Saturday, February 26, 2011

In Cuba, poverty is obvious and so is pride

In Cuba, poverty is obvious and so is pride
By Gord Henderson, The Windsor Star February 26, 2011

'Hard times. Big smiles." One of our Cuban hosts, a young guy sporting a
perpetual 1,000-watt grin, offered up that simple but telling line to
explain how his people, scratching out a living in one of the poorest
corners of a desperately poor country, maintain their dignity and
immense passion for life under circumstances most of us couldn't begin
to tolerate.

You could call it Cuba's back of beyond. Tucked away in the far
southeast, hemmed in by the Sierra Maestra mountains where Fidel Castro
and his guerrilla comrades ignited a revolution, is a land where time
has reversed itself. Where diesel-spewing Russian tractors once
prevailed, teams of oxen now plow fields. Horsepower means literally
that. Ridden by expert horsemen or pulling a bizarre array of
load-bearing contraptions, horses rule the ravaged roads from Manzanillo
Airport down through the hills to the fishing village of Marea del
Portillo where a three-star government resort catering to budget-minded
Canadians is the only real industry.

For anyone seeking glitz and glamour, big-name entertainers and gourmet
meals, this would be disaster. But if you're content with clean rooms,
simple but appetizing meals, outdoor adventure and opportunities to
befriend Cubans, all for a ridiculously low price, this can't be beat.
How isolated is it? Each morning a rickety old propeller plane flies
over the village and drops mail and newspapers and then sputters off
down the coast.

You either love it or hate it, and with 70 per cent return business
Marea has clearly won the hearts of a lot of Canadians. We were lucky.
We travelled with pals from Hamilton, James Elliott and Irene Reinhold,
whose annual holidays, like those of many Cubabound Canadians, double as
foreign aid expeditions.

They cram their suitcases with supplies ranging from clothing to
toothpaste for friends they've made in the village. You should have seen
the grins last week when James and Irene unpacked hard-tofind items like
baseball gloves, guitar strings and vegetable seed packs.

This year, thanks to the generosity of Hamilton area medical staff and
help from the nice folks at Sunwing, they brought four extra suitcases
stuffed with much-needed medical supplies for a threadbare hospital in
the nearby town of Pilon.

This was a far cry from most gated all-inclusive holidays. With little
or no crime, we were free to wander where we pleased. Unannounced, we
landed in on several families. And yes. The poverty is obvious in these
simple houses with metal or thatched roofs and concrete walls. But so is
the pride. In each case the house was spotless, kids were neatly dressed
and laundry was dangling from clothes lines.

Flowers and cactus adorned exterior walls. People beamed as they pointed
to thriving crops of onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes and pineapples.
Pigs, chickens and goats roamed the streets. It proves one thing. You
can be poor. But you need not live in squalor.

We saw plenty of the former and none of the latter and that speaks
volumes about Cubans. So does the warmth of their personalities. Forget
handshakes. It's all hugs and kisses when you meet these folks.

A horseback expedition into the mountains included sphincter-tightening
trails over canyons, a swim at a waterfall and a hearty lamb stew lunch
with a local family. All that for $30. By lucky coincidence we
encountered a cattle drive, with several hundred horned Brahman-type
cattle thundering down a dustenveloped road.

A scuba trip, down 23 metres in astonishingly clear water, erased a
ghost that had haunted me for decades. And the fishing? Life doesn't get
any sweeter than grouper and lobster cooked over an open fire on a
deserted island and washed down with icy Bucanero beer.

But this isn't some Cuban Shangri-La. Far from it. The economy is a
self-admitted mess. There are major shortages and bottlenecks. Cars are
priceless. A man with a 1980s Lada is king of the road. If it weren't
for the underground economy and barter system, people would be in even
worse shape.

Now comes the big leap into the unknown. The government, which employs
the vast majority of Cubans at an average monthly wage of about US$20,
announced last year that 500,000 will be chopped from the public payroll
and given incentives to go into business.

Even at this remote resort, with no other jobs around, at least 50
workers are getting pink slips. Where will they go? What will they do?

That was the burning issue among resort employees. People recognize that
the socialist status quo, which protects the lazy and incompetent, is

But they're nervous about the radical change that is free enterprise.

What will happen to this paradise for penny-pinching Canadians over the
next year as the ground shifts? I can hardly wait to find out.

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