Why Cubans are so ready for Americanisación 2.0

Life was so miserable in americanised Cuba that the starting point of the Cuban revolution was not just ideological: it was mostly nationalist, and aimed at getting rid of the North American occupation and all its negative consequences.

What did Cubans dislike about the North American occupation? Oh, all of it. The exploitation of the whole country to enrich just a few fat asses. The corruption that went along with it. The lack of possibilities of development for the Cuban people. The fact that rich U.S. citizens were using Cuba as a playground for short but wild debauchery breaks.

Americanisation was worth fighting against.  It was worth all these years of deprivation preceding and following the revolution. Worth these violent fights and casualties. Worth these long decades of poverty imposed by Uncle Sam by means of an utterly unfair blockade.

But whilst the world is now wondering what will happen with Castro dead and Trump in charge, there are very obvious signs that the poor Cuban people are more than ready to be colonised again.

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I’ve seen many people wear US flag coloured clothes across all Cuba during my visit in August 2015.

Don’t imagine that it hasn’t started already anyway. Western goods circulate a lot in Cuba: clothes of course, as Fidel’s well-known Adidas outfits, but much more than that, smuggled more or less openly from family established overseas or other non government sponsored channels. For example I found remarkable that many teenagers had smartphones from a much more recent model than mine.

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I was wondering how a tent from the French make Quechua ended up on a beach in remote Eastern Cuba…

The inhabitants of the cities are all gathering on public squares where public WiFi has been installed; and whilst access is granted against a fee and by using a unique code, so the government knows what you are doing on the Internet, this is very unlikely to prevent the flow of ideas from the rest of the world to permeate into the Cuban society.

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At all times of the day, Cubans gather on the public squares to connect to the WiFi using electronic devices that can’t be purchased in Cuba.

What surprised me most, when I visited Cuba in August 2015 and had good discussions with the local population at several occasions, was that people felt really ready for a greater openness of their country.

There is this widespread belief in Cuban society that the blockade should be blamed for the immense majority of the difficulties Cuba is facing today – this is what propaganda says and I think Cubans are probably right to believe it is true. And what’s most: friendly talks with Obama meant that the end of the blockade, and of the problems, was probably nearby.

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This poster found on the side of the road in Cuba depicts the blockade as the worse genocide of history. Notice the hangman’s knot shape for the letter O!

I visited Cuba in August 2015, before the country was opened to visits from U.S.A. citizens again; and the main form of worries I heard locally were related to the crowds management rather than ideological: how were we going to be able to host masses of additional tourists when the country was already hardly able to put up with the large current number of visitors?

But I also heard some locals who feared that the country would be pulled back to its pre-revolution situation of dependence and almost slavery to its Northern neighbour.

Alas, we live in a post-democratic society where owning an iPhone that can connect to the Internet is much more important than the right to vote for an idiot unlikely to do a good job anyway, so I doubt Cubans will massively fight against Americanisation 2.0 in the coming years.

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I came across this graffiti on a Cuban street. Cuba doesn’t need help?

How well off Cuba will be in this new era of economic colonisation will depend on how the U.S.A. will treat them; and with such leadership as Trump, there is a lot to fear. But history has shown it: every time the U.S.A. treat a country like shit, it ends up bouncing back against them. Can’t wait to see Revolución 2.0 in the years 2040….

 

Visa applications as a preview of what a country is like

I have a friend who says: “You have not really travelled to a country until you’ve visited its administration”. As annoying as they are (I would rather travel everywhere visa-free), visa applications are a good way to get a little overview of what a country is like.

A few examples:

Many countries with Soviet heritage still suffer from bureaucracy inefficiencies and require an incredible amount of papers. This is why I often use the help of agencies for those countries.

Once at the Russian embassy, where they require me to give proof of travel insurance, they suddenly decided to reject any proof that would not be an original with the original stamp on it; my visa support agency luckily could quickly issue a second travel insurance for me to get my visa.

I went through equally bureaucratic procedures in the likes of Belarus, Uzbekistan, etc but the winner was Azerbaijan which, at the times, was requiring so many documents that I did not even bother to try and just lost my plane ticket.

Recently, the Russian embassy has decided that, as a French citizen, I would have to give three months of bank statements. So here I am, printing three months of statements – that’s many pages. Got to the visa application centre, handed in my pile of print outs to hear the officer sigh and tell me there were too many!

In Cuba’s visa application centre, it was complete chaos, we were waiting without knowing who was next, people were being called without any logical order.

In the embassy of Burkina Faso, I was asked to come Tuesday to collect the passport. But Tuesday, they said the man who stamps the visa was not there and I should come back Thursday.

In the tiny embassy of Surinam in Brussels, an officer asked me if they could take advantage of me flying there to bring a package to their family.

But my favourite remains the U.S. embassy in Brussels: you had to call to make an appointment and this was not free of charge. So even before you could talk to anyone on the phone, you had to give your credit card details!

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I love the US Embassy in London where I went for my visa earlier this year. A massive, very symbolic building!

Humour where you may not expect it

Three examples of jokes heard during recent travels:

In dictator Ceaușescu’s Romania

After a visit to North Korea, Nicolae Ceaușescu’s delusions of grandeur went out of proportions and he decided to erase a whole part of Bucharest to build the world’s largest avenue to lead to the world’s largest building.

A joke says that Ceaușescu was in his office, a large map of the city on a table, using a metal stick to show the architects which neighbourhoods were to be destroyed.

Then a fly entered through the window… Ceaușescu chased it with his metal stick… to the left… to the right… and that’s how Bucharest ended up completely demolished!

In Cuba

Summer holiday, I am sitting on the beach with a few beers and chatting with locals. They ask me to explain why I live in England whereas I’m French. I tell them: “In the European Union, we are free to live where we want”.

Someone laughs and answers: “In Cuba, too! We live where we want: in the street, under a bridge…”

In North Korea

Two soldiers are having a break, smoking a cigarette. One notices that what the other is smoking is an American brand! He asks: “Aren’t you ashamed that you smoke a cigarette from the enemy?”

“It’s American; I’m not smoking it, I’m burning it!”

Propaganda at its best (5): leaving the destroyed untouched

Leaving the destroyed intact as a proof of how much we suffered from the cruelty of an enemy: a classic propaganda trick. Four examples from around the world:

In Belarus, some damage is still visible on the Brest Fortress, where the Nazis launched the Barbarossa operation in June 1941 and violated the non-mutual aggression treaty with the Soviet Union:

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In Volgograd (ex-Stalingrad), the ruins of the Grudinina Mill, the only building left in Stalingrad after the bombings, were left untouched “as a monument to courage and heroism of the Soviet Union“.

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In Cuba, the Museo de la Revolución used to be Batista’s presidential palace that a group of young revolutionaries assaulted in 1957. The marks of the bullets in the stairs have been kept since then.DSCN6739

And finally in Ireland, who is celebrating this spring the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising against British occupation, you can still witness the scars of the fight on the Royal College of Surgeons.

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The Monday travel song: Siempre en mi corazón by Omara Portuondo

I propose to start every new week with a song that takes us somewhere in the world.

Today I’m taking you to Cuba where I did a road trip last year in August. I was travelling with a non-Spanish speaking friend, who is not the greatest fan of latino culture so feared a bit to get bored easily during our trip.

One of the things she claimed to dislike is that “every single song has the word “corazón” in it”. “You’re exaggerating!” I told her.

Weeks later, after driving more than three thousands kilometers on Cuban soil listening to local radio, I must admit my friend was right!

So let’s listen to one of these millions of songs with the word “corazón” in it – and I’ve selected a beautiful one from Omara Portuondo, a member of the Buena Vista Social Club project that I am seeing live this week in London.

Have a great week!

This post is part of a weekly event called The Monday Travel song. You can participate, too, by doing the following:

  • Create your own post every Monday and title it The Monday travel song: xxx by xxx
  • Include a link to a song (YouTube link or other)
  • It must be a song which is linked to a geography. For example, a Russian song, a Chinese song, a Scottish song… (it can be from your own country every now and then, but remember the purpose is to get others to virtually travel!)
  • Your post doesn’t have to be long, but do tell us a little bit about the song… for example by telling about the lyrics, about the composer, about the style…
  • Include a link to my own Monday travel song in your post tag it “Monday-travel-song” so others can find it too

Travelling in Cuba: a review of what government-organised extortion feels like

Hint: it’s not really pleasant. The only advantage the Cuban extortion system has, versus the traditional tourist rip-offs we can encounter in some countries, is that it is predictable, and the amount of the rip-off is officially announced.

It does not depend on your knowledge of the local language and culture, nor on your ability to bargain, nor on how smart and experienced a traveller you are. The extortion system is fair, democratic, treats all travellers equally.

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This propaganda poster at the side of the road says: “The US Blockade, the larges genocide of history”

And for a good reason: that’s how Cuba survives. Tourist extortion is a national resource, carefully planned, managed and monitored. It all started in the 1990s, after the USSR collapsed: the USSR used to be the only stream of cash that made up for the US blockade on Cuba. Once that stream drained, Cuba suffered terrible shortages of all kinds; a solution had to be found.

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A Cuban cliché, mojitos are indeed widely available for 2 to 3 dollars each.

And that solution would be to monetise the white sand beaches, the trending salsa dancing, the appetising mojitos, the inspirational Caribbean joie de vivre, the emerging interest for Cuban music, and all other clichés with a potential conversion in dollars.

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A Cuban cliché: tourists pay a lot of money to be allowed to be driven around Havana in a vintage Chevrolet.

I am a consultant in brand strategy, and I could not have designed a better strategy for the brand Cuba to win-win with mass tourism. On a personal level, I abhor mass tourism; but from the Cuban government’s perspective, what a genial move!

Whilst Cubans on the roads pile up in suffocating dark metal trucks with no windows, called “camiones”, international tourists would compulsorily take modern AC-equipped buses reserved for them, that must be booked in advance in big hostel hosted agencies.

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Most Cubans don’t have cars. For their mobility, they usually rely on outdated public transportation, or horse carriage. Here in the streets of Holguín.

Would they want more freedom to come and go as please? That would be monetised, too, with car rental prices about three times superior to those you would pay in Europe.

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Most rental cars are from this exact model of Chinese brand Geely. Registration numbers always start with a T so everyone knows you’re a tourist and locals are not allowed to get aboard.

Then there would be Western-style big hotels, that lack the minimum but charge the maximum. And for those who want a more authentic experience, there would be government-organised homestays, called “Casa particular” and effectively a Bed & Breakfast & Dinner concept, with a typical fare of about 30 dollars a night.

(How much of these dollars are actually paid back to the State by the “particular” is a mystery to me as none dared to tell me. All I know is that the “particular” has to report any foreign tourist staying at their house to the authorities within 24 hours, even if those authorities are located a 2-hour drive in above-mentioned “camión”).

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Outside of the tourist beaten track, restaurants were always empty, as locals could not afford a 10-dollar meal. Here in a small town at the seaside north of Holguín.

Then there would be a few Western-style restaurants, of course. Whilst all what locals can find is the same frozen pizza (which for locals costs about 6 pesos, equivalent of 25 dollar cents, which proves that it cannot be made of real, healthy ingredients), the everlasting rice & beans, or the occasional rancid tasting biscuit, tourists would access a wider range of culinary experiences (in the capital) or at least enough fruit & veg to enjoy a reasonable diet (in the “casas” elsewhere) for 10 to 15 dollars a meal.

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Entry prices to the Havana Castle. I’ve seen many cases where foreign entry price is higher than for locals, but this is the first time I see that it is the same price for both, just in a different currency with a different value!

And to make all of this work, of course we would need a dual currency system, with a peso for foreigners, aligned on the US dollar but named differently (CUC); whilst locals get their wages and pay their expenses in local peso (CUP, which is worth 24 times less than the CUC).

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The sticker on the back window of this vintage car says a lot about how I feel the Cuban authorities treated me during my stay.

Oh, and do you know what the final extortion was? A peak in the foreign tourist’s customer journey, the highlight of your stay: trapping all CUC-owning travellers on departure at the airport. What a bad luck! Not a single of the airport’s several exchange bureaus had any foreign currency left that day. Everyone would have to go home with their CUCs, or spend them all at the airport to buy propaganda-approved cigars, coffee and music.

¡Viva el socialismo hipócrito!