Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Log 396: A week in Cuba reveals a nation in good heart, functioning well

(en) World Map (pt) Mapa Mundo (de) Weltkarte ...
Little Cuba, major threat to U.S. power? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Camaguey rooftops 2
Camaguey rooftops 2(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Ignacio Agramonte Square in Camaguey,...
English: Ignacio Agramonte Square in Camaguey, Cuba (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have just been to Cuba for a week.
That sounds so innocent and straightforward, yet if it were stated in the United States, which conceives itself to be the leader of the democratic world,          heaven alone knows to what excesses of surveillance it might lead.
We went for only a week, with my son, who because he is usually short of money, always looks for the cheapest place. Together we chose a resort called Gran Club Santa Lucia, on the north coast of the island some 600 kilometres along from Havana. Everything went swimmingly: although, unlike on my first visit a year or two ago no one met us as we got off the plane I was able to find the bus that was taking all of us to the hotel, about an hour’s drive along a rather bumpy road, from the airport at Camaguey, the third largest city in Cuba, situated in almost the exact centre of the island.
The resort we were disgorged into was a well-appointed hotel, out in the countryside, with many buildings scattered around  handsome garden-style grounds, interspersed with  large, public buildings that contained several restaurants, a games room, a theatre, and the hotel administration.
Everyone we met among the hotel staff turned out to be extremely pleasant and helpful, and the morning after our arrival they held an orientation session at which they described tours that were available and various other nuts and bolts items designed to make our stay as cheerful as possible. For no extra charge one could get a key to a safe in one’s room --- always a useful addition to any hotel room in my view --- and large beach towels. The hotel stood just off a long beach with excellent swimming, and they had negotiated with neighbouring hotels that we could get free drinks from them as well as from our own hotel. We could exchange Canadian cash for the Cuban currency made especially available to tourists, which exchanged at roughly the same face value as our money, and the hotel gave a rate only slightly worse than a bank 100 yards or so along the beach.
Readers may wonder why I have even bothered to describe all this: the reason is that the very word Cuba arouses such images among the people of North America as to lead many of us to expect something rather outlandish. My conclusion, after driving around the country a little bit in two areas during my two visits, is that much of what has passed as calm description of the face of Cuba is in fact wildly exaggerated, mostly by the U.S. controlled information services to which we are exposed.
For example, one would have the impression from American propaganda that Cuba is literally falling apart, its vehicles all dating back half a century, patched and re-patched, its buildings fading and falling apart from lack of rehabilitation, its services creaking under the impact of the unremitting American embargo.
Certainly Cuba exists under pressure from the United States, but any reasonable person must wonder what the rationale for this pressure is, why the giant of the Western hemisphere continues to act as if this tiny island-nation were a deadly missile aimed at the heart of democracy, and all that.
For my part, I am impressed by the fact that Cuba today does not seem to be as run-down as the Americans would have us believe. I made an overnight visit to Camaguey, a city of some 250,000 people, whose centre appears to be a collection of extremely narrow, crowded little streets, full of buildings of real splendour, many of which have been restored to their former glory.
As for the vehicles, it is true that many cars are of an older vintage, but the many buses that serve the tourist trade are almost all of recent vintage, and there are a similar number of new or almost new mini-vans, so that the overall effect is not one of decrepitude.
In the area of the country in which we found ourselves, the land is unrelievedly flat, and much of it reminded me of Eastern Ontario, in that  large areas that had been cleared for use in former times have fallen into disuse. This, apparently, is land that once was occupied by sugar-cane, an industry that has shrunk to about half of what it was when the revolution occurred.
A more notable sight for me was the squads of neatly-dressed schoolchildren coming and going to and from their schools. Cuba has free education at every level, a remarkable achievement in comparison with most other countries of Latin America. I  also kept in mind while there Cuba’s remarkable generosity to nations outside its own borders. For example, its provison of thousands of doctors to Venezuela; and its pivotal use of the Cuban army in defeating a South African force, which turned out to be one of the key events in the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa.
As for the feature most often criticised by foreign tourists,  the food, I have to say that (to my relief) the food served under the all-inclusive package deals to customers was of considerably higher quality, of much greater variety than was the case on my first visit.
In Camaguey, too, we were able to visit areas that had been fixed up wonderfully, for use by artists and others, according to standards that reflect well on the capacity of city planners and renovation experts.
The holiday, all in all, was extremely enjoyable, and cheap: everything was included, including unlimited drinks, food, accommodation, and entertainment. The hotel had a house band made up of five beautiful young women who, classically trained musicians all of them, formed a hot band, excellent by any standards, and in Camaguey we were invited to a show that involved a troupe of beautiful girls and handsome men, who appeared to be ballet-dancers in training, but who, in addition, appeared to have skills which could see them emerge as members of the national team for synchronized swimming at the next Olympics.
A curious feature at the hotel was a tame flamingo that always turned up to strut back and forth along the front of the stage before and during the evening entertainments. Sometimes irritated customers would grab the bird by the neck and try to hustle it away, but it always returned, usually with an indignant squawk, as if to announce that it had rights that superceded those of the mere customers.
And, finally, the rum produced by Cuba is of the highest quality; and some Cuban coffee we bought to take home has proved also to be excellent.
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