Cuba – outward and inward

By Johannes F. Brakel, September 2021

“What a beautiful country! Last week we were in Varadero with its miles of white beach, raked clean and lined with coconut palms; with crystal clear, turquoise blue, warm water in which we had a wonderful swim – and everything was very calm and peaceful!” Mr Meyer and his wife from Paderborn are thrilled with their holiday in Cuba.

Varadero – we had also been there a few days ago, even if only for a few hours. On the way there, the owner of the rickety Moskvich had explained to us that access to this peninsula was closed and that he had to show his access authorisation as a taxi driver to the police. My Cuban companion would have to pretend to be a tourist who didn’t understand a word of Spanish. As a Cuban, she would not be allowed through, but would be detained at the police station.

With this information and his help, we reached the famous beach in a rather tense state but could not really enjoy it, instead flinching at every uniformed man who suddenly appeared – even though they eventually turned out to be the guards of private beaches. As a foreigner, I was somewhat protected. But a Cuban would be arrested for such a transgression. And I had already read too much about Cuban prisons.

“Yes, and the food is so good and plentiful and no more expensive than in Germany,” Mr Meyer continued. We were sitting outside together at a wooden table during the lunch break on this organised horseback excursion to a waterfall in the mountains.

Now it was my turn to contribute something to the conversation: “Yes, last night we also had a very good meal, in a restaurant a little out of town, only affordable for foreigners paying with dollars. The taxi driver who took us there drove a tiny car, but it belonged to him. He had earned the money in Venezuela and Brazil, where he had worked as a doctor for 400 dollars a month. Now he works in the local hospital – during the day. In the evening he drives a taxi. He earns about 110 dollars a month that way. His salary as a doctor is only 60 dollars a month – twice as much as a normal civil servant. So the two of us had eaten a doctor’s monthly salary the night before.”

Mr Meyer had listened uncertainly. But now it burst out of him decisively and indignantly: “I don’t believe it! You can’t live on that!” Indeed not! But not die either! Because the Cuban state prescribes for each of its citizens the “Libretta” – a booklet in which is noted for each month the amount of rice, flour, eggs etc. they are entitled to buy – at subsidised prices. The family I visited had shown me their Libretta. There were no fruit and vegetables, but half a chicken – the only portion of meat that month.

Mr Meyer’s face had darkened. He turned back to his salad. Our conversation was over.

I would still have liked to tell him about my hosts’ ceiling, which had crumbled down to the rusty iron mesh, and about the impossibility of buying a bag or two of cement privately and legally. But maybe it would have spoiled Mr and Mrs Meyer’s nice holiday – or just their idea of a nice holiday?

About the author: Johannes F Brakel is a biology, chemistry and geography teacher at the Hamburg-Wandsbek Rudolf Steiner School. On his numerous trips he studies the animal and plant world as well as the geographical and cultural features of the regions he visits.

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