THE CONTRAST
OF CHANGE BETWEEN
COMMUNISM AND CAPITALISM

 

 The holding of prisoners on Camp X Ray in Cuantanamo and the signs of new links between Castro and the USA are now focusing attention on Cuba where old style Cuban communism is waging a losing battle against American capitalism.

All along the Malecon in central Havana young people fish and swim or just sit on the seawall welcoming the cool breeze blowing in from the Straights of Florida. The seven mile long boulevard prevents the sea sweeping the city away.

Occasionally a youth jumps into the swaying sea shouting "Adios Cuba" and pretends to head towards Key West ninety miles away through shark-infested waters. Nearby the police check the identity card of a man they are questioning.

Today a young woman and her three-year-old daughter sit on the wall and smile at the antics of the swimmers. In broken English she says that her father has not seen his new grandchild: he is in Florida and cannot return to Cuba. Her hope is one day to reach America.

Behind her overlooking the Malecon a huge Spanish owned hotel is charging two hundred American dollars a night. The massively elegant and luxurious hotel is a symbol of the crossroads between communism and capitalism now facing Cuba. Cubans working in the tourist industry earn an average of six dollars a month; a doctor may make twenty and a security officer thirty dollars. Tourism is now Cuba's lifeline to some sort of near normal existence; the Cuban Government even charges departing tourists twenty American dollars to leave the country.

Over the past decade, beginning when Gorbachev cut off Soviet aid to Cuba, the long serving President Fidel Castro has had to adapt his version of communism to suit the changing economic conditions of his people.

 



View from Hemingway's room

 

Forced to develop tourism to replace Soviet subvention, Castro has had to allow the American dollar circulate in Cuba. Today the country has two currencies; the Cuban peso and the American dollar, and naturally everyone wants the mighty dollar. Expensive supermarkets have opened for the wealthy Cuban elite who have access to American dollars. Yet even in these air-conditioned emporiums of emerging capitalism, there are shortages. Bread is often sold out, there is no fresh fruit and meat is almost non-existent: Cubans however drink Sprite and Coke a Cola imported from Mexico. In a few years, the golden ears of McDonalds may arch over the Malecon. In the meantime, Havana is like a city waiting for death. The stench of dying communism is everywhere, from the fly infested local shops of the old harbour area to the run down Vedado hotel quarter. The nearer to the old colonial forts, the cathedrals and cigar factories, the more powerful the smell of decay. At least in central Havana there is a near normality of ordinary business and further out towards Miramar there are the gracious mansions of the diplomatic quarter and the isolated oasis of international yachts docked at Marina Hemingway.

Yet it is in the centre of old Havana where all that is best and worst in Cuban tourism and communism is played out against a colourful backdrop of streets barely changed in centuries. Dusty back lanes and cobbled streets where once Hemingway weaved his unsteady way are now patrolled by the hustlers of Havana who offer the tourist anything from cheap cigars to strong rum and beautiful young women.

As Cuba embraced tourism, some of the contradictions of the communist state emerged. Special resorts were created for tourists. A special tourist police was formed to prevent ordinary Cubans entering the tourist hotels. The most comical was a special tourist currency that has since been dispatched to the department of forgotten policies.

 

Al Capone's house is a restaurant

 

Today a new class has emerged in Cuba, the tourist industry worker, who has direct contact with the visitors and who replies on tips to ensure an adequate standard of living. In the all-inclusive resorts of Veradero, a sun drenched 12-mile stretch of golden sands, two hours from Havana, hotel workers offer private meals in their homes in order to earn extra dollars. Visitors are offered lobster meals at considerably less than the official Government owned restaurants. Only government restaurants may serve lobster because of dwindling stocks but it does not stop private enterprise breaking the law for a quick profit.

In Al Capone's house perched on the beach at Veradero, the living room has been turned into a Government restaurant. The staff are Government employees and the taxi driver who directs visitors to the place also works for the Government.

In fact jobs in tourism are usually given to Communist party members. Of course they are supposed to hand up their tips to the Government.

"I get paid equal to six dollars a month," said one taxi driver. "The tips I make I use to feed my family." Sipping a coffee in Al Capone's kitchen the taxi driver refused to observe the usual code of silence in Cuba when it comes to discussing government policy.

"What is here for the young people? What will they do, what incentive have they to be educated. They cannot leave this country. If a person leaves they walk away from everything, their family, the past, so there is no future."

For American gangster Al Capone is was different in his heyday when he build the magnificent house on the beach at the beginning of the Veradero peninsula. He wanted to escape the Chicago winters and "the rats who run and tell the police if you didn't constantly satisfy them with favours." At one time Capone said, according to contemporaries: "You fear death every moment. I was never able to leave my home without a bodyguard." In Veradero Capone found some peace on the sun drenched golden sands of the nine-mile long beach.

At present in Cuba the atmosphere is as if people are waiting for change to come but they are not sure what form the inevitable change will take. They have come through a "special period" after the cuts in Soviet aid without major social upheaval against the Castro government. The elderly revolutionary has had to give way on some of his policies and today an expanding private enterprise culture is emerging in many parts of Cuba, ranging from approved private restaurants, to tourist taxis and rented accommodation. Most tourist taxi drivers have links to the paladares, the private run family restaurants and to rented accommodation, the casa particular, and all along the way are the kickbacks just like in Al Capone's time.

Today the luxurious Riviera hotel build by US Mafia boss Meyer Lansky is one of the most popular in Havana and nightly a parade of young Cuban women wait for middle-aged foreign businessmen. The hotel bar is international, with drinks ranging for the local Cuba Libre at two dollars to Jameson's Irish whiskey for five dollars. Dinner in the fashionable restaurant will cost a Cuban doctor two months salary. A five-piece band performs popular songs, the girl singer's plaintive voice re-echoing around what was once a Mafia casino before Fidel came to power. Today the casino may be gone but the whores linger on. Then the girl sings "Guajira guantanamera" the famous ballad written by Cuba's national hero, Jose Marti who led the campaign against the Spanish in the Cuban War of Independence in 1895. "Before I die, I wish to sing these heartfelt verses, with the poor of the land." Today most ordinary peso earning Cubans are poor again and could never afford to drink or dine in the Riviera.

 



Marina Hemingway

 

Leave the hotel behind and cross over to the Malecon, walk five blocks towards Calle 10 and arrive at a private apartment between Calzada and Linea. It is unusual in this part of Vedado because it is a casa particular, a property for renting to foreign tourists. Local people sit on the steps and talk into the early hours. There is no glass in the windows and Cubans like to have television sets blaring. Coupled with the car horns and the shouts, the noise is almost unbearable. The cost is 30 dollars a night, considerably less than the 90 dollars for a Government owned hotel. Yet the casa particular owner has to pay over half the income in tax to the Government. Fidel does not like to be undercut by private citizens, yet there are a growing number of people who rent out apartments or rooms to tourists. From Vedado to central Havana down to the old part of the city, Cubans are renting rooms from 15 to 30 dollars a night. The Internet is assisting the marketing of these private rooms as groups of owners pool their resources to develop websites.

While the government controls telephone and Internet access closely, they have been forced to provide some international call boxes for tourists, adjacent to major hotels. The latest innovation is the call card and these may be purchased at government owned telephone and Internet centres for American dollars.

 

Driving through Varedero

 

If the Internet is marketing private enterprise, the tourist industry has already spawned a sub-culture in Havana. Federico is 23 and from Guantanamo and shows the plastic ID card he says all Cubans have to carry and produce to the police. He says he works in a sugar factory and makes the peso equalivent of seven American dollars a month.

"There are eleven million people in Cuba," he says, gazing at the Havana Libre hotel where Fidel held a press conference after the 1959 revolution. "Six million police and five million ordinary people," Federico spits out. Today he is on the prowl for tourists. He approaches any foreigner and asks to practice his English. He will then suggest a few sights to see and before the visitor knows it, Federico is a guide who will conduct a tour of the city - for a few dollars of course. For example where Fidel held his conference is now the Havana Libre hotel - before the revolution it was the Havana Hilton. At least Federico is gentle in his approach - there is always a scam - but his street cousin, the jinetero - a male tout who preys on tourists - is another more unsavoury by product of Cuban tourism. They promenade along the main streets and offer everything from cigars to women - and the only principle is profit. Along Calle 23 down to the Malecon men and women hustle for dollars while inside expensive hotels the jinetera - a female prostitute - waylays foreign businessmen.

The tourist areas of Havana are a hustling arena where even tired and weary tourists cannot rest in the shade of trees along the Prada without the constant approaches of the touts.

Guantanamo Bay on the eastern end of the island is the location of the American Naval base where the Al-Queda prisoners are being held. The base is regarded as American property - agreed during a deal with a pre-revolution Cuban Government and enforced by international law.

 

 

Hemingway in Havana

 

Away from the distasteful intercourse of communism and capitalism, Marina Hemingway offers a peaceful oasis of blue seas and elegant dining in Papa's Restaurant and Bar at the end of the pier. Out here at the edge of Havana, the American writer and the Cuban President met in 1961 while fishing for marlin.
The weighing scale is still there: the local hotel is called The Old Man and The Sea after Hemingway's 1954 Nobel prize winner. Yachts from all over the world are docked here, even from America. "No photographs, do not take photographs please," said the grim faced security man. The restaurant manager was more welcoming. "Have a mojito - our barman makes the best in Havana." Hemingway popularised the drink of rum, lemon juice, sugar, mint leaf and ice. Today his name is used as a tourist attraction: it costs five dollars to take a picture of his house: and two dollars to see his room in the hotel where he wrote, "For Whom The Bell Tolls."

A few miles away in the City of the Dead, Necropolis Cristobal Colon, an elderly party official seeks the one-dollar admission fee. Almost a million people are interred in graves bearing impressive marble tombstones.

It was here in 1951 at the burial of Eduardo Chibas that a young political activist Fidel Castro made his first public speech. A relentless opponent of government corruption, Chibas was leader of the main opposition party. He committed suicide as a protest against corruption during a radio broadcast. It was also here in April 1961 that Fidel Castro proclaimed the socialist nature of the Cuban Revolution. Since then Cuba has had an uneasy relationship with the United States.
In a way all official contact between the two countries ceased and today one of the most unusual sights in Havana is gleaming American wide winged cars dating from the 1950's. The vintage vehicles are kept mobile by Cuban ingenuity - just like their plumbing and electricity - a sort of handyman's heaven, where there is no limit on experiment.

In the City of the Dead a Catholic priest awaits the next felt covered plywood coffin and recites the prayers in the Romanesque Capilla Central, the central chapel, as mourners arrive in old cars and trucks. In two hours there were eleven burials. The priest talks quietly and acknowledges the State tolerance of Catholicism. "But, it is not so good, who knows what is going to happen." He shrugs and moves forward to receive another coffin.

Outside in the huge streets of the graveyard a teacher says that the largest faith in Havana is Catholic, second is Protestantism and then the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria, which worships ancestral spirits. He explains that people often sell the graves. After two years the bones of the dead are exhumed and placed in small stone caskets and deposited in vaults. The man looks around. "One has to be careful - even the trees could have microphones." He talks about his dead father - how he has brought his sons to the grave to mark his birthday - and then as a stranger approaches, he takes off and disappears among the graves. Near the exit, a lighted candle burns on a grave; a brightly gift-wrapped present has been placed on the vault along with a cup of coffee!

On the walk back to the city centre, the route is lined with policeman and military guard posts. Outside the American Interests Section of the French Embassy a huge new public square has been constructed, named after the schoolboy Elian Gonzalez who was rescued off the Florida coast after his mother drowned while fleeing Cuba. The government employed tour guide says the boy was kidnapped by the United States. No one bothers to ask why the boy was in the shark-infested waters in the first place.

Along the Malecon young Cubans fish and swim and many wish to be ninety miles away. In the meantime, Havana continues to crumble and while the salsa music blares for the tourists there is an underlying desperation in the city - as if people are waiting - and hoping for better times.

 

 

 

 

*****

 

 


EUROPE'S LAST LEPER COLONY IS NOW A MUSEUM

Over two days at the end of July up to three thousand people will take part in a pilgrimage to one of Europe's most beautiful islands seeking a miracle from the Saint of the sick. For generations Spinalonga, the "Isle of Tears" was home to the most unusual community of modern times.

Every day boats set out from the small harbour of Elounda on the eastern coast of Crete ferrying passengers to the island of Spinalonga in the Bay of Mirabello. From small craft to ferry boats and luxury cruisers, the flotilla carries pilgrims and tourists to what is now becoming a tourist attraction: the remains of Europe's last leper colony.

The pilgrims make their way to the restored Orthodox Church dedicated to Dr. Pantelemenon, patron saint of the sick. For decades the lepers of Spinalonga laboured to restore the church, first built in the 16th century when the Venetians occupied the island stronghold.

Although the Venetians occupied Crete in 1210 they did not construct a fortress on Spinalonga until 1579 and today there is a stone commemorating the event above the entrance to the fort. The inscription can still be deciphered from the lintel above the entrance to the island.

During the various conquests of Crete the island of Spinalonga remained in Turkish hands - it was the last Turkish stronghold in Crete - Turkish families lived there until 1903 when the newly established Cretan Republic decreed that the island would become a leper colony.

Lepers living in caves throughout Crete or in isolated places were rounded up and transported to Spinalonga, accompanied by dedicated doctors and nurses. The Turkish inhabitants quickly departed for their homeland.

 



Spinalonga Church project

 

From 1903 the leper colony set out to be self-sufficient - the men and women who suffered from the disease were granted a small Government pension - and gradually a community developed. In time the colony grew to hundreds of people, a hospital and church, bakery and taverna were opened and a town square formed as men and women married and started a community.

Because of a lack of medical knowledge of the causes of leprosy, everything entering and leaving the island was disinfected, including visitors, in a huge steam room. Healthy children were born to the lepers who married and under Government policy the infants were taken to the mainland and placed with adoptive families.

In addition to the structures of the original fortress built by the Venetians, the Cretan government provided accommodation for singles and couples, including some two-storey houses. In fact a town centre grew up and an active social scene developed with the publication of a weekly newspaper and the election of a community mayor.

A unique engineering plant to capture rainwater, first devised by the Venetians, was utilized to store and supply water to the island. Goats, sheep, rabbits and chickens were reared for meat and a variety of crops were cultivated.

However it was the restoration work on the church of St Pantelemenon that dominated the work of the lepers. A medical doctor and said of the sick Pantelemenon is revered today by many people who strive to overcome illness.

Entering the church on Spinalonga today is akin to a sacred experience - it is dark and warm - candles flickering to colourful icons of the saint - and requests for cures stacked up on the small altars. The site is tended by a male follower who ensures that the bare flesh of women visitors is adequately covered before they enter the small church.

On the far side of the island are the communal graves of the lepers. In all 94 men and women died on Spinalonga before modern medicines led to the closure of the colony in 1957. Today Spinalonga is like a museum to the living dead - an island in a beautiful bay where men and women were totally isolated because society feared the disease of leprosy. Today society acknowledges that the disease is not contagious - it is caused by social conditions. A Government plan to prevent further decay of the houses on the island is now in progress, as Spinalonga becomes a tourist attraction for visitors to eastern Crete.

The guide on Spinalonga, taking account of his international audience, likens the plight of the lepers to today's AIDS/HIV sufferers. "They were isolated, living in caves, feared objects of hate, like AIDS today." His voice carries across the silence, through the deserted and abandoned houses, through the empty hospital and over the untended graves of the lepers.

He says that over 3000 pilgrims will visit Spinalonga in July to beseech St. Pantelemenon for cures. "I know lepers who lived here," he says softly. "And they come back every year to thank the saint of the sick."

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