The Cuban Doctor and His American Taxi
I've been to Cuba three times. On each trip I planned to visit the island from one end to the other, but the attraction of Havana always ended up putting pay to such plans. Even so, I still made it to Matanzas, Cienfuegos, ViÃ±ales Valley, Cayo Largo and Varadero. Arriving in Havana can mark visitors for the rest of their stay. Despite the decay, those who have a feeling for architecture are dazzled by it all. No other country in the world can boast an urban centre packed with brightly coloured colonial mansions, baroque churches and palaces, Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings, neoclassical structures and modernist style buildings. Though decadent, the ancient splendour of the Pearl of the Caribbean has survived through decades of neglect. However, for those visiting Cuba in search of a tropical holiday, accustomed to the magnificence of the western cities and to luxury resorts, the crumbling architecture of Havana can bring great disappointment. In fact, such was the state of ruin of the houses that some districts looked as if they had been bombed.
In my case, Havanaâ€™s charms managed to prevail over the scars of time. Even aged, broken, and in its last throes, for me the city seemed one of the most beautiful in the world. Maybe this fascination comes from looking at it as if it were an endangered species. Something that is on the verge of disappearing.
My opinion of Cuba and its regime has changed with each trip. Having previously visited the northeast of Brazil - where the swathe of slums and abandoned street children shock visitors â€“ I was convinced that even without freedom, Cuban citizens have a better life than those living in Brazilâ€™s northeast. Thus, within Latin America - where at the time there were few examples of democracy and misery was commonplace - Cuba was possibly one of the countries with better quality of life. I only began to change my mind after the second trip. Because, until then, just like most tourists, I had spent time walking through Havana, going to the Tropicana, drinking Mojitos and Daiquiris in the Bodeguita del Medio, visiting cigar factories and sunbathing on the beaches. I knew little about the other Cuba, the Cuba not included in tourist guides.
From the conversations I had had with citizens about local politics I had listened to a mixed bunch of opinions about Fidel Castro, ranging from "I would give my life for him!" to "Heâ€™s a son of a bitch!" - the first given by older citizens, the second by younger ones. However, when asked about such matters, most Cubans preferred not to voice an opinion. They changed the subject, advising me to enjoy my holiday instead of stirring up trouble. Cubans are a proud people and politics is a delicate issue, as if a family matter that should not be discussed with strangers. You have to earn their trust before they will tell you what they really think about the regime. And, more than anything, they do not like strangers who come to preach democracy and human rights to them. Even those who oppose the regime will begin to defend the dictator if a tourist criticises Fidel Castro in front of them. And here we have one of the paradoxes: some people who express support for the regime are in fact critical of the government. â€œIâ€™m the only one who can speak ill of my mother,â€ is what they seem to say.
I witnessed how the regime oppresses its citizens when, just to look at the dÃ©cor of the lobby, I tried to enter a hotel in the company of some Cuban friends. I could go inside, the doorman told us, but they could not. There was a similar apartheid in nightclubs, because Cubans were only allowed in when accompanied by foreigners. The result was that virtually only women went to clubs. So, in Cuba tourists enjoy rights to which the people are excluded. The revolution has turned the island into a kind of South Africa before Mandela, where we are white and they are black. And there are also the Robben Islands where those wishing to end segregation are often sent.
With reference to silence about politics, Cuban men told me about the CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution): a network of informants that converted virtually every citizen into a whistleblower - every neighbourhood has its own CDR. So, just like an Orwellian Big Brother, the regime has eyes and ears in every part of the island. Naturally, few dare criticise the government, even when with friends or family. However, our taxi driver, on the third day we had been together, with the car in motion and the camcorder switched off, began to speak. As we drove along the MalecÃ³n, between faÃ§ades with arches and balconies on the one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other, he told us his life story.
Doctor Manuel L. was a physician turned taxi driver ever since the island had opened up to international tourism. With his old Chevrolet from the fifties he always had customers. No tourist can resist the charm of these mechanical relics that look like they have just been driven out of a museum. In the competition for tourism dollars, Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and Chryslers thrash the Soviet Ladas. The new profession allowed him to increase the thirty dollars he earned a month in the hospital tenfold. Legally, this activity was not allowed, but as the regime members themselves used their American cars to make money, in practice nobody was bothered by the police. Here is another of Cubaâ€™s paradoxes: the most ardent defenders of Communism exploit any capitalist opportunity to improve their life.
Manuel experienced the euphoria of the revolution and believed, first as student, then as a doctor, that he was serving the cause of a better world. His familyâ€™s situation during the time of Batista was reason enough to support Fidel Castroâ€™s revolution. And, in fact, in the early days of the revolution his life, much like the majority of the population, improved. Education and health became universal, new houses were built and a land reform was drawn up. People knew, of course, about repression and political prisoners, but for those who had never known any other form of government, this seemed natural. Only those who tried to undermine the revolution, that is to say the common good, would experience problems â€“ this is what propaganda taught citizens.
But, even before the Special Period - when Cuba no longer had the support of the USSR â€“ Manuelâ€™s illusions had already been shattered. The lack of freedom was too high a price for citizens to pay. And, if everyone was equal, some were actually more equal than others â€“ and they were the ones who had the best American cars. However, when the absence of freedom was joined by a lack of food and basic necessities, Manuel renounced the revolution once and for all. One of the solutions found by the regime to increase revenue also contributed to this: opening the island to tourism - a third paradox. Until then, people had access to a foreign reality filtered by Granma and other media controlled by the Cuban Communist Party. There was an official truth that was indisputable: there was only misfortune in the capitalist world, Cuba may have some problems, but people were much better off. On the other hand, citizens of capitalist societies were selfish, while the citizens of socialist societies supported one another. From 1959 this Manichaean message that divided the world into good and evil was repeated every day. The arrival of tourists broke the censorship and official truth has become a pathetic lie.
Like other Cubans, Manuel found out that people in capitalist countries could criticise the government, form political parties, practice any religion, travel without permission, refuse to listen to speeches made by the President and, above all, earn in a single month what they would never be able to earn in a lifetime. He felt cheated and betrayed.
His revenge against the regime is therefore to drive tourists around in his taxi. Besides becoming independent of the state, Manuel is gathering information about democratic societies. Afterwards, challenging the surveillance of CDR's, he passes this on to other Cubans, showing them that there is another reality where their lives would be very different. The interference systems that prevent radio broadcasts by exiles in Miami from being heard in Cuba can do nothing against this new source of opposition to the Castro government. Dr. L. continues to care for the health of Cubans, but Manuel the taxi driver runs over the Revolution with every day that passes.
One of the biggest mistakes Cuban revolutionaries ever made was to allow American cars from the forties and fifties to drive the islandâ€™s roads. Even when patched up with parts from Soviet engines, they still manage to damage Communism.
JoÃ£o Cerqueira lives inÂ Portugal and isÂ the author of the novel, 'The Tragedy of Fidel Castro' (River Grove Books, 2012). 'The Tragedy of Fidel Castro' is currently one of theÂ BOTYA 2012 Finalists in Translations. You can read more about Cerqueira and his work at joaocerqueira.com.