We were standing on a dusty street corner in Celestun, a dozy and somewhat derelict village on the northern Gulf of Mexico side of the Yucatan Peninsula. The side few tourists frequent, its beaches not as white, its waters not as azure, and its tourist amenities not as developed as the southern Caribbean side.
We'd stopped to chat with three old geezers who apparently hung out on this corner most afternoons, sitting on an old cement barrier watching what little action there was on the main street of town: a few bicycles and motorcycles, the odd bus or car, a pedestrian or two. We were a novelty – a couple of gringos – worth the effort involved in standing up to greet, despite the heat.
One of the old guys spoke passing English. He asked the usual questions about where we were from and where we'd been. Oh Canada! he enthused. And Ah Cuba... . “How did you like Cuba?” he asked, switching to Spanish. It would have been easy to say: 'we loved it, it was great – the music, the rum, the friendly people...'.
It would have been a lie, but the truth was so much more complicated. So I hesitated, and then hedged, with: “life is very difficult in Cuba. The people do not have enough to eat. No meat, no dairy products, no vegetables or fruit. But right now there is a feeling of change, a hope that when Fidel goes...” I was floundering – when Fidel goes what? What exactly were any of them, or us, hoping for?
But it didn't matter. The old guy had the answer, and he pronounced it in English: “Cubans have been waiting for over forty years for Cuba to change. But they don't do nothin' to make it change. They just wait. When Castro dies, his brother comes in. It doesn't change.”
As it turned out, Arturo was born in Cuba. In 1961, two years after the revolution, and when he was only 14 years old, Arturo stowed away on an ship bound for America. He jumped off in Baltimore, spent a few years working in the States – where he learned English – and then came on down to Mexico, where he's been ever since.
We talked a little about the almost unbelievable contrasts between Cuba and Mexico: food shortages and strict rationing in Cuba versus overflowing markets in Mexico; the complete absence of foreign newspapers, magazines and books in Mexico versus the wealth of all forms of information from all parts of the world in Mexico; and the government's control over all media in Cuba, with no freedom of individual expression (indeed with severe penalties for anyone expressing any view that might be construed as 'critical' of the state) versus the free-wheeling press and breadth of opinions, many very critical of the government, in Mexico.
Arturo was clear: “I think it's better here. Here we got clothes, and all things we want to eat – beef, chicken, fish – we can eat them all.” (It is against the law for Cubans – except the government and military – to have beef in their possession, let alone eat it.)
When we asked him why he thought Cuba was the way it was, his response was simple, and disarming: “The Castros do not love their people. If they loved their people, they would not treat them like that.” But if things changed, we asked, if things changed in Cuba, would he go back? He shook his head, wearily and sadly I thought, and looked directly at us. “What for?” he asked. “What for?”
Ah Cuba! Truly my heart aches for you. It seems so unfair – why should Cuba and Cubans still be suffering such want and such privation? We had just finished our third trip to Cuba in five years – each of them a month or more, and each as 'independent' travelers, not inmates at one of the many 'all-inclusive' resorts, which are off-limits to Cubans except of course, the ones who work there.
Our first trip to Cuba was undoubtedly our 'happiest' trip – and our most superficial one. We drank mojitos. We toured rum and cigar factories. We soaked up the salsa and son (traditional Cuban folk music), saw flamboyant drumming and dance exhibitions, and met lots of warm, hospitable and yes, smiling, Cubans. We enjoyed the warm weather, and even sat on a few beaches.
But even on that first trip we saw the hardship involved in the everyday life of most Cubans. We experienced the frustration of endless bureaucratic regulations enforced by mindless automatons. We felt the intimidating presence of the ubiquitous military police. And we felt the utter hopelessness of a people held prisoner in their own country – unable to live freely, and equally unable to leave.
What struck us, especially when we read the 'Granma,' the government controlled newspaper and the only newspaper permitted in Cub, was Fidel's insatiable ego. The newspaper was filled with Fidel's endless diatribes glorifying the never-ending revolution, denouncing US imperialism specifically and western culture and values generally, and exhorting the Cuban people to endure more and more hardships in the name independence and 'freedom.'
Most Cubans dared not even speak Fidel's name in case 'someone' was listening. They would refer to him as 'el jefe' (the chief), or just stroke their chins to indicate a beard, then lower their voice, or turn up the volume on their radio, before saying whatever they wanted to say. Many felt that he had, at one time, been a hero; had freed Cuba and Cubans from a ruthless dictator.
But all felt that he had become equally ruthless, and had, as a result of his uncompromising stance on communist ideology, and on the USA and its embargo, consigned Cuba and its people to a state of never-ending deprivation and despair.
We went back to Cuba twice more partly to visit places we hadn't managed to get to on our first trip, but more to hand-deliver some much-needed items to a family we had become friends with on our first trip. We took them two huge duffel-bag sfilled with clothes, shoes, medicines and vitamins, cosmetics, spices and dried foods, kids toys, candles, batteries, kitchen items and pretty much anything else we could fit in without incurring overweight charges by the airline.
On those subsequent trips, as we revisited friends and went to new places and made new friends, we began to witness more troublesome aspects, and to hear more distressing stories, about Cuba and the lives of 'ordinary' Cubans. The things we saw and experienced ourselves were of course the most compelling: inadequate nutrition, substandard housing, hopeless transportation, unbridled sex tourism and rampant corruption. But the most distressing things we saw were abject fear and hopelessness. The Cubans are a beaten people.
And yet, when we try to speak about these issues with others, we often encounter resistance, and even hostility. Many people, particularly young travellers, are Cuba-philes – people who for whatever reasons want to believe that Cuba is an America and American-free haven, and Castro a Robin Hood-like hero, a legend in his own time, a man who has dared to stand up to the US, and won. The truth about Cuba is buried under the pervasive pop-culture of anti-American rhetoric.
Unfortunately Cubans themselves are unable to 'tell the world' the truth about their country and their lives. Criticism of the state is treason, and carries heavy penalties: over 100 Cuban journalists are still in jail for daring to write editorials critical of the Cuban government.
It's only those of us who go and look beyond the sun, salsa and sex, who listen to the Cubans who are willing to talk, and who delve deeper than the ubiquitous government propaganda – 'sociolismo o muerte!' - that can help to get the truth out, to at least begin the discussion about what is really going on in Cuba. Only then will any of us be able to begin thinking about how best to help.