A Thursday in Santa Clara
When flight AFL150 arrives in Havana today without Edward Snowden, a bored press pack will no doubt turn their attention to the evils of Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Towards the end of our trip across Cuba last year we stopped in Santa Clara, site of the decisive battle of the revolutionary war in which Che Guevara famously derailed an armoured train and overthrew the last Batista stronghold.
Nowadays Santa Clara is an unprepossessing town. We left an almost deserted motorway and followed a series of narrow streets. Crossing a dirty river we reached a large plaza with a scattering of trees and the customary horde of tourist touts.
After spurning their advances we made our way to a recommended casa particular (bed and breakfast) run by Terisita, a charming lady in her early 50s. We were intrigued to discover that Terisita had recently returned after a decade in Miami.
She “didn’t like America”, she said, because it was too expensive and unfriendly. She couldn’t afford treatment for her arthritis or diabetes and she didn’t see any prospects for old age. Her dad, at the age of 80, has to work as a cleaner in a condominium “for rich people”.
Each Cuban doctor serves only 150 individuals, the lowest rate in the world and much lower than the ratio of 416 in the United States. Cuba’s infant mortality rate of 5 per 1000 live births is the lowest in the Americas. Primary healthcare is considered particularly advanced because many doctors work without high-tech equipment and make diagnoses based on close interaction with the patient.
Our conversation with Terisita was mostly in Spanish, admittedly faltering on our part. Terisita said there’d been no need to learn English in the States because entire neighbourhoods comprised immigrant Latinos. Shopping, socialising – all in her native tongue.
She’d come back, she said, not just because she would get treatment for her ailments but because she felt happier.
Even in an economy suffering under the half century-old United States trade embargo, there are no slums and very few homeless people. Though the revolutionary ethos is dwindling, community spirit prospers, driven in part by local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution. There is a tangible sense that workers will strive toward the common good irrespective of material rewards (which is just as well because pay is very low. Doctors, for example, earn about £18 a month).
Cultural headway has been remarkable. Before the revolution in 1959 “culture” consisted of American gangsters visiting casinos and brothels in Havana.
Eleven ballet companies have since launched across the country, and Cuban dancers tour the globe. We watched a rehearsal in Santa Clara’s main plaza in which young children – again black, mixed-race and white – danced traditional ballet and modern arrangements in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
Later at a Rodriguez classical guitar concerto locals paid 10p; us about £2.50 each. Two of the four conductors were women. What a stark contrast to the UK, where in September Marin Alsop will become the first woman ever to conduct the Last Night of the Proms.
In Santa Clara one of the astonishingly adept soloists was a man, the other female. The orchestra was almost exactly divided along male and female, black, white and mixed-race lines – not because of political correctness but because gender and race genuinely appear to be unimportant.
Next door over a mojito we watched an ageing band turn out Jazz numbers to a local audience. Given half a chance Cubans will dance with abandon, not in a drunken individualistic way like an average European, but with finesse and smiles, and actually touching their partners.
And all this was on a Thursday, before we’d even visited the Che Guevara memorial, where he is buried in a shrine alongside his comrades who fell in Bolivia. Along the way we spent half an hour inspecting murals painted on a white wall. In one picture a group of marines erect an oil well in the desert, its tower flying the American flag. In another, a US soldier firing a gun runs along a conveyor belt marked “Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya”.
What Terisita was implying was that equality and community have intrinsic benefits beyond just the moral imperative to look after the worst-off. Disbarred from economic growth by its northern neighbour, Cuba has been forced to seek progress in other ways. Health, education and cultural advancement have been among the biggest achievements of the revolution. Art, ballet, music – all are world class, which is partly why community spirit thrives.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that Snowden, in his campaign for transparency, will land in a country with only three national newspapers, all run by the party. But one of the great things about Cuba is that locals and visitors can enjoy a vital cultural life. And that’s a remarkable success in the face of seemingly intolerable international pressure.