Cuba | A Canadian Perspective
“They know nothing about us!” railed the man at the TV set with his heavy Spanish accent. He raised his hands toward the screen, flicking dismissively. There aren’t many 60 inch Samsung flat-screens in Cuba, I know, but I was lucky enough to find one under the control of an excited middle-aged bartender.
It was April 11, 2015, and he had the thing tuned to a discussion between a panel of journalists and experts on CNN. The man was irritated by the discourse that merely served as an opinionated prologue to US President Obama’s much anticipated press conference regarding the US’ position on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the efforts of lifting America’s stifling embargo on Cuba; the latter subject being of higher importance to the man of course.
His criticism didn’t seem to be just about the news network and the panelists; it was clearly toward Americans in total. I, however, a Canadian was mainly in Cuba to find out what I and possibly my countrymen knew and didn’t know of the island nation.
Growing up in the 80’s, I learned about the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs in high school history class, and although I have had some respect for history and current events –- such things have always been important in my family, I knew that most in my generation only cared a little about what went on between these other countries as everybody knew that their survival was jeopardized by the prospects of an almost certain nuclear holocaust.
Since the end on the Cold War, that tension amongst Canadians seems to have abated. It now feels that my fellow citizens have forgotten even more about the lessons learned back when we were adolescents because we feel much safer now. Virtually all age groups are far more preoccupied with what’s happening with American celebrities, and maybe Justin Bieber is included in that too. Oh yes, don’t forget the Stanley Cup. We’re always on about hockey.
The biggest perceived threat, now that our soldiers have been to Afghanistan, is that of Muslim extremism taking hold of Canadian society through boycotts of long held Christmas celebrations and terror campaigns. It feels like Canadians don’t really care at all about how Cuba came to be what it is today or where it may be heading tomorrow. Is that accurate or just a false perception?
That’s mainly why I went to Cuba. I needed to see for myself how they live. To discover how I, as a Canadian, may factor into their story and feel the texture of what’s taking place as Cuba potentially faces a new day with America getting ready to strip away its sanctions. I don’t want to sit around guessing like those expert panelists.
After the Cuban Revolution (1953 – 1959), Canada and Mexico were the only two countries in the western hemisphere that were allowed to maintain uninterrupted diplomatic relations with Cuba because the US government and corporations maintained considerable economic influence in Latin America and the Caribbean where officials were known or perceived to be easily corrupted.
In the 1970’s, although Canada maintained firm membership in NATO and suppressed the terrorist campaign of the Marxist FLQ, our controversial Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau established a strong personal friendship with Fidel Castro. This is conceivably due to Trudeau’s former alignment with and academic expertise in communism, and his understanding Castro’s passion for Cuban independence. The permanent friendship led to an international business agreement to allow Canadian tourists to visit the island.
The peninsula of Varadero, just east of Varadero City began to be transformed into a resort dreamland. This created much needed jobs for the Cuban people.
Tourism became especially important after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. When the Russians left, Cuba’s already fragile economy was devastated. Their government had no choice but to escalate the one industry that was still doing the best while they still could. To this day, more up to date resorts are still being constructed in Varadero and other parts of Cuba. Even to the detriment of the natural environment.
Cuba’s shores have been dwindling at a tremendous rate of 6 metres (19 feet) a year as a result of resort construction.
One of Varadero’s attractions was the presence of flamingos and other exotic bird species. As development has made the land and their food sources toxic, the government has resorted to relocating many of those birds to the western tip of the island where they have the best chance for survival.
Some Cubans say that one of the reasons why they like Canadians is because Canadian tourists largely behave far better than Americans.
Many believe that absolutely no Americans have been allowed to set foot in Cuba since the Cuban Missile Crisis by either official US or Cuban permission. That’s actually not true, just as some Cubans have been permitted to temporarily go to other countries other than the US. The details of how these have occurred are too varied and complicated for this photo essay. No one on either side who is able apparently cares to discuss the details either. To be brief, long before Obama’s December 17, 2014 announcement to strip away the US embargo, a very small amount of Americans; even without family ties to Cuba, have been allowed legally to visit the island country without issue.
As one would expect, there are indeed reports of some US citizens who have been caught visiting Cuba by pretending to be Canadians. Non-officials who spot the ruse usually play along. Cubans are quite well studied on Canada, and know more about our popular Canadian contemporary culture than Canadians know about Cuban culture. It’s amusing to Cubans to hear Americans in their midst say they’re Canadian but when asked, have no idea about things like Tim Horton Donuts. The jig is up, and the Cubans have themselves a good laugh. American’s who have been caught by the authorities; however, have been immediately deported.
Many Cubans speak highly of Canadians, at least to our faces, because Fidel Castro approved of Trudeau. It is mainly because of the personal and political relationship between these two men, and the fact that Canadians have never tried to dominate Cuban natural resources, why 2.6 million Cubans, out of a 2010 official national census population of 11.2 million, have jobs in the island’s thriving tourism and hospitality industry.
Like many people in first world nations, most Canadians have a disgusting habit of assuming that people who live a blue collar existence must be simple, embarrassments to society or plainly unimportant altogether. Canadians, anyone, who visits Cuba should not make this mistake.
Cubans don’t pay taxes and all education, textbooks and supplies for learning are free at all ages. This results in many citizens becoming quite well educated. There are many well-trained architects, engineers and business experts so the intellectual level of the overall population is quite high. It is economics that dictates that many must work in tourism. Visitors; therefore, ought to not assume the waiters, waitresses, concierges and maids they see in the resorts and hotels as lowly uneducated servants. If the Cubans were anywhere else, they could efficiently run your life from top to bottom. These people need to be highly respected.
The American monopolization and exploitation of Cuba, encouraged by Fulgencio Batista, who acquired many kickbacks from it, has resulted in decades of hardened resentment and distrust of both the US government and American citizens. This sentiment is openly and repeatedly expressed to Canadian tourists as a way to show –- convincingly and/or warningly, that in spite of all the years of deplorable hardship under Batista and then the US embargo, Cubans have remained steadfastly pro-Cuba. They’ll never criticize or abandon her. There is only a glimmer of hope amongst common Cubans that most of today’s Americans may not be as insensitive and ruthlessly mercenary as the generation of Americans who rubbed shoulders with Batista so long ago.
In spite of all the wonderful things that the average Cuban has to say to the faces of Canadians, you can still detect an almost completely concealed impression that Cubans see their northernmost trading and business partners as nothing more than a bunch of spoiled brats who have far more wealth, opportunities and amenities at our daily disposal –- perhaps even more than we deserve. So, some of the things that we Canadians will complain about while being waited on hand and foot are absolutely ridiculous to Cubans.
Do you want to know how to make a Cuban grumble and cuss under his or her breath? Come from any first world country, load up your plate at the buffet of an all-inclusive resort, and then leave your table without finishing every morsel of food you’ve taken. Although the Canadian appetite for excess irritates Cubans to no end, they continue to smile and largely be polite because Canadians using Cuba as a playground provides Cubans with desperately needed income.
Don’t; however, pity Cubans for the material things they don’t have. That is a high insult. Yes, there are plenty of beggars in the streets of Old Havana but across the country; most citizens want to genuinely earn their money. Whether it’s by selling a simple good or providing a simple service, they don’t want to make money by just having their hands out. To help them, don’t feel sorry for them. Tip them instead.
Tipping is a highly appreciated, not expected, custom. Some foreigners have heard that workers who receive tips don’t get to keep all gratuities. This is a myth. It is only government employees who must not be offered or accept money from anyone beyond their actual pay, as it could potentially be construed as a bribe for any fracture of the law. The rest of the population is allowed to keep everything given to them, and they certainly need it.
All Cuban money is actually minted in Canada, and then transferred to the Central Bank of Cuba for circulation and control. One of two currencies in use is the Cuban peso. The other is the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) that is expected to be eventually phased out. US dollars are good but Canadian dollars are still favoured when pesos aren’t readily available. It is the exchange of any foreign funds into pesos that is strictly based on the strength of the US dollar. US$100 or C$100 will typically get you around 87 pesos, and 10 centavos ($87.10). But what does all this mean for the Cuban cost of living? Well . . .
In Canada, the price of a 335 ml (11 oz) can of a soft drink, for an example, will cost an average of C$1.10 if bought singly at a store. The exact same can in Cuba will cost an average of 1 peso. Sound like no big deal? Keep reading. Canadians earning minimum wage in part time jobs can still easily afford a single can of pop. For Cubans, on the other hand, things are quite different.
Employees in tourism and hospitality are possibly among some of the highest paid Cubans. They live very modestly but better than most others, and the majority of it is due to tipping. It is not possible for them to live on just their basic wages.
At the high end of the industry, hotel and resort receptionists, administrators and event promoters seem to make the most money at an average of 3 pesos a day. Cubans work six days a week, not five days like most Canadians. So, a 335 ml can of pop will wash away a full third of a day’s earnings. Buying soft drinks for a Cuban paid at the high end of the tourism industry is splurging whereas even Canadians on minimum wage can do this without feeling it.
At the low end of the tourism industry waiters, waitresses, maids and other people who physically break their backs to serve foreigners seem to make an average of 7 pesos a month. A can of pop is out of the question but who cares about the luxury of consuming a sugary soft drink? It’s hardly a necessity isn’t it?
Let’s try another example of greater importance. A pack of 15 menstrual pads for women runs at an average cost of 60 pesos. Do the math. At 3 pesos a day or 7 pesos a month, see who can afford such a hygiene necessity from who can’t. These are things that Canadians, even the poor ones, take for granted.
Cubans can certainly be very sarcastic but if you tip a Cuban just 1 peso for anything they’ve done for you, and he or she thanks you while telling you that you are generous know that they’re being absolutely sincere.
Most Canadians firmly believe in capitalism and democracy. As part of the Red Scare, we all grow up conditioned to frown on Marxism. It’s only a real rebel who dares to take a liking to communism. So, why on earth do so many Canadians enjoy going to Cuba so much? For two reasons; 1) it is typically the cheapest Caribbean getaway known to mankind, and 2) most Canadians like to drink. Now you see how the symbiosis has been sustained for all these decades.
It isn’t just public intoxication that is illegal in Canada but even sober public drinking in most situations. The exceptions are when out in front of one’s home but still on one’s own property and at restaurants, patios, sporting events, rented wedding venues and similar private events that are all liquor licensed. In Cuba; however, it’s common to see tourists and citizens walking around at airports, virtually anywhere, drinking from open bottles of beer and spirits. It goes on right in front of the authorities without opposition. Canadians love this.
Cubans will tell you that the top three things that tourists are interested in buying, especially Canadians, are coffee, cigars and rum. This isn’t exactly a trend that has manifested since Trudeau and Castro set up the tourism industry either. As far back as the 1700’s, Canada’s eastern maritime regions had traded codfish and beer for sugar and rum.
Currently, Cuba’s top five trading partners; in order of most important to least important, are China, Venezuela, Columbia, Italy and Canada.
Canada and the US are also allies and major trading partners, of course, particularly through NAFTA. Canadian trade protocols, known as the Export Controls List (ECL item 5400), on US origin goods are “designed to ensure Canada is not used as a diversionary route to circumvent U.S. Embargoes (e.g., embargoes of Cuba, Iran, Syria and North Korea). Everybody also knows; nevertheless, that although Cuba has maintained official policies to not do trade with countries that closely ally with US economic interests since 1959, and that the US has held a crippling embargo on the island for an equally tremendously long time Cuba is full of American trade goods.
Probably what sticks out in most people’s minds are the millions of old and well maintained Chevies on Cuban roads. You’d think that Cubans have developed a knack for keeping those cars going like they were raising the dead. While that is somewhat true, it’s also a fact that parts for old American cars that can be obtained in the US, are in fact sold in Canada. Cubans, will buy those parts from Canadian sources, and have them shipped to Cuba to keep their old classic cars running like new.
The US embargo against Cuba has resulted in the US putting pressure on the Canadian government for decades. Despite some integration, Canadian and US trade laws are; however, separate regimes with differing requirements. So, the Cubans are paying far more than what the parts are actually worth.
Canadian exports to Cuba include machinery, agrifood products, sulphur, electrical machinery and newsprint. Imports from Cuba are ores, fish and seafood, tobacco, copper and aluminum scrap and rum –- yes, we’re still after that rum.
As the US and Cuba work to regain each other’s trust in the coming years, we’ll see if Canada stays as one of Cuba’s top five favourite trading partners.
The average Cuban speaks very optimistically about the effort. Some Canadian tourists seem to speak cynically, foretelling of a new wave of American corruption heading the island’s way. I’m not worried about that. I see Cubans as steadfastly independent and no nonsense. They’ll deal with any dishonesty and abuse of their economy. I think the Cuban hope in renewed relations with the US is not as grounded in economics and trade –- although that’s a highly important matter, as it is in the possibility of reuniting with millions of loved ones in Miami and other US cities.
Despite the optimism, the Cubans do still have to get through their distrust of Americans that they’ve been conditioned to sustain. It will take a national head to approve America, to convince the population to also accept America. Raúl Castro is likely just the leader to pull that off.
Back in front of that flat screen TV tuned to Wolf Blitzer on CNN, the bartender told me that Obama has a 70 per cent approval rating amongst Cubans. He said the country believes that Obama is the best president that the US has ever had, and that it’s a pity that his presidency cannot last much longer.
He said similarly about Raúl, suggesting that the younger brother of Fidel Castro likely has only until 2018 before he has to give up his own presidency. The bartender said there is already a successor to Raúl waiting in the wings, and most Cubans favour this person. He wouldn’t name the potential successor for me, and I don’t know enough about Cuban political figures to figure it out.
If I was to guess, I’d say it could be either Raúl’s daughter Mariela Castro or his son Alejandro Castro Espín. They’re relatively young and quite healthy, active in the nation’s politics –- he a military veteran, progressive in their thinking –- perhaps she more than he, and popular.
There’s an interesting future ahead for Cuba.