May 08, 2011 | Ronda Jambe

When visiting Cuba, mind the gaps

There is so much more to say about Mexico, including my revelation on the road to Veracruz after a chance encounter with a copy of Bjorn Lomborg’s Sceptical Environmentalist. Seeing the spirit and actions of the Mexicans in this regard was part of my awakening. Green doesn’t have to mean gloomy, but more about that another time.

First a digression to Cuba, which punctuated our travels in Mexico. Interest in Cuba was heightened by documentaries we have seen portraying it as a model for transitioning to a lower carbon economy.

When Cuba’s Russian sponsors retreated, oil supplies evaporated. This was the start of what they refer to as the ‘special period’. We did in fact glimpse the community gardens from the tour bus, but this didn’t seem to translate into food on the table. A country which once had 1.2 cows per person now finds it difficult to provide more than powdered milk, and ‘Cafe Cubano’ means black only.

In fact, the gap between the rhetoric and the reality was more than sad. Nowhere was this more evident than in the suspect behaviour of our GapAdventures tour guide. Our somewhat trivial tourism problems are the tip of a much larger iceberg of repression and maladministration. We soon decided the main pastime of Cuban is standing, sitting, or lying in doorways, windows and parks. The Cubans are as hard-working and enterprising as any group, but there is simply no economy.

A traveler’s tale: Day 1 of tour, we arrived in Santa Clara, expecting a ‘home stay’ for the night. This is the Cuban equivalent of a bed and breakfast, set up to take advantage of growing tourism and maybe also offset poverty. Our youthful, good looking guide announced that ‘we have a small problem, or a big problem’. He said he had just been told that the home stay people had not been paid for the past 3 tours and were insisting on a hard currency payment of the amount from each of us or no bed.

The rest of our small group capitulated immediately, as the guide assured us Gap would reimburse. Sure. We two rather more mature and hard-boiled Aussies refused, on the grounds that, like the others,  we had already paid for the tour, and it was his problem, not ours. We told him we were prepared to sleep on the bus, which was kitted out with foam mattresses in the back. Our tour guide didn’t know how to deal with that when he saw us digging in. Spouse read the Economist and I decided there’s nothing like the back of a bus for a bit of impromptu yoga.

After several hours of stand off, a woman came on the bus and explained in slow polite Spanish that we could stay with another family at no extra cost. Problem solved.

Ironically all this happened right after we visited the Che Guevara Memorial and Mausoleum, on what we were starting to call the Cuba Propaganda Tour. Gaps were appearing in the revolution’s  implementation.

The Che Guevara cult in Cuba is out of control, and you can’t turn around without seeing his picture. From what I can gather, he was a violent (but photogenic) meddling thug. Not exactly Cuba’s Gandhi.

In fact, he was from Argentina, and moved on to Bolivia where he was killed, trying to foment another revolution. Not that both Cuba and Bolivia didn’t need regime change. But 50 years after the Bay of Pigs invasion, perhaps the wheel has come full circle. Crumbling apartment buildings tell their own story:

After this incident the tour guide only grudgingly spoke to us. Maybe my confrontational question: ‘Don’t you have the rule of law in this country?’ got up his nose. (Pulling punches spoils the bout.) The others continued to fawn on him and most even gave him a tip at the end, when he produced a free dinner as Gap’s apology along with his handsome wife and child.

Now we have found out that some Canadians have told the same story about their Cuban experience. Anything for hard currency apparently, as theirs is worthless. We couldn’t even change the Convertible Cuban pesos back in Mexico, as no one will accept it.

GapAdventures might not be aware of how their proxies operate in Cuba, but they will, as will the Cuban tourist ministry. The same scam was repeated at the Plaza Hotel at the end of the tour, resolved only by a call to Gap’s emergency number in Costa Rica. The hotel wasn’t going to accept our receipt for additional nights, and claimed Gap in Cuba hadn’t paid and said they had no record of it.

I pointed out in my clumsy Spanish that there was a gap between the hotel’s proud Mission Statement on the wall and their treatment of our claim.

My views are based on just a brief visit, but it only takes one insulting encounter as a tourist (and we had two) to create a bad impression. Of course the value of a country is about much more than a minor annoyance to a few bourgeois visitors. This recent article written by a visiting native explains and expands but does not contradict the above:

Havana: The State Retreats, by Jose Manuel Prieto:

And there’s a big gap between their assertions of freedom and their human rights behaviour. A dissident  died this week in the very city where we were stuck on a bus:

Despite the music and great old buildingslike the one below, I won’t be going back in a hurry. One got the feeling they were just waiting for Castro and his mates to fade away. Neither beatings nor scamming tourists will give them the way forward.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 9:15 pm | Comments (1) |
Filed under: General

1 Comment

  1. Oh dear – not what you expected, but I would have thought the situation was not all that rosy given the documentaries we’ve seen on Cuba. Very educational though!

    We take good government and sound economic practice for granted, and complain about minor incompetence and corruption. Your experience puts things into perspective.

    GapAdventures sound to have a, er, gap between rhetoric and practice. I hope you’ve booked future travel elsewhere!

    Comment by Del — May 15, 2011 @ 6:01 am

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