I was at the local Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba, shyly observing a scene of thrusting, fluid hips and fast feet. “If only I could dance like that”, I thought to myself as I sipped furiously on my third mojito, mesmerised by the way their bodies instinctively met every beat – not a single person out of time.
I noticed myself staring enviously at one woman in particular – her perfectly formed bottom pressed neatly against her partner’s groin as they intimately circled the stage. Slightly and awkwardly aroused, I tore my eyes away and began daydreaming about reincarnation (and how I’d like to be reborn with rhythm and tanned skin and a much bigger bottom…) and as I glanced dejectedly down at my now empty glass I noticed a large, outstretched hand belonging to a tall Cuban man with the biggest smile. I looked up at him apologetically – there was no way I was getting up on that dance floor. His excited eyes suddenly seemed so sad.
“Okay fine, but only for one song”, I said reluctantly, immediately realising he couldn’t understand a word of English.
Amongst the architects of “Casino” style salsa, I was the token blonde girl with two left feet. I felt extremely self-conscious as I watched every other pair flirtatiously groom the dance floor – each movement effortless. But my new partner (I think his name was Hoji* but he may have been saying “hold me”) was far too amused to let me leave. He was also very patient and by the end of the second song I had almost mastered a few basic steps.
The band continued to play an exciting mix of traditional son and modern salsa while I continued to stand out for all the wrong reasons. The atmosphere inside however was madly intoxicating and before long I was lost in the moment, soaked by a wave of confidence and happily embracing my own “unique” salsa moves.
I’m not sure if it was the mojitos, or Hoji’s* encouraging, white smile. Or if perhaps I was a natural after all! Either way, I was having the time of my life, enthusiastically shaking my “nunga jugs” alongside the local ladies.
In hindsight it was then, in that uninhibited moment that I fell (literally and metaphorically) head over heels in love with Cuba. For the first time since leaving Australia I felt happy and excited and particularly grateful. And now I know why.
Cuban’s are arguably the most joyful people I’ve ever met. Their capacity to celebrate and appreciate life is contagious, yet equally irrational when you consider their turbulent past and present-day struggles.
When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 Cuba celebrated. “Viva Cuba Libre!” (Long live free Cuba) the people had shouted – knowing that after years of corruption and neglect under Batista’s rule, things would finally be different.
Today however, Cuba’s economy remains crippled and it’s future uncertain and while revolutionary, anti-capitalist admonishments are still emblazoned across highway billboards and urban walls there is an obvious and growing desire for change.
I realised as soon as I arrived that Cuba is a country frozen in time – a time before mobile phones and ATM’s and when horses and carriages were more common than cars. A time long before I was even born.
The absence of most modern day luxuries in Cuba is largely the result of the U.S embargo that was enacted in 1962. The embargo, which limits American trade and spending is still in effect and is the most enduring trade embargo in modern history (I guarantee you will not find a McDonald’s or a can of Coca-Cola anywhere!).
Admittedly, as a tourist the lack of American-inspired consumer goods and infrastructure is part of what makes Cuba such an intriguing and unique place to visit. The streets of Havana are lined with classic 1952 Chevy’s and antique market stalls and people everywhere are playing live music instead of listening to it through their iPods.
For the Cuban people however the economic burden has been enormous. Buildings that were once beautiful and grand are rotting, Internet usage rates are lower than in Haiti and housing is so limited that most divorced couples have no choice but to continue sharing the same room (so choose your partners wisely ladies!).
It was the collapse of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s primary source of financial support) in 1991 however that saw Cuba’s already fragile economy crumble. Cuba’s GDP dropped by 34 per cent and its transportation, industrial and agricultural systems were paralysed. What ensued was a catastrophic, multiyear depression (severe fuel shortages, 14-hour blackouts and widespread hunger) which the government set out to counter by throwing the island open to international tourism.
What happened next has become one of the most interesting and widely debated features of Cuban society today.
In 2005 the Cuban government withdrew the U.S dollar from circulation citing the need to retaliate against further U.S sanctions and invented a new currency – the CUC (Cuban convertible pesos) – to exchange with the much stronger international currency notes flowing into the country through a rapidly expanding tourist trade.
Meanwhile, the local Cuban population has continued to operate using the much lower valued Cuban pesos (one Cuban pesos is worth 1/24 of a CUC, or just over four cents). Being a socialist state, eighty per cent of Cubans are employed by the government and all state salaries are fixed (the average Cuba wage is 334 pesos per month, or $CUC16.70). Which is fine, except that (and this is the most surrealistic aspect of life in Cuba in 2013) the government, the same entity that pays Cubans in national pesos, sells goods to them in CUCs.
A tube of toothpaste, for example, costs CUC$1.50; an electric blender, CUC$113.60; an upholstered loveseat-and-armchair living room set, CUC$597.35. The availability of commodities available to locals – beyond what their libreta (ration card) affords them – is therefore overwhelmingly scant.
It is now commonplace to see highly trained engineers or doctors working in the tourist industry driving taxis or cleaning Tourist hotel rooms because it’s the only way to make a living (one High Season month driving a cab is equivalent to fifteen times an emergency physician’s fixed salary).
When you consider these comparisons, adulthood in Revolutionary Cuba offers nothing by way of personal advancement and material comfort to anybody except the peces gordos (big fish).
But you quickly learn that most people still grant Castro a grudging respect. After all, he did offer Cuba true independence and free education and healthcare. Cuba has one of the world’s highest literacy rates and the supply of well-trained doctors and medical staff to developing and sympathetic countries such as Venezuela is now one of Cuba’s few “export” industries.
Change however, is clearly imminent. In January 2011 new privatisation laws were introduced, allowing people to “trade” familial cars and houses that had been ceded to them for generations of service to the State; to obtain bank loans; own mobile phones; and work for themselves in a variety of small businesses.
The question on many political minds now is whether or not Cuba will sell its soul to corporate capitalism.
All I know is that as I write this article, and as the rest of the world ponders what will happen next, the people in Cuba are busy counting their blessing and embarrassing tourists on the dance floor.