juan Reynaldo Sánchez had defected to the US in March 2009
    after spending 17 years as the head of Fidel's personal security detail
    at the heavily-guarded Castro family compound in the relatively
    exclusive Marianao area of Havana; it is code-named "Point Zero".

    What shocked my doctor friend (let's call him Carlos) was Sánchez's
    revelation that Fidel and his family have several cows on grazing land
    within the compound and that their milk is graded for its fat content —
    in a country where nobody over the age of seven gets fresh milk free.

    Although not opposed to the regime and quite willing to concede that
    Castro's revolution half a century ago had brought benefits to ordinary
    Cubans, now he says he is "watching and waiting. What else can I do?"
    And with Fidel in failing , it's become like Waiting for Godot.

    He only got to see the interview with Sánchez because a friend had given
    it to him on a memory stick. Cubans are denied access to the internet
    for fear they would be "contaminated", although a pre-broadband version
    is available to tourists at most hotels, for a charge.

    Carlos earns the equivalent of €20 per month and isn't permitted to
    travel abroad, except with Cuban medical teams working in friendly
    countries such as Angola and Venezuela. Like many doctors in Cuba, he
    has been refused permission to travel alone to the US or Europe.

    Not that he could afford to, without financial help from relatives
    living in the US or working in Cuba as waiters, bartenders and hotel
    porters; they can earn more in tips in a single day than what Carlos is
    paid per month – despite all that's said about Cuba's wonderful health

    Doctors are simply not valued in the way that, say, the louche barman in
    the Floridita bar is. He looks like he has mixed a million frozen
    daiquiris and is on his way to his next million; we had just four of
    them and, including the tip, our bill was the same as Carlos' monthly

    But that's the real truth about Cuba – it has a dual . Tourists
    are seen as "walking wallets" and frequently approached in Havana by
    people looking for money, especially plaintive mothers with babies in
    their arms as well as rum-sodden aul' codgers who thirst for more.

    There is also a rip-off culture. It is relatively expensive to hire even
    a small car. But when you're asked – as we were – to pay the rental
    charge in advance and find that a credit card alone won't do, it's
    suspicious; part of the payment, amounting to $200, had to be cash.

    Waiters can be shameless. At Los Nardos, a with a Spanish
    gothic interior opposite the US-style Capitolio, two of them stood over
    us after presenting the bill until we gave them a tip of six Cuban
    convertible pesos ("cucs") for pretty lousy service and indifferent food.

    At a posh restaurant called Xanadu, in the former DuPont villa on the
    seafront in Varadero, the bill didn't add up. When I queried this, our
    waiter said the extra 10 per cent was a "tax" to support the golf club
    when it was actually the service charge – a little deceit to get his
    tip. Nearly every restaurant or bar has a house band playing Cuban music
    and singing songs with gusto – and all of them have their own CDs, which
    a band member will try to sell, usually for 10 cucs (€7.30). The
    traditional stuff is great, but bands using synthesisers are irritating.

    Everything in the shops along Calle Obispo in Old Havana is priced in
    cucs, and the exchange rate is 1 cuc for 26 Cuban pesos – the currency
    used by local people. Unless they work in the tourist industry or
    receive emigrants' remittances from abroad, they can't buy anything.

    If a doctor has to save for two months to buy new shoes (like Carlos has
    to do), he certainly can't dine out in El Templete, one of the best
    restaurants in Havana – though 35 cucs (€25) for croquetas de jamon,
    grilled mahi mahi fish and chocolate mousse was nothing for me.

    Ordinary Cubans, who might eat meat once or twice a month, must feel
    resentful when they walk past its brightly-lit terrace at night-time,
    seeing tourists enjoying good food and decent Chilean, Spanish or French
    wine and knowing that they may never be able to afford it.

    For all of Fidel's speeches about being on the side of the poor, what he
    presided over (as his brother Raul does now) was the creation of a
    two-tier society; the diners at El Templete included some well-off
    Cubans having a good night out – wherever they got their money.

    The space-age Coppelia ice cream parlour – Fidel's first wife Celia
    Sanchez's realisation of a gigantesca heladeria in 1966 – operates a
    form of apartheid: Cubans paying in pesos must queue up, but any tourist
    with cucs can walk straight in and get served in separate enclosures.

    At San Carlos fort overlooking the harbour, Cubans do get preferential
    treatment for the nightly cannon-firing ceremony by a detachment of
    soldiers dressed as 18th century Spanish riflemen; we had to pay eight
    cucs (€5.85) each, but they got in for only eight pesos (22 cent).

    Cuba milks vast supplies of foreign currency from tourism. Bars and
    restaurants may look as if they're operated independently, but almost
    all are owned by the government – and so are most hotels, although some
    are "joint ventures" with Spanish and other operators.

    Much of the funding for restoration work in Old Havana comes from
    Habaguanex, the state holding company for hotels; 45 per cent of its
    profits go to this effort, according to the Cuban guide who took us
    around the area – designated as a World Heritage site in 1982.

    What makes La Habana Vieja so important is that it's probably the only
    Latin American city that wasn't hacked to bits by property developers
    and road engineers. Whether it will survive the Cuban emigrés' return
    from Miami to take power is a disturbing question.

    Anyone arriving in Havana on a cruise liner (and there are not half as
    many as there should be, due to the US embargo) is bound to be impressed
    by showpieces like Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral or Plaza Vieja,
    where the most impressive building is a primary .

    Or the beautiful shady courtyards of Spanish stone-fronted mansions such
    as the Hotel Florida or Palacio O'Farrill, with exotic birds twittering
    in their cages, and the elaborate interior of an old pharmacy on Calle
    Brésil, with all of its 19th century apothcary jars still in place.

    Restored streets such as Mercaderes are also part of the "tourism
    offer". But walk inland just a few blocks and you're confronted by
    crumbling buildings on pot-holed streets stinking of bad sewers, and
    scrawny dogs scouring the rubbish from overflowing wheelie-bins. People
    are living in squalor in decaying properties owned by the state, all
    rent-free, according to our guide. The only thing that makes it possible
    is the climate, because it never gets cold; "socialism in the sunshine"
    made it possible for Castro to survive as long as he has.

    "Some Americans come expecting people to be starving and soldiers armed
    with submachine guns on every street corner," said the guide, who speaks
    English with a southern drawl, learned from an American teacher.
    "They're a bit surprised to find it is not like they thought."

    is segregated, however. Cubans are conveyed from Havana
    to other places on Astro buses (one feels the "C" is missing), while
    tourists travel on more luxurious Viazul coaches; judging by the large
    number of hitch-hikers, Astro services couldn't be very good.

    Varadero, Cuba's principal tourist resort, is surreal. It could be
    Cancun , the Canaries or anywhere. You leave the real Cuba behind when
    you cross the bridge to the 35km-long peninsula, with one hotel compound
    (zona turistica) after another and yet more under construction.

    Much better to go to Trinidad, on the south coast. It has a warm
    Caribbean air, laden with humidity. When this turns into a tropical
    rainstorm, royal palms in the main square get buffeted by high winds,
    and you can imagine what it would be like to be here in a hurricane.

    Up in the mountains not far from Trinidad, we were running out of petrol
    and stopped to ask a campesino, sitting on the verandah of his simple
    home, if it was downhill all the way. He confirmed that it was – and
    then seized the chance to sell us 2kg of his coffee beans.

    Stranger things happen. While we were in Trinidad, the police had a
    ceremony in the square at which speeches were made. Nobody paid a blind
    bit of attention to them; men continued arguing passionately about
    baseball while teenagers strolled past in fake designer jeans.

    Pinar del Rio, west of Havana, is the most beautiful part of Cuba. Its
    mountains are like limestone haystacks erupting from the flat red earth
    still ploughed by men with oxen. Views of this extraordinary geological
    landscape from the terrace of Las Jazmines are breathtaking.

    The mountains are covered by spindly trees, growing out of the rock, and
    the flora include bonita de la sierra, which only flowers once in a
    lifetime and then dies. Underground, as in the Burren, there are
    hundreds of caves, including one said to be 46km long.

    This is Cuba's tobacco country, now known also for its wine (Soroa),
    thanks to help from Italian viniculturists. All of the tobacco farms in
    the area are small and privately owned, but the farmers have no option
    but to sell their tediously-grown crop to the state tobacco monopoly.

    One of the farmers brought us into his bohio (barn) where thousands of
    the precious brown leaves were hanging to dry, like bats in a cave. He
    rolled a cigar for himself in front of us and confessed to smoking 20 a
    day. Maybe not Churchill's Monte Cristo, but as near as dammit.

    In Viñales, where there's so little traffic at night that kids play on
    the main street, the Viazul bus from Havana is greeted by a crowd of
    women holding up hand-written signs offering (unapproved)
    bed-and-breakfast accommodation; most of them are disapppointed.

    There are very few cars on the autopista (a motorway that runs down the
    spine of Cuba, linking Havana with Santiago) – not even the old American
    gas-guzzlers, no markings or crash barriers and not many road signs, so
    it's quite easy to get lost. Maps are also hard to find.

    The vintage American cars will be star attractions whenever the US lifts
    its 50-year-old embargo, opening up Cuba to an invasion by American
    tourists and carpetbaggers seeking a slice of the action. But that will
    only happen after Fidel's special cows are no longer needed.


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