There is a disbelieving – if a little uncomfortable – silence in the room. Maria, a 75-year old and life-long resident of Playa Giron, whose home we have been welcomed into for the night, has just finished describing in humbling detail her account of the day the US army invaded Cuba’s famed ‘Bay of Pigs’ – a year after the revolution – and the unforeseen effects the revolution had had on Cuban lives.
“I was just 23 back then”, she had reminisced. “The bombing started in the middle of the night. It was deafening and extremely frightening. We stayed indoors throughout the ordeal, huddled together as a family, listening to the radio, praying that the revolutionaries were strong enough to resist. It was truly terrifying. The fighting, the bombing, the shooting – it all carried on for days.”
There were mixed emotions accompanying her words. I hadn’t intended to pry – I merely touched on the subject of the invasion, given that we were staying where it had occurred, and in the process inadvertently opened up a can of worms.“The revolution had just happened”, she continued. “The whole country was elated, we felt united and strong. When the invasion happened, we were sure that the revolutionaries would swat them away like flies, and they did. It was another victory against the odds, which only made us stronger and the American government more despicable.”
‘Them’ referring not to the US army, but a CIA-sponsored-and-trained paramilitary group called Brigade 2506 – a counter revolutionary military of anti-Castro Cuban exiles who fought for the Batista regime.
“Cubans felt proud to be Cuban, and convinced that Fidel would lead us to wealth and prosperity – or at least make those ambitions possible. At that time, any future would have been better than the immediate past – it didn’t matter what his policies or ideals were. Cubans trusted him unreservedly. He and his army had liberated Cuba from greed and corruption. Then they had beaten the Americans again at the Bay of Pigs. They were saviours.”
Her expression then changed from one of optimism to regret.
“But what followed, although an improvement – there is no question of that – was not what we had anticipated. Cuba became a thoroughly communist country. Everything was controlled. It was as though we had been ridden of one dictatorship only to gain another.”
The silence lasts for about 20 seconds, before one of my travel companions optimistically steers the topic of conversation to scuba diving. Maria’s eyes light up and suddenly we are getting an earful about the skills and expertise of her nephew, who lives across the road and happens to be ‘the very best’ diving instructor in Playa Giron. The history lesson is over, but her words have resonated with me. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to go through such an ordeal, or indeed grow up in post-revolution Cuba.
Interestingly, it’s not the first time a Cuban national has given me a piece of his/her mind. It helps that I am able to speak and understand Spanish, since opening the door to such a sensitive subject requires tact. The last time had been in a taxi from Havana to the western town of Viñales. On that occasion, I had merely prompted the taxi driver with a simple “A ti te gusta vivir en Cuba?” – “Do you enjoy living in Cuba?”. It was a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question; a polite ice-breaker, and had the answer been simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’, I wouldn’t have said another word. But he had evidently wanted to voice his opinion – that life in Cuba had – for many, many years – been exceptionally difficult.
He – whose name was Pepe – hadn’t gone into quite as sobering detail as Maria, rather focusing on more recent struggles. Pepe had, to prove his point, asked me what I thought he did for a living. Glancing tentatively at the inside of the imported Russian car in which we sat, and the sticker that read ‘TAXI’ on the inside of the windscreen, I searched for an answer that didn’t make me sound stupid. “You mean you’re not a taxi driver?” I said, feeling stupid. “I’m a doctor” came his response. “I studied medicine for five years – that was almost fifteen years ago – and I’ve been applying to hospitals ever since.” I was astonished. “There are no opportunities here, and it’s virtually impossible to get out of Cuba. Everything – until five years ago – was government-run, with capped salaries. Consider that and the fact that the average wage here is $20/month and the cost of a passport five times that. Even if I were able to afford one, it’s still up to the state whether I can leave or not.”
I could think of nothing reassuring to say. Here was a qualified doctor who drives a taxi to make ends meet, telling an English teacher and ‘blogger’ with $500 in his pocket about the injustices of his world. I had never felt luckier in my life.
Pepe’s frustration is doubtless representative of thousands – perhaps millions – across Cuba, yet this is isn’t immediately obvious. Quite the opposite actually. You’d be forgiven for thinking Cubans were devoted to their leaders (Fidel and Raul) and the principles for which they stand; quotes and images of a noble Fidel can be found on billboards along the main highway; the painted portraits of the revolution army generals Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos adorn countless walls throughout the country, not to mention the facade of the national government offices in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución; and Che Guevara – somewhat ironically given his opposition to capitalism – is Cuba’s best-selling souvenir. You’ve either got the t-shirt, the 3 CUP note, the coin, the hat or the fridge magnet.
But it’s all for show; a reminder of who’s in charge and what Cubans should value. Beneath the surface, there is a very different reality. In Santa Clara – the city that Che famously liberated before the climax of the revolution – this is subtly evidenced through anti-censorship street art, presumably offered by the younger student population which takes residence there. Or perhaps there is nothing to it other than harmless fun, but read into it what you will.
However, as Pepe had momentarily alluded, five years ago marked a turning point for Cuba. He was referring to the introduction of Raul Castro’s 2010 economic reform programme, which meant that Cubans were at last permitted to begin their own, private enterprises. And since then there have been more significant steps made towards a brighter future. In 2012 the travel ban was lifted (although as the taxi driver/doctor rightly pointed out – the expense and fine print makes it almost impossible to leave anyway) and in December 2014 it was of course announced that the US embargo was to be relaxed, sparking a tidal wave of private enterprise applications – 496,000 in 2015 alone, the Guardian reports.
With Obama’s visit last week, it is all but certain that the embargo will soon be completely lifted, and with that a colossal boom in the tourism industry. It already is booming, relatively speaking, as tourism contributed an estimated 14.1% of GDP in 2015, which is expected to rise nearly 5% per annum, so Cubans have reason to feel relieved at last, as demonstrated by Maria when the conversation turns back to politics (through whose doing I’m not sure).
“Everyone is so pleased” she concludes. “Things are finally changing in a way that actually makes a positive difference to the lives of Cubans. Soon there will be greater opportunities to succeed, and the younger generation will be able to benefit from a stronger economy. These next few years will be the most significant in Cuba since the revolution.”
Pepe, on the other hand, was not as convinced. “It’s a big step in the right direction – no doubt about it – but the government will never change its ways, nor will an opposing party be allowed to mount a challenge. I have a son of 14 who I only want the best for, and I believe that he will have a better chance in life than me if the embargo is lifted.” He turned to look at me and laughed. “I just need to make sure he doesn’t end up being a doctor!”
Meeting Cubans like Maria and Pepe was the most significant part of my trip to Cuba. It was educational above all things; a lesson in reality and being thankful for what you’ve got (even if your country is run by the Tories). It’s unbelievable how much the Cuban people have suffered over the years, yet strangely ironic, since if it weren’t for the Bastia-era corruption, the Revolution, the embargo, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the oppression, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the decades of political obstinacy, Cuba would not be the endlessly fascinating and distinct country that it is today. It’s precisely because of its misgivings that make it one of the most interesting places on earth to visit.