Varadero, Cuba. Photo by Wilder Mendez via Wikipedia
Come to Cuba, home of the sugar white beaches, the jazz masters and a famous cocktail full of mint leaves. See the children of revolution bask in “47 anos de la independencia”, the message screamed from every billboard.
To wander the streets of Havana is to be taken away from modern globalisation, with barely a shop or advert to prick the consumer in you. Picking up hitch-hikers is mandatory and the skyline is dominated by 17th century buildings that no-one wants to modernise.
It’s a beautiful picture, but day by day the lustre is peeled away to reveal an economy on life support. Once a haven for American playboys, Fidel Castro’s coup in the 1950’s led to then-U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower banning his people from entering the island, as well as a trade embargo that caused misery.
Following the collapse of communism in Russia, Cuba suffered 18 hour a day blackouts, hyperinflation and melted condoms replacing the cheese on pizzas.
Naturally, new untapped areas of crime emerge. The streets of Havana swarm with prostitutes, con-men and hustlers to such an extent that many people I meet introduce themselves with a pre-emptive denial that they are trying to rob me. Sadly, several of these denials prove false.
Hustlers prey on the instability. At the time of writing four currencies are in operation. Pesos for tourists track the dollar, making it easy to overcharge. Pesos for Cubans come twenty-six to the buck and the equivalent of four British pence will get you a pizza. Shopkeepers alternate prices according to how foreign/loaded you look, while black market devils exchange you dollars for the wrong type of peso and run off laughing. Added to this confusion Euros now circulate in tourist areas and dollars are still popular under the counter.
Certain services are only attainable with one currency, so that no-one can ever be 100 percent confident their money is worth more than the paper.
Now that foreign money reigns again, how much of the beautiful picture is lost? First of all, the faith. People talk about the state’s betrayal, forgetting the great revolutionary promises in pandering to tourists. The best education system in Latin America, with a 99.6% literacy rate, no longer attracts the quality of staff needed to maintain it and bright students go to waste. The Malecon, the definitive seafront running the length of Havana is being sold off to make space for franchises and shopping malls.
Malecon in Havana, Cuba. Photo credit: LoPo via Wikipedia
While away from the honeypots, poverty spreads. A proud island that defied a superpower has finally got the hang of capitalism.