Cubans feel betrayed by tourist playground
Cubans feel betrayed by tourist playground
La Nueva Cuba
February 13, 2007
Carlos swung his legs over the sea wall bordering one side of Havana's
famous Malecon seafront promenade and looked on curiously as a 1957
Chevrolet with an open top slowed to allow its passengers to photograph
the faded facade of a colonial building.
"They watch us and we watch them," he said with a resigned laugh as the
tourists turned their cameras to capture the image of a young boy
optimistically fishing in the oily waters.
A tourist horse and trap pass infront of a Che Guevara mural
"It's a little like being in a zoo," sighed Carlos, a 24-year-old
literature student. "But that is the reality of life here. We are caged
while the world looks on."
In the hushed tones that all Cubans adopt when they talk about their
ailing leader Fidel Castro, who six months ago was forced to hand over
the reins of power to his younger brother Raul after undergoing
emergency surgery for intestinal bleeding, Carlos explained the
continuing frustration of a nation still firmly under Communist rule.
"Fidel has starved us," he whispered. "Yes, there is a lack of food but
it is more than that. We are starving for information, for opportunity,
for freedom. We want to enjoy the same things as those people over
there," he said as a fresh batch of tourists spilled out of the doors of
a tour bus.
Cubans struggle to survive on an average wage of less than £10 a month
to supplement the state rations which provide them with basics such as
rice and beans and either one small bar of soap or tube of toothpaste a
Visiting foreigners can spend almost double that on a taxi ride to the
airport or a meal in one of Old Havana's state-run restaurants.
"It sticks in the throat," says Oscar Espinosa, an independent economist
and dissident who was jailed in 2003 for criticising the regime's
economic strategy and is now confined to his home on conditional release.
"Such obvious inequality in a country where for decades the people have
laboured in the mistaken belief that they are creating a classless
society. The truth is we have created a paradise for tourists and those
that live off them, but for the rest of us, daily life gets worse," he said
Cuba's society has been split into those with access to the CUC, the
convertible currency used by tourists and sent in remittances from those
abroad, and the majority of the population who must rely solely on their
salary paid in Cuban pesos.
Castro introduced the dual currency in the 1990s as a means of the
boosting the economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Cuba
threw open its doors to foreign tourists. Last year almost 2.5 million
foreign travellers, mainly from Canada, Britain, Italy, Spain and
Mexico, visited the Caribbean island.
The changes are credited with keeping the economy afloat but also
created a vast and troublesome gap between the population of 11 million
dividing those who have the convertible currency and those who don't.
"You can't buy anything with Cuban pesos," said Mr Espinosa. "Anything
worth buying – soap, cooking oil, shoes – must all be purchased in
"We are in a situation where a bell hop or a chambermaid can earn many
times the salary of a doctor or civil engineer. What incentive is there
now to train to be such a thing?"
Mr Espinosa and many others hope that Castro's younger brother will be
less inclined to rhetoric and more likely to address the main sources of
complaints from Cubans: high food prices, the lack of transport and
Nowhere is the divide more noticeable than in the historic quarter of
Old Havana where crumbling edifices are being carefully restored and
converted into boutique hotels and high-price restaurants.
The cobbled streets and palm shaded squares, formerly the haunt of
Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, are once again frequented by wealthy
foreigners eager to sip Mojitos in pavement cafes.
But two blocks from Obispo Street with its newly opened designer shoe
shops, Cuban children play barefoot in the shadow of crumbling tenement
houses where a family of seven might share one room.
"They are doing a wonderful job making this place nice," said Susana
Cruz sarcastically as she waited to collect her weekly ration of rice
"My sister used to live in a place that was falling down. Last year the
government came and rebuilt the whole place top to bottom," she explained.
"My sister and her two young children live with me now in my place which
is falling down. But you should go and visit her old place," she
laughed. "It's a hotel now and I hear it has a lovely bar on the terrace
where she used to hang out her clothes."