Fidel Castro's recent illness has prompted rejoicing in Cuban expatriate communities in Miami and Puerto Rico, but in Canada we are reminded by talking heads on CTV and CBC that it's not nice to gloat over someone else's misfortunes. What is it with Canadians and Cuba? Thousands of Canadians vacation there every year at gated all-inclusive resorts and then return with glowing tales of how idyllic life is for the friendly natives they met in the great Socialist Utopia.
I had occasion to take a trip to Cuba in 2001 with a group of Canadian high-school musicians who were there on a school trip. I was shocked by what I saw, but the other members of the group, bar none, had nothing but glowing praise for the experience. How could we have gone to the same place and had such different interpretations of what we saw?
Flying into Jose Marti Airport in Havana is like being in a documentary about the fall of Saigon. The airport is dilapidated, the runways are lined with Soviet planes in various stages of dismemberment, and when you enter the terminal you are mobbed by Cubans begging to carry your bags or call you a cab. The ride from the airport to Old Havana was unbelievable - through neighbourhoods of neglected and crumbling apartment blocks where Cubans live in grinding poverty - mile upon mile of slums. The highways were crowded with every conceivable kind of vehicle - the bus wove in and out between ancient pre-1959 American cars, Russian Ladas, bicycles, donkey carts and rickshaws, all overlooked by propaganda billboards featuring Che Guevara exhorting the populace to continue the Socialist Revolution and fight the American imperialists.
Old Havana is so decayed that a single force 5 hurricane will collapse whole neighbourhoods if it scores a direct hit. The government has restored the most significant buildings - the cathedral, the Morro Castle, the colonial Spanish fortifications,and they are truly impressive, but the rest of the city is a catastrophe. Tourists walking around on foot are aggressively panhandled every few seconds by Cubans of all types - pregnant women, old men, young children - all desperate for American dollars. The restaurants in Old Havana are disgusting - we waited an hour and a half in one filthy place that had been pre-arranged for us by the tour company, finally receiving a chicken leg, a pile of rice and beans and a can of soda while a Cuban band played Guantanamera over and over again, and then went from table to table panhandling.
The contrast to the gated resort we stayed at in Varadero was dramatic. Varadero is a peninsula that has had its Cuban inhabitants relocated, and entrance to the resorts is limited to tourists and Cubans who are fortunate enough to work there. The bus trip to Varadero from Havana passes through miles of decaying towns and blasted, strip-mined and polluted landscapes that are truly depressing. The resort is like any North American vacation resort - buffet meals, swimming pools, pristine beaches - but Canadians who encounter Cuba only through this portal have no idea how the typical Cuban lives. The Cubans who worked at the hotel were reluctant to talk about it, but they would volunteer that life was hard for them and their families, and Cubans who had access to dollars (resort employees, people with relatives in Florida) could eke out a meagre existence but anyone who didn't had a hard life.
So, what do you hear your fellow Canadians say about all this? Things like (these are actual quotations):
"Sure, they have an oppressive government and live in poverty, but they have a great health-care system."
"You know, considering the poverty the typical Cuban lives in, they sure are a)clean b)friendly c)well-dressed d)healthy e)happy"
"Canada has been a great friend to Cuba over the years - you know Fidel Castro was a pall-bearer at Pierre Trudeau's funeral."
"This _____________________ sure is quaint/has a lot of character" (said in reference to the filthy restaurants, the run-down cities, the schools (we toured one), the food, the panhandlers, or anything Cuban that we would not tolerate in our own country.)
"Boy, the food is great" (referring to the lavish buffets in the gated hotel in Varadero where we eat food not available to Cubans)
"The cigars/rum are great here" (like you can't get Cuban cigars or rum at home)
"The beaches are great" (like they aren't anywhere else in the free world, like Florida or Puerto Rico.)
I could go on, and may do so in another post, but suffice it to say that I find the attitude of Canadians to Cuba to be at best embarassing and at worst shameful, especially from Canadians who have actually been there. Here's to your health, Fidel.