2012: Surely Time to Unlock Cuba

The water supply in Centro Habana, the crowded district between the old city and 20th-century Vedado to the west, was turned off for 21 hours in every 24. Power cuts were nothing unusual. Most tourists in the hotels would not know, because hotels have reserve tanks and back-up generators. Tourists are a race apart in Cuba, viewed by government as walking wallets, an economic necessity in the absence of preferable income streams.  The objective of tourism here is to extract as much cash as possible from the jumbo-jet-loads of pale visitors from the North. One determined seller of hand-made tablecloths, at an old sugar estate near Trinidad, told me pointedly “No poor people come to Cuba,” as she complained about my refusal to buy one of the aforementioned articles, as if my capacity to travel imposed an obligation to buy unnecessary souvenirs.

I do not use tablecloths.  My grandmothers did, when I was a small child. I also remember cake stands, silver cutlery and porcelain tea cups, none of which feature in my daily life. Cuban handicrafts are stuck in the pre-Revolutionary age. Should I buy tablecloths, thus encouraging the makers to continue fashioning goods we no longer use? I would prefer to tell the truth as I see it, that the armies of souvenir makers should find out what – if anything — their customers would actually like to buy.

Cuba is a Rip van Winkle of a country, worse in fact because Rip, in the story by Washington Irving, slept only 20 years before emerging to find a world he did not recognise, and in which scarcely anyone recognised him. Cuba has been ‘different’ for 53 years, two generations. In all that time, government has ‘protected’ its subjects from information. No foreign newspapers, magazines, radio or TV programmes, no internet. No travel without special permission. Cubans are discouraged from mixing with tourists, who can stay only in approved accommodation. The only window on the world is government controlled and heavily censored.

Why is the regime so afraid of open communications, open doors? Maybe it fears a mass exodus, another revolution, the return of the Mafia, the rise of drug cartels. Yet there is crime, as state employees line their own pockets. A mass exodus would probably be less likely if people knew they were free to leave whenever they wished, and if they also had the freedom to find out what is going on in the rest of the world, and the capacity to bring in capital from outside Cuba, to rebuild the shattered economy.

The infrastructure is in tatters.  Broken water pipes are unrepaired for months, years. Instead, households are routinely cut off. Outside the tourism hot spots, buildings are falling down and roads are potholed. Huge tracts of farmland lie idle. Derelict hulks mark where factories used to be.

I think I can understand why Fidel Castro chose this form of apartheid. The USA, former paymaster and only 90 miles to the north, could have taken advantage of any rapprochement from Cuba to recolonize the country, and that would have negated the Revolution. The world is different now. We have reached the limits to growth. The USA, a colossal debtor nation, no longer has the resources for ‘full-spectrum dominance’. Negotiation and compromise are the priorities now, as I see them.

Time for the Cuban state to open the doors and windows, to unlock access to the rest of the world.

Time for the USA to accept that 2012, not 1959, is the starting point for a new era in bilateral relations.

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