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Brother Mark is a pseudonym of The Reverend Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler, a clergyman, physician, writer and poet. His biography can be found at: www.robertjaggsfowler.com

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Postcard from Cuba

It is a land of fascinating dichotomies; a process that started in the arrivals hall, where tourists, supposedly vital to the economy of the island, are led through a complex customs and immigration process which takes two hours to complete.

'Take no notice', says our Afro-Cuban guide; 'we want you to feel welcomed. It is very safe here; you can walk into the town in the evening without any fear.' Jorge, our native Hispano-Cuban driver, evidently doesn't feel quite the same degree of security, and is over-heard negotiating with a couple of local lads who, for a few pesos, will guard the car overnight.

Havana reinforces the perception of a living duality. The four-star hotel looked opulent in the fading light of day. However, we should have been prepared for the tea to turn peppermint green at breakfast the following morning when, the evening before, the barman was unable to mix a pina colada for the want of pineapple juice, the wash basin had no plug, the piping-hot water trickled from the showerhead and the electrical voltage dropped so low that unpacking became an impossible task. Black tea is evidently only one of many scarce commodities.

For an island which continues to have a political stand-off with the USA, the reverence of the people for the memory of the American writer, Ernest Hemingway, is intriguing. In places such as Cojímar he is almost revered; yet, though the country boasts a literacy rate greater than that of the United Kingdom, Hemingway's books, as with all printed materials, are hard to obtain and too expensive for the average Cuban, who battles with an economy of two currencies. Paid in worthless pesos, anything of value can only be purchased with the Convertible Peso; the currency of the tourist.

After a few days in Havana, the comparisons continued in Cienfuegos and Trinidad, which vie for the award of best preserved town. The central squares are surrounded by beautifully maintained colonial buildings of Spanish extract. However, the view from the hotel rooftop reveals a different story. The imposing historic facades take on the appearance of film sets as one observes the poverty of the shanty dwellings tightly clustered immediately behind the spacious and immaculately kept public spaces.

The motorways are also revealing. Passing though vast tracts of fertile land so inadequately farmed that food is still rationed, the tarmac stretches for mile upon empty mile, devoid of transport save for a few modern tourist taxis and a scattering of ponderous sixty-year-old Cadillacs; all eagerly hailed by gaggles of local villagers hopeful of a lift to work. Every so often, bill-boards carry reference to the ideals fostered by the revolution of the fifties, and the iconic image of the long-deceased Che Guevara continues to be used as an attempt to inspire the contemporary population; the current political leaders are only conspicuous by their invisibility.

Meanwhile, in numbers too great to count, the ubiquitous turkey vulture circles ominously overhead, like an American metaphor waiting for Castro.

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