Cuba is everything I look for in a holiday destination. On the surface it is a lively, vivid country with music in its soul. Images of revolutionaries are emblazoned on the side of colourful buildings and there is a free and easy atmosphere on every corner. Even the man charged with sweeping the streets sashays to the sound of the salsa.
In Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar, El Floridita, waiters in red and gold braided jackets serve a well-heeled crowd. It can feel as though little has changed since Kathryn Hepburn and Spencer Tracy sat perched at the same bar in an era when Hollywood fell in love with Havana.
Yes, many of the 1930s buildings are crumbling, but the streets are full of smiling locals. And the cars, oh the cars, are beautifully preserved American classics which ferry tourists to see the sights (for fifty dollars an hour). And the sun shines every day.
Cuba is cool. It is also corrupt and communist. In Cuba as a visitor, especially one who has the word journalist stamped on her passport, you are not supposed to ask questions for fear you a reported to the police. But of course I did, though only when a journalist’s instincts suggested it was safe to do so. You quickly find out who is willing to engage and who isn’t.
Then you discover the real Cuba. It is true health care, education and housing is free. This is a regime that doesn’t believe in the necessity of money. Meagre weekly rations of rice, coffee, and a little chicken are cheap. But there is no freedom of choice and the food shops are empty.
The average wage is 25 dollars a month, university education or not. You have been educated to work for the government. A doctor will earn 40 dollars a month, the cost of a meal in an average restaurant.
In Cuba you were only allowed one car and then not a new car. They are the preserve of high ranking officials. The vintage models were not just for tourists they are a necessity.
Our driver took great delight in telling us his boss actually owned five of them, but all were registered in different names. Even then he had to live the life of a poor man on the surface for fear of a visit to find out how he came by his entrepreneurial wealth.
Cubans are not allowed to stay in apartments where the tourists stay. Stories of police searching shopping bags to question how locals could afford more than the meagre basics abound.
Even the boys playing football in the park turned down our offer of cans of pop for fear of being asked by police how they came by them. The construction workers who eventually accepted them. They were only going to be thrown away before our flight home.. did so by huddling around the carrier bag and keeping watch as they hid them wrapped in t-shirts.
In 2017, Amnesty International described the government employment system as a tool of repression. Those who even slightly disapprove of the regime are dismissed and employment is then impossible.
In the streets women begged not for money but for one nappy when they saw my daughter pushing her two girls in a pram. Shampoo is considered a luxury so we emptied our hotel rooms of toiletries and gave what was left to a lovely couple we had met. We also gave them what was left on our internet passes. They cried.
An hour on the once banned net costs a weekly wage and even then many foreign, particularly American, sites are blocked. There is no such thing as a free press.
And this is the country and regime Labour’s John McDonnell has pledged to support both financially and morally against America if they get into power. This is not socialism. You only have to see where the most senior officials live and the cars they drive to realise the truth behind the Cuban ideal of Marxism.
Do I agree with American sanctions for Cuba’s support of Venezuela? No, as we found with South Africa, sanctions only hurt the people they are purporting to support.
But should we support a regime whose aim appears to be to keep the poor poor and it’s top brass rich? No we should not.
As a dissident blogger once wrote, Cuba is short of everything except air and sunshine. Cuba is cool on the surface. Unless you happen to be a Cuban who values freedom of thought, freedom of choice, and freedom of speech.