The Never-Ending Revolution

“Welcome to hell!” The Cuban man laughs and extinguishes his cigarette on the stoop where he sits, adding to the ever growing piles of garbage on the streets of Havana.

When we ask a thirteen-year old kid, “Are you happy?”, the answer is a nod and a shake of his head. Yes and no. Yes, because he is a child, can play, and has his whole life ahead of him. No, because he is always in want of more. More (and better) food. Clothes without rips and shoes without holes. A roof over his head that doesn’t threaten to fall down on him while he is asleep.

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Fifty-six years after the Cuban revolution, where Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and Che Guevara, joined by hundreds of rebels, claimed the power, the failure of its ideology is a fact. While most Cubans will agree that the revolution was necessary to get rid of the corrupt president Batista who ruled the country with aid of the American Mafia, they’ve also had enough. Life is tough. There is a lack of everything but rum, pork and white bread. One has to stand in line, sometimes for hours, just to buy basic necessities such as toilet paper and soap. And that is only on those days when they are available. Most of the time they’re not. Similar to the once living standards of the former Soviet Union, life here sucks.

Still, the battle-cry of “Viva La Revolucion” is painted on the walls of kindergartens, schools, bus stations and factories. Che Guevara’s face adorns buildings, mopeds and t-shirts. And the TV-anchors mention the revolution at least once in every clip, whether they speak about sports, politics or music. The Cuban brains are washed, tumble dried and ironed from morning to night, day in day out, year after year.

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It’s a land not devastated by war, but by the senseless governing of a selfish leader, who has let fertile fields overgrow and left his people starving. Where you have to stand in line for everything, every day. And the taxes you pay don’t depend on your income, but on your trade; you’ll pay the same amount whether you make any money or none. And although anyone can buy a new car for the reasonable price of USD $250,000, with the average monthly salary at $25/month, it would take a mere 833 years to pay it off. That is, if you forsake eating and other “hobbies.”

With increasing tourism, this will undoubtedly change. You can already see the cracks in the establishment, brought on by the loosening ties on free enterprise. Since Raul Castro took over the reins in 2006, the country has made small but firm steps away from communism toward capitalism. Despite ridiculous taxes, any cook can now open his own restaurant. Home owners are allowed to rent out rooms to foreigners. Bicycle-rickshaws can give rides to tourists. And people are catching on to the fact that providing good service will make them more money. The locals may never be as rich as the foreigners with their fancy sun-glasses and smart phones, but at least they may be able to afford good quality shampoo or an hour on the internet (after standing in line for a few hours to access the state-owned service). And as the world witnessed during the imploding of the Soviet Union, when you give people a finger of freedom, they will grab the entire hand and will never let go.

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So does money equal happiness? Of course not. But as a European or American it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to be able to fulfill our basic needs. How fortunate we are to have access to the internet, free speech and news from the rest of the world. How great it is that we can travel when we want, where we want. And vote in democratic elections.

A fisherman in the French-flavored town of Cienfuegos confides: “All the tourists think Cuba is paradise, but it really isn’t.”

No, Cuba isn’t paradise. Although “hell” might be a slight exaggeration.

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This is Cuba

The lazy rays of the morning sun caress the dilapidated buildings of Havana, as if offering them a last sigh of hope before they crumble to dust. In the hallways, the scent of guanabana and pineapple lingers, and in the distance, the click-clacking of horse hooves on cobble stones remind you that you’re not in New York City any more. This is Cuba.

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Strolling down narrow sidewalks, you pass women in snug lycra dresses queuing up to buy eggs and pig trotters. A man sticks out his head from a hole-in-the wall shop, beckoning you to buy one of his pork sandwiches for 25 cents. You decline with a smile; God knows what part of the animal was used for that funny-looking meat.

High above, long clothes lines adorned with jeans, shirts and underwear flutter in the wind, keeping company with the grandmothers who spend their entire lives on the balconies, gossiping with their neighbors about the life below. They watch you take a photo and ask if you could spare some money, perhaps even a soap? As you turn away, you bump into an electric blue 1953 Buick in immaculate shape, and wonder why five slaughtered pigs have been heaped into the back seat.

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“Senor, taxi?” You shake your head at the young bicycle rickshaw driver. “No, not now, thanks. I’m just walking.” And you wonder if it was wise to tie such a heavy boom box to his bike, adding a few extra pounds to the cargo, then you realize that music will make the day go by so much faster. Through an open door, you glimpse a family crouched up in front of the TV, while their maid is scrubbing the floor. Next-doors, the bar is packed with men, women and children at 11 o’clock in the morning. Ten cents will buy you a shot of cheap rum, but a can of soda costs six times more. You wonder if the government trying to keep their people drunk so they will forget they are hungry.

Shouts of “panadeeero” and “leeeechuga” wake you from your contemplations; peddlers of newly baked bread and lettuce pass by with their wooden carts laden with merchandise. You’re starting to get hungry. What is there to eat today? You opt for a sandwich with cheese that most likely did not come from a cow or goat or any of those usual suspects. It just tastes funny.

The salsa music that flows from the tourist bar is inviting. You give up your pledge to live like a local and settle down at a table among other non-Cubans to enjoy your cup of strong coffee.

It tastes just wonderful.

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