It’s a country where the vast majority live in poverty, while a tiny, corrupt elite live in luxury. It’s a place where, 14 years after South Africa abolished apartheid, a form of it still operates. And it’s a country where you can be threatened with prison not just for criticising the country’s leadership, but also for querying a medical bill.
Welcome to Cuba, the ‘socialist’ paradise built by that great egalitarian Fidel Castro, who after 49 years at the helm has finally decided to hand over power — in the manner of a true democrat — to his brother Raúl.
My wife and I, as unreconstructed paleo-lefties who support Clause Four, free school meals and NHS dental provision, had long wanted to visit Castro’s Cuba. All the people whose views we respect had said that the Caribbean island was a progressive model whose policies on education and healthcare ought to be copied throughout the world. We went there last April desperately wanting to like the place — after all, if George W. Bush and other right-wing nasties hated Cuba so much, then the country must be on the right tracks.
But we returned home terribly disillusioned. Neither of us had been to a country which was so utterly decrepit.
Stay on the officially approved tourist trail round the newly renovated streets of ‘Old Havana’ and you’d get the impression that Cuba was a tropical version of Switzerland. There are smart restaurants, designer shops and modern hotels. Wander a few streets away, however, and you’ll witness scenes of incredible dereliction. Dilapidated buildings with wires hanging out, streets that haven’t been resurfaced for more than 50 years, balconies that look like they’re going to fall down at any minute. In my travels in the Middle East and Asia, I’ve certainly witnessed squalor, but nothing prepared me for the back streets of Havana.
The average wage in Cuba is a pitiful $17 a month. The monthly ration which includes 283g of fish, 226g of chicken, ten eggs and 1.8kg of potatoes is barely enough for a fortnight, meaning most Cubans need to work the black market to stay alive. Things that we in Britain take totally for granted — such as toilet paper, toothpaste and pens — are luxury goods in Cuba. I’ll never forget the look of joy from an old lady when I handed her a couple of old marker pens and a coloured pencil.
For Fidel’s chums, life is somewhat easier. Despite its calls for further belt-tightening, the Cuban government last year ordered Series 1, 3 and 5 BMWs for all its ambassadors and a Series 5 model for Raúl Castro, who had taken charge of the country after his brother’s hospitalisation.
The heartbreaking consequences of Cuba’s currency apartheid were bought home to my wife and I on a Saturday afternoon visit to Havana’s Coppelia ‘Ice Cream’ park. To the right of the park gates was a long queue of Cubans who had only Cuban pesos. They have to wait on average two hours every weekend to get their weekly scoop of ice cream. On the left, there was walk-in access to tourists and the lucky locals who had convertible pesos. Fifty years on, the Cuban revolution has turned full circle in a truly Orwellian fashion. Once again the locals find themselves excluded from the best beaches in their country, as they were under Batista. And prostitution, so rife in pre-revolutionary days, is back — the jineteras being the only group of Cubans allowed to enter the new purpose-built resorts.
US sanctions are routinely blamed by Cuba’s defenders for the country’s plight. But while sanctions are harsh and morally indefensible, there’s little doubt that they have been used by the regime as a smokescreen to cover up inefficiencies and corruption. Four years ago the head of the country’s largest tourism company, Cubanacan, was fired after millions of dollars went missing — the loss only coming to light after all state enterprises were ordered to transfer their US dollars into convertible pesos.
The totalitarian nature of Castro’s Cuba is no right-wing myth, but a reality. And you don’t have to be a political agitator to fall foul of the authorities, as my wife and I discovered. We had been told by our holiday rep that the hotel’s resident nurse would administer free basic medical care, but if we required the call-out services of a local doctor, we’d have to pay. After a day’s snorkelling I had a touch of ear-ache, so I popped along to the nurse’s office to ask if she had any medication. The nurse was a man, who after the most cursory examination of my ear pronounced that I had an infection which required antibiotics. How much would the antibiotics cost, I asked. About £60, he replied. As we were returning home later that day, I told him that I’d leave it till I got back. ‘Yes, but you still have to pay me £30 for this consultation,’ he replied. ‘But the services of the nurse are free,’ I said. ‘I’m a doctor,’ he replied.
Furious at being taken for a ride, my wife and I refused to pay and headed back to our room. But on trying to check out of the hotel later that morning, we were astonished to be told by the receptionist that if we did not settle the medical bill, she would ‘call state security’ and we would be arrested. We would not be allowed out of the country — ‘state security’ would apprehend us at the airport. The ‘doctor’ then reappeared to say that the rate — which had been set in stone — was after all negotiable, and that he’d accept £25. Forced into the corner and threatened with a night (at least) in a Cuban jail, we reluctantly paid up. ‘It’s nothing more than theft,’ I said to the ‘doctor’ as I handed over the money. ‘It doesn’t go to me,’ was his response. ‘It goes to the state.’
If the money from such scams really did go to the state — and towards improving the lot of the Cuban people — I wouldn’t have been so upset. But I strongly suspect that a share of my £25 will go towards the next fleet of BMWs for Castro’s cronies.
After the stress of our final day in Cuba, my wife and I were hugely relieved to leave the country. And when we were safely airborne, we both reflected that if any country was in need of a revolution, it was Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 23, 2008