Thoughts and impressions from Cuba

Steve Powell
Thu 11 Mar 2010 22:12

Not many cruising sailors go to Cuba. Apart from the political issues and it’s reputation for limited facilities, it’s a long way off the normal cruising routes in and out of the Caribbean. Unless you are on your way to the Panama Canal from the East Coast there’s almost no reason to be that far East. And, in fact, the struggle back to more traditional Caribbean waters can be pretty daunting.

In my innocence I made the commitment to go there three years before when Lucie and Carrie came back from their Gap Year travels. They had spent the last month back packing around Cuba. “We must go back, Poppachino”. Without a thought of what it actually meant I agreed to go in UHURU. As I started planning this leg last summer some of the issues started to become apparent. I read as much as I could from other sailors and pilot books, and it became obvious that it was going to be a challenge.  On the sailing side getting there was easy but getting back to the Eastern Caribbean, our final destination for the winter leg, was not so easy. But more of that in a later blog. The biggest issues that all the perceived wisdom warned about was the poverty, politics (read bureaucracy) and provisions, or lack of.

Well we went fully prepared and planned for all. I had read all about the poverty and how a simple bar of soap or a bottle of shampoo was like gold. I went out to the Dollar Store in Ft Lauderdale and bought soap, shampoo, kids toys, flip flops, baby bibs, Christmas candies, in fact anything I thought would be handy to give as gifts to these poor people. I spent many hours preparing all my documentation, crew lists, cruising routes and lists of proposed destinations, these over officious bureaucrats weren't going to catch me on the hop. And as you saw from an earlier blog we packed every nook and cranny with food and drink for our month long odyssey, fully expecting to be on starvation rations by the last week. I was so paranoid about the whole thing I remember giving Beans and the girls a really hard time in the supermarket for buying packets of crisps, because their volume for storage far outweighed their food value.

Well, as you all know I am rarely wrong, if ever. In fact I can’t remember the last time :-) Selective memory does help as you get older.

But boy, did I get it wrong this time....

What we found was not the opposite of what we expected but different. There’s was no poverty, as such, but they weren't rich either. The people were well fed, well looked after and Cuba has one of the finest medical systems in the world. We travelled all over and even in the rural areas the homes were clean and tidy and the people well dressed, obviously taking great pride in their appearance. In the cities the infrastructure is very old and in many places falling apart, very elegant, but not a lot has been spent on it in the last fifty years. I guess they’ve had other priorities. But there is now clear evidence of considerable capital expenditure going on refurbishing the main buildings and the beginnings of a potentially thriving tourist industry are evident. If they could reform their somewhat archaic ‘cash economy’, you have to pay a significant premium to use a credit card, the tourist industry will flourish here.

Apart from the bureaucracy of checking in the boat at each landfall the politics barely touched us. I didn’t actually fill in one form the whole time we were there, it’s all done for you in the friendliest of ways. It just takes along time. But patience is a virtue they tell me. And one that I am learning as I go along on this epic journey. It is true that as you dig deeper into the social structure it still has all the trappings of a Communist state. Every street has it’s ‘party member’ who keeps an eye on ‘everything’, but ‘everything’. And all power and privilege comes from the top.

But all the time while making judgements on their system you have to remind yourself that these people have managed to survive for over fifty years with a complete trade embargo from the largest and most powerful nation in the world. Since the fall of Russian Communism they have been cut off from many of the basic raw materials necessary to build a modern economy. To counter this they have built on their strength which is their people. By using “education, education, education”, sounds familiar, and ‘control’, also sounds familiar, (sorry, it’s a failed New Labour, Tony Blair thing), they have built one of the best looked after and educated people in the Spanish speaking world. They now export talent, engineers, consultants, doctors, nurses all over the Spanish speaking world in exchange for oil and raw materials. Clever buggers in my book!

And as for provisions, true trying to get basics can be difficult because all basic food stuffs are issued directly to each household on a monthly basis so there is little or no infrastructure to support nomad yachties, such as ourselves. But we managed to find everything we needed and more. Wondering around the markets in Cienfuegos was great fun, lots of fresh fruit and veg, just not necessarily what you wanted that day, but we didn’t starve. I remember us all having a laugh in Havana when we’d thought about having a Bloody Mary one day but couldn’t find tomato juice. Two days later we were wondering through Havana when we noticed that everyone, I mean everyone, was carrying large one gallon tins of tomato juice and every shop and street corner vender had racks of them.  We’d just got the wrong day.... All you have to do in Cuba is be patient, and you can have anything you want. It’s the Cuban way, it just takes time.

My biggest criticism of the Cuban people is that they see themselves and their country as poor and under privileged, they justify this to themselves by comparing themselves with their largest neighbour and oldest protagonist, the USA. It’s very understandable why they should think like this, especially as the US spends many, many millions of dollars every year telling them just this.  Sorry my American friends but it’s true.

But if Cubans were to compare themselves to their true neighbours, the rest of the Caribbean and Central American I think they will find that they come out some what better, certainly better off and a more comfortable lifestyle than many Caribbean Islands I have visited.

Well if any of you are still with me at this stage you must be getting bored of the ramblings of an ageing Hippy that use to think Che was cool, in fact I probably still think he’s cool. When we left Cuba and headed to the Eastern Caribbean I still had two large bags of “trinkets for the natives”.  Cuba has moved on beyond that and is fast becoming a modern cell phone, internet based, consumer society.  I urge you all to take the opportunity of visiting Cuba, it’s is a most wonderful country, with some of the friendliest people I have ever come across. Do it now before the world spoils it.

I am finding that the beauty of a blog is that it’s often benefits the blogger more than the bloggee. A wonderful opportunity to gather your thoughts and express them to all and sundry without the tedium of having to listen to other peoples ideas. Something I been accused of, with some justification, at many a dinner party.

Luv to all


12th March 2010