Communism was the main factor that shot Cuba right up to the top of my travel wish list. I have no desire to share my wealth, but my drive to visit Cuba was fueled by wanting to see communist Cuba in action. No one knows for sure what will happen when Fidel Castro dies, but given the easing of certain restrictions already under the leadership of his brother Raúl, it seems likely that the 1950s Havana Vieja postcard look of Cuba will change.
And before that happens, I wanted to see it for myself.
The Museo de la Revolución, shrine to the communist revolution, is located, somewhat jarringly, in the former presidential palace. It’s strange to see olive green uniforms and faded, yellowing newspaper clippings on display in gleaming white marble halls.
Then again, I have no room to talk about what makes for an appropriate match. There I am, smiling in a picture of the entryway riddled with bullet holes from the communist takeover of the palace.
There I am again, outside the museum, smiling by a missile that used to be pointed at the US. I realized that was probably wrong and switched to a sad puppy face for this one. This whole square proudly displays not only the missile but also an imposing tank, the mangled fuselage of a US spy plane shot down over Cuba and – again with the incongruity – a like-new silver Jeep that was Raul Castro’s during the revolution.
This juxtaposition seemed to weave its way throughout my experiences with communist Cuba. On the one hand, socialist propaganda everywhere – yes, all these murals support socialism, and yet we always talk about communist Cuba. On the other hand, no graffiti or unsightly publicity. While I initially balked at the in-your-face messages, I came to appreciate the lack of other visual pollution.
The Plaza de la Revolución takes this to a whole new level. This square is absolutely massive, as are the tower and the images of Che and Fidel. Again, a little over the top “love your leaders” for my taste. But when the largest city square in the world is kept absolutely pristine, perhaps over the top communist Cuba is doing something right.
Of course, it’s one thing for me to say that. I went home after 9 days. I can enjoy the benefits of communist Cuba – pretty buildings! pretty murals to photograph! – without any of the drawbacks. It would take far more than a quick trip to truly understand this political regime, so I won’t insult either Cubans or my political science degree by trying.
The only thing I will say is that everyone we talked to, regardless of political affiliation, agreed on one thing: Cuba has an economic problem. Since 2004, Cuba has had two currencies. Most Cubans earn, in Cuban pesos, a salary equivalent to US$20/month. Tourists, however, use the convertible peso or CUC, which is worth 25 Cuban pesos. So it’s easy to see how suddenly you’ve got good little rule-following doctors making a fraction of what the taxi driver paid in CUC is bringing home.
This influx of wealth means that prices are rising. $20 a month when your basic needs are provided for by the government might cut it when everyone’s earning the same amount, but suddenly there’s more cash floating around, and former treats are now unattainable luxuries. It also means that young Cubans have no real incentive to study and work in fields that make a society run when anything that gets them in touch with tourists is so much more lucrative.
The thing is, you can’t really half-ass communism. The second some people start improving their economic situation, everyone else is going to want the same thing. And why not, if that premise is the entire basis of your society?!
I don’t know what the future holds for Cuba. I don’t know if Raul will continue opening the island up to outside influences, or if Cuba’s leaders will decide they’ve gone too far and swing back the other way. I don’t know what the right answer is to avoid suffering for those who’ve bought into the system when and if capitalism comes to call, and they find themselves thrown into poverty. All I know is that I finally got my taste of communist Cuba, and it left me wanting to understand more.
More in this series:
We’re going to…
Preparing for Cuba
Snapshots from Cuba
La Bodeguita del Medio: following Hemingway in Cuba
The heart of Havana Vieja
Our Havana tour
Trinidad, a colonial gem
Cuba’s best beaches
Getting adventurous in Cuba
The casa particular: where to stay in Cuba
One day in Viñales