- Cuban food – the final judgment
- Price comparisons don´t work
- Cuban Research Forum
- A wrong opinion
- What is Cuba´s future?
- An end to the embargo
- Final words
A few days have passed since I wrote last time about <a title=”News from Havana” href=”http://takeyourbackpackandgo.com/cuba/socialism-la-havana-today” target=”_blank”>my impressions of socialism in La Havana</a>, and I have spent most of the time wandering around different neighborhoods of Havana. I have never spent so much time in one city/place, as I usually try to see as much as I can. This time, I have the opportunity to get to know this city, and what an amazing city it is.
Cuban food – the final judgment
Since I finished with food last time, I thought it would make a good transition. From what I said last time, you can guess that my opinion on Cuban food is not necessarily the best. However, I thought that I should give Cuba one last chance to prove me that I am wrong.
A meal is usually around 10MN, so around 0.30€. There are a few actual restaurants, but they have to pay exorbitant taxes. As a result, the prices of these joints are very high and cater tourists and rich Cubans only. In these so-called paladares you will pay around 5-15CUC (3-12€) for a main.
I had a look through the food section of my guidebook and there it was: Union Francesa, supposed to be taking Cuban food to the next level, combining exotic tastes with solid cuisine. Sounds good. I asked my host as well and she confirmed.
The place is really nice, an old colonial building, where they just put antique furniture in many rooms and it feels more like eating at someone´s Villa than a restaurant. The menu was slightly overwhelming, just too many dishes. So when the very friendly waiter came I asked him for his suggestion, stating that I eat everything and want to try something particularly Cuban. He recommended the Chef´s favourite plate: exotic lobster served in a pineapple with a mojito. TOP. Deal.
After 10 minutes the “salad” came: a few slices of tomato and cabbage, no dressing, no oil, no salt. Then some untoasted toast bread with the first butter I have seen in Cuba (35 degrees, so you can imagine how it looked). I was still optimistic and when I saw my pineapple coming my mouth started watering.
It could have been any white, overcooked meat: pork, chicken, pangasius, squid, turkey. The only “exotic” feature was the pineapple. But the worst, by far the worst, was that the entire dish was drowned in a sauce, which I am 100% sure is Maggie´s Jägersauce, which is used to give an Alpine taste to Schnitzel served with mushrooms. I had witnessed the drowning-delicious-lobster-in-horrible-sauce crime a couple of days before, when I saw someone ordering a lobster which was served unrecognizable under a thick layer of American four-cheeses sauce.
So, yeah, my final judgment - Cubans lack food culture, therefore they eat crap and they cannot cook.
But hey, the Mojito was excellent!
Price comparisons don´t work
During my attempt to be a Cuban I had two peculiar experiences, which reminded me of the senselessness of the Cuban monetary system.
The other day I went to the cinema, which was actually a big, nice cinema. The film was horrible, some sort of Italian sexual comedy set in the middle ages (title: the chastity belt…). I bought my ticket for 2MN and an ice-cream inside for another 1MN. Plus a refrezco, or drink, for 1MN. That makes a cinema visit with snacks and drinks for 0.12€… Quick reminder: any national beer costs 1€…
Even funnier: I wanted to send off some postcards. I had heard that there are two different stamps, one in CUC and one in MN. They fulfill the exact same task. So I bought 12 stamps, which for foreigners cost 8€, for locals, or in my case just asking for them, 0.23€… For the exact same thing… Just crazy.
Cuban Research Forum
As I have already mentioned, I am writing my dissertation on Cuba (“Can Marx´s Theory of History explain the Cuban Revolution?”). For this purpose, I have been studying Cuban history, economics, politics and culture for the past six months. I decided to visit Cuba, to get an impression of what its people actually have to say. You can read as many books as you wish, you will never know all these small details that compose the bigger picture unless you go and visit the country.
Before coming here, I got in touch with a few people and somehow managed to exchange a few mails with Antoni Kapcia, who is the leading Cuban researcher outside of Cuba. He started studying Cuba in 1972, came here around 70 times and set up the biggest institute for Cuban studies outside of Cuba at his university in Nottingham. Moreover, he has been organizing the Cuban Research Forum, now in its 16th year, a conference where both Cuban and non-Cuban researcher meet once a year.
After telling him about my project, he invited me to this year´s forum, which was hosted exactly in the period where I have been in Havana. It was a great experience. Around thirty professors and PHD students gathering and presenting their current research. I mean, I haven´t met anyone, for obvious reasons, who is as much into Cuba as I am, and here at once had more than thirty…
The presentations were really interesting, covering anything from spaces for public discourse, to historical methodology in Cuban education, the potential of public transport in Havana, the future importance of microcredits and the problems of doing research on Cuba.
For me it was the unique opportunity, as an undergraduate, to be part of something like this. To see how academics work, talk, socialize. And, most importantly, to get some vital feedback and contacts for my dissertation. They were all very supportive, especially Tony, and an interesting exchange has emerged from this conference, which will continue for the next few months and will considerably improve the chances of writing a good dissertation. Moreover, I hope that I will be able to present my findings next year at the 17th forum which will be hosted in Nottingham.
A wrong opinion
Interestingly, there was not a single American academic at the conference. This is mainly because travel restrictions are tighter, but it reminds me of a crucial problem when it comes to Cuba, also mentioned at the conference: most public opinion on Cuba is based on media coverage carried out by journalists and academics who do not have a clue about Cuba. Apparently one of the most popular books on Cuba (sorry but I do not remember the name), was written by a guy who has never been to Cuba and has not cited a single Cuban book…
There was not a single academic at the conference, whether pro-Castro or not, who shared the typical, totalitarian-regime opinion. Some of them were quite critical, especially Cubans, but they all managed to put it into context and see the whole picture, which many outsiders often don’t.
I generally think that it would be very good if coverage on Cuba were to include more “alternative” points of view. Most people I have talked to who haven’t been to Cuba never heard of many things that I find very characterizing for this country.
What is Cuba´s future?
As my trip is reaching coming to an end, I have been trying to assess its future rather than its past, or better, based on its passed.
After 1990, Cuba had to open up economically. This has led to an influx of cultural goods from abroad which has initiated a transition in Cuban society. Cuba is not a totalitarian dictatorship which means that the voices, the desires of the people will not be silenced. This was the one most important aspect of current Cuba I noticed, the wish to learn more, to see more, to travel.
I do not think that Cubans want to leave the island for good because they do not agree with the political system. Some don’t, but the majority simply wants to eat better food, learn languages and use them, see the places they have been reading and hearing about, etc.
The last 3 days actually reflect quite well what is happening in Cuba. High officials, including Raul Castro, have given speeches where they explained how the Cuban economy will open up more to foreign investment and how the two-tier currency system will have to be abolished. In my view, the Cuban government, which is entirely based on the authority it gets from public support, will gradually advance Cuba´s economy and laws to fit the desire of the people. To prevent a sudden influx of Western lifestyle which might distort and even destroy some achievements of the revolution, this is seen as a process at the top.
An end to the embargo
Having said all of this, I think changes in Cuba are inevitable, and this is meant in a positive way. At this point I have to take up one last time the literally never ending topic of the US trade embargo.
I have explained the history behind it in the first news, so let´s deal with its current implications. I mean the obvious disadvantage is that Cuba cannot trade with the biggest economy in the world, which also happens to be its neighbor. If you look underneath the surface, however, there are many more aspects that would change:
Unlike the vast majority of other country, Cuba does not have access to the world´s major sources of credit: the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) are all based in the US, with the latter being its most important member, and are therefore refusing to lend Cuba any money.
Cuba needs investments badly, however, it wants to keep the power of what is happening in the country, whether under Fidel, Raul or in the future. This is one of the reasons why foreign companies are only allowed to own 49% of any company, 51% has to belong to the government. The embargo is therefore preventing Cuba from developing its infrastructure and industry.
Another aspect which is often overlooked is the internet. Because Cuba is not allowed to dock any of the major fiber cables in the Caribbean, its internet works via satellite, making it quite expensive and slow. An end to the embargo would also mean easier internet access, which would have an immense impact for Cubans.
The main problem I see is that the US wants to induce change only one way: its way. An end to the embargo would definitely trigger change. However, as long as the US does not accept that the path Cuba would then take is determined by itself and not US interests, this will not happen. I do see it as the one most important measure that could be taken to improve the livelihoods of all Cubans.
Condemned every year by all countries in the world, apart of the US and Israel, the trade embargo is an inhumane, opportunistic, criminal tool designed for wartimes and in use for more than half a century in peace times to cripple a country without a valid reason.
I am actually back in Europe now. My last impression of Cuba was not the best: my suit case was emptied sometime between check-in and the plane with most valuable items stolen… Not the end of the world, and considering the economic situation I have described at lengths I should have taken more precaution.
Nevertheless, my experience in Cuba was very rich and memorable. Talking to Cubans and walking the streets of Havana has enabled me to put more of the things I studied in to context and most importantly to try to understand all the complex features that characterize this country today. It is an amazing country, with a highly politicized and educated people who want to start seeing the world, which I hope they soon will.
I will soon post this on my blog, with pictures.
Until then, un abrazo,